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“Roadblock!” reveals how Disney’s “The Happiest Millionaire” wound up being such a cinematic misfire

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What with “Saving Mr. Banks” being out in theaters right now, there’s been a lot of talk lately about “Mary Poppins .” How this Academy Award-winning film was perhaps Walt Disney’s crowning cinematic achievement.

But me? I can’t help but look at the two Disney-produced movie musicals on either side of “Mary Poppins.” To be specific, 1961’s “Babes in Toyland ” and 1967’s “The Happiest Millionaire .” Which are … um …

Here. I’ll let acclaimed film critic and historian Leonard Maltin weigh in on “Babes.” In his “Disney Films ” book, Leonard reminded his readers that …

… “Babes in Toyland” was filmed before, by Hal Roach in 1934, with Laurel and Hardy as the stars , and Charlotte Henry and Felix Knight as the romantic leads. It hasn’t the color or special effects of the new version, but it is everything the Disney film should have been: charming, funny, frightening and truly memorable.

(Walt Disney’s 1961 version of “Babes in Toyland”) is just a case of Disney trying to outdo himself, and channeling his energy in the wrong direction. This was his first live-action musical, and he profited by the experience. A few years later he turned out a little something called “Mary Poppins.” Remember?

So according to Maltin (And I have to admit that — me personally — I do buy into Leonard’s theory), Walt learned from all the mistakes that he & his studio made on “Babes in Toyland” and then put together “Mary Poppins.” Which — to borrow a phrase from this film — is practically perfect in every way.

Copyright 2014 Oxford University Press. All rights reserved

But if this is what Walt Disney does (i.e., learns from his previously cinematic mistakes), then how does one explain what happened with “The Happiest Millionaire” ? Which — as Matthew Kennedy recounts in “Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s” (Oxford University Press, January 2014) — wound up being this 181 minute-long snooze fest?

Wait. Did I say 181 minutes? I meant 159 minutes. No … Hang on. I meant 114 minutes.

So why did “The Happiest Millionaire” wind up being such an unhappy experience for so many movie-goers? It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly went wrong. To hear Matthew tell this tale, Walt seemed to have put his usual amount of care & thought into the casting of this project:

Copyright 1967 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

Burt Lancaster, Brian Keith, and Rex Harrison were all (considered for the role of Colonel Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, the “Happiest Millionaire” mentioned in this film’s title), but studio favorite Fred MacMurray won the part. This was his sixth outing for Disney, and the star of The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber actually had musical credentials. In addition to singing and playing the saxophone, (Fred) had done a Bavarian slap dance at RKO back in the 1930s. Director Norman Tokar, who had worked at Disney with MacMurray, was signed (to helm this production). Tall, freckled Lesley Ann Warren, star of a beloved TV production of Cinderella (EDITOR’S NOTE: Lesley actually starred in the second televised version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Which was broadcast in CBS in full color on February 22, 1965. And who was the star of the original version of this made-for-television musical ? Julie Andrews. Who actually rehearsed for this show — which aired live on CBS on March 31, 1957 — during the day while performing in the original Broadway production of “My Fair Lady” at night) was making her film debut as Cordelia. In his first American film was pop singer turned musical comedy star Tommy Steele … Disney saw Steele (in the stage musical “Half a Sixpence”) on Broadway, and, much as Julie Andrews was courted during Camelot, he made an offer to Steele for The Happiest Millionaire. He would play John Lawless, the Biddle’s fun-loving singing and dancing butler, who would also function as the movie’s narrator.

Tommy Steele and his scaly co-star: George, an 8-foot long, 200 pound alligator. Copyright 1967 Walt Disney Productions.  All rights reserved

As rehearsals were underway, Disney’s 28,340 square-foot Stage Two was converted into the Biddle’s 1916 Philadelphia mansion with a budget of $450,000 for crystal chandeliers, walnut paneling, and antique furniture (EDITOR’S NOTE: To give you some sense of how huge a space that we’re talking about here, on “Mary Poppins,” Stage Two was home to that film’s massive Cherry Tree Lane set. So just imagine how big the Biddle Mansion set would have to be in order to fill that same space).

Given that 250 custom costumes were made for this film’s principal players (not to mention an additional 3000 outfits for “Millionaire” ‘s extras), Walt clearly spared no expense when it came to this production. And while Disney …

… was not present on the set every day as he had been with Poppins … he remained congenial with cast and crew, making an effort to learn everyone’s names. With the production going smoothly, he had little reason to worry. “(Disney) usually held court in the hallway afterward for the people involved with [“The Happiest Millionaire”], ” said Robert Sherman. “(Walt would start) talking to them, telling them what he liked and what they should change, and then, when they were through, he turned to us and with a big smile, he said ‘Keep up the good work, boys.’ And he walked to his office. It was the last we ever saw of him.”

Walt Disney and the cast of “The Happiest Millionaire” on Stage 2 on the Burbank Lot. Copyright 1966 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

Yeah. That may be the real key to “The Happiest Millionaire” wound up being such a bore.

Very near the end of his life, (Walt) watched a rough cut of The Happiest Millionaire, and conferred with staff on how to edit into something below three hours (in length).

But when Walt passed away on December 15, 1966, the film was in still very much in flux. And even key members of “Millionaire” ‘s creative team had to eventually admit that …

… With more than 80 minutes of song and dance, co-choreographer Marc Breaux’s first memory of Millionaire was that it was too long.

The Pantages Theater as it looked back in the 1960s.

And studio management & “Millionaire” ‘s creative team continued to argue about what this film’s proper running time should be right up until its world premiere at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater on June 23, 1967. Where — in much the style of the elaborate extravaganza that Walt Disney Productions mounted for “Mary Poppins” ‘s world premiere back in August of 1964 — …

… spectators in bleachers on Hollywood Boulevard enjoyed a parade of Disney characters while guests and stars arrived in antique cars … Following the premiere screening, guests ambled two and a half blocks to the Hollywood Palladium on the longest canopied red carpet promenade in Hollywood history. The Palladium was done up for a 1,500 guest benefit for the California Institute of Arts, with a replica of the Biddle Mansion on prominent display (where attendees were then serenaded by) the 36-piece Disneyland Marching Band …

Well, while lots of folks may have enjoyed “Millionaire” ‘s post-premiere party, as for the film itself, there was lots of grumbling about this production’s plodding pace. Which is why — in the months prior to this Walt Disney Productions’ debut at Radio City Musical Hall in November of 1967 —

Tweaking this film’s advertising — making “Millionaire” look more like a contemporary musical rather than a period piece — didn’t bring in the crowds either. Copyright 1967 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

… (“Millionaire” ‘s)  overture, entr’acte, and songs came and went, while its exhibited length was variously reported as 181, 172, 170, 164, 159, 155, 144, 141, or 114 minutes.

(And in the end) After all (of the ticket sales for “The Happiest Millionaire” ‘s higher priced / reserved seating roadshow engagements as well as its wide release to theaters) were tallied, the approximate domestic rentals for Millionaire came to $5 million, barely 15 percent of Mary Poppins.

So again, what exactly happened here? Why didn’t “The Happiest Millionaire” work? Was it that Walt really didn’t learn from the mistakes that he made on “Babes in Toyland” ? Or was this more a case of the distracted Disney? With Walt being spread far too thin, what with all the development work that was being done on Project Florida & Mineral King at the exact time that this Norman Tokar movie was being shot?

Fred Astaire and Tommy Steele, who followed up his appearance in Disney’s “The Happiest Millionaire” by playing Og the Leprechaun in “Finian’s Rainbow.” Copyright 1968 Warner Bros. – 7 Artists. All rights reserved

You know what’s kind of ironic about all this? Even as Walt Disney Productions was putting together its “Mary Poppins” follow-up, many of the studios in Hollywood were trying to mount reunion vehicles for Julie Andrews & Dick Van Dyke. Take — for example — the story that Kennedy shares about “Finian’s Rainbow “:

On June 2, 1966, production chief Walter MacEwen wrote to Jack Warner about casting. Dick Van Dyke would cost $300,000 and Julie Andrews would cost twice that much. Sixty-seven-year-old Fred Astaire was less expensive, as was British pop tune hit maker Petula Clark. Astaire, whose last musical was Silk Stockings nine years earlier, signed for $150,000 and 5 percent of the profits.

And then there’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ,” which aspired to …

Dick Van Dyke and the car who was the real star of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Copyright 1968 United Artists. All rights reserved

… reunite the Poppins team of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke with the Sherman Brothers composing. When Andrews passed, UA found a facsimile in contralo Sally Ann Howes. Like Andrews, she had a starchy, chipper demeanor, a comfortably pretty face, and a lovely singing voice. To burnish her credentials as another Julie Andrews, she even played My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle on stage. Van Dyke was none too interested until his guarantee topped $1 million. He won assurances that he would not supply an English accent, thus avoiding the embarrassment suffered for his bastard Cockney in Mary Poppins.

It’s these sort of behind-the-scenes stories that make “Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s” such a fun read. So if you’d like to learn more about this fascinating era in Hollywood history, then I urge you to pick up a copy of Matthew Kennedy’s well researched, highly entertaining book.

Your thoughts?

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Film & Movies

How Disney’s “Bambi” led to the creation of Smokey Bear

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When people talk about Disney’s “Bambi,” the scene that they typically cite as being the one from this 1942 film which then scarred them for life is – of course – the moment in this movie where Bambi’s mother gets shot by hunters.

Which is kind of ironic. Given that – if you watch this animated feature today – you’ll see that a lot of this ruined-my-childhood scene actually happens off-camera. I mean, you hear the rifle shot that takes down Bambi’s Mom. But you don’t actually see that Mama Deer get clipped.

Now for the scariest part of that movie that you actually see on-camera … Hands down, that has to be the forest fire sequence in “Bambi.” As the grown-up Bambi & his bride, Faline, desperately race through those woods, trying to find a path to safety as literally everything around them is ablaze … That sequence is literally nightmare fuel.

Source: Economist.com

Mind you, the artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios had lots of inspiration for the forest fire sequence in “Bambi.” You see, in a typical year, the United States experiences – due to either natural phenomenon like lightning strikes or human carelessness – 100 forest fires. Whereas in 1940 (i.e., the year that Disney Studios began working in earnest of a movie version of Felix Salten’s best-selling movie), America found itself battling a record 360 forest fires.

Which greatly concerned the U.S. Forest Service. But not for the reason you might think.

Protecting the Forest for World War II

I mean, yes. Sure. Officials over in the Agricultural Department (That’s the arm of the U.S. government that manages the Forest Service) were obviously concerned about the impact that this record number of forest fires in 1940 had had on citizens. Not to mention all of the wildlife habitat that was now lost.

But to be honest, what really concerned government officials was those hundreds of thousands of acres of raw timber that had been consumed by these blazes. You see, by 1940, the world was on the cusp of the next world war. A conflict that the U.S. would inevitably  be pulled into. And all that now-lost timber? It could have been used to fuel the U.S. war machine.

So with this in mind (and U.S. government officials now seeing an urgent need to preserve & protect this precious resource) … Which is why – in 1942 (just a few months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor) – the U.S. Forest Service rolls out its first-ever forest fire prevention program.

Which – given that this was the early days of World War II – the slogan that the U.S. Forest Service initially chose for its forest fire prevention program is very in that era’s we’re-all-in-this-together / so-let’s-do-what-we-can-to-help-America’s war-effort esthetic – made a direct appeal to all those folks who were taking part in scrap metal drives: “Forest Defense is National Defense.”

Source: Northwestern

And the poster that the U.S. Forest Service had created to support this campaign? … Well, it was well-meaning as well.  It was done in the WPA style and showed men out in the forest, wielding shovels to ditch a ditch. They were trying to construct a fire break, which would then supposedly slow the forest fire that was directly behind them.

But the downside was … That “Forest Defense is National Defense” slogan – along with that poster which the U.S. Forest Service had created to support their new forest fire prevention program didn’t exactly capture America’s attention.

I mean, it was the War Years after all. A lot was going in the country at that time. But long story short: the U.S. Forest Service’s first attempt at launching a successful forest fire prevention program sank without a trace.

So what do you do in a situation like this? You regroup. You try something different.

Disney & Bambi to the Rescue

And within the U.S. government, the thinking now was “Well, what if we got a celebrity to serve as the spokesman for our new forest fire prevention program? Maybe that would then grab the public’s attention.”

The only problem was … Well, again, these are the War Years. And a lot of that era’s A-listers (people like Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, even Mel Brooks) had already enlisted. So there weren’t really a lot of big-name celebrities to choose from.

But then some enterprising official at the U.S. Forest Service came up with an interesting idea. He supposedly said “Hey, have you seen that new Disney movie? You know, the one with the deer? That movie has a forest fire in it. Maybe we should go talk with Walt Disney? Maybe he has some ideas about how we can better capture the public’s attention when it comes to our new forest fire prevention program?”

And it turns Walt did have an idea. Which was to use this government initiative as a way to cross-promote Disney Studio’s latest full-length animated feature, “Bambi.” Which been first released to theaters in August of 1942.

So Walt had artists at Disney Studio work up a poster that featured the grown-up versions of Bambi the Deer, Thumper the Rabbit & Flower the Skunk. As this trio stood in some tall grasses, they looked imploring out at whoever was standing in front of this poster. Above them was a piece of text that read “Please Mister, Don’t Be Careless.” And below these three cartoon characters was an additional line that read “Prevent Forest Fires. Greater Danger Than Ever!”

Source: USDA

According to folks I’ve spoken with at Disney’s Corporate Archives, this “Bambi” -based promotional campaign for the U.S. Forest Service’s forest fire prevention campaign was a huge success. So much so that – as 1943 drew to a close – this division of the Department of Agriculture reportedly reached out to Walt to see if he’d be willing to let the U.S. Forest Service continue to use these cartoon characters to help raise the public’s awareness of fire safety.

Walt – for reasons known only to Mr. Disney – declined. Some have suggested that — because “Bambi” had actually lost money during its initial theatrical release in North America – that Walt was now looking to put that project behind him. And if there were posters plastered all over the place that then used the “Bambi” characters that then promoted the U.S.’s forest fire prevention efforts … Well, it would then be far harder for Mr. Disney to put this particular animated feature in the rear view mirror.

Introducing Smokey Bear

Long story short: Walt said “No” when it came to reusing the “Bambi” characters to promote the U.S. Forest Service’s forest fire prevention program. But given how successful the previous cartoon-based promotional campaign had been … Well, some enterprising employee at the Department of Agriculture reportedly said “Why don’t we come up with a cartoon character of our own?”

So – for the Summer of 1944 – the U.S. Forest Service (with the help of the Ad Council and the National Association of State Foresters) came up with a character to help promote the prevention of forest fires. And his name is Smokey Bear.

Now a lot of thought had gone into Smokey’s creation. Right from the get-go, it was decided that he would be an American black bear (NOT a brown bear or a grizzly). To make this character seem approachable, Smokey was outfitted with a ranger’s hat. He also wore a pair of blue jeans & carried a bucket.

As for his debut poster, Smokey was depicted as pouring water over a still-smoldering campfire. And below this cartoon character was printed Smokey’s initial catchphrase. Which was “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!”

Source: NPR

Which makes me think that this slogan was written by the very advertising executive who wrote “Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.”

Anyway … By the Summer of 1947, Smokey got a brand-new slogan. The one that he uses even today. Which is “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

The Real Smokey Bear

Now where this gets interesting is – in the Summer of 1950 – there was a terrible forest fire up in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. And over the course of this blaze, a bear cub climbed high up into a tree to try & escape those flames.

Firefighters were finally able to rescue that cub. But he was so badly injured in that fire that he was shipped off to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and nursed back to health. And since this bear really couldn’t be released back in the wild at this point, he was then put on exhibit.

And what does this bear’s keepers decide to call him? You guessed it: Smokey.

Source: USDA

And due to all the news coverage that this orphaned bear got, he eventually became the living symbol of the U.S. Forest Service’s forest fire prevention program. Which then meant that this particular Smokey Bear got hit with a ton of fan mail. So much so that the National Zoo in Washington D.C. wound up with its own Zip Code.

“Smokey the Bear” Hit Song

And on the heels of a really-for-real Smokey Bear taking up residence in our nation’s capital, Steve Nelson & Jack Rollins decide to write a song that shined a spotlight on this fire-fightin’ bruin. Here’s the opening stanza:

With a ranger’s hat and shovel and a pair of dungarees,
You will find him in the forest always sniffin’ at the breeze,
People stop and pay attention when he tells them to beware
Because everybody knows that he’s the fire-preventin’ bear

Believe or not, even with lyrics like these, “Smokey the Bear” briefly topped the Country charts in the Summer of 1950. Thanks to a version of this song that was recorded by Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy.

By the way, it was this song that started all of the confusion in regards to Smokey Bear’s now. You see, Nelson & Rollins – because they need the lyrics of their song to scan properly – opted to call this fire-fightin’-bruin Smokey THE Bear. Rather than Smokey Bear. Which has been this cartoon character’s official name since the U.S. Forest Service first introduced him back in 1944.

“The Ballad of Smokey the Bear”

Further complicating this issue was “The Ballad of Smokey the Bear,” which was a stop-motion animated special that debuted on NBC in late November of 1966. Produced by Rankin-Bass as a follow-up to their hugely popular “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (which premiered on the Peacock Network in December of 1964) … This hour-long TV show also put a “THE” in the middle of Smokey Bear’s name because the folks at Rankin-Bass thought his name sounded better that way.

And speaking of animation … Disney’s “Bambi” made a brief return to the promotional campaign for the U.S. Forest Service’s forest fire prevention program in the late 1980s. This was because the Company’s home entertainment division had decided to release this full-length animated feature on VHS.

What’s kind of interesting, though, is the language used on the “Bambi” poster is a wee different than the language that’s used on Smokey’s poster. It reads “Protect Our Forest Friends. Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” NOT “Forest Fires.”

Anyway, that’s how Disney’s “Bambi” led to the creation of Smokey Bear. Thanks for bearin’ with me as I clawed my way through this grizzly tale.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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“Indiana Jones and the Search for Indiana Jones”

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News came late last week that NBC was cancelling the “Magnum PI” remake. This series (which obviously took its inspiration from the Tom Selleck show that originally debuted on CBS back in December of 1980 and then went on run on that network for 8 seasons. With its final episode airing on May 8, 1988).

Anyway … Over 30 years later, CBS decided to remake “Magnum.” This version of the action drama debuted on September 24, 2018 and ran for four seasons before then being cancelled. NBC picked up the “Magnum” remake where it ran for one more season before word came down on June 23rd that this action drama was being cancelled yet again.

FYI: The second half of Season 5 of “Magnum” (10 episodes) has yet to air on NBC. It will be interesting to see when that final set of shows / the series finale gets scheduled.

This all comes to mind this week – out ahead of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” because … Well, if CBS execs had been a bit more flexible back in 1980, the star of the original version of “Magnum PI” (Tom Selleck) would have played the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Which was released to theaters back on June 12, 1981.

That’s the part of the Indiana Jones story that the folks at Lucasfilm often opt to skim over.

That Harrison Ford wasn’t George Lucas’ first choice to play Doctor Jones.

Auditions for Indiana Jones – Harrison’s Not on the List

Mind you, Steven Spielberg – right from the get-go – had pushed for Ford to play this part. The way I hear it, Lucas showed Spielberg a work-in-progress cut of “The Empire Strikes Back.” And Steven was so taken with Harrison’s performance as Han Solo in that Irwin Kershner film that he immediately began pushing for Ford to be cast as Doctor Jones.

Whereas Mr. Lucas … I mean, it wasn’t that George had anything against Harrison. What with Ford’s performances first in “American Grafitti” and then in “A New Hope,” these two already had a comfortable working relationship.

But that said, Lucas was genuinely leery of … Well, the sort of creative collaboration that Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro. Where one actor & one director repeatedly worked together. To George’s way of thinking, that was a risky path to follow. Hitching your wagon to a single star.

Which is why – when auditions got underway for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1979 — Mike Fenton basically brought in every big performer of that era to read for Dr. Jones except Harrison Ford. We’re talking:

  • Steve Martin
  • Chevy Chase
  • Bill Murray
  • Jack Nicholson
  • Peter Coyote
  • Nick Nolte
  • Sam Elliot
  • Tim Matheson
  • and Harry Hamlin

Casting a Comedian for Indiana Jones

Please note that there are a lot of comedians on this list. That’s because – while “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was in development — Spielberg was directed his epic WWII comedy, “1941.” And for a while there, Steve & George were genuinely uncertain about whether the movie that they were about to make would be a sincere valentine to the movie serials of the 1930s & the 1940s or more of a spoof.

It’s worth noting here that three of the more ridiculous set pieces found in “Temple of Doom” …

  • the shoot-out at Club Obi Wan in Shanghai
  • Indy, Willie & Short Round surviving that plane crash by throwing an inflatable life raft out of the cargo hatch
  • and that film’s mine cart chase (which was not only inspired by Disney theme park favorites the Matterhorn Bobsleds & Big Thunder Mountain Railroad but some of the sound effects that you hear in this portion of “Temple of Doom” were actually recorded after hours at Disneyland inside of these very same attractions)

…  all originally supposed to be in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’ve actually got a copy of the very first version of the screenplay that Lawrence Kasdan wrote for the first “Indy” movie where all three of these big action set pieces were supposed to be part of the story that “Raiders” told. And I have to tell you that this early iteration of the “Raiders” screenplay really does read more like a spoof of serials than a sincere, loving salute to this specific style of cinema.

Casting Indiana Jones – Jeff or Tom

Anyway … Back now to the casting of the male lead for “Raiders” … After seeing virtually every actor out in LA while looking for just the right performer to portray Indiana Jones, it all came down to two guys:

  • Jeff Bridges
  • and Tom Selleck

Jeff Bridges as Indiana Jones

Mike Fenton was heavily pushing for Jeff Bridges. Having already appeared with Clint Eastwood in 1974’s “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (Not to mention that “King Kong” remake from 1976), Bridges was a known quantity. But what Fenton liked especially liked about Bridges when it came to “Raiders” was … Well, at that time, Jeff was just coming off “Heaven’s Gate.”

Mind you, nowadays, because we’ve all now had the luxury of seeing the director’s cut of this Michael Cimino movie, we recognize “Heaven’s Gate” for the cinematic masterpiece that it is. But 40+ years ago, that honestly wasn’t the case. All audiences had to judge this movie by was the severely truncated version that United Artists sent out into theaters. Which – because “Heaven’s Gate” had cost $44 million to make and only sold $3.5 million of tickets – then became the textbook example of Hollywood excess.

Credit: Indiewire.com

Long story short: Given that being associated with “Heaven’s Gate” had somewhat dinged Bridges’ reputation for being a marketable star (i.e., a performer that people would pay good money to see up on the big screen), Jeff was now looking to appear in something highly commercial. And the idea of playing the lead in a film directed by Steven Spielberg (the “Jaws” & “Close Encounter” guy) and produced by George Lucas (Mr. “Star Wars”) was very, very appealing at that time. Bridges was even willing to sign a contract with Spielberg & Lucas that would have then roped him into not only playing Indiana Jones in “Raider of the Lost Ark” but also to appear as this very same character in two yet-to-be-written sequels.

Better yet, because “Heaven’s Gate” had temporarily dimmed Bridges’ star status, Jeff was also willing to sign on to do the first “Indy” film for well below his usual quote. With the understanding that – should “Raiders of the Lost Ark” succeed at the box office – Bridges would then be paid far more to appear in this film’s two sequels.

That seemed like a very solid plan for “Raiders.” Landing a known movie star to play the lead in this action-adventure at a bargain price.

Ah, but standing in Mike Fenton’s way was Marcia Lucas.

Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones

Marcia Lucas, who had seen Tom Selleck’s audition for “Raiders” (And you can see it as well. Just go to Google and type in “Tom Selleck” and “Indiana Jones.” And if you dig around for a bit, you’ll then see a feature that Lucas & Spielberg shot for “Entertainment Tonight” back in 2008 [This story was done in support of the theatrical release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”]. And as part of this piece, George and Steve share Tom’s original audition for “Raiders.” And what’s genuinely fascinating about this footage is that Selleck’s scene partner is Sean Young. Who – at that time, anyway – was up for the role of Marion Ravenwood) and kept telling her husband, “You should cast this guy. He’s going to be a big star someday.”

And given that George was smart enough to regularly heed Marcia Lucas’ advice (She had made invaluable suggestions when it came to the editing of “American Graffiti” and the original “Star Wars.” Not to downplay George Lucas’ cinematic legacy, but Marcia Lucas was a world-class storyteller in and of her own right), Lucas then reached out to Spielberg and persuaded him that they should cast relative unknown Tom Selleck as Doctor Jones over the already well-known Jeff Bridges.

Now don’t feel too bad for Jeff Bridges. When he lost out on playing the lead in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Jeff then accepted a role in the very next, high profile, sure-to-be-commercial project that came along. Which turned out to be Disney’s very first “TRON” movie. Which was eventually released to theaters on July 9, 1982.

Back to Tom Selleck now … You have to remember that – back then – Selleck was the handsome guy who’d already shot pilots for six different shows that then hadn’t gone to series. Which was why Tom was stuck being the guest star on shows like “The Fall Guy” and “Taxi.” Whereas once word got out around town that Selleck was supposed to play the lead in a project that Spielberg was directed & Lucas was producing … Well, this is when CBS decided that they’d now take the most recent pilot that Tom had shot and then go to series with this show.

That program was – of course – the original “Magnum PI.” And it’s at this point where our story started to get complicated.

“Magnum PI” – Two Out of Three Say “Yes”

Okay. During the first season of a TV show, it’s traditionally the network – rather than the production company (which – in this case – was Glen A. Larson Productions. The company behind the original versions of “Battlestar Galactica” & “Knight Rider”) or the studio where this series is actually being shot (which – in this case – was Universal Television) that has all the power. And in this particular case, the network execs who were pulling all the strings behind-the-scenes worked for CBS.

And when it came to the first season of “Magnum PI,” CBS had a deal with Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television which stated that the talent which had been contracted to appear in this new action drama would then be available for the production of at least 13 episodes with an option to shoot an additional 9 episodes (This is known in the industry as the back nine. As in: the last nine holes of a golf course).

Anyway, if you take those initial 13 episodes and then tack on the back nine, you then get 22 episodes total. Which – back in the late 1970s / early 1980s, anyway – was what a full season of a network television show typically consisted of.

Anyway … The contract that Selleck had signed with Glen A. Larson Productions, Universal Television & CBS stated that he had to be available when production of Season One of “Magnum PI” began in March of 1980. More to the point, Tom also had to be available should CBS exercise its option to air 22 episodes of this new series on that television network over the course of “Magnum PI” ‘s first season.  

Which then made things complicated for George Lucas & Steven Spielberg because … Well, in order for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to make its June 12, 1981 release date, that then meant that production of the first “Indy” movie would have to get underway no later than June 23, 1980.

But here’s the thing: Production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was scheduled to run through the first week of July of that same year (1980). So in order for Tom Selleck to play Indiana Jones in “Raiders,” he was going to need to be wrapped on production of “Magnum PI” by June 22, 1980 at the absolute latest.

So Spielberg & Lucas went to Glen A. Larsons Productions and asked if Selleck could please be sprung from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligations by June 22nd. And they said “Yes.” Then Steven & George went to Universal Television and asked executives there for their help  in clearing Tom’s schedule so that he’d then be available to start work on “Raiders.” And they say “Yes” as well.

Spielberg & Lucas now go to CBS. But instead of the quick “Yeses” that they got from officials at Glen A. Larson Productions and Universal Television, it takes those suits at the Tiffany Network weeks before they then decided to say “No, they couldn’t release Tom Selleck early to go work on ‘Raiders’ “ because …

I’ve never really been able to get a straight answer here as to why CBS execs dug in their heels here. Why they flat-out refused to release Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation and allow him to go shoot “Raiders.”

Payback from “The Star Wars Holiday Special” Trash Talk

That said, it is worth noting that “The Star Wars Holiday Special” aired on CBS back in November of 1978. And given that – in the years that followed —  Lucas wasn’t exactly shy when it came to saying how much he hated that two hour-long presentation (Or – for that matter – how George really regretted caving into the requests of CBS execs. Who had insisted that television stars long associated with the Tiffany Network – people like Art Carney, Harvey Korman & Bea Arthur – be given prominent guest starring roles in “The Star Wars Holiday Special”). And I’ve heard whispers over the years that CBS executives preventing Tom Selleck from appearing in “Raiders” could be interpreted as the Tiffany Network getting some payback for what George had said publicly about the “Star Wars Holiday Special.”

Harrison Ford Comes to Rescue “Indiana Jones”

Anyway … It’s now literally just weeks before production of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is supposed to begin and Spielberg & Lucas have just learned that that they’ve lost their film’s star. CBS is flat-out refusing to release Tom Selleck early from his “Magnum PI” contractual obligation. So Steven & George now have to find someone else to play Indy … and fast.

The real irony here is … The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists would go on strike in the Summer of 1980. Which then shut prematurely shut down production of the first season of “Magnum PI.” (As a direct result, the first full season of this action drama to air on CBS only had 18 episodes, rather than the usual 22). And because this job action lasted ‘til October 23rd of that same year … Well, this meant that Tom Selleck would have actually been free to start shooting “Raiders of the Lost Ark” on June 23, 1980 because production of Season One of “Magnum PI” was already shut down by then due to that AFTRA strike.

But no one knew – in May of 1980, anyway – that this job action was going to happen in just a few weeks. All that Steven Spielberg & George Lucas knew was that they now needed a new lead actor for “Raiders.” And circling back on Jeff Bridges was no longer an option. As I mentioned earlier, Jeff had agreed to do “TRON” for Disney. And – in the interim – Bridges gone off to shoot “Cutter’s Way” for MGM / UA.

Credit: EW

So this is where Harrison Ford enters the equation. As he recalls:

In May of 1980, I get a call from George Lucas. Who says ‘I’m messaging a script over to you this morning. As soon as it gets there, I need you to immediately read this script. Then – as soon as you’re done – I need you to call.

So the script arrives and it’s for ‘Raiders.’ I read it and it’s good. So I call George back and say ‘It’s good.’ And he then says ‘Would you be interested in playing Indy?’ I say that it looks like it would be a fun part to play.

George then says ‘ That’s great to hear. Because we start shooting in four weeks. Now I need you to meet with Steven Spielberg today and convince him that you’re the right guy to play Indy.’

Of course, given that Spielberg had been pushing for Ford to pay Indy ever since he had first seen that work-in-progress version of “The Empire Strikes Back” … Well, Harrison’s meeting with Steven was very, very short. And just a few weeks later, Spielberg, Lucas & Ford were all at the Port de la Pallice in La Rochelle. Where – on the very first day of shooting on “Raiders” (which – again – was June 23, 1980)– the scene that was shot was the one where that Nazi sub (the one that Indy had lashed himself to its periscope by using his bullwhip as a rope) was arriving at its secret base.

And all of this happened because Harrison immediately agreed to do “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when the part of Indy was first offered to him in mid-May of 1980.  

Before “Star Wars” was “Star Wars”

So why such a quick yes? Well, you have to remember that “Empire Strikes Back” wouldn’t be released to theaters ‘til May 21, 1980. And no one knew at that time whether this sequel to the original “Star Wars” would do as well at the box office as “A New Hope” had back in 1977 (FYI: “Empire” would eventually sell over $500 million worth of tickets worldwide. Which is roughly two thirds of what the original “Star Wars” earned three years earlier).

More to the point, the four films that Harrison had shot right after “A New Hope” / prior to “Empire Strikes Back” (i.e., “Heroes” AND “Force 10 from Navarone” AND “Hanover Street” AND “The Frisco Kid”) had all under-performed at the box office. So to Ford’s way of thinking, taking on a role that Tom Selleck was no longer available to play – one that had the potential of spawning two sequels – seemed like a very smart thing to do. Especially after three years of cinematic stumbles.

By the way, whenever this topic ever comes up, Harrison Ford is very gracious. He always makes a point of saying that he’s grateful to have gotten this career opportunity. More to the point, that he still feels kind of bad that Tom Selleck never got the chance to play this part.

Tom Selleck After “Indiana Jones”

That said, we shouldn’t feel too bad for Tom Selleck. After all, the original “Magnum PI” proved to be a long running hit for CBS. And in an effort to smooth over any residual bad feelings that may have resulted from Tom being forced to give up “Raiders” back in May of 1980, Selleck was eventually allowed to create his own production company (i.e., T.W.S. Productions, Inc. As in Thomas William Selleck Productions). Which – after the fact – was then cut in on some of those “Magnum PI” -related revenue streams.

More to the point, while “Magnum PI” was on hiatus following its second year in production, Selleck flew off to Yugoslavia. Where he then shot his own Indiana Jones-esque film for theatrical release. Which was called “High Road to China” in the States, but – overseas – was promoted as “Raiders of the End of the World.”

FYI: Warner Bros. released “High Road to China” stateside 40 years ago this year. On March 18, 1983, to be exact. It didn’t do all that great at the box office. $28 million in ticket sales versus $15 million in production costs.

And over the years, there’s even been some talk of finding a way to maybe set things right here. By that I mean: Finally finding a way to officially fold Tom Selleck into the world of Indiana Jones.

Could Tom Selleck Work with Indiana Jones?

The way I hear it, between the time when “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” was theatrically released in May of 1989 and when “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” debuted in May of 2008, there were a number of ideas for Indiana Jones sequels tossed around. And from what I’ve been told, there was at least one treatment for a fourth Indiana Jones film written that proposed pairing up Harrison Ford & Tom Selleck. With the idea here being that Selleck was supposed to have played Ford’s brother.

Obviously that film was never made. And – no – I don’t know what state Indiana Jones’ brother was supposed to be named after.

This article is based on research for Looking at Lucasfilm “Episode 80”, published on June 29, 2023. Looking at Lucasfilm is part of the Jim Hill Media Podcast Network.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Will “Metro” – that “Cars” Spin-Off Which Disney Developed – Ever Get Made?

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Will Metro Ever Get Made?

First came “Cars” in June of 2006.

This Pixar Animation Studios production did so well (Of all the high grossing films released that year, “Cars” was No. 2 at the box office. Only “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” sold more tickets in 2006) that Disney execs asked John Lasseter to develop a sequel.

“Cars 2” came out in June of 2011 and also did quite well at the box office (It took the No. 7 slot in the Top-Ten-for-ticket-sales that year). Which is why Disney then asked Pixar to prep a follow-up film.

“Cars 3” would eventually arrive in theaters in June of 2017. But in the meantime, Disney & Pixar began exploring the idea of expanding this film franchise. Largely because the amount of money that the Mouse was making off of the sales of “Cars” -related merchandise was … To be blunt here, mind boggling.

Don’t believe me? Well, then consider this: In just the first five years that the “Cars” film franchise existed, global retail sales of merchandise related to these Pixar movies approached $10 billion. That’s billion with a “B.”

So is it any wonder that – while Pixar was still trying to get a handle on what “Cars 3” would actually be about – the Mouse (through its DisneyToon Studios arm. Which produced home premieres like those “TinkerBell” movies) began actively looking into ways to expand this lucrative franchise?

“Planes” – The First “Cars” Spin-Off

The first “Cars” spin-off to arrive in the marketplace was “Planes.” This Klay Hall film (which was set in “The World Above Cars”) was released theatrically in August of 2013, with the Blu-ray & DVD version of “Planes” hitting store shelves in November of that same year.

“Planes: Fire and Rescue” followed in the Summer of 2014. And while a “Planes 3” was definitely put in development (At the Disney Animation panel at the 2017 D23 Expo, John Lasseter not only shared a clip from this film. But he also revealed that this project – which, at that time, was entitled “Space” – was slated to be released theatrically in April of 2019) … This animated feature was abruptly cancelled when DisneyToon Studios was shuttered in June of 2018.

But wait. There’s more … In addition to the aborted “Planes 3,”  Disney had other “Cars” spin-offs in the works. One was supposed to be built around boats. While yet another was supposed to have shined a spotlight on trucks.

“Metro” – The World Below Cars

And then there was “Metro.” Which was supposed to have been set in the inner city and focused on what went on in “The World Below Cars.” As in: Down in the subway system.

Just in the past week or so, a few pieces of concept art for “Metro” have surfaced online. Giving us all an intriguing look at what might have been. These preproduction paintings suggest that this “Cars” spin-off would be far grittier than … Say … the sort of adventures that Lightning McQueen & Mater would typically have out in Radiator Springs.

Metro - Cars Spin-Off Movie Poster
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney
Metro - Cars Spin-Off Concept Art
Credit: Disney

That said, it’s worth noting here that – just in the past year or so – we’ve seen Disney & Pixar attempt to expand the turf that these two characters could comfortably cover. Take – for example — “Cars on the Road,” that nine-part series which debuted on Disney+ back in September of last year. This collection of animated shorts literally sent Lightning McQueen & Mater off on a road trip.

So who knows?

Given that Bob Iger (at Disney’s quarterly earnings call held earlier this week) revealed that the Company now has sequels in the works for “Frozen,” “Toy Story,” and “Zootopia” … Well, is it really all that far-fetched to think that – at some point further on down the road – Disney & Pixar will put yet another sequel to “Cars” in the works?

One that might send Lightning McQueen & Mater off to explore the gritty inner-city world that we glimpsed in all that concept art for “Metro,” that never-produced “Cars” spin-off.

Time will tell.

Jim Hill

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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