Everyone knows Matthew Broderick turned down playing Walter White in Breaking Bad. Now, Bryan Cranston is one of the highest paid actors on the Hollywood circuit and studios can’t get enough of him. Likewise for Dana Delaney in her wisdom to turn down the Sex and the City casting director when they were on the lookout for Carrie Bradshaw. The rest, as they say, is history.
Some of these roles are either hugely profitable and sets up a performer for life, or they are so well received by the critics and audience that it catapults them to greater heights. Great roles are so difficult to find these days and the thought that you had the opportunity of first refusal on a project that became a cult classic or iconic in the pantheon of cinema is frightening. But it happens - it happens a lot!
Unlike Broderick and Delaney though, these following actors would have been handsomely rewarded for their work as well as the plaudits, awards and other great roles that would have come hence. Some of these positions were the birth of a franchise and while the initial offer on the table would have seemed modest, a modicum of foresight would have been enough to take the gamble and invest in something special.
Much of this comes back to those representing the talent and what advice they would be giving their client. But like any advisory role, it comes back to the decision maker. Many will say these actors were Plan Bs and luck fell into their lap, but sometimes more than one actor turned their back on it. They’re now the ones laughing all the way to the bank while a handful are now drowning their sorrows at the bar talking about the one that got away.
15 Jack Nicholson – The Godfather Trilogy - $5.53 million
To be fair to Jack, and who doesn’t want to be fair to Mr. Nicholson, Al Pacino only banked an initial $35,000 salary for The Godfather in 1972. Even by early 70s standards that is not a lot to write home about and while it would prove to be a fruitful trilogy that spawned arguably the most decorated trio of films ever made, Nicholson saw it fit to turn his back on the role of Michael Corleone. Pacino then earned $500,000 plus 10% of the gross from the highly acclaimed The Godfather: Part II and by the time The Godfather: Part III was made in 1990, Pacino was established enough to demand a cool $5 million. That would not have changed Jack’s life too much as he starred in amazing pictures like The Shining, Batman, The Departed, Chinatown, etc. – the list is decorated and endless. But Michael Corleone might have been the role he would be remembered for most, as is the case with Al.
14 Reese Witherspoon - Scream - $9 million
Slasher films enjoyed a renaissance in the 90s after a baron spell and the new cult following for the genre was in large part to the 1996 smash hit Scream. It began multiple sequels and even a Netflix television reboot. Funny to think that the lead role played so well by Neve Campbell was initially offered to Legally Blonde’s Reese Witherspoon – talk about sliding doors! Campbell’s $1.5 million after the first movie rolled into $3.5 million for Scream 2 and $4 million for Scream 3 in 2000 to bring her total earnings from the franchise to $9 million, all that crying and running for her life was quite lucrative. Witherspoon did fine herself with Cruel Intentions in 1999 and other roles in Sweet Home Alabama and Walk the Line alongside Joaquin Phoenix, but the Scream trilogy ended up being a massive money maker that Campbell would still be feeding from all these years later.
13 Tom Hanks – Jerry Maguire - $20 million
Talk about SHOW ME THE MONEY! That famous tagline stands the test of time some 20 years after its 1996 release with the romantic comedy/sports drama doing incredibly well on all fronts. Not only did it cash in on the modest $50 million budget to score $273 million for TriStar Pictures but it won Cuba Gooding Jr. an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This film was at the peak of Tom Cruise mania, before his public dealings with Scientology unraveled his personal life and when rom-coms became commercially viable in cinemas. This might not continue to be a regret for Tom Hanks, a man who did cash in on this very list at the expense of others, but how different would Jerry Maguire be with the Sully star than Cruise? $20 million was not enough to convince Hanks and Cruise made the right call to suit up alongside Renee Zellweger and co for the feel-good flick.
12 Julia Roberts - The Blind Side - $20 million
This was not the usual set up for Sandra Bullock as she headed into her eventual Oscar-winning performance for the 2009 drama The Blind Side. The brunette ended up dividing a profit share from the dividends that would come the picture’s way following on from all the love at the Academy Awards and Bullock won out big when she agreed to cut her initial $10 million salary in half to $5 million, collecting a reported $15 million plus in add ons. This would have been a big turn off for Pretty Woman and Erin Brockovich actress Julia Roberts who would have baulked at the derisory figure and instead passed up the opportunity not only for a big payday but a golden statue to boot. Roberts is not short of a dollar these days and coming off another film alongside her BFF George Clooney in Money Monster, there is every chance she has used that 2009 wrong call to spur her on to bigger and better things. But that $20 million plus an Oscar would have been handy.
11 Jonah Hill – The Hangover Franchise - $20.6 million
When Bradley Cooper penned his signature on the dotted line for the 2009 comedy The Hangover with Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis, little would he be aware of what was to follow. That initial $600,000 role would blossom into something spectacular and as the studio rolled in the hundreds of millions in gate takings, the sequel demands grew. The Hangover Part II saw Cooper rake in $5 million while The Hangover Part III made the 41-year-old from Philadelphia $15 million in 2013. How the franchise would have worked with Jonah Hill in the Hollywood heartthrob’s place is anyone’s guess as the star of The Wolf of Wall Street, 21 Jump Street and War Dogs was fresh from making Super Bad a cult classic in 2007. Fortunately, the two parties never agreed to terms and instead offered it to Cooper. You can imagine this is not the only time those two have been vying for the same role.
10 Tom Selleck - Indiana Jones Franchise - $25.2 million
Tom Selleck and his moustache are probably put in the B-grade category of actors – serviceable but not quite good enough to be anything greater than a television icon from Magnum, P.I. But it could have been so different for the 71-year-old from Detroit as he would only make mediocre flicks like Three Men and a Baby, The Shadow Riders, Last Stand at Saber River and Mr. Baseball. Mediocre might be a generous description come to think of it. He would be left to rue passing on Indiana Jones – a character that Harrison Ford jumped at and even involving himself in one huge franchise via Star Wars, he packed more on his plate and he’s now making $25 million at the age of 74. The original Raiders of the Lost Ark earned Ford $400,000 and was followed by $800,000 in the Temple of Doom sequel, $4 million in the Last Crusade and finally a whopping $20 million in 2008 for the late reboot Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That might be more than Selleck made in a decade. For Ford, that’s his retirement pension.
9 Al Pacino – Star Wars Franchise - $35.75 million
Difficult to imagine how Han Solo would have traveled across the galaxy in one piece if he was threatening every adversary high on cocaine and yelling, “You wanna play rough? Ok, say hello to my little friend!” Yes Tony Montana aka Al Pacino did turn down the offer to play the freelancing hero in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, a role that ended up rewarding Harrison Ford with a $35.75 million salary from 4 films, most of which coming last year in the reboot/sequel Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The 1977 original started with a derisory sum of $1,000 per week for Ford for a 10-week shoot. The Empire Strikes Back was a touch more lucrative at $250,000 while the Return of the Jedi earned him a reported $500,000. Into his old age and having literally broken a leg during shooting, the reboot gave the veteran $25 million plus add ons to make his time worth it. That is a package that well and truly appreciated, although we hope Pacino turned in down for the nature of the role rather than the bank balance.
8 Dougray Scott - X-Men (Wolverine) Franchise - $55 million
Dougray who? Exactly. The 50-year-old Scottish actor did not just pass on the role of a lifetime in 2000 when they were casting the reboot of X-Men, but the payday of a lifetime as well. If only his agent knew how regular a job this would be, if only they knew the dollars and cents attached to the project, if only! Mr. Scott’s loss was the gain of Australian Hugh Jackman who embodies everything about Logan/Wolverine for the film franchise. The spin-off/stand alone Logan picture will hit screens next year in 2017 and will be the 9th installment of the character on the big screen following on from X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, The Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. The combined salary of all of those adds up to approximately $55 million but is clearly more when you factor in endorsement deals etc. But we’ll be conservative, for Dougray’s sake at least.
7 Angelina Jolie – Gravity - $70 million
The newly single Angelina Jolie has had a lot go right in her life, but passing on Gravity was not one of her finer moments. Studio sources explained that the woman who stepped into the role, Sandra Bullock, made a minimum of $70 million from the space frontier project alongside George Clooney while receiving universal plaudits from critics for good measure. Jolie dedicated her time to the fantasy/action flick Maleficent which came out a year later in 2014, a production that returned very little in the way of awards but the Joe Roth-produced picture did return a hefty profit at the box office. Clooney and Pitt could almost be considered BFFs in Hollywood circles from their time together during the Ocean’s franchise, and because of this the former E.R. star and Jolie have been spotted a lot together. The chemistry would have worked, the money surely was not an issue, so why she passed on it for Bullock is anyone’s guess.
6 John Travolta – Forrest Gump - $70 million
As you will shortly discover, the 1994 critically acclaimed drama Forrest Gump was on the offering to a number of actors before it finally settled on Tom Hanks’ desk. But perhaps the financial package was a turn off because while it ended up being a whopping $70 million, that was formulated from a profit share – raking in millions a week at the box office, something that was never guaranteed during production. The first to pass was Saturday Night Fever and Grease star John Travolta, a man who was in the middle of a slump in his illustrious career. He would end up reviving his lagging filmography that very same year with the edgy Quentin Tarantino masterpiece Pulp Fiction, a movie that is largely credited with a rejuvenation of Travolta as a star following a lean spell on the big screen. But that project did not come with $70 million big ones, neither did it come with an Academy Award for Best Actor and Best Picture like it did for Hanks and Forrest Gump.
5 Bill Murray – Forrest Gump - $70 million
The next to tell Robert Zemeckis and Paramount Pictures “no, thank you” was Mr. Bill Murray. Fresh from making the comedy cult classic Groundhog Day in 1993 and establishing himself as a marketable star from Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Scrooged among a host of other comedies, Forrest Gump in 1994 would have been his first attempt at fulfilling himself as a dramatic heavyweight and transition from a Saturday Night Live funny man to an Academy Award winning player on the big stage. To make the decision all the more puzzling, Murray has never made anything close to $70 million for any of his projects, a fact that does make him all the more admirable for his choices but still an opportunity missed all the same. Murray took a role in the drama Ed Wood with Johnny Depp in 1994, a film that was warmly received with critics and such is Bill and his unique take on the industry, he would think nothing of the Forrest Gump offer.
4 Emily Blunt – Avengers Franchise - $70 million
In 2015, Scarlett Johansson developed into such a megastar that she reportedly increased her regular asking price of $10 million a picture to $20 million and given the profits that Marvel were rolling in through The Avengers franchise, they were in no position to knock back the Black Widow actress. That character first came on to the big screen courtesy of the 2010 Robert Downey Jr. film Iron Man 2 and since that point in time, Johansson has been a regular across The Avengers in 2012, Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014, Avengers: Age of Ultron where she got a significant bump last year, and Captain America: Civil War this year. Those figures won’t sit well with the star of Sicario and The Girl on the Train Emily Blunt, turning down the superhero role of a lifetime. The 33-year-old and partner to John Krasinski might jump at the next chance to don a costume and fight bad guys if DC comes calling.
3 Christian Bale – James Bond Franchise - $93.1 million
Pierce Brosnan started life as 007 with a bang in GoldenEye, but as the years worn on so did the audience’s appetite to see him playing James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day. The franchise began to feel stale and when the reboot of sorts Casino Royale came about casting prior to it’s 2006 release, Christian Bale was front of mind. Had he agreed to the project to take the hefty role of 007, it would have almost coincided with his influence in reviving another classic character – Bruce Wayne via Batman Begins in 2005. Whether it was a scheduling conflict or just a genuine disinterest in playing the part, Christian bailed on the project and carried on one franchise under the guidance of Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight. Daniel Craig, courtesy of being the last man standing at the casting call, is now estimated to have earned a collective $93.1 million salary as Bond and it all started 10 years ago through the smash hit Casino Royale.
2 Hugh Jackman – James Bond Franchise – $93.1 million
It seems these men were always destined to take on a recurring role that drew us in one picture at a time, following the formula created by the golden age of television. Amid his portrayal of Logan/Wolverine in the X-Men pictures, Aussie Hugh Jackman was earmarked to take on 007 sometime after Bale passed on it. Funnily enough, both Jackman and Bale would probably have shared a story or two about their experience turning down Columbia Pictures and director Martin Campbell when they joined forces for the 2006 science fiction thriller The Prestige. That mind-bending screenplay was all about a game of smoke and mirrors where nothing was ever as it seemed, an occurrence that was happening away from the camera at the very same time. Jackman’s net worth of a reported $150 million thanks in large part to X-Men might have come under jeopardy if he accepted the 007 position so fortunately it worked for all parties concerned.
1 Will Smith – The Matrix Trilogy - $256 million
In a fact that will surprise few people, the franchise that grossed over $1.6 billion worldwide at the box office ended up being a pretty little earner for the main star of the show – Mr. Keanu Reeves. Playing Neo across the three science fiction/action blockbusters, the Thomas Anderson character transitioned from an underground computer hacker to the savior of the human race. The 1999 incarnation was the only one of the series to win over critical acclaim while the sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions sapped the life out of the story, but the coin kept flowing through the coffers at the studio end. Independence Day star Will Smith saw it in his wisdom to turn down the role and to add insult to injury, he did so because of a scheduling conflict with the horrendously bad Wild Wild West alongside Kevin Kline. That comedy flop was such a disaster, Smith referenced it as a sticking point on his CV during a Suicide Squad press junket. In contrast, Reeves banked $256m across the three flicks.