Chances are if you turn down a job you later regret, not too many people are going to beat you up over it. After all, your friends and family -– if they’re not a-holes -– will probably be too busy consoling you to make fun of you. But movie stars don’t quite have that luxury. When they turn down a role only to see some other actor turn it into something iconic, the whole world gets to know about it. Sure, their loved ones are probably just as sympathetic as yours would be, but unfortunately for them, we’re not their loved ones and, well, we kind of are a-holes and so we don’t mind reminding these nine actors and the whole world just what a giant mistake they made, and we don’t mind asking the question that is probably on their minds every day: just what would that movie have been like had they not turned it down?
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9 Keanu Reeves
The Movie/Role: Chris Taylor in Platoon
Yes, believe it or not, Keanu Reeves was offered the lead role in Platoon by Oliver Stone, a role which eventually went to Charlie Sheen. Sheen managed to capture the role of the wide eyed idealist who is torn between the various angels and devils on his shoulder during his tour of Vietnam and while it might have been amusing to watch Keanu call a Vietcong soldier “Dude” over and over again, somehow I doubt that the film would have retained its gravity if the main character kept exclaiming “Whoa!” every time something happened. Then again, Keanu probably could have pulled off the scene when everyone sits around getting stoned because, well… have you heard the dude talk? In the end, it’s probably a good thing that Keanu turned down the part. He ended up finding his own path to fame, Stone managed to guide Platoon to an Oscar for best picture, and Charlie Sheen took the first steps toward being, well, Charlie Sheen which ensured that a nation of whores and coke dealers were provided with gainful employment for over twenty years. So, you see, everybody won.
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8 Sylvester Stallone
The Movie/Role: Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop
Uh, obviously Beverly Hills Cop would have been way, WAY different if Stallone had taken the role of Axel Foley. Something tells me he wouldn’t have exactly turned Foley into the funny pain in the ass supercop made famous by Eddie Murphy. Instead, the comedy/action hybrid probably would have lost most of its comic punch and been reduced to a loud explodaganza (which is totally a word) heavy on the fight scenes and low on the smart-ass ingenuity of Murphy, which is what made the movie so unique and turned it into a monster hit. Oh, and also, Axel probably wouldn’t have been black, although it would have been interesting to watch Stallone try to pull off the role in blackface. And by interesting, I mean horrifying.
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7 Mel Gibson
The Movie/Role: The Terminator in, uh, The Terminator
It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone but Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the unstoppable cybernetic killing machine in The Terminator but it almost happened and Mel Gibson was almost the guy whose sole mission was to find and destroy Sarah Connor. I’m guessing, given what we know now, that Mel probably would have gone about things a bit differently than Arnold. Whereas Arnold hunted down Sarah with a cold ruthless determination, Mel probably would have just called her up and screamed at her until she lost her mind. Arnold preferred to kill young John Connor before he was born but Mel probably would have waited until the kid was born and then slapped him a few times. Of course, Arnold became famous for his one-liners but Mel probably would have been able to match him on that count. Arnold had “I’ll be back,” but Mel would have had “I am going to come and burn the f*cking house down… but you will blow me first,” which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well but is no less intimidating in its own way.
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6 Will Smith
The Movie/Role: Neo in The Matrix
Yes, before Keanu Reeves made the role of Neo famous, Hollywood asked just about everyone else to play the part, most famously Will Smith. Unlike a lot of actors who turn down famous roles, Smith actually seems to feel like he made the right decision, apparently saying that he would have just screwed the whole thing up. Is he right? Probably. I mean, Keanu’s, uh, let’s call it unique personality actually lent itself perfectly to the bewildered Neo. He was just along for the ride, wide eyed and unsure of what in the hell was going on around him. Will Smith on the other hand is far too self-aware to have pulled off Neo’s bewilderment. I can almost guarantee that he would have been throwing down one liners and cracking jokes whenever things got a little awkward. Imagine Will Smith waking up in a tub of goo and not being, well, all Will Smith about it. On the plus side, he probably could have gotten DJ Jazzy Jeff a role as one of Morpheus’ crew members which would have kept Jeff from having to beat box for quarters on street corners and would have given him something to brag about during his weekly support group meetings with Art Garfunkel, Peter Scolari, Andrew Ridgeley and every member of N’Sync not named Justin Timberlake.
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5 Julia Roberts
The Movie/Role: Mary Corleone in The Godfather, Part III
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that people’s perception of the third installment of the Godfather saga would be vastly different if the key role of Mary would have been played by, let’s say any competent actress rather than by the director’s daughter. So, obviously, things probably would have been just a tad better if Julia Roberts would have accepted the part. How much better is anyone’s guess. It’s strange though. I can’t really picture Julia Roberts playing the daughter of Michael Corleone. Something just seems really, really… wrong. I’m not sure what it is. There is a fragile innocence and a naiveté to Mary that I just don’t think Julia Roberts could have pulled off. When I think of Julia Roberts of the late ‘80s, I don’t exactly think of a sheltered ingénue. I think streetwise hooker. Still, the movie probably would have been improved since Julia Roberts can actually say her lines without sounding like she is reading them off of a page memorized in her head which, sadly, is more than I can say for Sophia Coppola.
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4 Tom Selleck
The Movie/Role: Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Yeah, this almost happened. But Selleck passed on the movie when he realized that it would interfere with his plans to bring the character of Thomas Magnum to life in the groundbreaking (ahem) Magnum P.I. You have to imagine that after sitting through Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time and seeing Harrison Ford create an instantly iconic character that Selleck’s first thoughts hovered somewhere between “Son of a…” and “I wonder if that beam can support my weight and this noose?” Obviously, Indy would have been a different character in the hands of anyone other than Ford. In fact, if you really look at the character and the movie, you can see that in the wrong hands, the character could have very quickly become a cheesy, campy joke. Could Selleck have maintained the balance between old school serial camp and undeniable cool which Ford mastered so well? Probably not. In his hands, the character probably would have come off more like the lead character in a Sci-Fi Channel original movie. I mean, there are movie stars and then there are TV stars. Harrison Ford is a movie star. Tom Selleck is Magnum P.I. Also, the world would have been forever denied the Magnum Mustache, which in its own way is just as iconic as the character of Indiana Jones. You can disagree with me all you want, but just try to think of a world in which the Magnum Mustache never existed. Terrifying, isn’t it?
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3 Sean Connery
The Movies/Roles: Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings + Morpheus in The Matrix
That’s right, Sean Connery turned down both the role of Gandalf and the part of Morpheus. His reason for turning down the role of Gandalf was reportedly because he didn’t want to commit to the grueling eighteen month filming schedule, which is probably for the best because in interviews, Connery referred to Hobbits as Bobbits. He wouldn’t have known what in the hell was going on. He would have shown up on set every day, looked around and saw midgets with pointy ears and beards and thought, “WTF?” Eighteen months of that probably would have driven the poor old dude insane. As for the role of Morpheus, Connery reportedly turned it down because after reading the script he had no clue what the damn movie was about. Are you sensing a theme here? Who knows what either of these movies would have been like with Connery? I’m guessing things would have gone south on the set of The Lord of the Rings after he turned to Peter Jackson and said “What in the hell is a Frodo?” And as for Morpheus… can you even imagine Sean Connery trying to play that part? Laurence Fishburne is Morpheus.
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2 James Caan
The Movie/Role: Superman/Clark Kent in Superman
I don’t even know what to say here. This is an idea that seems so absurd that you have to imagine that everyone involved was either stranded high upon the peaks of Mt. Cocaine or else they just had really, really bad taste, and since it was the late ‘70s, either scenario is pretty damn likely. James Caan as Superman. I keep trying to picture it and then I start laughing when I imagine Superman acting like, well, like James friggin’ Caan. Somehow, the picture of Superman or Clark Kent strutting around in a gold chain, exuding machismo, doesn’t really seem right. Then again, maybe it would have been fun to watch Superman beat the holy hell out of Lex Luthor with a trash can. Who’s to say?
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1 Al Pacino
The Movie/Role: Han Solo in Star Wars
Al Pacino famously turned down the role of Han Solo and no matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap my head around the idea of Pacino playing Han. Part of that is probably because I can’t imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing the part, but part of it is also because Al Pacino had just spent the past several years as Michael Corleone in the eyes of the public. To turn around and play Han Solo after all that would have just been… weird. While he certainly could have pulled off the quiet menace of Han, I just can’t see Pacino pulling off the rogue charm which is so important to the role. Pacino definitely would have shot Greedo first but he probably would have just creeped Leia out. He was almost too intense for the part. Han was dangerous but he was also laid back, which created a compelling package which Ford made iconic. It might sound bizarre to say, but I doubt that Pacino could have pulled it off. Then again, if he did take the role, he might have been able to get Chewbacca a part in Scarface and if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s that we are poorer as a culture for never getting to see Chewbacca do a mountain of blow and shoot Cubans with a machine gun. Oh well.
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(Previously published on April 21, 2011.)