Movie Legends Revealed: Sly Stallone as Axel Foley?
In Warren Littlefield’s recent oral history of NBC’s string of successes in the 1990s, Will and Grace star Eric McCormack had an amusing story about auditioning to star as Ross on Friends and seemingly just missing out on the role to David Schwimmer. “I went out for Schwimmer’s role on Friends. Years later I told [famed TV director and Will and Grace producer James] Burrows the story, and he said, “Honey, you were wasting your time. They wrote the part for Schwimmer.” As it turned out, the creators of Friends had worked with Schwimmer on an earlier TV project and they had him in mind from the start (as a result, Schwimmer was the last actor to sign, as he and his agents knew they wanted him for Ross, giving them a great deal of leverage in negotiations). Roles in films and television series are frequently written with a specific actor in mind, although they don’t always have the happy ending the Friends creators had with Schwimmer.
I’ve written in the past about how Burt Reynolds turned down the role in Terms of Endearment that writer/director James L. Brooks had created for the film (adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel) specifically for the actor, whom Brooks had worked with in the past (click here to find out what film masterpiece Reynolds chose to do instead). Reynolds got to watch as Jack Nicholson won an Academy Award for his performance. Reader Kyle wrote in to ask if this was the case with Beverly Hills Cop. Is it true the hit Eddie Murphy action-comedy was originally written for Sylvester Stallone?
Simply put, no, the lead role in Beverly Hills Cop was not written with Sylvester Stallone in mind. In fact, when it was written, Stallone had not become a major movie star! However, in the film’s complex production history, Stallone did, indeed, eventually become attached to the project, and as you might imagine, the film would have been much different with Stallone as the lead.
The story of the film that eventually became Beverly Hills Cop began in 1977, when Stallone’s Rocky had only recently put the young writer/actor/director on the map. According to Michael Eisner, he had recently begun work at Paramount Pictures and his boss Barry Diller gave him a new 1976 Mercedes convertible. The very first day Eisner drove the car, he was pulled over by a cop. After he received his speeding ticket, Eisner began to think about how odd it must be to be a cop in Beverly Hills, dealing with the rich and famous. Eisner suggested to young Paramount executive Don Simpson there might be a film in the idea somewhere. The late Simpson always denied Eisner’s story, though, and said it was he who came up with the idea on his own (heck, I believe Simpson’s former assistant, Jeffrey Katzenberg, also has claimed he was the one who came up with the idea).
Whoever came up with it, the result saw Simpson calling in screenwriter Danilo Bach in 1977 to pitch him on an idea for a screenplay about a cop from East Los Angeles who transferred to Beverly Hills. Bach did some work on the concept but he didn’t really have much of an angle on the project. Only a few years later would Bach come to Simpson and Paramount with a strong take (I believe it was 1981, but I can’t find a precise date for when Bach made his pitch). The film, then called Beverly Drive, was about a cop from Pittsburgh named Elly Axel who comes to Beverly Hills to investigate the death of a friend. Axel suspects a seemingly respectable businessman was behind his friend’s death. While in Beverly Hills, Axel is forced to work with a by-the-book lieutenant named Bogamil. As you can see, that film is roughly what Beverly Hills Cop turned out to be. However, Bach’s script was more of a straight action film. Simpson had Bach try to re-tune the script but eventually Simpson brought in other writers.
After his breakout success with 1983′s Flashdance (alongside his production partner, Jerry Bruckheimer), Simpson needed a new project. He saw the Beverly Hills film being their next big project. To rewrite the script, he brought in Daniel Petrie Jr., who decided to take a more humorous approach to the project, figuring the whole “fish out of water” angle would be funny. Paramount loved his changes and the project seemed like it was really going to happen. By now, the lead character’s name was flipped to Axel Elly and he was now from Detroit (Bruckheimer’s hometown). The first actor to become attached to the project was Mickey Rourke, whom Simpson signed to a $400,000 holding contract (which means that Rourke agreed to hold off on taking other roles for the length of the contract). Rourke wanted them to make some notable changes to the script, and eventually when his holding contract ran out, he left the project (not necessarily because of the changes or lack thereof, but it also could have been an issue of him just getting tired of waiting).
Here was where Sylvester Stallone came into play and signed on for the lead role. Stallone, though, decided to give the script a dramatic rewrite and make it much more of a straight action film. When asked about it in an interview a few years back, Stallone remarked:
When I read the script for Beverly Hills Cop, I thought they’d sent it to the wrong house. Somehow, me trying to comically terrorize Beverly Hills is not the stuff that great yuk-festivals are made from. So I re-wrote the script to suit what I do best, and by the time I was done, it looked like the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan on the beaches of Normandy. Believe it or not, the finale was me in a stolen Lamborghini playing chicken with an oncoming freight train being driven by the ultra-slimy bad guy. Needless to say, they dropkicked me and my script out of the office, and the rest is history.
One of Paramount’s primary concerns with Stallone’s changes was that he was also making Beverly Hills Cop into a much bigger-budget film than they had initially intended. Screenwriter Daniel Petrie recently recalled:
He was going to play the lead but he re-wrote the script and made it more of an action movie again. That had the natural effect of raising the budget to a level that was higher than Paramount wanted to spend on the picture. Paramount asked Stallone if he was willing to do my script or alternatively he could take the stuff I had written for him and all of the stuff that he had written and make another movie out of it, so long as it wasn’t about a cop who came from out of town to Beverly Hills. By that time, the movie was so different that he was able to do that and he was extremely gracious about it and took that suggestion. He used almost all of his material and incorporated it into his film Cobra (1986). Actually, Stallone had renamed our lead character Axel Cobretti in his Beverly Hills Cop script.
Stallone’s 1986 cop film Cobra did, indeed, have a budget that was more than 50 percent higher than Beverly Hills Cop ($15 million for Beverly Hills Cop and $25 million for Cobra). It also made roughly half as much money as Beverly Hills Cop at the box office. It’s unclear to me exactly how much of Cobra appeared in Stallone’s script for Beverly Hills Cop. I tend to think that it might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that Stallone just took all of his ideas for Beverly Hills Cop and turned them into Cobra. I think it is more likely that he got the idea to do a cop action film from Beverly Hills Cop and then that just spring-boarded him into what he did with Cobra (along with, of course, the name of the lead character, which turned out to be Marion Cobretti).
Anyhow, with roughly a month left before filming began, Eddie Murphy was signed to play the lead role, now named Axel Foley, and the rest is film history!
The legend is…
STATUS: Technically False With a Lot of Truth Behind It
Thanks to Kyle for the suggestion! Thanks to Money Into Light for the Daniel Petrie quote, thanks to Ain’t It Cool News for the Stallone quote and thanks to Nick Alaway’s great web site 80′s Movies Rewind for some helpful information!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!