Heaven Can Wait (1978 film)

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Heaven Can Wait
Heaven can wait poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by
Produced by Warren Beatty
Screenplay by
Based on Heaven Can Wait
by Harry Segall
Music by Dave Grusin
Cinematography William A. Fraker
Edited by
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date
  • June 28, 1978 (1978-06-28)
Running time
101 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $15 million[2]
Box office $81.6 million[3]

Heaven Can Wait is a 1978 American fantasy-comedy film co-directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry with the central story line being that Joe Pendleton (played by Warren Beatty) is mistakenly taken to heaven by his guardian angel and the resulting complications of how this mistake can be un-done, given that Joe Pendleton's body is no longer available, provides the basis of the film's plot. It was the second film adaptation of Harry Segall's play of the same name, being preceded by Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).

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

In 2001, a third film adaptation of the play was done, titled Down to Earth.


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 riding his bicycle through the older west side of tunnel one on Kanan-Dume road in Malibu,[4] an over-anxious guardian angel (known only as The Escort) is on his first assignment. He sees Joe heading into the tunnel, and a large truck heading into the other end of the tunnel, heading 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. Pendleton 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: 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 cheating gold digger wife Julia Farnsworth and her lover, Farnsworth's personal secretary, Tony Abbott.

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 to get his new body in shape. At the same time, he falls in love with an environmental activist, Betty Logan, who disapproves of the original 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, 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 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 appears to be experiencing a pleasing epiphany about Jarrett.


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.[5]

In addition to the former players, 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.[6] 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 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 entitled "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 also considered for as a theme song for the film, but was eventually ruled out. It later appeared in the Ramones film Rock and 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 would meet in real life in Super Bowl XIV.)


Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 89% based on 36 reviews, with an average rating of 7.7/10. 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."[7] Metacritic gave the film a weighted average score of 72 out of 100 based on 10 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[8]

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 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 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Elaine May and Warren Beatty).[9]

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 20 August 2017. Retrieved April 4, 2013. 
  3. ^ "Heaven Can Wait, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved May 26, 2014. 
  4. ^ "Kanan-Dume road, Malibu, Santa Monica Mountains". Southern California Regional Rocks and Roads - Celebrating 20 years online!. Retrieved 2016-01-06. 
  5. ^ "Charley Cowan NFL & AFL Football Statistics". Pro-Football-Reference.com. 1938-06-19. Retrieved 2010-12-20. 
  6. ^ "YouTube". YouTube. Archived from the original on July 12, 2015. Retrieved 2010-12-20. 
  7. ^ "Heaven Can Wait (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved January 24, 2018. 
  8. ^ "Heaven Can Wait reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved January 24, 2018. 
  9. ^ "NY Times: Heaven Can Wait". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-30. 
  10. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  11. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  12. ^ "AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12. 

External links[edit]