For a film to start shooting and then collapse is relatively rare. When it’s starring Robert De Niro? Well, it became very big Hollywood news.
By 1975, Mike Nichols had become one of the most in-demand directors of both film and Broadway theatre. No surprise either. His first film was Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, that scored 13 Oscar nominations including one for Nichols as director. He went one better with his next, The Graduate, where he won the top prize. He was also enjoying continual success in theatre too, and had his pick of projects, even after one or two underperformed.
Still, hands were rubbed at the though of Nichols and acclaimed playwrite Neil Simon joining forces for what could and perhaps should have been a special project: Bogart Was Here.
It was an idea that was in fact part-inspired by The Graduate, and in particular the moment that Dustin Hoffman was offered the role. As the story goes, when Hoffman got the call about his life-changing casting, he exchanged looks with his girlfriend of the time and they shared a thought: that they were in trouble.
This is detailed in Mark Harris’ excellent biography of Nichols (I’ve also drawn on Shawn Levy’s biography of Robert De Niro for this piece), and Simon fashioned a story that would have followed a theatre actor who lands – get this – a huge movie role. And the story would have followed that, and the impact it had on their relationships.
There was clear interest in this, but also, some tensions immediately behind the scenes. For Nichols and Simon has collaborated before, with a lot of success. On Broadway, Nichols had made his directorial debut there with a Simon play, Barefoot In The Park. He also directed the play of Simons’ The Odd Couple in 1965 and Plaza Suite in 1968.
Things soured though on the production they tackled in 1971, a Broadway production of The Prisoner Of Second Avenue. As Harris writes, there was a schism opening up between the pair, with Simon not too happy about Nichols getting the lion’s share of credit for their work.
Nichols’ own mental health wasn’t great around that period, and the release of his new film, The Fortune, didn’t help. Reviews weren’t kind, and the film – headlined by Warren Beatty, Stockard Channing and Jack Nicholson – was a loud commercial failure. Nichols was bruised, Simon wasn’t happy, and they were trying to get a new film going.
Still, for a while, Bogart Was Here was moving forward against this backdrop. The script had been written with Simon’s then-wife, Marsha Mason in mind for the female lead. And the male lead? An upcoming actor by the name of Robert De Niro was being actively sought.
De Niro at this stage in his career had his breakthrough role in The Godfather Part II behind him, a performance that would earn him one of his two Academy Awards. Inevitably, after years of trying to break through, De Niro was suddenly in demand, and it was a timely coup for Bogart Was Here to land him on the way up. The cast would flesh out further: Sam Elliott and his facial hair, Tony Lo Bianco and Linda Lavin were to appear before the camera. Warner Bros meanwhile was writing the cheque, and that meant physical production work could get underway. It was turning into a notable studio picture.
It got really far too. A start date was identified, and that meant sets could be built and dressed, locations sorted out, crew hired, and a table read organised. All was being prepared for the light comedy that everyone was gathered to make.
And then in walked Robert De Niro. The film had been slightly pushed back due to De Niro’s commitments to two other projects. The shoot of 1900 had been a long one, which didn’t help. But also, he’d just been making Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and walked in in the aftermath of shooting that. In fact, just three days after wrapping on it.
Primed for a barrel of laughs? That’s not how he looked, put it that way. Could he dial down his intensity and pivot to comedy?
Filming got underway, but thinks weren’t right. De Niro wasn’t happy for one. They were on location, he was struggling to get into his role, and it was clear quickly things were awry. De Niro wasn’t the only problem though. Nichols’ confidence had been shaken, and he hadn’t had his eye firmly on the material while it was being development. He knew that he had a problem when he got to the shoot, but the metaphorical train was already in motion.
Furthermore, Simon has noticed that the material he’d written was being delivered in a very different way by De Niro. The humour wasn’t landing, and the film was supposed to be a casting.
It was building to a confluence of circumstances, and Nichols did the unthinkable. He fired Robert De Niro.
The ramifications of firing an Oscar-winning actor, and the one on pretty much every casting director’s shortlist, were significant. Nichols was in a race against time to recast the role with the production already on the clock and mounting up bills. Briefly, Raul Julia was considered, and Richard Dreyfuss auditioned too, but fairly quickly, all concerned realised the game was up. The production fully shut down, almost unheard of for such a high profile film.
It didn’t die entirely. Simon would retool the script and some of the ideas, and shape them into The Goodbye Girl. That film would cast Richard Dreyfuss, ironically enough, and he’d win an Oscar for his work in it too. Nichols would go back to theatre, and stay away from dramatic feature films for the best part of a decade.
De Niro, understandably, did not take the news of his dismissal well, and took the brunt of the Hollywood headlines when the news landed. He also alleged that they tried to renege on paying his fee for the film as well. But then, wouldn’t know it, Taxi Driver came out. And for Robert De Niro, his life would never be the same again…
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.