When Brian Garfield wrote the 1972 novel Death Wish, about a New York City accountant-turned-vigilante named Paul Benjamin, he had no idea that it would spawn one of Hollywood's longest-running film series, with five movies released over 20 years. The first film, 1974's Death Wish, was so controversial that Garfield openly wished it would not air on television after it allegedly inspired some real-life copycat killings.
While Charles Bronson will forever be linked to the lead role (who changed from Paul Benjamin to Paul Kersey for the film, and became an architect), Bruce Willis is getting ready to give the iconic character a go with Eli Roth's update of the film, which hits theaters this weekend. In the meantime, here are 15 things you might not know about Death Wish.
1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A COUPLE OF REAL-LIFE CRIMES (THAT WERE MUCH LESS VIOLENT).
Author Brian Garfield was inspired to write Death Wish after he grew very angry when, in separate incidents, his wife's purse was stolen and his car was vandalized. “I knew the vandal had done us no real harm ... Yet my first response to the discovery of this mindless violence was swift and stark," Garfield later wrote. "My boundaries had been violated, my property trespassed upon. He had no right. 'I'll kill the son of a bitch.'" While Garfield's flash of anger eventually dissipated, the idea of writing a novel about a man who never got over crimes committed against his immediate family didn't fade away so easily.
2. ORIGINALLY SIDNEY LUMET WAS SET TO DIRECT, WITH JACK LEMMON STARRING.
The adapted screenplay by Wendell Mayes (Anatomy of a Murder, The Poseidon Adventure) was written with the idea that Sidney Lumet would be behind the camera and Jack Lemmon would be starring as Paul. Lumet supposedly wanted to shoot it in black and white. When Dino De Laurentiis came on as producer, Lumet dropped out. With Lumet out, Lemmon lost interest.
3. HENRY FONDA AND GEORGE C. SCOTT BOTH TURNED DOWN THE LEAD ROLE.
4. CHARLES BRONSON AND HIS AGENT DISAGREED ON THE FILM'S MESSAGE.
While Charles Bronson was immediately interested in the role, his agent wasn't so sure. "It's the only time Paul Kohner, my agent, ever disagreed with me about a film," Bronson said in 1974. "Paul felt very strongly that it was a dangerous picture—that it might make people think it's right to take the law into their own hands. This is what the hero of the picture does when he wants a one-man vigilante squad to kill muggers, after three of them have murdered his wife and raped his daughter. I told Paul I thought the message was the same there that runs through a lot of my pictures: That violence is senseless because it only begets more violence."
5. BRIAN GARFIELD THOUGHT BRONSON WAS ALL WRONG FOR THE PART.
Garfield didn't like the fact that as soon as Bronson appeared on screen, "you knew he was going to start blowing people away." Director Michael Winner dismissed the author's criticisms, calling him "an idiot."
6. BRONSON THOUGHT DUSTIN HOFFMAN SHOULD HAVE PLAYED HIS PART.
Even though he liked the message, Bronson wasn't originally convinced that he would be the best actor for the job. "The way the part was written, it was about a meek little New York-born accountant," Bronson said. "I thought it was a much better picture for Dustin Hoffman." Eventually, it was Winner who convinced Bronson to take the role anyway. "He said we could change the part to a more active and virile architect, and we'd all make a potful of money."
7. JEFF GOLDBLUM MADE HIS FILM DEBUT IN THE MOVIE.
When discussing his feature debut, Jeff Goldblum admitted, "I stick out like a sore thumb." Goldblum played one of the "Freaks" who killed Paul's wife and raped his daughter. Back in 1983, Goldblum told New York Magazine that a job was a job. "Did it bother me it was such a brutal part? No. It was the first movie I'd gone up for, and I got it." Winner remembered Goldblum as being "loose and brilliant" in his audition.
8. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS HAD A SMALL ROLE, BUT DOESN'T LOOK BACK ON THE FILM FONDLY.
Olympia Dukakis was uncredited, but paid, for playing one of the cops at the precinct. It wasn't a particularly positive experience for the future Oscar winner. "Yeah, they sent me over, and the director [Michael Winner] was, uh, not necessarily liked by the actors," Dukakis told The A.V. Club in 2015. "I mean, he made me turn around, and he wanted to see me, and … he treated me like a piece of meat during the audition. But it was, like, one day, so I could take the money and go home and say, 'F**k you and the horse you rode in on.'"
9. THERE WAS CONCERN ABOUT USING THE WORD "DEATH" IN THE TITLE.
Posters with the title Sidewalk Vigilante were printed because De Laurentiis worried about having the word "death" in the title. "The fact that it had the word death made me a little uneasy, a little perplexed," the producer admitted. "Then I realized it might bring in an additional audience—horror flick fans—so I left it the way it was." For his part, Winner thought Sidewalk Vigilante was a "ghastly" title.
10. HERBIE HANCOCK WROTE THE SCORE, AT THE SUGGESTION OF MICHAEL WINNER'S GIRLFRIEND.
"It was the first film score by Herbie Hancock, the brilliant jazz musician," Winner wrote in his memoir, Michael Winner: Winner Takes All: A Life of Sorts. "I chose him because Dino wanted a cheap band and at the time I was having an affair with one of the actresses in the movie who was very into jazz music. She said, 'Herbie Hancock is a new genius.' I listened to his record Head Hunters, thought it absolutely brilliant, and persuaded Dino to take him."
11. GARFIELD THOUGHT THE MOVIE AND HIS BOOK SENT DIFFERENT MESSAGES.
"The point of the novel Death Wish is that vigilantism is an attractive fantasy but it only makes things worse in reality," the author said in 2008. "By the end of the novel, the character (Paul) is gunning down unarmed teenagers because he doesn’t like their looks. The story is about an ordinary guy who descends into madness. Oddly enough Mayes’s script honored that thought, and the only significant change in it during shooting was the wordless ending, but that ending changed the story entirely." The ending had Bronson smirking at some Chicago hoodlums while cocking a finger gun.
12. THE MOVIE GOT SOME HARSH REVIEWS.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that “it's a despicable movie, one that raises complex questions in order to offer bigoted, frivolous, oversimplified answers" and found it to be "a bird-brained movie to cheer the hearts of the far-right wing." Variety's review opened by claiming Death Wish is "awkwardly hung" on the "vulgar exploitation hook" of "poisonous incitement to do-it-yourself law enforcement."
13. AUDIENCES LOVED IT SO MUCH THAT PARAMOUNT PICTURES CHARGED THEM MORE MONEY TO SEE IT.
14. CHICAGO AND SAN FRANCISCO REFUSED TO AIR IT ON TV.
When it came time to air the movie on network television, Washington D.C. delayed the start time from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Chicago and San Francisco opted not to air it. But every other major CBS affiliate around the country aired an edited version of the film during prime time on November 10, 1976, despite Garfield's protests. "I think it is a dangerous film," he said. "And the proof is that several people have already committed vigilante crimes inspired by the film, and said so." Garfield said this despite potentially losing $50,000 if Death Wish didn't run.
15. SYLVESTER STALLONE WANTED TO REMAKE IT.
Sylvester Stallone was set to direct and star in a Death Wish remake for MGM back in 2008. When that project, uh, died, it opened the door for Eli Roth and Bruce Willis to step in.