AS A Hollywood A-lister, Michael Douglas has had his pick of blockbuster roles.
But today the star of Romancing The Stone, Wall Street and Basic Instinct reveals his lingering disappointment that he failed to win a part in the Scottish film Local Hero.
Douglas, who is appearing in the Liberace biopic, Behind The Candelabra, told Scotland on Sunday that he pleaded with director Bill Forsyth to be cast in the role of Macintyre, or Mac, but was turned down.
“I begged Bill, because it was a wonderful script, but he just didn’t want me,” Douglas said. “Maybe it was because I was seen as a TV actor then, with Streets Of San Francisco – and up till then only Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen had crossed from TV into movies. I still think I could have made a good MacIntyre – but he gave it to Peter Riegert instead. And it’s still a lovely film.”
Yesterday Forsyth said that Douglas employed a “very benign form of stalking” to try to persuade the director that he was right for the part. But Forsyth was looking for an unknown actor to play the hotshot executive sent to Scotland to buy up the Highland village of Ferness as a location for an oil refinery.
“The fact was I wasn’t looking for a well-known actor at all. What it boils down to is that I wasn’t making an American film, I was making a European film with an American in it, and that’s a different thing,” said Forsyth.
“Since I had already lined up Burt Lancaster for the film, in fact I had been thinking of Burt Lancaster even as I was writing the script, I was quite conscious of not wanting to make an American film, and so if I had overloaded the film with American names, it would not have been the film I wanted to make.
“It wasn’t the fact that this guy was a good actor or that guy is a bad actor, it was just that that film is walking an unusual road for the time, there hadn’t been a film made in Scotland, about Scotland, by Scottish people, that coincidentally involved some Americans. We were just finding our way through unknown territory, as it were.”
Forsyth said he did meet with Douglas to discuss the film but they parted without committing to anything. The director said he underestimated the actor’s desire and tenacity to get the part.
“I was flying to New York to do casting later that week,” he recalled. “I arrived there, checked into the Mayflower Hotel for the night, and I went down for breakfast the next day, and, lo and behold, Michael Douglas was sitting there. It was a very benign form of stalking. He had trailed me from LA to New York – he was very ‘Oh hi, how are you?’, as if it was a big surprise or some big coincidence. But we hung out and did stuff for the weekend, but that was it. I came back and cast somebody else for the role.”
Douglas was not the only well-known American actor to pitch for the role of Mac. Once word spread through Hollywood about Forsyth’s brilliant script, Henry Winkler, who played the Fonz in Happy Days, threw his hat into the ring. He invited Forsyth to his home and they spent an afternoon talking about the film.
Iain Smith, an associate producer on Local Hero along with David Puttnam, said that Forsyth’s instinct to avoid a big name for the lead role was right: “The dramatic conceit of Local Hero is that Mac doesn’t realise he’s alive until the last frame of the film, he’s going through a sort of auto-life.
“That meant that the character had to be a very specific type of performance. It had to be one that was not so active in the story. He was a very passive role, and that was essential for it to work.”
Forsyth also found himself in the bizarre position of meeting country and western music star Willie Nelson for the part of oil company chief executive Happer, in his trailer backstage at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Houston, to discuss Local Hero. “The reason we ended up meeting him was because one of the casting people was a very big Willie Nelson fan, and she insisted that I take up this meeting with him so I could bring home either one of his cigar butts or a bandana,” said Forsyth.
“So I was sent off to Houston, Texas, with Iain Smith to meet Willie Nelson on these instructions. We met with him in his trailer, and I think I stole a cigar butt from his ashtray, something like that. But again it was part of the crazy routine of trying to get a film off the ground.”
Smith claimed that Nelson was as eager as Douglas to get a part in Local Hero: “He would’ve killed to do this film. He even stopped the following day to phone and say ‘I’ll do whatever needs to be done to do this film’. It was one of those scripts that you read and thought ‘Christ, this script is awesome’.”
Although Douglas, Winkler and Nelson were not cast in Local Hero, a number of Scottish actors secured roles including Fulton Mackay, Denis Lawson, Peter Capaldi, Rikki Fulton, Alex Norton and Tam Dean Burn, while Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler provided the musical score.
Local Hero, which came out in 1983, garnered critical acclaim, and Forsyth won a Bafta award for best director.
Thirty years on, Forsyth and Smith are now working on a new movie set in Scotland. “It’s something that Iain and I have been working on in a very leisurely way,” Forsyth said.
He said the as-yet unnamed project was based on a script that he had started writing to involve his children in his work when they were younger, and had been written “with young people in mind”, but that it had developed since then.
Though still at an early stage, the director said they hoped to be filming next summer.
Smith, whose producing credits include The Killing Fields, The Fifth Element and Cold Mountain, and who is the chair of the British Film Commission, is currently campaigning for a dedicated studio facility in Scotland.
Describing Forsyth as “a talent that you can’t just pour out of a bottle”, he said the film industry was hindering similarly gifted directors from coming through.
“He [Forsyth] is a talent that needs to be given a little free space to work in – Lord Puttnam did that with Local Hero – and when that happens you get a certain sort of honesty coming through, it’s not something that’s been designed for a purpose,” he said. “I’ve met big hitters who just love that film, they realise they can’t do that because they’re too purposeful.
“I think in Scotland there are other Bill Forsyths, people of that kind who at the moment wouldn’t come into the business or wouldn’t be nurtured in the business because they don’t want to be put through that sort of stress.
“I think to have a dedicated shooting space, it’s not just physically and commercially sensible, it’s also giving focus to a bigger idea that is timely.”