Director Rob Reiner recalls the first terrible day on ‘Misery’ set, losing star Warren Beatty

Director Rob Reiner is revealing the moments of agony he faced making the classic 1990 thriller “Misery.”

Reiner, 74, spoke about troubles with his leading man and shooting the opening scene more than three decades ago for the “Misery” introduction in TCM Classic Film Festival’s “Masters of Filmmaking.” The Stephen King adaptation starring James Caan and Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for her role, will air on HBO Max through Sunday.

Reiner lamented how Warren Beatty was initially supposed to take the lead role of author Paul Sheldon, who is held captive by his biggest fan Annie Wilkes (Bates) after he tries to divert from his romantic literary style. Superstar Beatty helped work on the script “for months” with Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman, Reiner recalled. But then Beatty bailed from the production. A major loss.

“I credit Warren Beatty for making the script better than it was,” says Reiner. “But when it came to the point when we were ready to do it, (Beatty) was too nervous. And he left.”

The director made it clear that the film persevered as the lead replacement succeeded.

“We wound up with Jimmy Caan. And Jimmy did a great job,” said Reiner.

But Caan took time to find the character. On the first day of “Misery” shooting, Reiner had set up what seemed to be a simple scene. Caan’s Sheldon tapped out the final page of his final “Misery” and took part in his usual novel-finishing ritual of lighting the cigarette — both items left at the side of his desk next to the celebratory flute for champagne.

“All he had to do was pick up the cigarette and light the match, ” said Reiner, exhaling in demonstration. “It was like after sex. He’s written this book and gotten it out of him. This release.”

But the “Godfather” actor had trouble with the scene due to his energy-filled movements lighting up the cigarette. Even with Reiner telling his actor to just relax, Caan could not do the scene with the needed serenity.

“He’s very fidgety. He’s a very physical guy. He keeps moving,” said Reiner. “Take after take after take, he keeps moving. It’s like ‘Jimmy!’ Finally after 10 or 15 takes he finally does it. And we had to break for lunch.”

Reiner took a lunch break in his trailer with director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld, who was morbidly dark on the film’s prospects.

“(Barry) says to me, ‘Hey Rob, do you ever think this could be your Vietnam? Because you could pull out right now.’ We had just started the film,” Reiner recalls. “I laughed so hard. And I said, ‘No we’re going to keep going.’ “

It turns out, Caan’s physicality and energy helped the part: Sheldon is bed-bound, initially due to injuries from a car accident.

“Being stuck in that bed, which he is in the entire film, having him hemmed in, created more frustration and helped him play the part,” says Reiner.

The director would do his best to pull out this exasperation out of Caan, repeating the same simple mantra before each scene. “(Caan) kept thinking I would give him some wisdom,” said Reiner. “But each time, I’d just say ‘Jimmy, in this scene you’re in bed.’ And then I’d walk away.”

“Misery” would go on to box office success and win Bates a best actress Oscar. Reiner recalled that he had stopped Bates during her initial audition with a “that’s enough” because he knew the actress would be perfect. Bates was shocked.

“I gave her the part right away,” Reiner recalled. “And she said, ‘Can I call my mother?’ I said, ‘Yeah, you can call your mother and tell you got the part.’ And then she won an Oscar. And then I’m sure she called her mom again.”

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