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.
O.J. Simpson as The Terminator (The Terminator)
Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably best-known cinematically for his portrayal of the cybernetic killing machine, the Terminator, but director James Cameron initially had no intention of casting Arnie in the now-famous role. Orion Pictures (the film’s producers) wanted O.J. Simpson for the role of the T-100, but Cameron felt he was “too nice” to be taken seriously as a ruthless killer (an understandable error; 12 jurors would make the same mistake in Juice’s 1995 double homicide trial). Orion’s co-founder, Mike Medavoy, suggested Schwarzenegger for Terminator’s hero, Kyle Reese, but Cameron felt Arnold’s massive size would make finding someone physically larger than Reese as the villain (which the script called for) near impossible. Cameron and Schwarzenegger hit it off at their first lunch meeting and Arnold was eventually offered the part of the Terminator, even though Cameron later admitted “the guy is supposed to be an infiltration unit, and there’s no way you wouldn’t spot a Terminator in a crowd instantly if they all looked like Arnold. It made no sense whatsoever.”
Robert DeNiro as Det. John McClane (Die Hard )
Die Hard director John McTiernan wanted to make Commando 2, but when the first Commando’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, vetoed the idea, McTiernan shifted his focus to crafting 1988’s action smash Die Hard. As McTiernan was still going full Commando 2 mode during Die Hard casting, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the first actor offered the now iconic role of Detective John McClane, followed by Sylvester Stallone, Burt Reynolds, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, and finally Mel Gibson. Those five offers being rejected didn’t assure Bruce Willis the role, either: he was offered the role only after plans fell through for the McClane part going to Richard Dean Anderson, Don Johnson, Nick Nolte, Tom Berenger and Robert DeNiro.
Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Harrison Ford was cast in the role of Indiana Smith (the character’s original name, which was changed on the first day of production) just three weeks before principal photography began on 1981’s highest grossing film. Ford was Raiders’ director Steven Spielberg’s first choice for the role, but the film’s storywriter and producer George Lucas had recently worked with Ford twice — in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and American Graffiti — and felt Spielberg’s second choice for Indy, Tom Selleck, would be a better fit. Selleck was forced to pass only because he was already committed to doing the Magnum P.I. TV show for CBS. In addition to Selleck, Nick Nolte, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Tim Matheson, Nick Mancuso, Peter Coyote, and Jack Nicholson were all considered for the part of Dr. Henry Jones, Jr.
Michael Madsen as Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction)
Michael Madsen is somewhat famous for missing out on roles that would have likely made him really famous. Example: Pulp Fiction’s heroin-junkie-hitman Vincent Vega (the resurrection point of John Travolta’s nose-diving career) was written by Quentin Tarantino specifically for Madsen, who’d played the character’s brother Vic Vega, a.k.a Mr. Blonde, in Reservoir Dogs. Madsen had to pull out when he couldn’t slip away from contractual rehearsal obligations for Wyatt Earp. Leading roles in From Dusk Till Dawn, L.A. Confidential, and Saving Private Ryan would all escape Madsen’s grasp (most times at the last minute), but not getting the role of Vega in Pulp Fiction is something Madsen has long spoken about with immense regret.
Ernest Borgnine as Vito Corleone (The Godfather)
Don Corleone is arguably one of the greatest character performances in arguably the greatest film ever made; but during pre-production for The Godfather, Ernest Borgnine, Edward G. Robinson, Orson Welles, Danny Thomas, Richard Conte, Anthony Quinn and George C. Scott were all scanned by Paramount Pictures for the cottonball-mouthed kingpin Marlon Brando would make legendary. Brando’s 1969 film Burn! (also called the Mercenary) was such a colossal flop that many in Hollywood at the time considered Brando’s career finished. But The Godfather’s director Francis Ford Coppola felt Brando and Laurence Olivier were the “two greatest actors in the world” and Brando was his “hero of heroes.” When it was discovered that Olivier was on his deathbed and “not taking any jobs,” Brando was given the role, despite Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster campaigning Paramount hard for the part. The decision would pay off for Coppola when Paramount senior management — sold on Brando’s performance but dissatisfied with the film’s direction in early rushes — tried to replace him with director Elia Kazan. Brando threatened to walk if Coppola was fired. It was later revealed that Brando did this out of personal hatred for Kazan (for his testimony at the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) rather than devotion to Coppola.
Two weeks from now on DailyXY: Casting Calls That Changed Film History, Part II
Image courtesy of Gandalf.