If you’re like us, you find it hard to imagine a world where Keanu Reeves wasn’t Neo, or Hugh Jackman wasn’t Wolverine. Yet, in reality, these casting choices almost didn’t come to be. Hollywood film directors love to talk about which actors auditioned for roles, yet they never talk about the actors who turned down the offers to be in their films. Sometimes, many actors actually turn down offers before someone is finally cast. In truth, Reeves almost wasn’t Neo, Jackman almost wasn’t Wolverine. The only reason they are is because another actor didn’t take the roles, which ended up becoming iconic pieces of pop culture history. What’s wild is that this is more common than you’d think. Whether it’s due to creative differences or scheduling conflicts, many actors find themselves either passing on a role, or dropping out.
This forces directors to start looking at their lists for a possible replacement. Sometimes this ends up being fortuitous and cinema history is made. When I saw cinema history, I do indeed mean cinema history. Think about it, can you picture anyone other than Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump, or Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire? Neither were the studio’s first choices for the roles. John Travolta was actually offered the role of Forrest Gump; Tom Hanks was offered for Jerry Maguire. Those are just a few of the many cases that have occurred over the years. Check out our list of fifteen actors who were actually the first choice to play some iconic film roles. You might be shocked.
15. Jim Carrey – Jack Sparrow In Pirates Of The Caribbean
I think it’s fair to say that Johnny Depp is Jack Sparrow (excuse me, Captain Jack Sparrow). I think most would agree that Depp’s performance, with essences of Keith Richards, is pure madness, but also purely iconic. However, when scriptwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio first wrote the character and handed it off to Disney, they envisioned a more theatrical performer, namely Hugh Jackman. Disney execs had their own shortlist, namely Jim Carrey. They believed Jackman wasn’t famous enough outside of Australia. Remember all this was being decided in the late 1990s, prior to Jackman’s breakout role as Wolverine in X-Men (2000). They actually offered the role officially to Carrey who had to decline because the shooting schedule conflicted with Bruce Almighty (2003). Pirates was a huge hit for Depp, while Bruce Almighty opened to mixed reviews, spawning a Carrey-less sequel. I think it was Carrey’s loss, but it ended up being the filmgoers’ success.
14. Olivia Wilde – Gamora In Guardians Of The Galaxy
Olivia Wilde is a very versatile actress, easily transitioning between film and television roles whenever it suits her. We’ve seen her take on action roles, such as Tron: Legacy (2010) and Cowboys and Aliens (2011). While the films were not so great, her performances were standouts. She tested for the role of Lois Lane in 2013’s Man of Steel, and was mentioned by fans as a perfect match for Lara Croft role in the Tomb Raider reboot. Somehow, though, the stars didn’t align and when offered the role of tough assassin Gamora in James Gunn’s Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Wilde declined. She’s never discussed her decision, so we might never know the reason. As we know, Wilde can do both action and comedy, and accepting the role might have resulted in a great character realization. Zoe Saldana knocks it out of the part in the role, but Olivia Wilde probably would’ve been just as good.
13. David Schwimmer – Agent J In Men In Black
Let’s face it, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller on ten seasons of the hit series Friends (1994-2004) was great; his film career was not so great. His film career never seemed to really take off. When producers were casting the sci-fi film Men in Black (1997), Schwimmer was one of the hottest actors on television. He was offered the opportunity to star as Agent J, alongside Tommy Lee Jones. He turned it down to instead join the cast of The Pallbearer, starring alongside Gwyneth Paltrow. Men in Black became a mega hit with Will Smith in the role, and The Pallbearer became a cinematic flop that almost no one remembers. In his defence, Schwimmer stated he wanted to “grow rather than go for the quick cash.” Well, to each his own, I guess.
12. Molly Ringwald – Vivian In Pretty Woman
Molly Ringwald was a loveable member of the 1980s Brat Pack, made famous by her success in a trio of classic John Hughes teen comedies. Her transition to adult actress came with far less fanfare. She had the perfect opportunity when filmmakers offered her the lead role of Vivian Ward in a little film to be titled $3,000. Ringwald read the script and passed on the role. The film ended up with the title Pretty Woman and the role went to Julia Roberts, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Ringwald isn’t bitter about passing up on the role of a lifetime. She acknowledges that Roberts makes the character and the film might not have attained such an iconic status had she been in the film.
11. Will Smith – Neo In The Matrix
There is quite a difference in the acting styles of Will Smith and Keanu Reeves. They are almost night and day in their approach. Can you image Will Smith as Neo in the Wachowski’s iconic Matrix trilogy? Both Will Smith and Ewan McGregor were offered the role and, thankfully, both passed. Reeves’ cerebral and expressionless portrayal of Neo gave life to the complex character as it was written. About passing on the role, Smith has remarked that it wouldn’t have been a good fit: “I would have absolutely messed up The Matrix. I wasn’t smart enough as an actor to let the movie be, whereas Keanu was smart enough to just let it be.” Regardless, Smith turned down the lead in a film that would go on to change cinema forever. It’s been eighteen years and the effects and action scenes still amaze audiences. Luckily, Smith knew he wasn’t the right man for the job. Smith is talented, but he wasn’t destined to be Neo.
10. Christina Applegate – Elle In Legally Blonde
2001’s Legally Blonde was a wonderful comedy film that took formulaic material and made it a hit with the casting of America’s sweetheart Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, Elle Woods. Her funny and quirky performance made a hit out a film that probably might not have been otherwise. Though we’re glad Witherspoon was cast, it became known that she was actually not the first choice for filmmakers. Actually, Christina Applegate was approached by producers initially. When she read the script about the sorority girl turned lawyer, Applegate has said she was hesitant about taking on another “dumb blonde” role after her many years on the television series Married… with Children (1986-1997). She said, “I got scared of kind of repeating myself,” she said. “What a stupid move that was, right?” Still, Applegate is not bitter. Even she acknowledges that Witherspoon did an incredible job, and said she did “a much better job than I ever could.”
9. Sean Connery – Gandalf In The Lord Of The Rings
Sean Connery is a legendary actor. He was James Bond, for goodness’ sake. He has had a long and great career. Does he have any regrets from the choices he made? Sure. According to Don Murphy, producer of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003), Connery told him, “I got offered The Lord of the Rings, and I turned it down because I didn’t understand it. I was offered The Matrix twice, and I turned it down because I didn’t understand it. I don’t understand this movie (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn it down.” Can you imagine Connery as Gandalf, or Morpheus, for that matter? It definitely would’ve been a different dynamic to be sure. Unfortunately, The League was probably one film Connery should’ve passed on.
8. Arnold Schwarzenegger – John McClane In Die Hard
When producers were casting for the action film Die Hard (1988), reportedly their first choice for the lead role was Arnold Schwarzenegger. They envisioned the film originally as a sequel to Schwarzenegger’s 1985 hit, Commando. When offered, Schwarzenegger had to decline, supposedly on ethical grounds. You see, the film’s antagonists were German-accented terrorists, and with Arnold speaking with a heavy German accent himself, he had reservations. The lead character was changed to John McClane and the role was considered as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, and Don Johnson. Eventually, Bruce Willis, known only at the time for his television comedy role in Moonlighting, got the part. Now, history has proven that he’s an integral part of this iconic film that has become a Christmas mainstay (even though it was originally released in July).
7. Emily Blunt – Black Widow And Peggy Carter In Captain America: The First Avenger
Emily Blunt starred in the sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and her name was frequently mentioned by fans when it came time to cast the lead in the upcoming Captain Marvel film. What most people don’t know is that Blunt had a few opportunities to be cast in a superhero film. The first time was 2010, when she was being eyed for the role of Natasha Romanoff in Iron Man II (2010). The following year she was again offered a role in the MCU, this time as Agent Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Haley Atwell ended up being cast and appeared as the character numerous times, in films and on television. Blunt says that scheduling issues were why she could never commit to the roles. Though Scarlett Johansson and Hayley Atwell are forever linked to their respective characters, it is not hard to see how great Blunt would’ve been fighting alongside the Avengers on screen.
6. Mel Gibson – Maximus In Gladiator
Mel Gibson used to be a huge star, one of the biggest in Hollywood, with hits like The Road Warrior (1981), Lethal Weapon (1987), and Braveheart (1995). This was before his highly-publicized rants and crashed reputation. There was rarely a big epic film that came along where his name was not mentioned in the room. Such was the case when casting directors were working on Gladiator (2000), an epic historical drama. Naturally, Gibson was offered the lead role. Surprisingly, he turned it down. Citing his age, he believed a forty-something aging action star was too old for all those swordplay action scenes. The role was ultimately offered to Russell Crowe, who, as a big fan of director Ridley Scott, jumped at the opportunity, and the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and garnered Crowe the Academy Award for Best Actor.
5. Jessica Chastain – Hope Van Dyne In Ant-Man
Jessica Chastain rose to fame with great performances in films like The Help (2011) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). She quickly joined the A-list crowd in Hollywood and can easily decline roles. Such was the case when she was offered the female lead in Marvel’s Ant-Man (2015). She’s made it clear that she would love to appear in a superhero movie, as long as the role was right for her: “We’ve talked about aligning our forces in the future. If you’re going to be in a superhero movie, you only get one chance. You’re that character forever.” Though she’s never commented on the specifics of why she turned the role of Hope van Dyne, which went to Evangeline Lilly, many believe it was due to the character being a civilian and not a superhero in the film. Of course, we now know the character will assume the identity of her mother and appear as the Wasp in the upcoming Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018).
4. Thomas Jane – Don Draper In Mad Men
Like most of the names on this list, sometimes the character and the actor portraying the role are inseparable. In AMC’s hit drama series Mad Men, could you picture anyone else as Don Draper? Jon Hamm is Draper! No one else can play the cool and confident character like Hamm. However, had AMC got their way, Hamm wouldn’t have had the role. The character originally was offered to actor Thomas Jane, who previously starred in The Punisher (2004). They went for Jane but were disappointed when they were informed that he didn’t work in television. I think Jane has since learned that unless your name is Denzel, Cruise, or Hanks, you accept work in television. A few years later, Jane accepted the lead role in the HBO series Hung.
3. Jack Nicholson – Michael Corleone In The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is on the shortlist for one of the greatest films in cinematic history. Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone is unquestionable. It is almost blasphemous to think of anyone else in the iconic, career-defining role. However, Coppola’s casting lists for all the characters were extensive and he struggled to find just the right actor for each role. Reportedly, Pacino was not the first choice. Jack Nicholson was originally offered the role. He turned it down because he believed, as he put it, “at the time I believed Indians should play roles written for Indians, and Italians should do the same.” Nicholson would go on to later do an incredible job years later in The Departed, portraying Irish mob boss Frank Costello. Al Pacino would go on to portray Corleone in two sequels and become forever linked with the character.
2. Michelle Pfeiffer – Clarice Starling In Silence Of The Lambs
Michelle Pfeiffer was a popular actress throughout the 1980s, having appeared in Scarface (1983), Ladyhawke (1985), and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). When it was time for producers to cast the lead in their new crime thriller Silence of the Lambs (1991), Pfeiffer was their first choice. Finding the subject matter too unsettling for her, she turned the film down. The role of Agent Clarice Starling ended up going to Jodie Foster and the film went on to being one of the best films of the 1990s. In fact, it’s one of three to win all of the big five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). Looking back, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role besides Foster. The following year, Pfeiffer would pass on another iconic role in Basic Instinct (1992). She found herself unwilling to show the amount of skin that Sharon Stone would go on to do.
1. Julia Roberts – Leigh Anne Tuohy In The Blind Side
Julia Roberts landed the role of a lifetime when she portrayed Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman (1990). You would think that she would know a great role when it comes along. However, even Roberts has been known to pass on what was sure to become an iconic role. Case in point, when she turned down the opportunity to portray Leigh Anne Touhy in the hit film The Blind Side (2009). Sandra Bullock ended up being cast and won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Roberts also passed on another female lead role that ended up going to Bullock, in 2009’s The Proposal. I’m sure Julia Roberts isn’t bitter. She did win her own Academy Award for Erin Brockovich in 2001.
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