Bebe Buell recalls John Travolta’s secret audition to play Jim Morrison in ‘The Doors’: ‘He channeled him like nothing I’d ever seen’

Jim Morrison, John Travolta. (Photos: Getty Images)

It’s hard to image anyone other than Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison in The Doors. While the Oliver Stone-directed rock biopic was critically panned, even the most diehard Doors fans tend to agree that Kilmer absolutely transformed into the Lizard King, delivering a powerhouse performance that transcended the film’s flawed script.

But Kilmer apparently was not the first choice for the role. According to the book Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone, Stone initially offered the part to Ian Astbury of the Cult, who turned it down. (Astbury later became the lead singer of the Doors of the 21st Century, fronting them from 2002 until keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s death in 2013.) Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Timothy Hutton, Charlie Sheen, Jason Patric, and Richard Gere were all reportedly considered to play Morrison as well.

But rock muse, recording artist, and writer Bebe Buell, who in the 1980s was managed by the Doors’ second manager, Danny Sugerman, revealed this week on the Totally ‘80s podcast that Sugerman actually had his hopes pinned on another A-list actor.

“Danny was a colorful character, that’s for sure,” Buell said of her late manager, who was “passionate” about the famous Doors biography he co-authored, No One Here Gets Out Alive, being adapted for the screen. “He was really, really, really gung-ho on getting that Doors movie made. But believe it or not, his first choice for Jim was not Val Kilmer. It was John Travolta.”

While Travolta had enjoyed huge success in musical movies like Grease and Urban Cowboy, he may not have seemed right to play the ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll shaman; Astbury and other charismatic rockers who expressed interest in the role, namely U2’s Bono and INXS’s Michael Hutchence, were on the surface a much better fit. Sugerman himself initially balked at the Travolta idea, telling the Los Angeles Times in 1990 that he thought Grease producer Allan Carr — who was attached the project in the early ’80s before Stone came on board, and obviously had connections to Travolta — would not be “sensitive to the story of the Doors.”

However, Buell told Totally ‘80s host and Yahoo Entertainment music editor Lyndsey Parker that a decade before The Doors finally hit the big screen, she witnessed Travolta’s unofficial audition firsthand — “It was a private meeting, and I wasn’t even supposed to know that John Travolta was at [Sugerman’s] house” — and she insisted that this proposed casting “wasn’t as wacky as it sounds.”

“[Travolta] came to Danny’s house when I happened to be staying there, when I was in town to do business, to do some interviews and things like that,” recalled Buell, whose 1981 debut EP, Covers Girl, was mastered by the Doors’ Manzarek through her connection with Sugerman, who died in 2005. “And I actually saw him come over to Danny’s house — kind of Jim Morrison-y — and he stood up on Danny’s table. And when he sang, it was mind-blowing. He channeled him! I guess that’s what a great actor can do. He channeled him like nothing I’d ever seen.”

Bebe later elaborated Yahoo Entertainment via text: “He nailed it. … I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I was kind of peeking around a corner. It was truly a private meeting. But I remember him so clearly — the visual and the voice more than the song. Danny was raving to me later that night. JT blew his mind!”

Stone eventually went with Kilmer, who he first considered after seeing that actor in the fantasy film Willow; Kilmer sealed the deal by spending several thousands of his own money on an eight-minute audition video that he sent to the esteemed director. Kilmer then dedicated six months to rehearsing 50 Doors songs daily to prepare for the film. So, clearly, Stone made a wise casting decision.

However, Buell’s vivid recollection of seeing John Travolta in “Morrison-y” mode indicates that in a parallel cinematic universe, the Oscar-nominated Saturday Night Fever star could have helped the film break on through to the other side at the box office.

Click here to hear Buell’s entire Totally ‘80s conversation, in which she discusses her new memoir Rebel Soul and the rock tales held within including the making of Covers Girl with Ric Ocasek and Rick Derringer; her memories of dating Duran Duran’s John Taylor (a relationship that inspired the formation of Taylor’s supergroup the Power Station), Elvis Costello, Rod Stewart, and Stiv Bators; Bators’s failed attempt to set her up on a blind date with Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks; bonding with Bryan Ferry over their shared appreciation for proper etiquette; the truth about her notorious Todd Rundgren/Steven Tyler love triangle; raising daughter Liv Tyler; her few life regrets; and what she really thinks of the loaded term “groupie.”

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