Imagine: you’re an actor who’s being considered for a role in what promises to be a big movie. The film might be a little riskier than what you’re usually known for. You meet with the director, talk about the film, and take some time to think about it. Sure, it’s a tough decision, but you ultimately decide to pass having weighed the possibilities. Even if it’s a movie you really want to do, the offer might be conflicting with something else you’re working. With no hard feelings, the actor and the director part ways.
The movie comes out and it’s a hit. First week in theatres and it has grossed already twice what it cost to make. Not only that, it’s a critical success and the reviews are raving with 5 stars everywhere you look. It would have secured your career as an actor, and increased your fame and reputation in manifold ways.
This is a common story in the movie business. It’s easy to think that the stars of these blockbuster hits were handpicked by the screenwriter from the outset but in the real world actors haven’t always jumped on board those movies that became some of the biggest critical and box-office successes in history.
Whatever the reason for passing up on a promising script, some of the best known actors in the world have passed up the chance to diversify their careers with some of the most iconic roles in movie history. Now, given the success of the following five movies, it’s almost impossible to imagine the key roles played by someone else. Would the movie would have just as good? Different? Better? Terrible? Unfortunately there’s just no way to know for sure what would have been; these are 5 of the biggest leading roles that never were.
5. Brokeback Mountain – Mark Wahlberg
Brokeback Mountain, based on Annie Proulx’s novel of the same name, was bound to be controversial and any actor who was considered for the lead roles of Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar knew that. Directed by the renowned Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Life of Pi), the story follows two cowboys hired to herd sheep on a Wyoming mountain. They develop a sexual relationship and a torrid love affair that lasts for decades in spite of their separate lives—and their wives and children. It’s since been reported that none other than Mark Wahlberg was offered the role of Jack in this film that went on to win 3 Academy Awards and 4 Golden Globes and grossed $178 million. It ranks fifth among the highest-grossing westerns since 1979 and is among the highest-grossing romantic dramas since 1980 to the present day.
When asked about it, Wahlberg claimed he was too “creeped out” by the gay love scenes and that the movie, although portrayed in good taste, just wasn’t “his deal.”
4. The Godfather – Jack Nicholson
The Godfather has been dubbed one of the greatest movies in American cinematic history. That’s quite the achievement if you were the director or one of the actors who starred in this iconic gangster flick. It generated 2 sequels from its success, all of which were just as big as the first. The film about a mafia family’s crime syndicate starred Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, and became the highest-grossing film of 1972. To date, after reissues, rentals and theatrical runs, it has grossed an estimated $245 million.
In a 2004 interview with Movieline, Jack Nicholson told reporters that he had been offered the role Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) but turned it down. According to Nicholson, it just wasn’t his role to play. “There were a lot of actors who could have played Michael, myself included,” Nicholson said, “but Al Pacino was Michael Corleone.” The film might have won 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but for Nicholson, there’s no hard feelings.
3. Apollo 13 – Brad Pitt
“Houston, we have a problem.” That’s what Brad Pitt might have been thinking when Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard, exploded into theatres in 1995. The story of survival of the crew on the doomed thirteenth mission to the moon, the movie features an all-star cast including Ed Harris, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, and Tom Hanks. Cast members had a chance to let loose and prepare for their roles when they attended the U.S. Space Camp. Brad Pitt would have been there to join them had he not turned down the lead role in favour of the thriller Se7en. Although Apollo 13 had a worldwide gross of $355 million, Pitt couldn’t have been lurking for too long when Se7en took in its own $327.3 million and went on to become an iconic part of Hollywood history in its own right.
2. The Matrix – Will Smith
The red pill or the blue pill? Take the lead role in a bizarre sci-fi movie or pass it off to someone else? That was a question Will Smith probably asked himself when he was offered the role as Neo in the visually-stunning and thought-provoking The Matrix. Widely known for pioneering the famous “bullet time” scene in which Neo barely dodges a bullet, the movie features some of the most gripping and best-shot action sequences and visual special effects ever seen. The movie made $464 million and ranked as the highest grossing R-rated film of 1999. The role of the film’s protagonist, Neo, as played by Keanu Reeves, was passed on by superstar Will Smith. Is Smith kicking himself for it? According to him, he might have just “messed it up,” but there’s no telling what the popular movie franchise could have done for his career, and his wallet.
1. The Dark Knight – Matt Damon
Although it’s probably the subject of dozens of endless arguments among comic book aficionados the globe over, Batman is one of the greatest superhero characters that ever graced hundreds of books, television episodes, and movies. When Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception) rebooted the lucrative franchise in 2005 and went on to release the much-hyped The Dark Knight, fans all over the world waited with bated breath for the film’s release in 2008. Although the lead was already taken by Christian Bale, the part of Harvey Dent (the coin-flipping villain known as Two Face, played by Aaron Eckhart) was still up for grabs—and was turned down by Matt Damon. Damon never actually spoke to director Nolan about the role, because a simple scheduling conflict meant it was impossible for him to take part. Even though Damon said that Eckhart contributed only good things to the film, it still might hurt a little that movie is the 18th highest-grossing movie of all time, raking in over $1 billion is worldwide revenue.