Heaven Can Wait (1978 film)

Heaven Can Wait is a 1978 American fantasy-comedy film co-directed by Warren Beatty and Buck Henry which opens with the central story line of Joe Pendleton (played by Beatty) being 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) providing 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).

Heaven Can Wait
Theatrical release poster by Birney Lettick
Directed by
Produced byWarren Beatty
Screenplay by
Based ona play by Harry Segall
Music byDave Grusin
CinematographyWilliam A. Fraker A.S.C.
Edited by
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • June 28, 1978 (1978-06-28)
Running time
101 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$15 million[2]
Box office$98.8 million[3]

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

In 2001, a third film adaptation of the play was done, titled Down to Earth, sharing its name with the sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).


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) on his first assignment sees Joe heading into the tunnel, and a large truck heading into the other end of the tunnel 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 for him. 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 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's domestic staff are also confused by the changes in some of his habits and tastes. Still obsessed with his football destiny, 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 help of, longtime 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, whom he met when she showed up at his doorstep to protest the original Farnsworth's corporate policies.

With the Rams about to play in the Super Bowl, all the characters 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 seemingly 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 realizes that, as Jarrett is living without any memory of being "Joe," it's really the death of Joe in a way. Jarrett bumps into Betty while leaving the stadium. They strike up a conversation, and Betty appears to recognize something of Joe in this stranger, Jarrett. This echoes earlier in the film, when Joe had asked Betty to watch for and recognize something/someone in a stranger she might meet one day, implying something of Joe still exists even without his memory.


A number of former Los Angeles Rams players have cameo roles in the film, including Deacon Jones, Les Josephson, Jack T. 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 television, 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 role. 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, Pendleton 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 as a theme song for the film, but was eventually ruled out. It later appeared in the film Rock 'n' 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

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]

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four and called it "the kind of upbeat screwball comedy Hollywood used to do smoothly and well."[9] Gene Siskel gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and declared it "a delightful film that is both surprisingly fresh and old-fashioned."[10] Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that the film "hasn't much personality of its own. Instead it has a kind of earnest cheerfulness that is sometimes most winning. Mr. Beatty and Miss Christie are performers who bring to their roles the easy sort of gravity that establishes characters of import, no matter how simply they are drawn in the script."[11] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "Beatty and his accomplices have brought it off, with only minor patches of turbulence. The script has been expertly contemporized."[12] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "'Heaven Can Wait' is easily the most appealing new American movie on the market. It manages to preserve much of the charm and romantic fantasy that worked for its predecessor, the 1941 crowd-pleaser 'Here Comes Mr. Jordan', while freshening up some of the settings and details and tailoring the roles to a different cast."[13] Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker praised the script as "sometimes both loopy and brainy," but asked, "good grief, what is all this braininess and talent doing in a remake of a Harry Segall play that has no relation to the real world we come out into from the cinema? One can see why there were films about transmigration and reincarnation during the war, but not now."[14]

Awards and nominations

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).[15]

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 2017-08-20. 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 December 16, 2018.
  8. "Heaven Can Wait reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
  9. Ebert, Roger. "Heaven Can Wait". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved December 15, 2018.
  10. Siskel, Gene (June 30, 1978). "'Heaven Can Wait' recalls joy of yesterday's films". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 3.
  11. Canby, Vincent (June 28, 1978). "A Film by Beatty". The New York Times. C17.
  12. Champlin, Charles (June 27, 1978). "Here Comes Mr. Beatty". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1.
  13. Arnold, Gary (June 28, 1978). "Here Comes a Spirited Fantasy". The Washington Post. E1.
  14. Gilliatt, Penelope (July 10, 1978). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 84-85.
  15. "NY Times: Heaven Can Wait". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-30.
  16. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12.
  17. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12.
  18. "AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-12-12.
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