HOW LUMET CAME TO DIRECT 'PRINCE OF THE CITY' INSTEAD OF DE PALMA
Maura Spiegel's biography of Sidney Lumet from last year, Sidney Lumet: A Life, includes a depiction of how Lumet eventually came to direct Prince Of The City, even though Brian De Palma had already spent a long time working on his own adaptation of the Robert Daley book with screenwriter David Rabe. John Travolta was originally going to play the lead, and would have portayed the real-life narcotics detective at the center of the book, Robert Leuci, who wore a wire while working undercover. Travolta dropped out of the project to make Urban Cowboy, after which the lead was offered to Robert De Niro and also Al Pacino. A year later, after Lumet had made his version of the story with Treat Williams in the lead, De Palma and Travolta moved on to Blow Out, which includes a flashback in which Travolta's character is the sound recording expert who wires up an undercover cop.
De Palma, who, with Rabe, had several meetings with Bob Leuci, spoke with Spiegel for her Lumet biography. Leuci "had a kind of remarkable magnetism about him," Spiegel states, adding that, "as De Palma put it, he was 'the most charming guy in the world; he could stab you in the back and you'd still love him.'"
Here is Spiegel's account of how Lumet got involved:
At eighty-two years old, Burtt [Harris] enters a room with a boom blast of energy; his bright blue eyes instantly get a bead on you. In another life he would have made a great cop; in fact, Burtt was often Sidney's conduit to the police. "They, the cops, trusted me because I was into that macho stuff." He had known "all the French Connection cops," meaning the real-life counterparts of Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (played by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider), who busted an international narcotics ring in the early 1960s. "The didn't smack people around, they just petrified them," he said, adding, "All those guys wanted to get into the movies." Sidney, Burtt said, didn't "hang out" with cops at bars like Burtt did, "but he met with them and talked with them, and rode around with them some." He remembered being approached by a cop in a bar in Greenwich Village who knew what Burtt did for a living. "You should make this a movie," he said, handing him the book Prince Of The City. The cop said he was one of the characters in the book, Bob Leuci's partner after Leuci got acquitted. "Everyone wanted to shoot him," he told Burtt, "bad guys and good guys. We had to keep our eyes on him all the time."
Burtt recalled screenwriter Jay Presson Allen "grabbing the book out of my hand." "Where'd you get this?" she asked. When she finished reading Robert Daley's account of Bob Leuci, the real-life NYPD narcotics detective whose decision to expose police corruption resulted in tragic consequences, including the suicides of two of his closest partners and the near destruction of his own life, she thought, "Oh yeah. This is Lumet!" When she showed it to Sidney, "he just flipped." It turned out the book had already been sold to Orion, with Brian De Palma as director and David Rabe as screenwriter. Allen told the studio that if the De Palma deal fell through, she and Lumet wanted it. They waited and waited to see if something would come of it. "Sidney was within twenty-four hours of signing up for another movie when we got the call," Allen recalled.
From De Palma's perspective, Sidney "stole that picture" from him. He and Rabe had spent months in meetings with Bob Leuci and had been in discussion with both Al Pacino and John Travolta about starring in it. De Palma acknowledged that they were moving slowly on the script, and maybe that was why they lost the movie-- or, he acknowledged, maybe Lumet and Presson just carried more weight over there.