Heaven Can Wait (1978 film)

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Heaven Can Wait
File:Heaven can wait poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Warren Beatty
Buck Henry
Produced by Warren Beatty
Screenplay by Warren Beatty
Elaine May
Robert Towne
Buck Henry
Based on Play:
Harry Segall
Starring Warren Beatty
Julie Christie
James Mason
Jack Warden
Charles Grodin
Dyan Cannon
Music by Dave Grusin
Cinematography William A. Fraker
Edited by Robert C. Jones
Don Zimmerman
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • June 28, 1978 (1978-06-28)
Running time
101 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $15 million[1]
Box office $81,640,278[2]

Heaven Can Wait is a 1978 American comedy film co-directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry. It was the second film adaptation of Harry Segall's stageplay of the same name, being preceded by Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).

The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards. The cast reunites Beatty and Julie Christie, who also starred together in the 1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the 1975 Shampoo.

A third film adaption of the stageplay was done in 2001, titled Down to Earth.


Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty), a backup quarterback for the American football team Los Angeles Rams, is looking forward to leading his team to the Super Bowl. While riding his bicycle through the older west side of tunnel one on Kanan-Dume road in Malibu,[3] he collides with a truck. An over-anxious guardian angel (Buck Henry) on his first assignment plucks Joe out of his body early, in the mistaken belief that his death is imminent, and Pendleton arrives in the afterlife.

Once there, he refuses to believe that his time was up and, upon investigation, the mysterious Mr. Jordan (James Mason) discovers that he is right: he was not destined to die until much later (10:17 am on March 20, 2025, to be exact). Unfortunately, his body has already been cremated, so a new body must be found. After rejecting several possibilities of men who are about to die, Joe is finally persuaded to accept the body of a millionaire industrialist. Leo Farnsworth has just been drugged and drowned in his bathtub by his wife Julia Farnsworth (Dyan Cannon) and her lover, Farnsworth's personal secretary, Tony Abbott (Charles Grodin).

Julia and Tony are naturally confused when Leo reappears, alive and well. Leo buys the Los Angeles Rams to lead them to the Super Bowl as their quarterback. To succeed, he must first convince, and then secure the aid of, long-time friend and trainer Max Corkle (Jack Warden) to get his new body in shape. At the same time, he falls in love with an environmental activist, Betty Logan (Julie Christie), who disapproves of Farnsworth's policies and actions.

With the Rams about to play in the Super Bowl, the characters all face a crisis. Mr. Jordan informs Farnsworth that he must give up this body as well. Farnsworth 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 dead. The Rams are forced to start another quarterback, Tom Jarrett, in the climactic game. A detective, Lt. Krim (Vincent Gardenia), interrogates the suspects while they watch the game on TV. With the help of Corkle, he gets Julia and Abbott to incriminate one another.

After a brutal hit on the field, Jarrett is himself 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 post-game celebration, Mr. Jordan removes Joe's memory of his past life and departs. Joe becomes Tom Jarrett and the cosmic balance is restored. The one left crestfallen is Corkle, who understands what really happened. Jarrett bumps into Betty while leaving the stadium. They strike up a conversation, and Betty suddenly experiences a realization who he really is.


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

In addition to the former Rams football players mentioned above, some well-known sportscasters also appear, playing familiar roles. Bryant Gumbel is seen in the background of one scene on TV, delivering a sportscast. Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis can be heard doing the Super Bowl play-by-play commentary. Dick Enberg conducts an abortive post-game 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 part. Although Grant was tempted, he ultimately decided not to end his retirement from filmmaking.

Future game-show host Peter Tomarken appears as a reporter in the film.


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 it himself.[5] The type of instrument he played was also changed; in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Pendelton essays "The Last Rose of Summer" on the alto saxophone, while in the 1978 film he plays "Ciribiribin" on a soprano sax. The training music is Handel's sonata no 12 op 1, in F major, HWV 370 allegro 2. Beatty also wanted legendary actor Cary Grant, his idol, to play Mr. Jordan in the film. Beatty even pleaded to Grant's ex-wife, Dyan Cannon, to beg Grant to play the role. Ultimately, Mr. Jordan was played by James Mason.


The film currently holds an approval rating of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes from 30 reviews.[6]

Awards and nominations

The film won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Paul Sylbert, Edwin O'Donovan, George Gaines), and was nominated for 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 Cinematography, Best Director, Best Music, Original Score, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Elaine May and Warren Beatty).[7]

American Film Institute Lists

References in popular culture

The Iron Maiden song "Heaven Can Wait" (from their 1986 album Somewhere in Time) is loosely inspired by the film. The lyrics deal with near-death experience and a man who cannot seem to die.

Part of the Season 4 episode "Once Bitten" of the television series Archer is an homage to the film.

Anytime Eddie Izzard impersonates God in his comedy, he employs an impression of James Mason.

The movie was mentioned in the first episode in the television series, Entourage.


  1. Box Office Information for Heaven Can Wait. The Wrap. Retrieved April 4, 2013.
  2. "Heaven Can Wait, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved May 26, 2014. 
  3. "Kanan-Dume road, Malibu, Santa Monica Mountains". Southern California Regional Rocks and Roads - Celebrating 20 years online!. Retrieved 2016-01-06. 
  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. . Rotten Tomatoes https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1009427-heaven_can_wait/#contentReviews. Retrieved July 29, 2013.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. "NY Times: Heaven Can Wait". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-30. 
  8. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  9. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  10. "AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12. 

External links