Last week, HBO announced that they’d signed Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family) to play Fatty Arbuckle in an upcoming biopic called The Day the Laughter Stopped. The fact that HBO is making a biopic about Arbuckle is fantastic news. His story is a fascinating one. At the peak of his fame, he attended a Labor Day party in which an actress, Virginia Rappe, died. Depending on who you believe, he was either: a) framed and/or railroaded out of Hollywood, or b) guilty of manslaughter. He was acquitted of the crime but his career was ruined. He died of a heart attack in 1933 at the young age of 46. News of the HBO biopic led me to think “What if Arbuckle’s career wasn’t cut short?”, along with a host of other “what if” questions.
What makes the way Arbuckle’s career ended so sad is that he was on top of the world when it happened. His salary at the time was a staggering $1,000,000. He had mentored Charlie Chaplin. He introduced Buster Keaton to the world. According to Arbuckle’s Wikipedia page, he discovered Bob Hope. In short, he played a pivotal role in shaping what comedy would be in early Hollywood and his influence reaches out for decades.
It’s impossible to know where Arbuckle’s career might have gone. The 1920’s- the decade in which Arbuckle was mostly blackballed by Hollywood- were the decade where Hollywood really took off, and Arbuckle had made his hay in the previous decade. Given his affiliation with both Chaplin and Keaton, it’s not outlandish to think that he would have continued to work with either or both of those actors in a larger capacity. Technically, Keaton continued to give him occasional work and helped support him in his dark hours as thanks for breaking him into the industry. There’s no doubt that more would have been done between the two friends had studios been more comfortable with Arbuckle’s involvement.
Steven Spielberg’s nefarious great white shark didn’t function as he had originally intended. The specter of demolishing the budget and ruining his biggest opportunity forced him into re-write mode. What he wound up creating was Hitchcockian suspense… about a shark. It’s fascinating, really, and it’s a sign of Spielberg’s genius as a filmmaker that the solution possibly made the film better. After all, the suspense that’s built with the shark is an integral piece to making Jaws a classic. What if the mechanical beast had functioned the way he had originally intended? Would Jaws still merit a spot in the AFI Top 100? Would the film have flopped? Where would his career have gone?
The Godfather: Part III
I’m a firm believer that The Godfather: Part III gets criticized a bit too much. I prefer to think of it as the Ted Kennedy of the Godfather trilogy. It clearly wasn’t as accomplished as the two predecessors. At certain times, it ranged from comical to embarrassing. But it still got the job done. Despite the disappointment, it still earned acclaim.
Having said that, Francis Ford Coppola has pointed out that the third film was originally intended to revolve around dissension between Michael Corleone and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). Duvall couldn’t be convinced to come back and the film took on a completely different life. What if he had? Adding Robert Duvall to any movie improves it by leaps and bounds. Adding him to a role that he’d already established- a role that had a lot of teeth- would’ve done wonders for the conclusion of the trilogy. It makes me sad to think that we never got closure with Tom Hagen.
The next “what if” involves an actor who had allegedly been considered to play Fatty Arbuckle in a film about his life, although it ultimately never happened. John Belushi died of a drug overdose in 1982 at the age of 33. Like Arbuckle, the end of Belushi’s life- and career by proxy- came when he was on top when it happened.
The list of projects that went unfinished or changed because of his death is heartbreaking. Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, played by Bill Murray, was originally supposed to be Belushi. Emmett Fitz-Hume in Spies Like Us (played by Chevy Chase) was also intended for Belushi. He had signed on for a supporting role in Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and was also re-writing a screenplay called “Noble Rot”.
I’m most disappointed in one particular project that never materialized. Per the IMDb Louis Malle trivia page, Malle had planned a political satire named Moon Over Miami starring both Belushi and Akroyd. We’re left to only imagine what would have come out of the pairing of John Belushi, titan of comedy, with the critically acclaimed Louis Malle.
Back to the Future
Did you know that Eric Stoltz was almost cast as Marty McFly? It’s true. The source material is good enough that it probably would have still been successful. But it would have destroyed my childhood.
I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Chris Farley because we both spent our childhood in the same town- Madison, Wisconsin. And that made it even more sad for me when he died of a drug overdose like his hero, John Belushi. It’s a bit more depressing knowing that Farley was the original Shrek. Mike Myers did a wonderful job as Shrek and the series of films have been very, very good. But the title character was the C.G.I. embodiment of Chris Farley. Paint Farley green, give him some horns, and you’d see your title character. It’d be unfair to speculate what would’ve happened with Farley’s life if he’d seen the success of the character but it’s still enough to evoke melancholy.
Phil Hartman/Troy McClure
Phil Hartman was an underrated genius. His best work, arguably, was as a voice actor on The Simpsons. It was on The Simpsons that he resided as sketchy lawyer Lionel Hutz and fading Hollywood actor Troy McClure. In fact, Hartman joked at one point about making a live-action version of a Troy McClure movie . According to Simpsons creator Matt Groening, it never went very far. But what if Phil Hartman had lived? Few, if any, TV shows have been as good as The Simpsons were when Hartman was around. The show remained immensely popular after his death and it’s safe to assume that it would’ve had a higher quality with him. What I’m driving at is… well, who the hell wouldn’t have watched a live-action Troy McClure movie if it had been made?
When he died in 2008, there was still a sizable piece of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus left unfinished. Gilliam found a way to finish it and it turned out to be a fine film. It’s impossible not to wonder what might have happened with Gilliam’s movie had Ledger lived. Additionally, Ledger was working on an adaptation of the 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit, which (per the Ledger Wikipedia page) he would have directed. The biggest “What if” left by Ledger’s passing is whether or not Christopher Nolan would’ve brought back The Joker for the third Batman film.