To a hungry young actor or actress looking for their big break, just about any role in a major motion picture feels like the opportunity of a lifetime. All it takes is the right amount of screen time in a popular enough film for someone to suddenly become the most talked about sensation in Hollywood, and one can never truly know which movie will be a hit. Of course, once a celebrity reaches a certain level of fame, they don’t necessarily need to rely on the hope some random movie will reestablish their fame.
For this reason, an actor might quickly pass on a role that doesn’t catch their eye, only to later seriously regret the decision when the person who actually takes the job winds up using it to change movie history. To some celebrities, this is an all too common occurrence, wantonly turning down what would become iconic roles left and right and ultimately losing hundreds of millions of dollars for it. One actor actually lost what could have been the highest single paycheck for a film simply because he wasn’t interested in the material.
Obviously, every person to turn down a job has a reason for doing so, and that goes for Hollywood actors like anyone else. Strange as it may look in retrospect, the fact they didn’t have the time, energy, or desire to take one random offer really isn’t that surprising. The fact it was an understandable mistake hardly undoes the pain of realizing how much they missed out on when it’s all said and done. Keep reading to learn about 15 iconic movie roles you won’t believe these actors turned down.
15 Chevy Chase Wasn’t Right For Animal House
During the late 1970s, it could easily be argued Chevy Chase was the most popular comedy actor alive. Everyone from the original cast of Saturday Night Live was an instant star, but it was Weekend Update host Chase who won the show’s first Emmy awards and earned the most mainstream attention. Contrary to tradition, it was actually for this reason that director John Landis did whatever he could to talk Chase out of appearing in his film Animal House despite producer Ivan Reitman asking him to do the exact opposite.
When Chase was ready to leave SNL behind, he had two film offers in front of him with Animal House and Foul Play. He ended up choosing the latter after a conversation with Landis, who told him he’d stand out as a leading man, while in Animal House, he’d be just one of many actors in the ensemble.
Had Chase accepted, he would have played the role Otter, which eventually went to Tim Matheson. Annoyed as Reitman was that Landis lost a potential star, the decision is easy to understand. Chase really would have taken away the other actors’ spotlight, and his sarcastic style didn’t quite jive with the madcap insanity of the Deltas. On top of that, at 35, he was a little old to head back to college.
14 Sarah Michelle Gellar Was Too Busy To Be Clueless
On the surface, if there are any two characters throughout pop culture history that could be called polar opposites, they would be Buffy Summers and Cher Horowitz. That said, there’s also a way to look at things and see Cher as the girl Buffy always wished she could be — just a normal kid free of worldly responsibility. In fact, Cher is basically the same type of person Buffy was before getting called as the Slayer, making Sarah Michelle Gellar perfect for both roles. Of course, Clueless came out two years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit the air, so that didn’t exactly have anything to do with it, but nonetheless, casting director Marcia Ross has confirmed that Gellar was the original choice to play film’s most famous valley girl.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. Prior to becoming a vampire slayer, Gellar was already famous on television for her portrayal of Kendall Hart on the soap opera All My Children. While Gellar likely could have brought great energy to Cher, she probably doesn’t regret sticking with her original gig, as it scored her the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Younger Actress in a Drama series. There’s no faulting the actress who eventually got the part, either, as Alicia Silverstone was picture perfect as a spoiled teen who sympathized with Haitians despite not knowing how to pronounce the word.
13 Michael Madsen Wouldn’t Reserve Time For Pulp Fiction
From his very first film, writer-director Quentin Tarantino was changing the way movies were made. At once violent, hilarious, and boldly dramatic, Reservoir Dogs instantly made him a name to watch, and Hollywood insiders were instantly interested in what could possibly come next. When Pulp Fiction arrived, it further wowed audiences and critics alike, reviving the career of John Travolta, who played top billed character Vincent Vega. That almost didn’t happen, though, as Travolta was actually just the second choice for the role.
Initially, Tarantino wanted to make the crossover between his two films even more blatant by casting a Reservoir Dogs actor to play a character with the same last name in Pulp Fiction.
Though he was primarily called “Mr. Blonde,” Michael Madsen’s real name in the first movie was Vic Vega, which would have made him Vincent’s brother. For this reason, Tarantino wanted the actor to play both roles, but the time didn’t allow it. At the same time Pulp Fiction was filming, Madsen already committed to Kevin Costner’s Western Wyatt Earp. Not only did Madsen admit to The Guardian that he regretted the decision when Earp bombed at the box office, but Tarantino wasn’t happy either, refusing to speak to the actor for years. Eventually, they rekindled their relationship when Madsen appeared in Kill Bill.
12 Leonardo DiCaprio Regrets Missing Out On Boogie Nights
Leonardo DiCaprio had a particularly tough choice to make. Would he sign on to play the lead in a cult classic that would have solidified his status as a legitimate actor instead of a teen idol, or would he dig into that latter persona and star in the highest grossing film in history at the time? Obviously, he didn’t know that’s what Titanic would become just yet, but the potential alone was enough for him to turn down a fictional adult film career as Dirk Diggler and jumped on “the unsinkable ship.”
Surprisingly, when DiCaprio later explained the decision, it didn’t have anything to do with commercial appeal or concerns about playing such a risqué role merely one year after gaining millions of teenage fans with Romeo + Juliet. Instead, as he explained to Australia’s Kyle and Jackie O Show, he simply wasn’t familiar with Boogie Nights writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, and thus wasn’t interested in the project. Since then, he’s had time to sit down and watch Anderson’s work, leading to his regret about the choice. Nonetheless, he was always a good sport in rejecting the role, having allegedly been the one to suggest his replacement, Mark Wahlberg.
11 Henry Winkler Had Enough Of Greased Lightning
When it comes to iconic 1950s bikers who came to fame in the late 1970s, the first two names anyone thinks of are probably Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli of Happy Days fame and Danny Zuko from Grease. Were it up to that film’s producers, the two may as well have been one and the same. Originally, actor Henry Winkler, who became a household name as the Fonz, was asked to play the leader of the T-Birds in the throwback musical. Not only was Winkler too busy with his sitcom to take the part, though, but he also had an issue with the fact he was already known primarily for playing 50s bikers. Speaking to AARP The Magazine many years after the fact, Winkler simply explained,
However, he immediately acknowledged this wasn’t the best logic, continuing, “But [I’m] typecast anyway.” Indeed, he pretty much already was, after having taken a second role as a leather-bad greaser in The Lords of Flatbush during season one of Happy Days. For that reason, and because it could have made him loads of money, Winkler also admitted regret over his past choices. In addition to missing out on an iconic role that made John Travolta a star, Winkler also deprived himself of several massive hit singles he would have sang on the film’s soundtrack.
10 Michelle Pfeiffer Wouldn’t Silence Any Lambs
Theoretically, the idea of an Oscar winner wanting to star in an upcoming film should make any director ecstatic. Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case when Jonathan Demme heard The Accused star Jodie Foster was heavily interested in playing the lead of his latest project, The Silence of the Lambs.
Despite her Academy Award, Demme stated during the 2014 Austin Film Festival that he wasn’t that impressed with Foster’s past performances, and wasn’t sure she could pull off the nuances required to capture the complex detective Clarice Starling.
Before he was willing to consider Foster, Demme had a long list of actresses he would have preferred, but they all turned him down. First up was Michelle Pfeiffer, who was quick to admit she thought the role was interesting, but the dark subject of serial killers made her uncomfortable. Next was Meg Ryan, who Demme suggested was almost offended to even be offered. Finally, he wanted Laura Dern, but producers felt she didn’t quite have the mainstream appeal they were seeking. With no other options, Demme gave Foster another shot, and later admitted he was very impressed with the results. So was the Academy, giving Foster her second Oscar for the iconic performance. We’ll never know if Pfeiffer or any of the others would have achieved the same honor.
9 Denzel Washington Wishes He Reconsidered Michael Clayton
When it comes to Hollywood royalty, few names earn more respect than Denzel Washington. Since the mid '90s onward, the multiple Academy Award winner has pretty much had his pick of whatever role he wants, but even the best can make mistakes. Speaking retrospectively with GQ magazine about his career, Washington would actually admit he made at least two pretty big ones during his career. Asked if he ever regretted turning down roles, Washington quickly answered, “Seven and Michael Clayton.” He didn’t have an explanation for the first one, but he continued his answer about Michael Clayton by saying,
For what it’s worth, the Academy seemed to have less reservations, eventually nominating Terry Gilroy for Best Director for his work on the film. The part eventually went to George Clooney, who likewise earned an Oscar for his performance. Not that Washington necessarily needed the work, as he kept busy with The Great Debaters and American Gangster, two critically acclaimed biopics released the same year. He was even busier when Seven came out, albeit to mixed success, starring in the hit Crimson Tide, the bomb Virtuosity, and the critically acclaimed Devil in a Blue Dress.
8 Reese Witherspoon Refused To Scream
From the very beginning, it was clear Wes Craven’s Scream wasn’t going to be just another horror film. That goes for the opening moments of the film and all the way back to its casting, when the lead roles were constantly in flux and producers couldn’t find a star. This was a bit of a surprise, considering they thought they had one in Drew Barrymore, who was the original choice to play the lead character Sidney Prescott. However, inspired by the films When A Stranger Calls and Psycho, the team eventually decided Barrymore should play Casey Becker instead, dying in the first few minutes and depriving the movie it’s lead.
To replace Drew’s original part, producers originally sought out Reese Witherspoon and Claire Danes, who both turned it down. Witherspoon was probably just too busy, already attached to equally spooky films Fear and Freeway, the latter of which played a big role in putting her on the map. Perhaps it’s for this reason she seemingly ignored the offer and didn’t even audition. Brittany Murphy and Melissa Joan Hart did read for the part, but were passed over in favor of Neve Campbell. Sidney wasn’t the only role that had issues, as Brooke Shields and Janeane Garofalo both turned down Gale Weathers before Courteney Cox fought for the role.
7 Angela Bassett Wanted No Part of Monster’s Ball
While every actor and actress has a reason for turning down a given movie role, in many situations, the fact of the matter is that they just didn’t understand the part. That was apparently the case with Angela Bassett, an iconic actress in her own right who could have made history had she accepted the lead role in Monster’s Ball. Instead, the part went to Halle Berry, who went on to become the first African American woman in history to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. Not that Bassett definitely would have done the same, but she didn’t even try, and her explanation is where things get curious.
Shortly after Berry’s accomplishment, Bassett told Newsweek she still had no regrets, because she didn't want to be that promiscuous woman on the street in a film. Here’s the thing, though — Berry’s character totally wasn’t a prostitute. She was a disadvantaged waitress in a problematic relationship with a prison guard. Yes, there’s a very famous love scene, but it’s charged with powerful emotions, and money had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, Bassett read the part and thought she “could do [it], because it’s such a stereotype about black women and sexuality.” Despite her personal feelings, Bassett was still impressed with what Berry accomplished in the role and her history-making win.
6 Hugh Jackman Preferred His Career Unshaken
Unlike every other role on this list, Hugh Jackman didn’t necessarily turn down any specific movie in particular. However, the character he said no to is arguably the most iconic of all, in Special Agent 007, a.k.a. Bond. James Bond. Long before producers decided on a script, story, or even title, Jackman was tapped as the replacement for Pierce Brosnan after Die Another Day. Amazingly, despite the fact just about every other actor in the universe would beg for the part, Jackman wasn’t interested in the slightest. First of all, he was already plenty busy, having just starred as Wolverine in X2, which still had several sequels on the way. More importantly than the struggle for mutants and humans to get along, Jackman didn’t have all that much faith in the James Bond franchise at that point. Several years later, he explained to Variety,
Jackman was hardly alone, as from a critical perspective, Bond had been going off the rails for quite some time. Ironically, it would be the next several films starring Jackman’s replacement, Daniel Craig, that started turning this reputation back around and made Bond a major star once again.
5 Johnny Depp Didn’t Feel Like Taking A Day Off
Recognizing life can happen pretty fast, Ferris Bueller decided to take his latest day off from high school, thereby turning actor Matthew Broderick into a huge star for playing the part. However, it took a long time before producers they settled on Broderick as their hero, with seemingly every other young actor in Hollywood also trying to nab the role.
To name just a few, Jim Carrey, John Cusack, Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox, Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp have all been linked to the film at one point or another.
Of all the potential stars, the most interesting choice is probably Depp, who was the least in line with the cheery and optimistic Bueller audiences came to know and love. Unfortunately, the world never got to see his take on the idea, as he was already preparing for his breakout role as the star of 21 Jump Street. That same year, Depp also had a minor role in Platoon and a bigger one in the skating movie Thrashin,’ all of which made him too busy to take any fake sick days. Quite frankly, Depp may have been a bit too dark for the Bueller role, but his mysterious persona could have made for an interesting (albeit less true to life) alternative for Charlie Sheen.
4 John Travolta’s Life Wasn’t Like A Box of Chocolates
One way or another, John Travolta was going to turn his ailing career around in the year 1994. There were already a few positive signs in his recent resume, as the Look Who’s Talking trilogy had lead to his greatest fame since the 1970s, when he starred in Grease and Welcome Back, Kotter. Of course, some silly comedies about babies and dogs learning to speak with creepy voices didn’t compare to the international smash that was Pulp Fiction. With Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic, Travolta shot back into the critical spotlight and was nominated for an Academy Award, but there’s a chance things could have gone even better for the actor.
Had Travolta decided against Pulp Fiction, there was another major offer on the table by way of Robert Zemeckis’ iconic classic Forrest Gump.
Perhaps hearkening back to his innocent performance as The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, producers believed Travolta was the perfect star to travel through history offering simple wisdom to the greatest figures of his generation, only for him to turn it down. How exactly the scheduling would have worked out is unclear, but Travolta later admitted this was a big mistake. It’s hardly surprising he’d do so, either, as he ended up losing that Oscar nod to Tom Hanks, his replacement as the simple Southerner.
3 Molly Ringwald Wasn’t Interested In Being A Pretty Woman
No matter how iconic it becomes, there are certain movie roles that plenty of actresses would always turn down on principle alone. For many years, it was reported this was the reason teen icon Molly Ringwald chose to turn down the lead role in Pretty Woman. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the naïve teen from Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink might feel playing that type of scandalous role would hurt her image, but according to Ringwald herself, this wasn’t quite the case.
In fact, when she was answering fan questions about Pretty Woman during a Reddit AMA, Ringwald claimed she “[didn’t] specifically remember turning it down.” However, she also admitted to having read the script before it was produced, so it’s easy to see how that idea became popular. Whatever the case, Ringwald didn’t seem to regret missing out, admitting during the same discussion that Julia Roberts did an incredible job as Vivian Ward, calling her responsible for the film being a hit. Around the same time, Ringwald also reportedly turned down Ghost, signalling a downturn in her career that never quite turned around and reached the heights she experienced in the '80s.
2 Tom Hanks Didn’t Want To Get Redeemed In Shawshank
If there’s any actor on this list who can’t be blamed for turning down an iconic movie role, it’s Tom Hanks. Sure, he could have inspired millions playing Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption — but that would have meant missing out on doing the same thing as Forrest Gump. Ultimately, it was Gump that brought Hanks his second Academy Award, and he defeated the man who replaced him in Shawshank, Tim Robbins, in order to win it. Great as Hanks could have been, there’s no denying Robbins gives an incredibly powerful performance, as well, suggesting this one turned out just fine for all parties involved.
That said, Robbins wasn’t even the second choice to get the role. After Hanks turned the movie down, producers approached Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise.
Costner said no because he was busy with his own film Waterworld, while Cruise was weary to work with first time director Frank Darabont. Perhaps unbeknownst to Cruise was the fact that auteur Rob Reiner was also trying to convince Darabont to sell him the rights to the screenplay and let him direct. Reiner also wanted Cruise as the star, so he nearly got his wish. Darabont was steadfast about staying in control, though, making way for Tim Robbins to get the part.
1 Sean Connery Couldn’t Understand The Lord of the Rings
Depending on how closely they want to guard their reputation, some actors who turn down iconic movie roles will come up with pretty wild stories to explain their choices. As one of the most legendary men in Hollywood history, Sean Connery realized this wasn’t necessary, and spoke the powerfully blunt truth about how he made one of the biggest mistakes an actor could possibly make. Tasked with explaining why he would possibly turn down the role of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Connery simply explained he didn’t understand the part, and not for lack of trying — he claims to have read all of the books, and still failed to catch the Grey Pilgrim’s appeal.
No matter how Connery felt about the source material, the numbers don’t lie about how wrong he was when it came to Gandalf’s star power.
In addition to a hefty salary of $6 million per film, Connery was offered a 15% stake in Lord of the Rings merchandise sales. After the movies all became among the top-grossing of all time, this ultimately would have amounted to nearly $450 million — the highest single paycheck in the history of film by a massive margin. As for Gandalf, he admitted Ian McKellan’s performance was “marvellous."