Famous Roles That Got Away

Viggo as the great Aragorn

Casting is a tricky and undoubtedly crucial aspect of the film industry. I think if the film maker got the right actor for the role in any given movie, that’s half the battle right there. But what’s more fascinating than casting news is learning about the roles that got away. Cinematical recently pondered what would happen if William Baldwin never left Thelma & Louise. It’s highly speculative of course, but it’s still a fascinating look of what might have been. And I’ve always wondered that if Irish actor Stuart Townsend hadn’t lost the role of Aragon to Viggo Mortensen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (as he was regarded as being too young for it), would he be more well-known now than simply as Charlize Theron’s beau?

There are a gazillion of similar cases like that happening daily in Hollywood. Just the past few months alone, there’s quite a few roles switcheroos happening in the movie biz. Here’s a sampling:

  • NINE: Javier Bardem out, Daniel Day-Lewis in
  • Green Hornet: Nic Cage out (as villain), Christophe Walz in
  • Inglorious Basterds: Simon Peg (Lt. Archie Hicox) out, Michael Fassbender in
  • The Lovely Bones: Ryan Gosling out, Mark Wahlberg in
  • Robin Hood: Sienna Miller out, Cate Blanchett in
  • The Fighter: Matt Damon/Brad Pitt out, Mark Wahlberg/Christian Bale in

I’m sure there are many more I’m forgetting as casting is one aspect that’s a pretty tough to keep up with. There’s even a site devoted to this very subject, its tagline says: Your favorite stars and the roles they didn’t get. Lots of interesting and surprising stuff! My favorite’s got to be the Most Entries page, apparently Audrey Hepburn turned down the most roles (58) and Gone with the Wind‘s got the most entry with 50 actors/directors being considered at one point.

What remains the biggest surprise of all to me (that’s probably old news to some of you) was Sean Connery’s passing on the role of Gandalf of the Lord of the Rings. According to the Scotsman, Connery turned down the largest paycheck in cinema history when he refused the offer. Reportedly, Peter Jackson said that New Line Cinema, the production company behind the trilogy, offered the Scottish actor between 10 and 15 per cent of worldwide box office takings to secure his participation. Which means he’d have earned about $372 million for putting on the long white beard and clasping the wizard’s staff! The reason for his refusal? He did not understand the complicated plot of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece, “Yeah, well, I never understood it. I read the book, I read the script, I saw the movie. I still don’t understand it. I would be interested in doing something that I don’t fully understand, but not for eighteen months.” Well, at least he didn’t seem to regret it, and Ian McKellen was great as the hero of Middle Earth, so it’s all good.

From watching the special features of Ben Hur, I also learned that The Naked Gun‘s Leslie Nielsen auditioned for the role of the ultimate villain Mesala. I always got a chuckle out of that one, which isn’t exactly fair as he probably could’ve been a serious actor before he did those slapstick comedies.

Obviously, one actor’s reject could mean a break for another. Check out some of of these famous roles that got away:

  • Sean Connery spurned the part of Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. It went to Christopher Plummer.
  • Julia Roberts rejected the starring role in Basic Instinct and Sharon Stone got it instead.
  • Tom Selleck turned down the Indiana Jones role in Raiders of the Lost Ark because he could not get out of the TV series Magnum. The second choice, Harrison Ford, became a superstar.
  • Gene Hackman said no to the role of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Anthony Hopkins then got the part.
  • Michelle Pfeiffer backed out of the role of agent Clarice Starling in the same film. As a result, Jodie Foster landed one of her biggest hits.
  • Johnny Depp turned down the role of Jack Traven in Speed, Keanu Reeves got it instead. Coincidentally, Depp was the Wachowski brothers’ very first choice for the role of “Neo” in The Matrix (1999), but since he wasn’t considered a box-office friendly name, Warner Bros. decided on casting Keanu Reeves instead. Depp also turned down Brad Pitt’s role in Mr & Mrs. Smith and Eric Bana’s in Ang Lee’s  Hulk in 2003.
  • Al Pacino rejected the role of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables, leaving it to Kevin Costner to take over the job.
  • Sylvester Stallone and Clint Eastwood both turned down Beverly Hills Cop – the part of Axel Foley went to wise-cracking Eddie Murphy instead.

NY daily news also has a pretty amusing visual lists of other movie roles that could have been. You’d have to click next every time which is a pain in the butt, but it’s worth a look.

Blog readers, if you have some interesting casting news to share, please do share in the comments section.

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14 thoughts on “Famous Roles That Got Away

    1. Sorry Becky, I’m not much of a baseball fan (not at all actually). Went to a Twins game about 10 yrs ago and thought the whole thing was utterly boring! Sorry =)

      1. PrairieGirl

        Not a baseball fan myself either, but when they win like they did one night after the Vikings, I claim bragging rights for both teams!

  1. Marc

    I remember feeling the same way when seeing that special feature on Ben Hur…oh, what might have been. But wow, didn’t know about Pacino for The Untouchables…guess a 3rd DePalma flick was to much for the might Al.

    But how about this one for your list?…Ghostbusters: John Candy out, Rick Moranis in

    Also Sean Connery was originally pegged (at one time) for Morpheus in The Matrix and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, but turned them both down because he “didn’t get it” and later took the role in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because he was upset for missing the boat on those great roles…tough break Sean. I guess after being Bond, you don’t live twice:P

    1. Marc

      And the Homer ‘D’Oh” Award goes to…Marc! I completely missed the biggest paragraph of your post which already covered the ‘Connery’ topic…my bad Ruth:P

  2. I am so glad connery never played Gandalf. It would have been terrible. The casting on those films is so perfect, they were right to make those last minute changes.

    I didn’t know that about Johnny Depp. Can’t imagine him in any of those films, especially not Hulk!

    1. Yup, Ian McKellen nails his Gandalf role so well, can’t imagine anyone else in that role. I’m just baffled why so many people want him in all kinds of projects, I mean, just ’cause he’s a great Bond?? Same with Depp, he’s just ill-suited for all the roles he’s offered, good thing he turned ’em down. Keanu is the perfect Neo for me, he’s not a great actor but he fits that character so well. Man, what I’d do to be a casting director for a day!!

  3. Interesting list, obviously Sean Connery’s career wasn’t ruined by missing a role or two.

    Anytime you want to leave a link to one of your posts on my movies page on Facebook, please feel free to do so. Your posts are interesting and I’m sure my readers there would enjoy them, too.

    1. Hi Brenda, yeah he’s the only actor who can get away with turning down a bunch of high-profile roles.

      Wow, how kind of you. Thanks so much for your kind words and your support. I’m not on FB personally but I’m thinking of opening an FB account for my blog 🙂

  4. The most recent ones are Julia Roberts turned down The Proposal and The Blind Side which become Sandra Bullock’s big hits in 2010 and one that won her the Oscar. Eat, Pray, Cry for Roberts then.

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