Heaven Can Wait (1978 film)

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Heaven Can Wait
Heaven can wait poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Birney Lettick
Directed by
Screenplay by
Based onHeaven Can Wait
by Harry Segall
Produced byWarren Beatty
CinematographyWilliam A. Fraker
Edited by
Music byDave Grusin
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • June 28, 1978 (1978-06-28)
Running time
101 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$15 million[2]
Box office$98.8 million[3]

Heaven Can Wait is a 1978 American fantasy-comedy film co-directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry about a young man (played by Beatty) being mistakenly taken to heaven by his guardian angel, and the resulting complications of how this mistake can be undone, given that his earthly body has been cremated. It was the second film adaptation of Harry Segall's play of the same name, the first being Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).

The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards. The cast includes Beatty, Julie Christie, and Jack Warden, all of whom had appeared in Shampoo (1975).

In 2001, a third film adaptation of the play was done, titled Down to Earth, sharing its name with the sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).


Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the American football team Los Angeles Rams, is looking forward to leading his team to the Super Bowl. While he is riding his bicycle through a tunnel, an overzealous guardian angel on his first assignment known only as The Escort sees Joe heading into the tunnel, and a large truck heading into the other end of the tunnel towards Joe and his bicycle. The Escort plucks Joe out of his body early in the mistaken belief that Joe was about to be killed. Joe immediately arrives in the afterlife.

Once there, he refuses to believe that his time was up, and upon investigation, the mysterious Mr. Jordan discovers that he is right: Joe was not destined to die until 2025. Unfortunately, his body has been cremated, so a new body must be found for him. After rejecting several possible men who are about to die, Joe is persuaded to accept the body of a millionaire industrialist. Leo Farnsworth has just been drugged and drowned in his bathtub by his cheating wife Julia Farnsworth and her lover Tony Abbott, Farnsworth's personal secretary.

Julia and Tony are confused when Leo reappears alive and well. Farnsworth's domestic staff is confused by the changes in some of his habits and tastes. Still obsessed with his football destiny, Farnsworth/Joe buys the Rams to lead them to the Super Bowl as their quarterback. To succeed, he must first convince, and then secure, the help of longtime friend and trainer Max Corkle to get his new body in shape. At the same time, he falls in love with Betty Logan, an environmental activist, whom he met when she came to his doorstep to protest the original Farnsworth's corporate policies.

With the Rams about to play in the Super Bowl, all the characters face a crisis. Mr. Jordan informs Joe that he must give up Farnsworth's body, as well. Joe resists, but hints to Betty that she might someday meet someone else and should think of him. Julia and Abbott continue their murderous plans, and Abbott shoots Farnsworth/Joe dead. The Rams are forced to start Tom Jarrett, another quarterback in the climactic game. A detective, Lieutenant Krim, interrogates the suspects while they watch the game on television. With the help of Corkle, he gets Julia and Abbott to incriminate each other.

After a brutal hit on the field, Jarrett is killed. With Mr. Jordan's help, Joe then occupies his final body. He is shown snapping to life in Jarrett's body, then leading the Rams to victory. During the team's postgame celebration, Corkle finds Joe, and when he realizes that it is him, they share an emotional embrace.

As Joe is being interviewed on television, Mr. Jordan tells him that, to live as Tom Jarrett, he will have to lose the memories of his life as Joe Pendleton. As Mr. Jordan disappears, Tom/Joe becomes disoriented. Corkle goes to find Joe later, and is crestfallen to realize that Joe has "left" Tom.

Jarrett bumps into Betty while leaving the stadium. They strike up a conversation, and each appears to recognize the other, but they do not know how. The lights go out in the stadium as they exit the venue, and Tom says something that reminds Betty of Farnsworth/Joe. This echoes earlier in the film when Joe had asked Betty to watch for and recognize something/someone in a stranger she might meet one day. Tom asks her to go with him for coffee and she accepts.


Several former Los Angeles Rams players have cameo roles in the film, including Deacon Jones, Les Josephson, Jack T. Snow, Jim Boeke, and Charley Cowan.[4]

In addition to the former players, some well-known sportscasters also appear, playing familiar roles. Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis can be heard doing the Super Bowl play-by-play commentary. Dick Enberg conducts an abortive postgame interview of Joe Pendleton/Tom Jarrett.

Beatty lobbied hard for Cary Grant to accept the role of Mr. Jordan, going so far as to have Grant's ex-wife, Dyan Cannon, who stars as Julia Farnsworth, urge him to take the role. Although Grant was tempted, he ultimately decided not to end his retirement from film-making.


Beatty initially wanted Muhammad Ali to play the central character, but because of Ali's continued commitment to boxing, Beatty changed the character from a boxer to an American football player, and played the character himself.[5] The type of instrument he played was also changed; in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Pendleton assays "The Last Rose of Summer" on the alto saxophone, and in the 1978 film, he plays "Ciribiribin" on a soprano sax. The music during the comic training scene with Joe and the servants at the Farnsworth mansion, as well as the later training session with the Rams is Handel's Sonata No. 3 in F Major, performed by Paul Brodie (sopranino saxophone) and Antonin Kubalek (piano). The main theme is the song "Heaven Can Wait" performed by Dave Grusin and the London Symphony Orchestra. Neil Diamond composed a song titled "Heaven Can Wait" specifically for the film that he thought would be a good theme song, but Beatty declined to use it. The Paul McCartney and Wings song "Did We Meet Somewhere Before?" was considered as a theme song for the film, but was ruled out. It later appeared in the film Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979).

The Super Bowl game (Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Rams) was filmed during halftime of the San Diego Chargers vs. Los Angeles Rams preseason game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 1, 1977. (About a year and a half after the film's release, in January 1980, the Rams and Steelers met in real life in Super Bowl XIV.)

The estate used as Farnsworth mansion was filmed at the Filoli Mansion, located at Canada Road, Woodside, off Highway 280 between San Francisco and San Jose, California. Another filming location, albeit brief, was at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles on the grounds beside the Gothic stone chapel in the scene where Joe discovers his body was cremated and scattered on the cemetery grounds.

The football stadium used in the film was the home of the Los Angeles Rams team at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at 3911 South Figueroa Street, Exposition Park in Los Angeles.


Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval "Certified Fresh" rating of 88% based on 42 reviews, with an average rating of 7.5/10. The site's critical consensus reads "A throwback to the high-gloss screwball comedies of the 1940s, Heaven Can Wait beguiles with seamless production values and great comic relief from Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon."[6] Metacritic gave the film a weighted average score of 72 out of 100 based on 10 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[7]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four and called it "the kind of upbeat screwball comedy Hollywood used to do smoothly and well."[8] Gene Siskel gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and declared it "a delightful film that is both surprisingly fresh and old-fashioned."[9] Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that the film "hasn't much personality of its own. Instead, it has a kind of earnest cheerfulness that is sometimes most winning. Mr. Beatty and Miss Christie are performers who bring to their roles the easy sort of gravity that establishes characters of import, no matter how simply they are drawn in the script."[10] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "Beatty and his accomplices have brought it off, with only minor patches of turbulence. The script has been expertly contemporized."[11] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote "'Heaven Can Wait' is easily the most appealing new American movie on the market. It manages to preserve much of the charm and romantic fantasy that worked for its predecessor, the 1941 crowd-pleaser Here Comes Mr. Jordan, while freshening up some of the settings and details and tailoring the roles to a different cast."[12] Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker praised the script as "sometimes both loopy and brainy," but asked "good grief, what is all this braininess and talent doing in a remake of a Harry Segall play that has no relation to the real world we come out into from the cinema? One can see why there were films about transmigration and reincarnation during the war, but not now."[13]

Awards and nominations[edit]

The film won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Art Direction: Paul Sylbert and Edwin O'Donovan; Set Decoration: George Gaines), and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Warren Beatty), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Jack Warden), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Dyan Cannon), Best Adapted Screenplay (Elaine May and Warren Beatty), Best Cinematography and Best Music, Original Score.[14]

American Film Institute Lists


  1. ^ "Heaven Can Wait (A)". British Board of Film Classification. July 11, 1978. Retrieved November 22, 2016.
  2. ^ "Heaven Can Wait". PowerGrid. The Wrap. Archived from the original on 2017-08-20. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  3. ^ "Heaven Can Wait, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved May 26, 2014.
  4. ^ "Charley Cowan NFL & AFL Football Statistics". Pro-Football-Reference.com. 1938-06-19. Retrieved 2010-12-20.
  5. ^ "YouTube". YouTube. Archived from the original on July 12, 2015. Retrieved 2010-12-20.
  6. ^ "Heaven Can Wait (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 12, 2021.
  7. ^ "Heaven Can Wait reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Heaven Can Wait". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved December 15, 2018.
  9. ^ Siskel, Gene (June 30, 1978). "'Heaven Can Wait' recalls joy of yesterday's films". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 3.
  10. ^ Canby, Vincent (June 28, 1978). "A Film by Beatty". The New York Times. C17.
  11. ^ Champlin, Charles (June 27, 1978). "Here Comes Mr. Beatty". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1.
  12. ^ Arnold, Gary (June 28, 1978). "Here Comes a Spirited Fantasy". The Washington Post. E1.
  13. ^ Gilliatt, Penelope (July 10, 1978). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 84-85.
  14. ^ "NY Times: Heaven Can Wait". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-02-04. Retrieved 2008-12-30.
  15. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12.
  16. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12.
  17. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12.

External links[edit]