Splitsider

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

The Lost Roles of the Unproduced Fletch Reboot

The 1985 comedy Fletch was a major hit and the start of a franchise that Hollywood studios are still looking to reboot today in hopes of capturing the original film's success. Based on a series of novels by the late Gregory McDonald, Fletch starred Chevy Chase as smartass reporter Irwin M. Fletcher. The film was amongst Chase's biggest successes, inspiring a legion of devoted fans to memorize and quote its witty dialogue, as well as a shoddy sequel, 1989's Fletch Lives. Studio execs have been working to develop a third Fletch film starring a hot new actor as a younger version of Fletch since as early as 1997, with names like Kevin Smith, Zach Braff, and Chevy Chase himself at one point involved. Read on to learn about the Fletch reboot's decades-long journey to the screen and the current status of the project.

Proposed Film #1: Son of Fletch starring Jason Lee, Joey Lauren Adams, and Chevy Chase with Kevin Smith writing/directing (circa 1997-1998)
Hot off the success of Chasing Amy and with the stink of Mallrats safely behind him, filmmaker Kevin Smith pitched a third Fletch film, a sequel called Son of Fletch, to a Universal executive in 1997. Universal gave Smith the go-ahead, and he planned on casting Kevin Smith Repertory Company players Joey Lauren Adams and Jason Lee, with Adams playing Fletch’s daughter and Lee playing her romantic interest. Smith even had plans for Chevy Chase to reprise his role as Irwin M. Fletcher and wanted Chase’s frequent costar Goldie Hawn to cameo. He took a lunch meeting with Chase to discuss the project and the two disagreed about using improv in Son of Fletch. Chase wanted to ad lib his way through the movie, while Smith wanted to stick to the script; but both parties were still interested in working together. Smith put the project on hold while he worked on Dogma, telling Universal execs he didn't have time in his schedule for Fletch at that point. Chevy Chase complained about Smith to the press, saying “It’s Hollywood-type crap treatment, so rude. I could have been writing a Fletch with someone else during that time. There’s no hard feelings, but I’ve never done that to anybody.” Smith responded to Chase with a characteristically long-winded screed on his website and left Chase out of his future plans for the Fletch series.

Depending on how the end product turned out, this Fletch sequel could have been great for everyone involved. At the time, Jason Lee was almost a decade away from breaking through as a mainstream star. Assuming that it would have been better and more successful than Son of the Pink Panther or Son of the Mask, Son of Fletch could have opened a lot of doors for Jason Lee and allowed him to score more leading man roles. Chevy Chase, too, would have been helped by this one going through. By 1997, he was fading from the public eye, no longer a major box office draw. Son of Fletch could have resurrected his career over a decade before Dan Harmon did so by casting him in Community. Given the popularity of the original Fletch films and the solid casting choice of Jason Lee, Son of Fletch could have been a sizeable hit and broken through to become Kevin Smith's biggest success to date. Even Smith's highest grossing films rarely surpass the $30 million mark. They're still profitable because the production budgets are so low, but Son of Fletch had the makings of a mainstream success. It could have brought Smith's career (and probably his ego) to the next level, allowing him more creative freedom in the future. I'm not sure if Fletch fans would have warmed to a passing of the torch, but Jason Lee does seem like a better fit than most of the actors mentioned in regards to the project. If you disagree, you won't by the time you hear some of the other names that were tossed around.

Proposed Film #2: Fletch Won starring Jason Lee with Kevin Smith writing/directing (circa 2000-2001)
Universal had allowed its rights to the Fletch franchise to lapse by 2000, but Kevin Smith was still interested in making a Fletch film. He convinced his mentor, then-Miramax exec Harvey Weinstein, to buy up the rights. Instead of being a sequel to the original Fletch films based around Fletch's kin, this incarnation would have been a reboot, following a young Fletch in a story based on the chronological first novel in the Gregory McDonald series. Smith said the film would be a Fletch origin story that differed from the disguise-heavy Chevy Chase films. His model for the movie was the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez film Out of Sight. Harvey Weinstein was excited about the project, touting it as “Miramax Films’ first-ever franchise." Weinstein wanted Smith's buddy Ben Affleck in the title role, but Smith was still holding out for Jason Lee, who Weinstein didn't see as a big enough star. Smith agreed to wait a year until Lee had “a little more clout” and the Bridget Jones saga became Miramax’s first franchise.

A round of casting:
By 2003, Harvey Weinstein had convinced Kevin Smith to give up on the Jason Lee casting idea in the aftermath of the Jason Lee vehicles Stealing Harvard and A Guy Thing underperforming at the box office. Kevin Smith began looking at some different actors to play Fletch, telling the press that his casting list included Ben Affleck, Adam Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, Will Smith (who cameoed in Smith's Jersey Girl), and Brad Pitt. I'm presuming Sandler, Pitt, and Smith all turned the part down, if it was even offered to them, as it seems like they were a little too big for what was to be modestly-budgeted film from an independent studio. Fallon, though, is an interesting choice. He has a lot in common with the originator of the role, Chevy Chase, who was also an SNL alum who anchored the Weekend Update desk. No one could have played the part as well as Chase, but Fallon seems like a better choice than most. Unlike the other film projects he took on (Taxi and Fever Pitch), Fletch Won was poised to be a major hit. It could have made Jimmy Fallon into a mainstream movie star, which would have prevented him from returning to TV to host Late Night.

Proposed Film #3: Fletch Won starring Ben Affleck with Kevin Smith writing/directing (circa 2003)
Ben Affleck, a noted fan of the original Fletch film, signed on and the movie started ramping up for production. The studio set up a production office and started sending around a location scout, but Ben Affleck dropped out before things got too far. This was probably in the project's best interest, as Affleck at the time was dealing with the Gigli/Jennifer Lopez backlash. Back in 2003, the public seemed to feel Affleck and Lopez were overexposed, and audiences seeing Affleck’s face adorning Fletch posters, billboards and trailers could have killed public interest in the project (and the franchise, as a whole).

Another round of casting:
With Affleck out, Kevin Smith and Harvey Weinstein went back to the drawing board. Smith continued to fight for Jason Lee, but Weinstein, still doubting that Lee could be a movie star, talked Smith into looking at other actors. One executive suggested Dave Chappelle, which Smith says was "a stroke of brilliance,” but Weinstein shot that name down, too. Author Gregory McDonald's manager, Joe List, recalls that, at one point, an executive had suggested changing the lead character to a female and casting Ellen DeGeneres. When Miramax was close to lapsing on the Fletch rights, New Line Studios was prepared to make an offer, with Brett Ratner directing Chris Tucker as Fletch. That didn't come to pass, though, as Miramax was able to hold onto the rights.

In 2005, Harvey Weinstein set up a meeting between Kevin Smith and Zach Braff about the Fletch project. Braff was hot off the success of Garden State and was planning his next film. Smith met with the actor but decided he wasn't confident enough to pull off playing Fletch. Kevin Smith does have a point, in that Braff lacks the smug cockiness of Chevy Chase or Jason Lee, but Weinstein was not dissuaded. Smith says, “Harvey [Weinstein] asked me, ‘Are you in or out?’ I said, ‘If it's not going to be Jason Lee, there's no point.’” Weinstein moved forward without Smith. By that fall, My Name is Earl became a TV hit, proving that Jason Lee could be an audience draw as a lead actor.

Proposed Film #4: Fletch Won starring Zach Braff with Bill Lawrence writing/directing (circa 2005)
Zach Braff signed on to the project, and Harvey Weinstein recruited Braff's Scrubs comrade Bill Lawrence to write and direct. Lawrence, a sitcom vet who created or co-created Spin City, Scrubs, and Cougar Town, wanted his Fletch reboot to be in the vein of Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs. Lawrence told the press, "Those movies are remembered as comedies… But they have an edge that people forget about." By the time Lawrence began writing the script, Braff dropped out, worried that he wouldn't be able to fill Chevy Chase's shoes. Braff summed up the challenge of a Fletch remake concisely, saying, “Whoever takes on the remake really has to nail it. (And even then, most people will hate it unless it's Chevy Chase.)”

Braff and Lawrence may not have been a perfect fit for this project, but I am curious to see what a collaboration between the two outside of Scrubs would have looked like. This probably wouldn't have been the most faithful adaptation of the source material, but I like the idea of Lawrence bringing Fletch to grittier Beverly Hills Cop/48 Hrs. territory. Braff's cold feet are justified, as actors who remake old movies and fail to live up to fans’ standards are often met with a critical dogpiling. Like the characters he tends to play (and unlike Fletch), Braff lacked the confidence needed to commit to this part.

Yet another round of casting:
Although Zach Braff had vacated the project, Bill Lawrence stayed onboard and finished his script in 2007. Harvey Weinstein loved the draft and greenlit the project. He made offers to several actors, including Ryan Reynolds and Justin Long, who both turned it down. Reynolds commented that he thinks of Chase's performance as "hallowed ground." According to Entertainment Weekly, in addition to Reynolds and Long, the role was also turned down by a "half dozen other actors who were offered the part." John Krasinski's name was being mentioned in association with Fletch Won, but he seemed reluctant to take on the role, saying the project is "one of those things that is so terrifying." To make matters worse, Bill Lawrence dropped out to focus on his TV projects.

Proposed Film #5: Fletch Won starring Joshua Jackson with Steve Pink directing from Bill Lawrence's script (circa 2007)
It was announced in the summer of 2007 that Joshua Jackson (of Dawson's Creek fame) had been hired to star with director Steve Pink (a writer on John Cusack films Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity and director of Accepted and later, Hot Tub Time Machine). Pink was on the project for only a month before being told “it’s not happening.”

Gregory McDonald's manager David List, who was also a producer on the proposed film, convinced Harvey Weinstein to hire his friend, untested writer Harry Stein. In April of 2009, Stein turned his draft in. Harvey Weinstein was disappointed with it and dropped the project, allowing the Fletch movie rights to revert back to Gregory MacDonald's estate the following year.

Recent developments:

Early this year, Warner Bros. snapped up the rights to the 11-book-long Fletch series in an "aggressive pre-emptive buy.” The studio is “aiming for a reimagining, not a remake, and hope to make a smart action comedy that plays out on a bigger canvas than the previous movies.” In May, David Mandel, an accomplished comedy writer who has worked on Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Sacha Baron Cohen's next film, was brought in to write the script. If the draft Mandel turns in later this year delights execs, then they'll most likely greenlight the project and this whole casting process will start all over again, with names like Paul Rudd, Jason Bateman, and Bradley Cooper likely to be bandied about. It's been 14 years since a third Fletch film first went into development, and, if we give it another 14, hopefully, we'll have a star that fans, filmmakers, and executives can agree on by 2025.

Special thanks goes out to Clark Collis’s excellent 2010 Entertainment Weekly piece, which proved very useful in researching the history of Fletch Won’s production. It’s well worth the read for cinephiles who are interested in an exhaustive history of Fletch Won’s gestation and the mechanics of a film caught in Development Hell.

Bradford Evans thinks his grandkids are really going to enjoy the new Fletch movie when it comes out.

  • Ray Anselmo@twitter

    The on-again, off-again, this-actor-no-wait-THIS-actor saga above reminds me on the three decades of attempts at filming A Confederacy of Dunces, not to mention other films trapped in "development hell." Someday, some nutcracker of a studio exec is gonna buy up the rights to all these orphans of H'wood, get them all made, and either make bazillions or bankrupt all his investors. Should be fascinating to watch.

    An idea for a future Lost Roles column: none have been about a female comedian or actress. I think, for instance, "The Lost Roles of Julia Roberts" (covering comedic parts only) would be fascinating, especially to find out just how much of Sandra Bullock's career as queen of the rom-com is built around projects that Julia turned down (a lot, IIRC) …

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Ray Anselmo@twitter Yeah, it's weird how there are so many projects that studios have been trying to make for decades.

      I like the Julia Roberts idea, but I think I'm gonna stick to actors and actresses who are primarily comedic for now. Next week's column will be about a female stand-up comedian/actress.

    • Ray Anselmo@twitter

      Looking forward to it, Brad!

  • Jason Farr@facebook

    I love Kevin Smith movies, but I'm not convinced that he could've filmed a movie that looked like a major motion picture in 1998 or 2001. Though Dogma was good it was no "Out of Sight." I just don't think it's a given that the film would have been a big enough smash to change the trajectory of his career.

  • Jimmy

    I like these "lost roles" columns, but I have to say their over-speculative nature has gotten a little grating. Saying Jimmy Fallon wouldn't be hosting Late Night now because "Fletch Won was poised to be a major hit" is a pretty bold claim based on…nothing. It could have flopped, just like Taxi (as Marc Maron would say, "that cab movie") could have been a hit. You and the other folks who write these columns are always pronouncing that "had this person been cast, this wouldn't have happened meaning this, this and that would never have happened. It's a way too butterfly-effect view of show business, in my opinion.

    That said, love the site, just a thought.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Trevor-Gowe/1201180762 Trevor Gowe

      Another Fletch movie probably would have been a hit… and actors who are doing well generally don't start hosting talk shows. It's not much of a stretch.