Program Notes: Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Creamed in a car/bicycle collision, L.A. Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) finds himself in heaven.

As if being dead wasn’t disorienting enough, Joe has landed in the middle of a bureaucratic conundrum. Apparently he was “taken” by mistake, thanks to the carelessness of a heavenly “escort” (Buck Henry).

To compensate for this foulup the mysterious Mr. Jordan (James Mason) determines that Joe should be sent back to Earth in a new body (his old one already has been cremated).

This is how Joe comes to reside in the form of rich industrialist Leo Farnsworth, who has just been murdered by his faithless wife (Dyan Cannon) and her lover (Charles Grodin).

Now that he’s wealthy, Joe buys the Super Bowl-bound Rams (the team wouldn't move to St. Louis until 1995), trains with his old coach (Jack Warden) so that his new body will be in shape to take over as quarterback, and falls in love with an environmental activist (Julie Christie) who is protesting Farnsworth’s business policies.

Film Screening:
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Saturday, Dec. 24 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Believe it or not, audiences in 1978 ate up this convoluted weirdness and wanted more. Heaven Can Wait was one of the year’s biggest comedy hits, thanks to a great cast, fine performances and witty dialogue that helped make the clunky plot go down a whole lot easier.

It also was the first step in Warren Beatty’s directing career. He’d been a popular actor throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with important titles like Splendor in the Grass, Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Little by little Beatty had slipped into producing his films. But with Heaven... he (and co-director/writer Buck Henry) made the big leap into helming an entire production.

At least they went with a known quantity. Heaven... was a remake of 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan, in which Robert Montgomery plays a boxer who comes back to inhabit another man’s body.

Initially Beatty had wanted to cast Muhammad Ali as Joe, but when the heavyweight champ declined Beatty took the role himself, turning Joe into a pro football player.

Beatty followed up this initial foray into directing with Reds (1981), Dick Tracy (1990) and Bulworth (1998).

As for Heaven Can Wait, it made a ton of money and won an Oscar for its art direction. It also picked up nominations for best actor (Beatty), supporting actor (Weston), supporting actress (Cannon), cinematography, director, music, original score, adapted screenplay and best picture.

Not bad for a first-timer.

See Bob's general introduction to the Beyond This Vale of Tears film series.

Other films in the series “Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.