Steve Martin and Michael Caine ultimately starred in the remake Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – but the casting could have been very different.
There was some degree of backlash a few years back when it was announced that Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway were to star in a remake of the 1980s comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The movie, that was originally called Nasty Women and would go on to be named The Hustle, was directed by Chris Addison and ultimately released in 2019.
What that backlash tended to overlook though was that 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was itself a remake. Originally, the story had been filmed in 1964 starring Marlon Brandon and David Niven, in the film entitled Bedtime Story (although it had been originally written for Doris Day, Cary Grant and Rock Hudson).
Without the worry of social media and such backlashes, in the 1980s the plan to do a remake of that story nonetheless went through several iterations.
And it started with Mick Jagger and David Bowie.
The pair has enjoyed making a record together with ‘Dancing In The Street’, that they came together for as part of Live Aid in 1985. Its video remains pretty infamous, but the song would go on to become a huge hit.
Screenwriter Dale Launer a year later enjoyed success too, this time with his first produced script, the comedy Ruthless People. Amongst the calls he took as buzz around the movie built was from David Bowie’s office. As Premiere magazine detailed all the way back in its August 1988 issue, Launer was sounded out about writing a script for a project that would bring Bowie and Jagger together on the big screen.
As Launer told the publication, “Jagger had read Ruthless People and was saying really good things about it”. And as it turned out, Launer had a suggestion for the pair. “I told them they ought to get this old movie about these two gigolo con men who compete for the same woman”.
The pair were interested, and a meeting was quickly arranged between Jagger and an executive at United Artists, the company that was interested in funding the project.
There was a problem here though, and that was the reluctance of Universal Pictures to initially sell the remake rights for Bedtime Story. United Artists was put off as a result of that, and the project was then shopped around town. Disney decided it wanted to have a go – Ruthless People had by this time been a hit for the studio – and contacted Universal. A deal once again couldn’t be reached though: why was Universal being so reluctant to sell?
With the clock ticking, the story then goes that Bowie and Jagger had another film offer coming in, that would have seen them work with Martin Scorsese. For whatever reason, that film didn’t come to pass (although Jagger would eventually work with Scorsese on the TV project Vinyl), but Bowie and Jagger had nonetheless figured it was the better option to pursue. Their Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ground to a halt, but the project itself didn’t.
For a while, Eddie Murphy was interested in doing the movie with Paramount Pictures. Launer told Premiere that Murphy’s uncle had been a fan of the original movie. This time, Paramount approached Universal to try and get the rights as part of its long-term deal it had with Murphy. Again, no dice.
Dale Launer didn’t give up though. The publicity that Jagger and Bowie’s courting of the project had opened eyes around Hollywood, and Launer decided he may as well try and get the film moving at Universal itself.
This is where the story turned. He persuaded then-Universal executive Josh Donen to watch Bedtime Story with him, and he was impressed. Yet the answer came back: no. Universal didn’t want to do it.
Launer suspected there was something else afoot here, and after a lot of digging, his suspicions were realised: Universal didn’t actually own the rights to the original movie after all. In fact, those rights had reverted back to one of its original writers, Stanley Shapiro. Launer got in touch with him, and a deal was quickly reached for a remake. Finally, in spite of already losing some high profile casting options, the project could move ahead.
By the start of 1988, the project was finally up and running. Launer had written a screenplay, and Frank Oz was lured to the director’s chair. He’d just enjoyed a success with Little Shop Of Horrors, and as he joined what had become known as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it was quickly suggested he reunite with one of the stars of his previous movie, Steve Martin. The plan was for Martin to play the well-spoken and suitably posh con man, whilst Bill Murray would play the less refined member of the pairing.
Murray, though, was in his extended sabbatical from the movies (he’d be away from cinema for nearly half a decade, before returning with Scrooged and Ghostbusters II back to back). He’d toy with the idea of making Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but ultimately drop out. John Cleese was also approached by Frank Oz to play the more refined role, but he ultimately turned the part down (a decision he was said to have regretted). Michael Palin auditioned too.
Richard Dreyfuss was in the running at one stage as well, and at that point it became clear that Steve Martin would suit the more loutish role in the movie. When Bill Murray departed the project, Martin thus swapped parts. In the end, an offer would go in to Michael Caine. As Caine details in his memoir What’s This All About, the deal was sealed over a Sunday lunch with Oz and Martin.
Caine also revealed that he’d been offered the story many years ago under a different title. That somewhere within Hollywood, there was a version doing the rounds called The King Of The Mountain, and the idea had been to cast Caine opposite Tom Cruise. This was before Tom Cruise became a megastar, but that particular attempt to mount the project failed because nobody would fund the movie.
In the case of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a project that originally was set to be a screen pairing of Mick Jagger and David Bowie – who never came together on screen in a movie in the end – was picked up by Orion Pictures. Glenne Headley rounded off the key ensemble.
Shot in the south of France in the summer of 1988, the film was released in December of that year, and became a hit. Bowie and Jagger would apparently lament the fact that they’d lost out on the script. Understandably so, too. It’d be fascinating to see what a version with the pair of them in would have looked like.
Not to be, though, but the mantle’s likely to be picked up by more going forward.
As history has proven, from three movies to a Broadway musical, this is a story that looks like to be retold again and again. Perhaps not with music megastars, though…
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