Steven Spielberg Reveals the Original 1965 Casting Choices For 'Bridge of Spies'

Steven Spielberg Reveals the Original 1965 Casting Choices For 'Bridge of Spies'

Oct 07, 2015

The new film from Steven Spielberg has a very old-fashioned feel to it. Some of that is obviously the result of the true spy drama Bridge of Spies being set more than half a century ago, but Spielberg also clearly meant to evoke a lot of classic movies of that time period. His casting of Tom Hanks, the closest actor today to a Spencer Tracy or Gregory Peck, in the lead was a necessity.

As real-life lawyer and negotiator James B. Donovan, Hanks recalls the stature and conviction of characters played by Tracy in Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg and Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. The latter comes through blatantly in the first half of the film, as Donovan defends a Russian spy in a case that's reminiscent of Atticus Finch representing a black man in 1930s Alabama.  

Well, Spielberg and Hanks's homage to Peck's Oscar-winning role was unintentionally even more perfect than they thought. During a press conference for Bridge of Spies at the New York Film Festival, Spielberg revealed something he'd just heard for the first time that day: Peck almost played Donovan in a project at MGM soon after starring in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Here's what the director learned (via Cinema Blend):

I was meeting with the Donovan family -- I was meeting with the two daughters and the son -- this morning. And I found out something I never knew before. In 1965, Gregory Peck came after this story. Gregory Peck got Alec Guinness to agree to play Abel. Gregory Peck was gonna play Donovan. And they got a very good — they got Stirling Silliphant to try and write the script. And then MGM at the time sad, 'Nah, I don’t think we’re gonna tell this story.'

When asked by Bridge of Spies co-star Alan Alda why MGM passed on the project, Spielberg continued:

It was 1965, and big things had happened. The Cuban Missile Crisis had been averted, like a year and a half before, and the tensions were too taut [between] the Soviets and the United States of America for MGM to get into the politics of this era. 

And then Hanks joked, "And Greg Peck’s previous movie was soft at the box office," likely referencing To Kill a Mockingbird.

At the time, Silliphant was mostly known for TV work but that year he also earned many accolades for writing The Slender Thread and a few years later would win an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. Guinness, now of course best known as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, was at the time in theaters playing a Russian in Doctor Zhivago, so portraying Abel the Soviet spy would have been an easy follow-up.

That version, whatever it might have been titled (this one used to be called St. James Place) now goes into the great hall of what ifs. It might have been the first movie to depict the spy exchange on the Glienicke Bridge, but it wouldn't have been the only one to be made before Spielberg's take.

Abel himself consulted on and appeared in the 1968 Soviet film Dead Season, which features the event, and the 1976 TV movie Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident dealt with the exchange with focus on Powers, the U.S. spy pilot who was one of the men Abel was exchanged for. Fictionalized takes showed up as early as 1966's Funeral in Berlin.




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