Once a movie is released, and especially if it’s successful, it becomes difficult to imagine another actor or actress in the lead role, and even harder if they win a clutch of awards into the bargain. Some movie stars can become so indelibly linked to a part, that if someone else takes it on in a remake or a sequel you can’t help but see the original actor in their place (you might even resent them for being there). And there are times when the very idea is wrong. Spare a thought for example, for David Soul, tasked with following in the footsteps of Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in the short-lived Casablanca TV series back in 1983. No matter how world-weary he affected to be, Soul just couldn’t match Bogart for deep-seated ennui. As a result, Soul’s interpretation of the role couldn’t help but feel like a pale imitation.
But if following in the footsteps of an iconic actor in an iconic role isn’t bad enough, then spare a thought for those actors and actresses who passed on a role that became iconic. How bad must that be? How must it feel to know that you could have taken on a role and made it your own, and yet because of some reason or other, you decided not to, and one of your more circumspect colleagues jumped at the chance and made it their own? (Probably bad enough that if worst comes to worst and the colleague is nominated for an Oscar, then that colleague won’t receive a vote from the person who lost out… at the very least.)
Here then are five movie stars and the roles they turned down. You can judge for yourselves just how successful they would have been if they’d gone ahead and played these roles, but one thing can be said for certain: each movie would have had a different dynamic as a consequence, and maybe they wouldn’t have been as successful, or as memorable.
1 – Sylvester Stallone – Role: Axel Foley – Movie: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Despite a long period of pre-production and several scripts written during the process, Beverly Hills Cop was always meant to star Stallone. But with a matter of weeks to go before filming began, Stallone upped and quit the project (Steven Berkoff, who plays the movie’s villain, once said in an interview that the Rocky star quit over disagreements about which kind of orange juice was to be put in his trailer). Enter Eddie Murphy, who seized the hastily rewritten character and improvised his way into the public’s affections as the motormouth cop with a bitingly funny sense of humour. It’s hard to think of Stallone being as free or confident in the way that Murphy is, and he’s not known for comedy – Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992), anyone? – so the chances of it having been as successful as well are less conclusive, but this is one of the best examples of an actor coming in and stealing the show (thankfully).
2 – Meg Ryan – Role: Clarice Starling – Movie: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Without meaning to undermine or decry Ryan’s talent as an actress, it’s perhaps very fortunate indeed that she turned down the role of Clarice Starling, paving the way for Jodie Foster to give such a stunning performance. Like some of her contemporaries, Ryan passed on the role because she felt the movie would be too violent, but with the benefit of hindsight it’s perhaps a good thing she didn’t take on the part. As with Stallone and Beverly Hill Cop‘s humour, The Silence of the Lambs and its dark, oppressive material isn’t really Ryan’s forté, and the idea of a rookie FBI agent in bouncy curls chasing down a serial killer suddenly becomes too risible to be entertained seriously.
3 – Robert De Niro – Role: Han Solo – Movie: Star Wars (1977)
When casting the role of Han Solo, George Lucas wanted to go with someone he hadn’t worked with before, and several up and coming actors – Christopher Walken, Kurt Russell, and Chevy Chase(!) to name but three – were considered. But De Niro was one of a handful of actors who actually turned down the role. With his appearances in Mean Streets (1973), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976) already establishing him as one of the best actors of his generation, it was probably a wise move on De Niro’s part, but what he would have made of lines such as, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs” is still a tantalising proposition.
4 – John Travolta – Role: Forrest Gump – Movie: Forrest Gump (1994)
Throughout his career, Travolta has turned down a number of roles that, in other actors’ hands, have led to critical acclaim and their movies’ success at the box office. And this isn’t the only time that Tom Hanks has benefitted from Travolta’s reluctance to take on a role: he also turned down the role of Paul Edgecombe in The Green Mile (1999). But this decision is one that Travolta still regrets today, and though it’s hard to imagine him reciting the line, “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates” with the same naïve innocence as Hanks does, it would have been interesting to see him adapt his naturally effusive style of acting to the role.
5 – Bette Midler – Role: Annie Wilkes – Movie: Misery (1990)
It’s often interesting to hear about proposed casting choices and the odd matches of actor or actress to a role, but the idea of Midler playing dowdy, homicidal Annie Wilkes is one that takes some adjusting to (especially given Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance). Nothing in Midler’s career up til then (or since) gives any indication that she would have been effective in the role, so maybe she knew she was making the right decision – but to have been offered the role in the first place? Bizarre, just very bizarre.