The Hollywood blockbuster formula relies on actors with big-time personalities to deliver performances that capture what the director and writers consider art. No one can possibly imagine another actor playing the wily and psychopathic Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Johnny Depp is synonymous with Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Even Macaulay Culkin played an essential role in the success of “Home Alone” and “Home Alone 2.”
Most producers, writers and directors go into the movie with an idea of who they want to star in the lead roles. This practice is akin to a sports fan drafting a fantasy football roster and does not always work out as planned. Actors are not the most reliable people on the planet, and plans for movies need to be changed more often than a NASCAR driver’s oil. There are several stories of big-time actors turning down roles in movies that turned out to either be sleeper hits, cult classics or major Hollywood blockbusters.
“The Godfather” – Jack Nicholson
“The Godfather” is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time. Al Pacino, who plays protagonist Michael Corleone, conveys a sense of seriousness with his performance. Before he was hired for the role, producers wanted Jack Nicholson. While Pacino’s performance is iconic, having Jack Nicholson, a notorious Hollywood bad boy at the time, would have completely altered the landscape of the film.
“Forrest Gump” – John Travolta
John Travolta had a major career revival in the early 1990s. While an actor having too much work is usually a good thing, it often forces him to decline a couple of big roles. Travolta decided to take a major part in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” and he gave up a spot in the Oscar-winning “Forrest Gump” to Tom Hanks.
“The Lord of the Rings” – Sean Connery
When it comes to science fiction and fantasy movies, Sean Connery seems to have lost his touch after he filmed the “Indiana Jones” series. When asked to play Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings,” Connery refused the role because he simply did not understand the source material or the script. The role went to Ian McKellen, who continued portraying Gandalf in “The Hobbit” film trilogy.
“James Bond” – Hugh Jackman
When most actors get asked to play James Bond, it is a role they simply cannot refuse, unless that actor’s name is Hugh Jackman. When asked if he wanted to play James Bond, he declined because he thought it would typecast him into the role forever. Jackman may have had a point, because he has played “Wolverine” in six separate movies and still finds time to act in musicals on Broadway and in the 2012 “Les Misérables” film.
“The Matrix” – Will Smith
Will Smith turned down the role of Neo in “The Matrix” because he thought he would bring too much personality to the film. The producers instead picked Keanu Reeves for the part and let the story roll off of his impressionable, low-key style. Will Smith went on to star in the flop “Wild Wild West,” but he does not regret turning down the role.
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” – Johnny Depp
Matthew Broderick plays the smart aleck Ferris Bueller to a tee in the film, but the movie’s producers originally wanted to cast Johnny Depp. Depp declined the film due to previous engagements, and Broderick took to the role and made the movie one of the most cherished pop culture pieces of the 1980s.
“Avatar” – Matt Damon
Director James Cameron had his sights set on Sam Worthington for the role in “Avatar,” but the producers of the film wanted a bigger name because of the far-fetched nature of the script. James Cameron effectively paid lip service to Matt Damon, who ultimately ended up turning the film down because he sensed disinterest in the tone of James Cameron’s voice.
Some actors turn down roles because of hectic, busy schedules. Others turn down the roles because they do not understand the script. Still, some actors turn down roles because they feel their particular style of acting does not mesh well with the script or the overall tone of the movie. While some actors kick themselves later for not taking particular roles, the ones who are seriously committed to their craft can kick back and chomp on some popcorn while they watch what might have been their role being handled by someone who they have ultimate deemed more worthy of the part.