As luck would have it

Bogey, Dudley, Whoopi and Jack might never have hit the big time if the y hadn't been second best, writes John Lyttle. And the same can be said of many of today's young stars

Christian Slater has been careful, almost as careful as Joan Crawford when she stepped into the late Carole Lombard's still-warm stilettos to make They All Kissed the Bride back in 1942. Slater announced that the salary he's earned for replacing River Phoenix in Interview with the Vampire will be going to the deceased star's favourite charity and that taking over the part was his tribute to Phoenix's memory. Slater has said it again and again: he doesn't want people to think he's profited, no si r.

The reason Slater has being saying it again and again is that suddenly he's back on magazine covers. After a string of flops - Mobsters (1991) and Kuffs (1992) being the biggest - the once-fading idol is hot again, associated with an A-list production and newly hailed as a renegade turned team player, the man who saved the day. Slater is finding that Hollywood loves nothing more than the myth of the last-minute stand-in: the actor who either grabs the big brass ring or renews their place in the limelight when another name burns out, bows out or - whisper it if you dare - is forced out in favour of a bigger star.

There's enough truth to the myth to give it potency. If Claudette Colbert hadn't broken her back skiing, Bette Davis would never have salvaged her own celebrity by playing Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950). Yet who can now even imagine Colbert in the part? This pinponts the myth's lurking contradiction: if stars are unique, how can they possibly be replaced? (What replacement tells us is less that the show must go on and more that stars are mere commodities.) Yet replacement happens more often thanone might imagine. Indeed, some careers couldn't have been made without it.

Humphrey Bogart for one might never have hit the top if the difficult, not to mention dumb, George Raft hadn't turned down - read 'em and weep - Dead End (1937) and High Sierra (1941),and then failed to show at the wardrobe fittings for The Maltese Falcon (1941). He also shrugged his shoulders at Casablanca (1942). Bogart whinged - as was his wont - at being considered second best, but he became a movie immortal on the basis of Raft's leftovers, while Raft learnt nothing from his mistakes. Two years later, he would give the director Billy Wilder an absolute no to Double Indemnity (1944), blithely handing Fred MacMurray the role of a lifetime.

On such decisions do reputations pivot, even today, because actors never learn. Proof? Coming off Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978), John Travolta said yes and then no to Days of Heaven (1978), American Gigolo (1980) and An Officer and an Gentleman (1982), paving the way for his own box-office destruction and the rise of Richard Gere, who replaced him and took his title of World's Hottest Hunk.

Was Travolta spoiled or merely spoiled for choice? That's part of it. Disney spent a fortune on developing Sister Act (1992) as a vehicle for Bette Midler, only to see her decamp to her own All Girl Productions to film For the Boys (1991). Disney reluctantly settled for Whoopi Goldberg, who sensed their bitterness and behaved badly. Yet Goldberg had the $100m hit and Midler the flop. The women reversed positions in the big leagues: Goldberg the top female comic, Midler in decline.

Likewise, Burt Reynolds jumped ship on Terms of Endearment (1983): the role of retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove gave Jack Nicholson a fresh image to play, not to mention a second Oscar, while Reynolds witnessed his mass appeal crumble. Why did Reynolds reject a role that would have established him, at last, as a serious actor? Who knows?

Could it be that Joan Crawford blew the chance to roll in the surf with Burt Lancaster in 1953's From Here to Eternity simply because she didn't like the costumes? Quite possibly: Lana Turner bowed out from Anatomy of a Murder (1959) when the director Otto Preminger wouldn't let her bring in Jean Louis to design her gowns. So Deborah Kerr featured in one of cinema's most famously erotic scenes and Lee Remick emerged as a major contender for the Turner throne.

Or put it down to the fickle finger of fate, as Shirley Maclaine says in 1969's Sweet Charity (Universal wanted Streisand). It would be wrong to think that replacements only enter when a temperamental star exits, or that replacements automatically triumph (audiences did not flock to see Sherilyn Fenn in Boxing Helena when Kim Basinger notoriously made her excuses and left).

Occasionally, a director or studio will look at the rushes and scrap a face, sometimes inexplicably. Francis Ford Coppola dumped Harvey Keitel in favour of Martin Sheen when Apocalypse Now (1979) refused to gel: Sheen signed on and promptly had a heart attack. Sheen's health fully recovered, not true of Keitel's career. This is true of Eric Stoltz, on a roll from Mask (1985), only to be fired after a week's filming on Back to the Future (1985). Producer Steven Speilberg said Stoltz had "problems with comedy'' and brought in Michael J Fox, who became a popular favourite over night.But, hell, even Brando has been replaced: producer David Merrick fired him from the movie version of Child's Play (1972) for questioning the script, importing Robert Preston to essay the diabolic school teacher. The film sank, but Merrick had made a point: replacing a star of Brando's calibre was not unthinkable.

Hence Debra Winger being forced out of A League of Their Own (1992 ) to make way for Geena Davis, a decision Madonna applauded because Winger had objected to her casting. Madonna wasn't so happy, however, when Davis nicked Angie (1994) from under her nose because she had bigger box-office clout. It was also clout that let Harrison Ford step in and take the part of Jack Ryan from Alec Baldwin after Baldwin let success go to his head in the wake of The Hunt for Red October (1990). Baldwin's r eported salary demands and his bad temper during negotations for Patriot Games (1992) let Paramount walk away with an easy conscience and a bigger box-office guarantee. Adding insult to injury, Ford later swooped down and grabbed The Fugitive (1993), the project Baldwin hoped would convince the world that his name alone could open a picture. Yet if Ford appears cruel, it is because of painful lessons well learnt. Pitching for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Ford discovered it had gone to Tom Selleck whe n he pickedup a copy of Daily Variety. Ford had to live with the knowledge that if the TV pilot for Magnum hadn't been picked up, nothing could have prevented Selleck from being Indiana Jones.

Doubt lingers over whether the star we see on screen is ever the one first slated for the part. Hence the perennial movie buff's game of "What If?' What if Richard Dreyfuss and George Segal had not walked out on All That Jazz (1979) and 10 (1979), days into production, letting Roy Scheider cop an Oscar nomination and Dudley Moore establish himself as an international sex thimble? And what if, to return to death, James Dean hadn't crashed and Paul Newman never had the opportunity to star in Somebody Up T here Likes Me (1956 )? Would anyone out there like him?

River Phoenix replaced by Christian Slater River Phoenix retired himself from the Most Likely to Succeed category, giving Christian Slater a chance to turn his reputation for drink and drugs around by taking over Phoenix's role in Interview with the Vampire. As they say in Belfast, "Would you tak e my grave as quick?"

Annette Benning replaced by Michelle Pfeiffer After The Grifters (1990) and Bugsy (1991), Annette Benning looked like being the classy sex siren of the decade, with the role of Catwoman in Batman Returns capping her ascendancy. Then she announced she washaving Warren Beatty's baby, giving Michelle Pfeiffer the big commercial hit her career was in dire need of.

Tyrone Power replaced by Yul Brynner When a star dies, it's usually to someone's advantage. When Tyrone Power collapsed in the middle of a sword fight on the set of Solomon and Sheba (1959), Yul Brynner got to wear a wig (very fetching), demand a huge salary and grab a slice of the profits.

Claudette Colbert replaced by Bette Davis "I had to break my back so that Bette could land the role of a lifetime," Claudette Colbert bitched when Davis replaced her in All About Eve (1950). Today it's impossible to imagine anyone else but Bette saying the line, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's goin g to be a bumpy night."

Dominique Sanda replaced by Maria Schneider Maria Schneider had her first - and last - shot at stardom when Dominique Sanda's pregnancy ruled her out of Last Tango in Paris (1972). Not that anyone remembered Sanda by the time Schneider had done the wild thing with Brando. It looked for a while as if she might have a stellar career but drink and drugs intervened.

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