Dozens of intangible factors go into creating a blockbuster film. Last-minute script rewrites, budget cuts, expensive sets destroyed by tropical weather, directors being fired or walking off the set — any of these have impacted the biggest box-office disasters (and sometimes, successes) in film history. Above that group, though, is the most pivotal choice of all: casting a film’s lead hero or villain, likely the biggest from-the-gut decision, and one that arguably seals a film’s fate early. Here are just five unlikely casting calls that ended up changing celluloid history (click here for Part I, and click here for Part II).
John Travolta as Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump)
Like Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump is one of those special movies that became iconic for its ability to unite distant generations and have them share a collective understanding. It’s mind-boggling to fathom John Travolta, Bill Murray, or (gasp!) Chevy Chase uttering “stupid is as stupid does” in the thick southern Gump drawl that Tom Hanks made his own, but that’s exactly what could have happened, because all three of those actors were offered the role but turned it down. (What, they didn’t have Steve Martin’s phone number handy?) Another big role in the film, the part of Forrest’s best friend Bubba, was offered to Ice Cube, David Allen Grier, and Dave Chappelle, the last of whom thought the movie would tank at the box-office and later admitted deep regret for not taking the opportunity when it was given.
Burt Lancaster as Judah Ben-Hur (Ben-Hur)
Watching the film Ben-Hur now, Charlton Heston seems born to ride a chariot as the title character, cruising for revenge against his old friend Messala. But Rock Hudson and Burt Lancaster were offered the role before Heston and both dropped out for personal reasons. Hudson, a closeted gay actor at the time, was convinced to turn down the part by his agent, who felt the film’s homosexual subtext would risk outing Hudson. Lancaster objected to “the violent morals of the story”; as well, a self-described atheist, he had no interest in taking a role he felt was promoting Christianity. Paul Newman was also offered the part but said he didn’t have the legs to wear a tunic.
Al Pacino as John Rambo (First Blood)
Stallone may not be very tall by action movie standards (he’s 5’9″); still, his greased, cut-from-granite torso, prominently displayed in First Blood, allowed us to buy Rambo being capable of beating down half a dozen cops and escaping to the woods at the start of the First Blood. Funny, then, to thin that two even tinier titans of screen, Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman (both 5’6″, and on the thin side) were offered the part before Stallone. Pacino declined when the studio rejected his idea of making John Rambo far more psychotic, while Hoffman passed on the grounds of the script being too gory. Casting Stallone was ultimately the right call, not only because of his physical presence but his creative brains. The first cut of First Blood was more than three hours long and Stallone hated it so much he tried to buy the movie back from the studio so he could destroy it; one imagines that, true to the Rambo character, he’d burn it in an abandoned mining shaft. Stallone eventually insisted that the film be chopped down significantly, and that the Rambo backstory (on the cutting-room floor) be related via other characters. First Blood became the blueprint for decades of future action films, so his instincts paid off, big time. Not bad for a little guy.
Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk.