MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Die Hard With a Vengeance was originally written as Lethal Weapon 4.
An interesting aspect about the recent release of A Good Day to Die Hard is that it’s the first film of the five-movie Die Hard franchise to be based on a story actually starring John McClane (played by Bruce Willis). The first four installments in the series were all based on novels or screenplays featuring other characters that were then adapted into Die Hard films (you can read about the convoluted origins of the Die Hard franchise in an old Movie Urban Legends Revealed here). A recurring legend along these lines is that the third Die Hard film, Die Hard With a Vengeance, was originally written as the fourth Lethal Weapon (the series starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as LAPD detectives).
Is it true? Close, but no cigar.
In case you've never seen the film, Die Hard With a Vengeance features a mysterious man named "Simon" terrorizing New York City with the threat of explosions unless suspended Lt. John McClane performs a series of tasks. The first involves going into a predominantly African-American neighborhood while wearing a sign with a racial slur on it. Local shop owner Zeus Carver (played by Samuel L. Jackson) saves McClane from being killed by a gang, and soon Carver is pulled into the series of challenges as well. McClane eventually learns that "Simon" is Simon "Peter" Gruber (played by Jeremy Irons), brother of Hans Gruber, the villain in the original Die Hard. "Simon" is seemingly seeking revenge against McClane for killing his brother, but McClane knows the Gruber modus operandi too well and realizes the series of games is just a distraction for his real plan, which is to rob $140 billion worth of gold bullion from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Wall Street. As you might expect, eventually McClane stops Gruber and kills him in a dramatic final battle.
So, was that written for a fourth Lethal Weapon film? Was the McClane role meant for Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs? Was the Carver role meant for Danny Glover's Roger Murtaugh?
Not really, no. Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh sold a screenplay tentatively titled Simon Says to 20th Century Fox in 1992 or ‘93. The original screenplay was much like what we eventually saw in Die Hard With a Vengeance, except that Simon's motives would be exactly as they seemed, just seeking revenge (so basically the entire second half of the movie was unique to the Die Hard script). Hensleigh noted on the commentary for Die Hard With a Vengeance that the idea for the story came to him when he thought about an incident in his childhood when he had injured one of his friends. What if that friend had never gotten over it and sought revenge years later? That was the basic concept behind the script. Fox purchased the script with the intention of turning it into a starring vehicle for burgeoning star Brandon Lee, who had just made the action film Rapid Fire. It was a hit, and studio executives thought he was going to be a big deal. So they began negotiations on sequels to Rapid Fire as well as developing other starring vehicles for Lee, including Simon Says. The original screenplay would star a New York cop named Alex Bradshaw (played by Lee) with the character that became Zeus Carver being an African-American woman.
Tragically, Lee was killed in 1993 during the filming of The Crow. The script went back into the pile of available projects owned by Fox. It was still a well-regarded script, however, which is important when it comes to sequels, as you have to try to convince some of these stars to come back for another film when they really are not particularly interested in doing another sequel (Willis notably turned down a number of scripts for a third Die Hard during the early 1990s). So when Warner Bros. and producer Joel Silver were looking to make a fourth Lethal Weapon, they contacted Fox and tried to buy the script. That's undoubtedly where the legend originates. However, the sale never actually occurred (they didn’t end up finding a good enough script for Lethal Weapon 4 until 1998).
Eventually, director John McTiernan (the director of the first Die Hard film) discovered the script and adapted it into Die Hard With a Vengeance in 1995 (still at Fox).
The legend is ...
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