When Kathy Bates Stage Roles Got Recast for Movies

Kathy Bates earned plaudits for a pair of major stage roles in the 1980s - but she was wasn't even in the running for the movie adaptations.

Recently, I took another look at Rob Reiner’s terrific adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the story has more recently been adapted for Broadway (with Bruce Willis taking on one of the lead roles), given that the movie is at its best when contained to one location. That location is the Wilkes Farm, where Kathy Bates’ Annie tends to her hero, recovering author Paul Sheldon – James Caan – who she’s rescued from an automobile accident.

Misery was a sizeable hit back in 1990, and would go on to win Bates a much-deserved Best Actress Academy Award. However, by that stage, Hollywood had already overlooked her for two roles that she notably realised on stage.

The first was ‘night Mother, and it’s more than likely the one that you haven’t heard of. Still, back in 1983, the play was a sensation. Penned by Marsha Norman, it told the story of a mother and daughter, opening with the daughter telling the mother that she planned to commit suicide that evening. The two-hander play then follows the discussion between the two, and what’s led the daughter to come to the conclusion she has.

Anne Piitoniak played the role of the mother, Thelma Cates, in the originally off-Broadway production, before reprising it when the play made its Broadway bow. Joining her from day one was Kathy Bates, who took the role of Jessie Cates.

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The production ran for 380 performances, won a Putlizer Prize for Best Drama, and was nominated for a Tony Award. One of the many who was swept away by it was Sissy Spacek, who had won her Academy Award for Coal Miner’s Daughter a few years earlier, and was keen to develop a film version of the play. But Bates, as reported by Premiere magazine back in 1989, wasn’t aware. In fact, the first she apparently knew that both a film was coming, and that Spacek had been cast in the role Bates had played on Broadway, was when she overheard a film producer boasting about the casting.

The film of ‘night Mother would be adapted by Marsha Norman, and Anne Bancroft would co-star with Spacek. Yet the production wouldn’t have the impact that the play had, and earned middling reviews when it debuted in 1986. Kathy Bates was nowhere near it.

History, then, repeated itself.

The play Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune featured a role that had been expressly written for Bates by Terrence McNally. It debuted off-Broadway in 1987, with Bates co-starring as Frankie opposite F Murray Abraham (and then Kenneth Welsh). One of the key factors of the character of Frankie was that she was defined by her character over looks, which added a richness to the burgeoning romance between the two leads.

The play wasn’t a huge hit, although it was successful. And it was certainly successful enough for Paramount Pictures to acquire the film rights to it.

McNally signed up to adapt his own play, and made some key changes to the script, adding new characters, removing periods of nudity, and introducing more locations. But the alteration that ultimately raised the most eyebrows came with the casting of the character of Frankie.

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In spite of the work Bates had done with the role – and the fact that she had gone to Los Angeles in 1989 to star in the east coast production of it – she wasn’t in the running for it. At first, she heard second hand that the part that had been written for her was being offered to Dianne Wiest (who was just about to earn an Oscar nomination for her turn in the brilliant Parenthood). Bates nonetheless campaigned to take the lead role in the movie version, but Paramount wasn’t interested. It had hired Garry Marshall – soon to direct Pretty Woman – to helm the picture, and he oversaw it being turned into a more mainstream piece. Al Pacino was cast in the role of Johnny, and it was Michelle Pfeiffer who took the part of Frankie.

The casting was met with considerable backlash at first, with the feeling being that Pfeiffer’s casting would glamorize a deliberately non-glamourous character. As it turned out, the movie – released in 1991 – received middling notices, but hardly took off. It cost some $29 million to make, but grossed just shy of $23 million in the US. Pfeiffer, to her credit, was typically excellent in the role in the end, and earned a Golden Globe nomination for her work.

But Kathy Bates got the last laugh. After being overlooked for Frankie And Johnny, up came the role of Annie Wilkes in Misery, and it would be that which launched her movie career. Furthermore, by the time Frankie And Johnny arrived in cinemas, Bates had an Oscar on her mantelpiece, a huge hit, and a character that continues – as it did for me – to get under the skin.

She still deserved better, though…