“We’ve miscast it.”
In a Warner Bros. screening room in Burbank in August 1975, director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Neil Simon, and a pair of studio executives were watching rushes from the set of “Bogart Slept Here,” a comedy about an off-Broadway actor who finds himself overwhelmed by good fortune when his very first movie unexpectedly becomes a huge international success. The film had only been shooting for a week, but there were alarms indicating that something was going very wrong.
Marsha Mason, Simon’s actress wife, was playing the actor’s wife, a role written specifically for her. Playing the actor was De Niro. And it was De Niro whose work was worrying the filmmakers.
De Niro had arrived on the Hollywood set of Bogart only three days after wrapping “Taxi Driver,” and Simon and the other principals felt extremely lucky to have him. He was a rising star, a box office attraction, the hot new thing. Personally, Simon found him affable and approach-able, if shy. “He didn’t say very much,” the writer recalled, “but what he said, you listened to. He spoke softly, nodded and shrugged a lot, and occasionally he gave you a quick smile that caused his eyes to squint.”
But from the start there were troubling signs. De Niro had decided that his character should wear a single earring, and he spent, as Simon remembered, the better part of a day poring over a selection of earrings that the property master rustled up for him. Then there was the matter of acting styles. Mason had performed Simon’s work onstage and was familiar with its blend of spritzing patter and warm sentiment. De Niro hadn’t played such material since his dinner theater days, and scheduling the shoot so soon after “Taxi Driver” meant that he wouldn’t be able to undertake his normal studying process or get to know the script in a proper rehearsal period. He would be finding his character, in effect, in front of the camera—a dicey prospect.
In fact, it was disastrous. He flailed at Simon’s sensibility, unable to find a pry hole that would allow him to enter the world of the screenplay. And Mason was left to act opposite a cipher, forced to abandon her own instincts about how to play a part that had always been hers in order to find a way to engage with her co-star.
Simon, who’d seen enough theatrical work to know that it could take an actor a bit of time to get into the rhythm of a role, was willing at first to ride it out, to let De Niro find his sea legs. But he was growing concerned. “In the first few days of dailies,” he remembered, “it was clear that any of the humor I had written was going to get lost. It’s not that De Niro is not funny, but his humor comes mostly from his nuances.” The script Simon had written was broader than that, and De Niro’s subtlety was pushing it into a different tenor.
Nichols, who may not even have remembered that he had auditioned De Niro for “The Graduate” almost a decade prior, told Simon that it was going badly, that De Niro was misreading the part. “Well,” said the writer, “maybe it shouldn’t be funny. Maybe it should be a more serious picture.”
“That’s not what you wrote,” Nichols replied, “and it’s not what I saw when I read this script. If there’s no humor in the first half of the film, we’re dead.”
So they ran the rushes for the Warner Bros. brass, who agreed that something was wrong. And when they asked Nichols what he thought should be done, he gave them a stunning answer: “Stop the picture.”
“Reshoot what we have? ” asked an executive.
“Yes,” Nichols said. “But not with De Niro . . . We’ve miscast it.” They sighed, they huddled, and the next day they called De Niro into an office and, in effect, fired him.
“He was, of course, livid,” Simon recalled. “Luckily I was not in the room when he was told.”
The word hit the trade papers like a mortar shell; rumors circulated that Nichols had called De Niro “undirectable” and that De Niro had outright walked off the production when Nichols and Mason tried to tell him that he didn’t know what comedy was. His friends, including Shelley Winters, spoke publicly to defend him, but there was sourness in the air. De Niro explained years later, “It didn’t work, just didn’t work out.” But, he added, “then they tried not to pay me.”
Everyone just wanted the whole sad episode to go away. Warner Bros. half heartedly looked at a few other actors in the hope that there was a way to save the project, but nobody was deemed appropriate, for any number of reasons. Nichols went back to New York to the stage; he wouldn’t direct another dramatic film until 1983. Simon continued to write smash hits for Broadway and the screen, arguably none bigger than one that grew out of the aborted “Bogart Slept Here.” Among the actors who tested to fill De Niro’s shoes was Richard Dreyfuss, right on the heels of his titanic success in “Jaws”; Dreyfuss wasn’t right for the part, according to Nichols, but Simon liked his rapport with Mason so much that he retooled the material for the pair, resulting two years later in “The Goodbye Girl,” for which Dreyfuss would win an Oscar.
Shawn Levy is the author of six previous books, including the New York Times bestsellers “Rat Pack Confidential” and “Paul Newman: A Life.” Find out more about “De Niro: A Life” and purchase it here.