November 17, 2017

A Tale of Two Epics

Today marks the 48th anniversary of the premiere of “Ben-Hur”, one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time. Today is also the 37th anniversary of the release of one of Hollywood’s most denigrated bombs, “Heaven’s Gate”.

What does this possibly have to do with Leslie Nielsen (pictured) ? We’ll get to that – First, a brief history of 2 epics.


Director William Wyler was best known for romantic comedies such as Roman Holiday and award-winning dramas including “Best Years of our Lives”. Wyler agreed to direct Ben-Hur because he wanted to create an epic superior to “The Ten Commandments” which had been directed by his rival, Cecil B Demille. Wyler was a perfectionist known as “Forty Take Wyler”. Charlton Heston who played Judah Ben-Hur noted that “Doing a film for Wyler is like getting the works in a Turkish bath. You darn near drown, but you come out smelling like a rose.”

The epic included 1 million props, 100,000 costumes, and 300 sets and cost $15M, the most expensive movie ever made to that point. MGM’s investment paid off handsomely as Ben-Hur grossed $147M and saved the studio from bankruptcy. With11 Oscars, Ben-Hur is tied with “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” and “Titanic” for most Academy Awards.  And, not too make you feel old but this year marks the 20th anniversary of “Titanic”.

Heaven’s Gate

United Artists agreed to bankroll Heaven’s Gate because the studio was desperate for a blockbuster. Director Michael Cimino was a hot commodity after directing the critically acclaimed “The Deerhunter” in 1978. Like William Wyler, Cimino was a perfectionist but his obsessiveness caused the production to run a year behind schedule and ballooned the budget from $10M to over $40M. Cimino took the subject of Wyoming’s Johnson County War of 1889-1893 and tried to make it into an American epic that somehow included scenes at Harvard University and in Newport, Rhode Island.

Cimino’s obsessiveness is illustrated by his filming 52 takes of a simple scene in a Wyoming hotel room. After 6 days of filming the production was already 5 days behind schedule and Cimino had spent almost $1M to produce less than 2 minutes of footage. The constant delays allowed actor John Hurt to leave Wyoming, film his Oscar winning role as “The Elephant Man”, and return to finish Heaven’s Gate.

Studio executives were stunned when Cimino showed them his first version which lasted 5½ hours. The studio forced him to cut the epic to 4 hours, but the result was a movie that the public and critics detested. Roger Ebert declared that “Heaven’s Gate” was “the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen”. Vincent Canby wrote “Heaven’s Gate fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the Devil to obtain the success of “The Deer Hunter” and the Devil has just come around to collect.”

With a staggering cost of $44M and paltry gross receipts of $3.5M, “Heaven’s Gate” bankrupted UA and Cimino’s reputation was forever tarnished. Years later the film stands as a monument to failure. in 2008, critic Joe Queenan rated “Heaven’s Gate” as the worst film of all time, writing “This is a movie that defies belief.”

Leslie Nielsen

Where does Leslie Nielsen fit in with all this? Believe it or not, Nielsen was one of five actors considered for the role of Judah Ben-Hur. Wyler did not want Heston because his rival, Cecil B Demille had starred Heston in “The Ten Commandments”. Paul Newman rejected the role because he was still smarting from his appearance in the horrid 1954 production of the “The Silver Chalice” and he felt that he did not have the legs for Roman costumes. Wyler also considered Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas before casting Heston.

Thankfully for Leslie Nielsen, he had no association with “Heaven’s Gate”. However, my research indicates that while “Heaven’s Gate” lost over $40M, the profits for Nielsen’s three “Naked Gun” movies reached over $150M.

Sometimes it’s OK to play the clown.


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Ted Curtin