It’s not rare that a screenwriter leaves special instructions within his script – to be followed to the letter. Due to the respect that writers get in Hollywood, most of these are largely ignored. Some screenwriters long in the tooth even get playful with the system, the most notorious being Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black. Black’s scripts are filled with snarky in-jokes for the reader. In his script for The Last Boy Scout (which sold for a million dollars at the time – turning Black into a pariah and recluse), he writes:
“Remember Jimmy’s friend, Henry, who we met briefly near the opening of the film? Of course you do, you’re a highly-paid reader or development person.”
Screenwriters cast films in their minds while writing. It’s unavoidable. Some even write specific roles and dialogue in a cadence tailored perfectly to a particular actor. Oftentimes, the actor is flattered enough to do the role. However, there are times when the script is either just too awful to do, or perhaps it was a matter of a scheduling conflict. Either way, here are a few roles that wound up needing a substitute.
15. Harrison Ford – The Da Vinci Code
James Cameron‘s Pocahontas-in-space hit seems now largely forgotten by most audiences, though Cameron is still threatening two more sequels. Like all of his work, Avatar was a breakthrough in purely technical terms. Also like all of his work, the story was derivative, overwrought and interminably long.
Cameron wrote the role of Sully, the handicapped marine hunting the mineral unobtanium (ugh), with Matt Damon in mind. Damon seriously considered the role, talking to Cameron at length. He opted instead to make the less-successful but more personally satisfying Green Zone with friend and Bourne director Paul Greengrass.
Sully was eventually played by living CGI creation Sam Worthington.
13. Paul Schaefer – Seinfeld
What a strange alternate universe we’d be living in had Jason Alexander had just been another victim in the 80s cult slasher flick The Burning? Would he have ever landed his much coveted role in Dunston Checks In? This was almost a reality.
Before Jerry Seinfeld lived out Larry David‘s dream of having his own show, they were struggling to cast the pilot. Seinfeld reached out to friend and musician Paul Schaefer to play his neurotic sidekick. So confident that Schaefer was the perfect choice, the message Seinfeld left stated that he wouldn’t even have to audition for the role, just come in and do it. However, Schaefer had been David Letterman’s band leader since his first late night show in 1982, and never bothered to return Jerry’s call.
12. Bill Clinton – The Hangover Part II
Before The Hangover trilogy devolved into the Ken Jeong show, it was a broadly funny film about three guys trying to recollect a particularly ridiculous bachelor party. The second film, set in Bangkok, is generally considered to be one of those sequels that serves more as a remake in another setting.
One of the recurring gags involves Ed Helms‘ milquetoast orthodontist waking up the next morning with Mike Tyson‘s iconic, absurd face tattoo. They later visit the tattoo artist, played by director Nick Casavettes. The role was tossed like a hot potato through numerous potential cameos. Originally, the script envisioned Mel Gibson. When he refused, Liam Neeson planned to step in, but for unknown reasons dropped out.
The idea of Bill Clinton came about when he was coincidentally in town to give a speech about clean energy. While he visited the set, it is unclear whether or not they seriously offered him the role. Besides, the Clinton family already has one actor – his brother Roger, star of Pumpkinhead 2: Bloodwings.
11. Lindsay Lohan – The Hangover
For such a simple premise, the fact that The Hangover managed to stretch into a bloated trilogy is still baffling. In hindsight, Todd Phillips’ first film was not without ambition. Some, like Mike Tyson’s extended cameo, paid off.
Others, like casting Lindsay Lohan as the stripper Ed Helms drunkenly marries, were dead on arrival. Lohan was well into her downward spiral fuelled by alcohol, cocaine and an incurable case of insufferable narcissism. She refused the role, claiming that the script had “no potential.” Since, Lohan has said she regrets the decision, though this was 2009, and the number of decisions she regrets from that period blend together like a smoothie of shame.
10. George Clooney – Jack Frost
Sadly, we’re not talking about the Jack Frost in which the malignant spirit of a serial killer possesses a snowman and sexually assaults Shannon Elizabeth. Personally, that film really could have used the dulcet tones of the Clooney. But no, he was offered the role of a much more frightening homonymous film in which Clooney would have played a neglectful father who comes to life as a snowman with the help of a magic harmonica.
This bizarre entry in dead parent films such as Ghost Dad is more disturbing than charming, and Clooney wisely sidestepped what Michael Keaton sadly walked right into. Keaton’s career has bounced back recently thanks to Birdman and Spotlight. Post-Batman, however, films like this serve as a sad reminder of just how low the actor sank.
Also of note, Jack Frost features three of Frank Zappa’s children – Dweezil, Ahmet and Moon Unit.
9. Sylvester Stallone – Beverly Hills Cop
All the way back to 1977, a supremely coked-out Don Simpson developed an idea about a police officer from East Los Angeles being confronted with the posh Beverly Hills lifestyle. The first draft of the script was finished by horror scribe Danilo Bach in 1982, which featured Elly Axel, a streetwise cop from Pittsburgh displaced into a Robin Leach wet dream. It was written as a straight action film and stayed as such until Daniel Petrie Jr. was brought in to do rewrites.
Simpson’s producing partner/voice of reason Jerry Bruckheimer liked the humour and immediately offered the lead role (now Axel Elly) to the funniest man in Hollywood – Mickey Rourke. Unavailable, the script was passed to notorious Hollywood laugh factory Sylvester Stallone, who rewrote the script and transformed it back to a straight action picture.
By the time Eddie Murphy was offered the Axel Foley role proper, Stallone had taken the ideas he brought to the script (which were considered well over budget and involved a Lamborghini playing chicken with a freight train) and recycled them into what became Cobra.
8. George Clooney – Our Brand Is Crisis
George Clooney has established himself as not just a great actor, but an intelligent, talented director. Politically, his films tend to lean hard to the left and can wind up feeling a little preachy, but nevertheless entertaining. So it was no surprise that Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov (the guy who gets his heart ripped out by a super gorilla in Congo, the guy that wasn’t Tom Arnold in True Lies) set out to make a movie based on the 2005 documentary Our Brand Is Crisis, which follows political operative James Carville’s consulting firm as they help elect a Bolivian presidential candidate. The resulting film, which Clooney ended up only producing, is a heavy-handed look at the dirty politics behind elections.
It’s unclear whether Clooney initially intended to play Billy Bob Thornton‘s Carville-surrogate or whether Sandra Bullock‘s lead role was always intended to be female. Either way, there’s a good chance we missed our only opportunity to see a bald George Clooney.
7. Marilyn Monroe – Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Truman Capote’s novella, according to the late author, is not about a prostitute. Instead, he describes lead character Holly as an “American Geisha.” Blake Edwards’ loose adaptation of the book muddies the waters further, primarily due to the necessary obscurities insisted upon by the Hays Code. It’s hard to say if Holly Golightly is a call girl or just the lovely eccentric that has been borne into society’s image of the ideal manic pixie dream girl.
The novella describes Holly as Marilyn Monroe in appearance. Capote lobbied for her casting, and screenwriter George Axelrod was hired to tailor the role to the actress. Acting coach Lee Strasberg, however, advised Monroe that it may not be the best career move to play a hooker. Audrey Hepburn stepped in, and the role did for her what Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch had done for Monroe just a few years earlier.
6. Chevy Chase – American Beauty
Chevy Chase is a frustrating comic actor to like. For every Fletch or Community, there’s a dozen Snow Days and Cops and Robbersons. Worse yet, every time it seems the SNL legend appears to be getting back to the heart of what made him so initially beloved, behind the scenes troubles and drunken, angry phone calls leak that continue to suggest he’s just kind of a jerk.
But his work as the American everyman in the National Lampoon’s Vacation series are renowned for his brilliant deadpan comic timing. As Clark Griswold, for better and often for worse, he stood in as a surrogate for the flyover states in the U.S.; the hapless, clueless, lovable Midwesterner.
That is what likely led to him being offered the ultimate deconstruction of such a character in Sam Mendes‘ poorly dated American Beauty. The satiric barbs in Alan Ball‘s script have dulled with time, but it would have been a thrill to see Clark Griswold smoking weed and talking about Re-Animator. If only he hadn’t rejected the role.
5. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover – Simon Says
Jonathan Hensliegh’s spec script Simon Says wasn’t necessarily written for anyone in particular, but it did heavily feature and black cop and a white cop chasing down a madman who forces them to solve puzzles. It was first purchased by FOX and intended to be used as the basis for the fourth entry in the Lethal Weapon series.
Time passed, Lethal Weapon 4 seemed unlikely to happen anytime soon, and the script was quickly reshaped to fit another franchise. And that’s how Die Hard With A Vengeance came about.
It’s worth noting that only one Die Hard film is based on original material – the atrocious A Good Day to Die Hard. The first two films were based on separate novels, the third a spec script and Live Free or Die Hard found its inspiration in a Vanity Fair article about cyber attacks.
4. John Belushi – Spies Like Us
In this retroactively tragic interview, Dan Aykroyd discusses future plans for Aykroyd/Belushi team ups. The current film they’re promoting, Neighbours, was a box office disaster whose production sent MASH creator and screenwriter Larry Gelbart into a severe drinking binge. He couldn’t deal with Belushi’s out of control behaviour in pre-production echoed the times director John Landis had to browbeat him into working on The Blues Brothers.
One of the plans Aykroyd mentions turned into the Hope and Crosby road movie homage Spies Like Us, which featured Aykroyd playing against Chevy Chase rather than his kindred spirit. After Belushi passed away from an overdose of cocaine and heroin, the script was rewritten to fit Chase’s comic sensibilities.
3. John Belushi – Ghostbusters
Belushi’s overdose left Aykroyd without a comedic partner to play off and left numerous potential scripts in its wake. One of them, Ghostbusters, was first scripted as a buddy comedy set in the future with just two team members. Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz would remain intact in the finished film – his real-life nerd instincts and passion for the otherworldly informed the concept of the project from the start. But Belushi’s Venkman would have most likely been more boisterous and loud – reminiscent of his turn as Bluto in Animal House.
One would assume anyway. One of Belushi’s last films, Continental Drift, had some critics claiming he had the charm of Spencer Tracy. So perhaps the Venkman we got, played with restraint and charisma by Bill Murray, wasn’t far off from what Belushi would have lent to the film.
2. Christopher Lee – Dr. No
“Dreadful. Simply dreadful,” said author Ian Fleming after first seeing his creation come to life as Sean Connery in Bond’s first onscreen outing. Well, not quite his first outing. Casino Royale was adapted for the 1954 CBS show Climax! in which Barry Nelson plays “Jimmy Bond”. Dr. No was the first major theatrical adaptation of one of Fleming’s Bond novels. It was selected as the first because the price was right: it took place mostly in one setting and only featured one major action setpiece, unlike the other novels’ globetrotting exploits.
Bond on film has come full circle, with Daniel Craig playing the role as the racist blunt instrument that Fleming intended.
For the villain, Fleming wanted his step-cousin, actor Christopher Lee, for the role. He then suggested play and songwriter Noel Coward, who responded with a terse, “Dr. No? No. No.” Producer Albert R. Broccoli, however, had already selected actor Joseph Wiseman. This was in 1962, when whitewashing wasn’t just considered a nonissue, but the norm. The fact that Dr. No was of Asian descent was nothing a darker shade of make up couldn’t fix.
Lee eventually would show up as a Bond villain as Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, a film younger generations will recognize as the second most annoying weapon in Goldeneye multiplayer after Oddjob.
1. James Woods – Reservoir Dogs
Quentin Tarantino regularly writes roles with specific actors in mind, usually for actors that informed his cinematic passion as a young video store clerk. He has successfully revived the careers of John Travolta and Kurt Russell, and furthered the celebrity of the likes of Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Samuel L. Jackson (Walton Goggins seems to be his current star-maker pet project).
One actor notably absent from Tarantino’s world of gritty violence and eccentric vulgarity is James Woods, who made a career in the 80s playing smarmy underworld creeps. His Oscar nominated turn in Oliver Stone‘s Salvador as a hard drinking photojournalist stands not only as proof of his immense talent, but also how well he would fit in the Tarantinoverse.
And Tarantino seemed to think so. For his directorial debut, he wrote a role specifically for the actor. Woods’ agent didn’t even bother forwarding the script along. When the actor learned of this years later, he fired said agent on the spot.
Though it’s commonly believed the role was Roth’s undercover cop Mr. Orange, Tarantino has never publicly stated as such. And Woods would have fit in just as well as Steve Buscemi‘s jittery motor-mouthed Mr. Pink.
Either way, it certainly seems Woods’ career could use a Tarantino injection right about now – he’s been largely ostracized from Hollywood due to his hard right politics, reduced to bad Southern accents in the Straw Dogs remake and direct-to-DVD schlock.
Sources: Wikipedia, IMDB, YouTube, Stylecaster
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