The 1988 action picture Die Hard launched Bruce Willis into stardom and gave Alan Rickman his first foothold in the movie business. It’s an action-packed 2 hours and 11 minutes of gunplay and wisecracks as Willis takes on a gang of German terrorists holding an entire office block hostage. An incomparable modern classic according to some; a well-paced slice of 80’s bloodlust to others.
And it almost starred Frank Sinatra.
The producers asked the 73-year-old singer and actor to take the lead role that would go to Bruce Willis. They had no choice thanks to a decent bit of 60s neo-noir called The Detective.
The story began back in 1966 when a New Yorker who’d been a private eye and published a book that didn’t sell much decided to write a detective novel about a man on the verge of losing everything.
The Chairman of the Burned Out
Roderick Mayne Thorp Jnr was born in the Bronx. His father ran a detective agency. Thorp was a smart guy who got into New York’s City College, then a radical place full of student strikes and radical politics. Off campus, he got a taste of the grittier side of the street by working for his father’s agency.
After graduation Thorp sold cars, insurance, haberdashery, and started his own catering company. He really wanted to write. In 1961 his first book Into The Forest was published. It’s a dark, literary novel about a war veteran at college who gets involved in sadistic mind games with his fellow students. It flopped.
When Thorp came back into print with 1966’s The Detective, he stuck to the safer territory of the murder mystery genre. The second book became a best seller. Something about its 600 pages of burned out detective, mysterious suicides, and marital problems tapped into a taste for adult neo-noir that ran parallel to the better remembered youthquake of the mid-1960s.
The book got optioned by Hollywood and in 1968 Frank Sinatra turned in a good performance as Joe Leland, the character morphed into a policeman for the role. The film added some topical political debate about civil rights and homosexuality that audiences regarded as groundbreaking, although critic Roger Ebert wasn’t impressed.
“The Detective also provides a hilariously inept sequence in which a young man goes to the docks in search of homosexuals. He finds them, by the dozens, lounging around and looking sinister, in a scene changed only slightly from ‘Singapore Lil’, dirty movies about the evils of evil, and old Army training films.”
Sinatra had liked the script enough to have the option on playing Joe Leland in any future films written into his contract. The producers happily agreed.
Forever and a Day
Thorp carried on writing, turning out another six books over the next decade. They veered from genre novels to family sagas. Many were optioned.
In 1979 a Joe Leland sequel hit the bookshops. Nothing Lasts Forever was more in tune with the excessive action blockbusters of the time. Leland is now a security consultant, flying round the world lecturing on anti-terrorism tactics. His ex-wife is dead and his daughter is estranged. At Christmas Leland decides to visit her in Los Angeles where she works for a petroleum company.
Inspired by a dream Thorp had after seeing The Towering Inferno, the novel follows Leland trapped in the company skyscraper as he tries to free his daughter and other hostages from a gang of German terrorists who plan to scatter $6 million of the company’s cash across the city to expose its dealings with Pinochet’s Chile.
The book was tough, tense, and had a pretty grim ending. Hollywood snapped it up but nothing happened until the mid-1980s when producers went looking for a sequel to the dumb fun Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando.
Someone thought that Nothing Lasts Forever would make a good basis for a script. There was just one problem. They had to offer it to Frank Sinatra first.
Old Blue Eyes hadn’t made a film since 1980’s The First Deadly Sin, a slow burn of a police procedural with some good acting and an emphasis on character development. Sinatra was in his 70s and not much interested in reanimating an acting career with a movie which involved running around a skyscraper killing terrorists.
He turned it down.
The producers were relieved. They hadn’t wanted him in the first place. Their plans got derailed a little when Schwarzenegger also rejected the part. Eventually Nothing Lasts Forever spun off its own world as Die Hard. Joe Leland became John McClane, Leland’s estranged daughter morphed into his wife, and the terrorists turned into capitalists.
No big stars seemed keen on taking the main role so 20th Century Fox settled on Bruce Willis, then famous as a tv star with Moonlighting. Willis’s first movie role had been a walk-on part in Sinatra’s The First Deadly Sin. British actor Alan Rickman made his movie debut as head of the terrorists Hans Gruber, the smooth-talking German with the nice suit being a significant departure from the book’s German-American former pilot who had known Leland during the war.
The film was a huge success, earning $140 million during its theatrical run, and spawned four sequels. Books continued to play a role in the franchise. Die Hard 2 was based on the thriller novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager. In an inside nod the franchise’s origins, the villain of Die Hard 2 comes from Val Verde, a fictitious South American nation that first appeared in Commando.
Thorp died in 1999 at 62-years-old. He wrote thirteen books over his lifetime, many bestsellers, most snapped up by Hollywood. He remained well aware of the importance of the movie industry in his success, as his obituary in The Independent made clear.
“Thorp, however, was always enormously grateful that his books seemed to excite the attentions of movie producers, who thereupon wished only to shower him with contracts and money. Throughout his career he tried to give back something of that which he had gained, founding a successful creative writing programme at the School of American Studies of Ramapo College in New Jersey, and later starting and subsequently directing the influential Palm Springs Writers’ Conference.”
An all-American success story, much like that of Bruce Willis, whose life was transformed by Die Hard’s success.
But perhaps somewhere, in an alternate universe, Frank Sinatra said yes to the role and Joe Leland hit screens again as a 73-year-old action hero tearing round a skyscraper with a gun taking down leftist German terrorists.
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