The movie business is all about timing. Actors and agents have to collaborate in hopes of finding the right roles at the right time to benefit the talent’s career. There are basically two motivations for an actor taking a role. The financial aspect of a job means just as much to entertainers as it does to the rest of us in our fields. Many performers will sacrifice the artistic pride in favor of a big fat check. The top names however have more freedom to pick and choose the roles they want to add to the legacy of their careers.
Household names typically select movie titles and roles that will showcase their talent among the best in the industry. The sense of achievement from putting all of your efforts into something that will entertain the audience through thought-provoking art has to provide a huge rush that actors seek in their most pivotal acting jobs. Unfortunately, not everyone has a perfect track record and many of the most beloved names in the movie business have gone wrong with their decision making at least one or twice. We’ll look at some of those here and figure out how in the world these successful actors passed on legendary movie roles.
14 Will Smith: Neo in The Matrix
The massive success of The Matrix led to Keanu Reeves taking his role in Hollywood to the next level as one of the most famous actors in the world. Reeves portrayed hacker Neo in the iconic film that was universally loved by critics and viewers. The movie is still referred to as one of the best movies with a combination of action and science fiction.
1999 culture saw The Matrix become one of the most popular films and you had to know about it to survive workplace or school conversations. The shocking realization is Will Smith was offered the lead role as Neo, but decided to turn down the hit project. To make matters worse, Smith chose the horrid Wild Wild West film instead of The Matrix. Smith has stated that he wasn’t mature enough for the role at the time and doesn’t regret the decision. However, there has to be some part of him that wishes he could have dazzled us as Neo instead of Reeves.
13 Michelle Pfeiffer: Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct
Basic Instinct was one of the most successful films released in 1992. The movie both grossed huge money in the box office during release and stood the test of time as a flick still referenced in society today. Everyone remembers one specific scene featuring Sharon Stone crossing her legs and exposing her private area. Stone claimed she had no knowledge of the nudity being part of the film and thought her flesh colored underwear would prevent it.
That may be a lie considering Michelle Pfeiffer originally turned down the role of Catherine due to having no interest in the nudity. Pfeiffer stated the idea of her father having to watch the film was enough reasoning to turn down the movie. You have to wonder if the movie would live on in the same vain with Pfeiffer in place of Stone. Pfeiffer was obviously stunning, but Stone played that role to perfection.
12 Jim Carrey: Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
The career of Johnny Depp will most likely be linked to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise for a long time. One franchise creating that many hit films is the dream for any studio. Depp hit a home run as usual with his role as Jack Sparrow. You can question many things about Depp, but he definitely gives his all to his acting gigs and the role of Sparrow was no different. It is hard to envision anyone else in the world playing Sparrow - but Depp wasn’t the first choice.
Of all actors, Jim Carrey was originally pegged to play Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but it luckily never worked out. Carrey doesn’t stand out as an ideal fit for what the character would become. The studio likely wanted to utilize his star power to go in a completely comedic route in a lesser risk. They took the risk on Depp and the rest is history as one of the highest grossing film franchises ever.
11 Nicolas Cage: Randy the Ram in The Wrestler
Nicolas Cage has made many peculiar decisions in the latter stages of his acting career. The once highly respected actor has harmed his legacy by going after many box office duds with no creativity for a fat salary. Not only does Cage take terrible movie roles, but he has turned down some hits. The Wrestler was one of the surprise success stories in 2008 with Mickey Rourke turning his career around as Randy “The Ram” Robinson.
Rourke was nominated for the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role at the 81st Academy Awards and many felt he deserved the win. Cage was offered the same role and even went as far as to attend Ring of Honor wrestling shows to study for the role. The decision was made to turn down the project around the time of negotiations. An educated guess would see the money being the reason why he turned it down and it ended up being a horrible regret of many for Cage.
10 Angelina Jolie: Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity
The highly acclaimed release of Gravity in 2013 led to huge success for everyone involved. Sandra Bullock stole the show as the lead actress in the film portraying Dr. Ryan Stone. The role was the most important to the movie delivering and Bullock hit a home run. Gravity had the most nominations for the 86th Academy Awards with ten, including Bullock getting the nomination for Best Lead Actress.
Director Alfonso Cuaron admitted that Bullock’s amazing performance may not have ever happened if the first choice agreed to the role. Angelina Jolie was originally meant to play Stone, but backed out due to schedule conflicts making it impossible for the filming to work out. This could have been a new high for Jolie’s career, but Bullock instead took the role and did not fail to deliver. Both actresses are supremely talented, but watching the film made it clear Bullock was meant to be the star here.
9 Matt Damon: Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight
Everyone loves a good Batman movie and The Dark Knight is by far the best film in the franchise’s history. Most would say it tops any movie in the superhero genre for having one of the best stories in such a project. There were multi-faceted characters involved, especially the change of Harvey Dent from a hero into a villain. Aaron Eckhart played Dent and pulled off the Two-Face character perfectly to add to the greatness of the film.
Hollywood superstar Matt Damon was originally offered the role of Dent, but turned it down due to the scheduling not working due to his other projects. Damon has proved to have great range and easily could have done just as great a job as Eckhart. No one would have topped Heath Ledger’s work as The Joker in that specific film so the Dent character was viewed as secondary. That may have been another factor in Damon letting the role pass him by.
8 Emily Blunt: Black Widow in Iron Man 2
Scarlett Johansson has become a fixture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Widow Natasha Romanoff. The character is one of the strongest females in the comic book movie world and Johansson can proudly say she played a role in the culture change in the field. Black Widow is just as important to the Avengers team as any of the male counterparts and that never would have happened as recent as fifteen years ago.
The initial role of Black Widow was first offered to Emily Blunt in the Iron Man 2 film. Blunt was to be introduced as Romanoff to the MCU audience. While there have been actor changes with The Hulk, the studio likely would have committed to Blunt as Black Widow for the long haul. Blunt turned down the role due to timing and a low contract offer, but she claims she has no regrets of missing out. Johansson seemed better fit for the role and is an integral part to the Avengers brand.
7 Harrison Ford: Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park
Everyone loves Harrison Ford for his ability to perfectly portray the heroic character in any film he appeared in during his prime. Ford is definite superstar that will always be idolized for his impressive body of work, but even he missed out on some hit roles. The lead role of Dr. Alan Grant in the original Jurassic Park movie was offered to Ford before Sam Neill.
Steven Spielberg admitted the role was Ford’s for the taking during a panel interview session and Ford quickly changed the subject. The career of Ford is unquestionable, but he does seem like he would have been perfect for Jurassic Park. Can’t you just imagine him saving kids from vicious dinosaurs? This is one of the rare scenarios on this list that may have been better than the actual history that took placed. Neill did a very good job, but Ford could have provided another cool dynamic as the star of the iconic franchise.
6 Julia Roberts: Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side
This is the second example on the list of a star actress dropping out of a great role only for Sandra Bullock to get the opportunity and deliver a great performance. Bullock portrayed Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side. The story was based on the life of NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher, but with a few changes and over dramatizations to make it better suited for Hollywood. For the heartwarming story to work, Bullock had to hit a home run in her role and she sure did.
Julia Roberts was initially chosen to play Tuohy, but refused to take a pay cut for the role. The role landed Bullock a nomination for Best Leading Actress at the 82nd Academy Awards and had to make Roberts regret her decision. This wasn’t the first time Roberts turned down a role that eventually trickled down to Bullock. The same story happened for the lead role in The Proposal. Bullock may owe a few “thank you” cards to Roberts.
6. Ian McKellen: Dumbledore in Harry Potter
The Harry Potter series went on produce some of the greatest and highest grossing films in movie history. Many questioned the movies being able to capture the essence of the books, but it managed to take the brand to new levels. The role of Dumbledore was pivotal to the success of the first two films, but actor Richard Harris unfortunately passed away forcing the role to open up.
Considering he would play Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings franchise, Ian McKellen seemed perfect for the role and was offered it. McKellen claimed he turned it down due to the late Harris not being a fan of his work. The awkward change would make him feel like he was disrespecting the wishes of the actor associated with the role he would be taking. Michael Gambon eventually would get the job and did a great job as Dumbledore, but you just know McKellen could have made it a legendary addition to his career.
5 Michael Keaton: Phil Connors in Groundhog Day
The legendary career of Bill Murray saw him dominate the comedic acting world with various iconic movies. Many would argue Groundhog Day was his best overall movie with a great story and it’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to pull off the Phil Connors character. Murray knew how to play the different tones associated with someone reliving the same day every day with no end in sight. The range needed to pull it off is something not every actor has, but Murray did.
As crazy as it is to believe, Murray wasn’t the first choice for the lead role. Michael Keaton was initially selected to play Connors. No disrespected intended to Keaton, who was a talented actor in his own right, but the film would have not be historically adored today if that happened. Sometimes, things just happen for a reason and Murray inheriting that role made perfect sense. Keaton turned it down because it didn’t understand how the story could play out in a comedic route and has stated he regrets it.
4 Angela Bassett: Leticia Musgrove in Monster's Ball
Hale Berry’s historic performance as Leticia Musgrove led to her becoming the first African-American woman to win Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Academy Awards for her work in Monster’s Ball. The highly acclaimed film put Berry on the radar as an elite actress in Hollywood. Her legacy is forever cemented thanks to one role. Don’t get it wrong. Berry had a strong career before Monster’s Ball, but it just put her on another level historically.
Another great actress was offered the role first when Angela Bassett had the chance to Leticia, but turned it down. Bassett claimed the role was a cliché of a negative stereotype about black women and would not play a “prostitute” on film. The moral stance is of one’s personal opinion. Maybe the accolades Berry received for the role doesn’t impact her, but it looks like a poor decision in retrospect. Berry benefited greatly from Bassett’s unhappiness with the writing of the role.
3 Leonardo DiCaprio: Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
American Psycho is still celebrated today for Christian Bale’s work in the lead role as Patrick Bateman. Bale has established a tremendous career in acting and is still adding to the resume, but it all took off with American Psycho becoming his calling card. While it may not be complimentary to say someone can easily pull off portraying a serial killer, it led to Bale gaining credibility as a leading man.
The most surprising note about the role is Leonardo DiCaprio was first offered it before Bale. DiCaprio actually agreed to star in the film and Lionsgate sent out press releases confirming it. Conflicting schedules would force DiCaprio to leave American Psycho in favor of filming The Beach. All things even, DiCaprio is a better actor than Bale, but Bale was clearly the best choice for American Psycho. It would have been fascinating to see DiCaprio play the role, but there’s no doubt Bale did as well as anyone else could.
2 Bill Murray: Forrest Gump
The success of Forrest Gump is unquestioned with success in just about every aspect of cinema. Tom Hanks starred in the lead role and won an Academy Award for Best Actor. The movie also raked in Best Picture, Best Director and many others awards. It made great money and received tremendous feedback from fans and critics alike. The film is still enjoyed by new generations today and Hanks will always be remembered for his legendary performance.
Bill Murray revealed during an interview with Howard Stern that he was originally offered the role, but had no interest in it. Despite the success, Murray said he had no regrets on missing out because he never finished reading the script or even watched the movie. Murray’s talent is among the best in the history of the acting industry, but Forrest Gump just doesn’t seem like the role he would excel in. Hanks getting it worked out for the best for all involved.
1 Al Pacino: Han Solo in Star Wars
The most hilarious story of a star turning down an iconic role featured Al Pacino not wanting to play Han Solo in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Pacino was offered the opportunity to become the iconic character in the biggest movie franchise in American history, but had no interest because the script confused him. At the time, Star Wars was taking a risk by stepping out of the typical world of standard films to shoot for the moon and they delivered.
Pacino could not grasp the story and let the role go. Harrison Ford replaced him and became synonymous with the legendary character. The recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie gave Ford reprising the role one more time and he still provided incredible entertainment value. Han Solo was the heart of the Star Wars story and Pacino turning it down gave us the gift of Ford making the role into something extraordinary.