Bіll Coѕby аnd Muhаmmаd Alі both сoveted the ѕаme Coррolа ѕсrірt

The classic comic fantasy “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” released 75 years ago this summer, spawned remakes starring Warren Beatty and Chris Rock, as well as a sequel with Rita Hayworth that was itself reworked into one of the worst movie musicals of all time (and later morphed into a campy Broadway hit).

But you probably haven’t heard of an abortive version written by Francis Ford Coppola that, at various points, was announced as a starring vehicle for a couple of icons planning to make their film debuts: Bill Cosby and the late Muhammad Ali.

It all started with “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,’’ which debuts Tuesday (June 14) in a glorious new Blu-ray restoration from the Criterion Collection. Robert Montgomery stars as a boxer who is transported to heaven 50 years ahead of schedule because of a mistake by a bumbling angel (Edward Everett Horton). It’s up to the angel’s superior, Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), to straighten things out by transferring the boxer’s soul into the body of a freshly murdered businessman (also played by Montgomery, though the other characters in the movie only see him as the businessman, a gimmick that was also used in the remakes).

There are plenty of comic complications — involving the boxer’s confused manager (James Gleason) and the love interest (Evelyn Keyes) — on the way to a happy ending. The film was a huge success in the months before the US entered World War II, and it received seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Alexander Hall) and Best Actor (Montgomery).

It kicked off a whole genre of afterlife comedies that most notably includes 1943’s “Heaven Can Wait’’ (which will see its own gorgeous restoration premiere on June 17 at Film Forum), “A Guy Named Joe’’ (1944) and the British “A Matter of Life and Death,’’ which was retitled “Stairway to Heaven’’ when it was released in the US in 1947.

There was even an odd sequel to “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” called “Down to Earth,” with Horton and Gleason reprising their roles from the original, and Roland Culver replacing Rains as Jordan (Robert Montgomery was MIA). In the 1947 Technicolor musical, Rita Hayworth stars as the goddess Terpsichore, who descends to Earth to straighten out the producer (Larry Parks) of a Broadway musical that pokes fun at Greek mythology. It broke even at best at the box office.

Two decades later, Bill Cosby’s then-manager Roy Silver — a fan of the original “Mr. Jordan” — commissioned a script from Coppola (who had already won an Oscar for co-writing “Patton’’ and had directed several features) for a remake that the two of them thought would launch Cosby’s film career.

Cosby would still play a boxer, but this version had an intriguing racial twist: He’d be playing a black man who, after his reincarnation, would be in the body of a white man (with a black mistress, who, according to film historian Michael Sragow in a Criterion special feature for “Mr. Jordan,’’ was going to be played by singer-actress Leslie Uggams). Warner Bros. announced the film for a Christmas 1969 release, but it didn’t happen — apparently after Cosby and his manager had a falling out. (Meanwhile, in India, there had already been an entirely unauthorized remake called “The Skies Have Bowed.’’)

Warner Bros. was still interested, especially when Warren Beatty purchased the project from Silver. Beatty wanted to make his directing debut using Coppola’s script — with boxing legend Muhammad Ali (who had briefly appeared in 1962’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight’’ as himself back when he was known as Cassius Clay) in his first acting role.

Ali’s biographers disagree over why the boxer left the project, which also went all the way to the announcement stage: either his Muslim spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad, nixed it as theologically incompatible, or there were issues with Ali’s schedule.

Several years later, Beatty decided that he would also star in what came to be known as “Heaven Can Wait” (the original title of the unproduced play that inspired “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,’’ a name switch that created endless confusion with the 1943 film, which was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar). By then the project was at Paramount, where Beatty threw out the Coppola script.

In the new version that he wrote with Elaine May and an uncredited Robert Towne, his character is a football player, with Beatty’s real-life then-girlfriend Julie Christie as the love interest. Jack Warden is the manager, and Buck Henry (who shares a directorial credit with Beatty) portrays the heavenly messenger who screws things up. James Mason plays Mr. Jordan after Cary Grant (who had passed on the role of the boxer for the 1941 film) turned it down.

The remake, which opened in June 1978, was an even bigger success than “Here Comes Mr. Jordan’’ and racked up nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (the sole remake of a nominee in that category with that distinction), Best Actor, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Warden) and Best Supporting Actress (Dyan Cannon, who divorced Grant in 1968). It won a single Oscar for Best Art Direction. It even inspired a porn takeoff called “Heaven’s Touch’’ (1983).

With lightning having struck twice, you’d think that Hollywood would leave well enough alone. But no: Two years later they dusted off the sequel, “Down to Earth,’’ and retooled it as a campy musical vehicle for Olivia Newton-John as Terpsichore (renamed Kira). This loose remake had an entirely different score and was set in the world of roller disco. Her unlikely co-star was aging Hollywood legend Gene Kelly, confusingly reprising his role from another Rita Hayworth musical (one that was actually successful), “Cover Girl.’’ Greeted with the worst reviews of 1980, “Xanadu’’ failed to recover its hefty $20 million budget during its original release. But it, too, awaited resurrection.

First came a third film version of “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,’’ which further added to the welter of confusion by taking its title from the first version of the sequel, “Down to Earth.’’ This one starred Chris Rock — who told an interviewer that he became interested when he heard about Bill Cosby’s race-switched version — with Chazz Palminteri as a version of Mr. Jordan and Eugene Levy as the bumbling messenger.

But the third time wasn’t the charm, and in 2000 audiences just weren’t interested in seeing Rock play a dead black comedian reincarnated into a white man’s body, even if he looked like Chris Rock.

By the 21st century, “Xanadu’’ had acquired such a cult following — particularly in the gay community — that a $5 million Broadway musical was mounted in 2007 with Kerry Butler, Cheyenne Jackson (in the part played by Michael Beck in the movie) and Tony Roberts. It ran for 500 performances, followed by national and international tours. Receiving generally good reviews, it was nominated for four Tony Awards.

Will “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”/“Heaven Can Wait’’ make it to Broadway as well? I wouldn’t be surprised — it’s a property that, like its main character, apparently just won’t die.

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