MVPs of Horror: How 'Misery' director Rob Reiner cast an unknown Kathy Bates — and how she really tortured James Caan
Despite a handful of theater roles in productions like ‘Night, Mother, Crimes of the Heart, and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Kathy Bates was an unproven screen actor when she auditioned for the lead role in the movie adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller Misery. In that film, where she starred as Annie Wilkes, the psychotic “No. 1 fan” of an abducted romance novelist, Bates became an instant sensation, eventually winning an Oscar for the role and becoming a Hollywood fixture for the better part of three decades.
Director Rob Reiner told Yahoo Entertainment that he knew Bates would nail the role from the get-go.
When Reiner and writer William Goldman started to assemble their Misery cast, they struggled to find an actor to play the male lead, author Paul Sheldon. Goldman wrote in Four Screenplays With Essays that William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Robert Redford all turned the part down before James Caan came onboard.
The casting for Annie was a slightly easier process. After Bette Midler declined the role (a decision she would later call “stupid”), Goldman pushed Reiner to consider the performer the screenwriter had had in mind when he adapted King’s book.
Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes wielding her notorious sledgehammer in the 1990 horror classic Misery. (Photo: Columbia/Courtesy of Everett Collection)
“I had seen her two or three times on the stage and she was an incredible actress,” Reiner reminisced. “She was recommended by Bill Goldman. When he mentioned her, I went, ‘Oh, she’s a great actress. Perfect!’ She was not known at the time, obviously. She came in to read for me. I knew she was a great actress.”
It didn’t take long for Bates to win over the filmmaker. Not long at all.
“She read one line,” Reiner shared. “She had a whole scene prepared, and after the first line, I said, ‘You don’t have to read, I know you’re great. You have the part.'”
“She said, ‘Really?'”
“And I said, ‘Yeah.'”
“And she said, ‘Can I tell my mother?'”
“I said, ‘Yeah, you can tell your mother.'”
But things didn’t get easier for Reiner after casting Bates and Caan. The two actors’ onscreen conflict spilled over; Reiner said it boiled down to their different approaches to acting.
“Jimmy Caan is very instinctive and he doesn’t like rehearsal,” Reiner said. “He just likes to [do] whatever he’s feeling in the moment to do. And [Kathy Bates] is a stage-trained actress who likes lots of rehearsals. So we tried to strike a balance. … It was not simpatico a lot of the time.”
Although things might have gotten tense between the two on the set, those bad feelings didn’t linger beyond the making of the movie. In 2015, Bates and Caan conducted a joint interview on Today and displayed far more affection than you could ever expect between the people who played Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes.
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