If The Good Ship Lollipop Went Over the Rainbow: Alternate Casting that Could Have Been (Alternate title: If Hannibal Lecter Played Uncle Fester)
Every film goes through the difficult and important task of assembling a cast. This can sometimes make or break a film. Taking a risk on a new face could launch an incredible career could tank the film. Casting someone unconventional or with a reputation can lead to head butting with the studio executives. A recent popular and critical favorite, La La Land, was not always set to star the Academy Award-winning Emma Stone and nominated Ryan Gosling. Back in 2014, director Damien Chazelle was in talks with Emma Watson and Miles Teller to star in his musical, but deals were never reached. Looking back on some other casting-that-could-have-been leads to some interesting contemplation on the films, or the film versions, that could exist in an alternate universe.
Some of the most treasured movies in film history had their share of casting conundrums. A factor that often affected casting during Hollywood’s Golden Age was the studio contract. At that time, actors and actress were commonly contracted to the studio, not to a specific picture. This either kept them from making films at a different studio or required a lot of negotiating between the studios. It is rumored that MGM head, Louis B. Mayer, wanted Shirley Temple for the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, but Temple was under contract with Fox and thus unavailable. MGM then brought in one of their contract players, Judy Garland, to take on the role that would skyrocket her to stardom.
The studio’s first choice for the role of The Wizard was W.C. Fields, but the actor, who had a reputation for being difficult, had a disagreement with the MGM and any possibility of a deal disappeared. A very well-known casting change was that of The Tin Man. Buddy Ebsen was cast and had already begun filming, but a near fatal reaction to the silver paint used for The Tin Man’s makeup landed Ebsen in the hospital and out of the picture. Jack Haley took over the role.
In their quest to find the perfect Scarlett, the producers of Gone with the Wind spent two years having a scout travel through the southern states looking for a fresh face, visiting several women’s colleges along the way. Despite all the leg work, they did not find their Scarlett that way. In a memo shortly before the role was cast, producer David O. Selznick wanted to make sure that Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Joan Bennet, Loretta Young, and Paulette Goddard knew they were in the final group being considered. He was concerned they might lose some of their top hopefuls while they tried to make a decision. Some filming had already begun when Myron Selznick brought Vivian Leigh to the set to meet his brother in December 1938. She was signed to the role on January 16th and began shooting 10 days later. The producers were happy but the public was not. The production met with much protest that the lead had not gone to a southerner. Bette Davis was also unhappy, since she had been considered early on for the role. But, while she wanted the part, it is said that the producers would only sign her as a package deal with Errol Flynn as Rhett. Davis supposedly did not think Flynn was right for the role and turned down the deal. Her 1938 film Jezebel with Warner Brothers is seen by some as the studio’s way of making it up to her.
When casting Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, Jean Simmons was first pursued for the role, but was under contract with Howard Hughes and RKO Pictures. Director William Wyler decided to find a newcomer for the role. He met with several actresses during a stop in England en route to scout locations in Rome. Audrey Hepburn made such an impression that he told the studio they should give her a contract even if she didn’t star in his film.
For her 1976 film A Star is Born, Barbara Streisand offered the lead opposite her to Elvis Presley. The King reportedly was interested in the film, but manager Col. Tom Parker had concerns about Elvis playing the role of a rock star whose career is falling apart (the film was released less than a year before Presley’s death). The Colonel supposedly made such excessive demands, including double the $500,000 offered, expenses, and royalties, that there was no way an agreement could be reached. The role instead went to Kris Kristofferson.
Some of our beloved films from the 1980’s could have been quite different. A relatively well-known casting change happened with Back to the Future. Eric Stoltz, who would appear in 80’s classics Mask and Some Kind of Wonderful, had originally been cast as Marty McFly. Though an excellent actor, it’s reported that things just weren’t clicking on set and the comedic nature of aspects of the script were being lost. Michael J. Fox had been the first choice for the role, but he was still working on the TV show Family Ties and the schedules conflicted. When it was decided to recast the role (Stolz continued filming for several weeks before the decision was announced), they turned back to Fox, who made a life-changing decision. He would do both, at the same time. Fox worked on Family Ties during the day and Back to the Future during the night, for two months.
Another franchise that could have turned out quite different was that of Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford had been considered for the role, but he and Lucas had at that point worked on three films together (two for the Star Wars franchise) and Lucas told Spielberg he wanted to work with someone new. Tom Selleck was originally offered the role of Dr. Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark but had to pass due to prior commitments. Selleck was under contract for Magnum P.I. and had filmed the pilot at that time. After attending the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, Spielberg returned to the idea of Ford. They found their Indy with only weeks to spare before shooting began.
When casting the role of Josh, the teen who makes a fateful wish while feeling scrawny in Big, director Penny Marshall offered the role to Robert De Niro. De Niro accepted. After having second thoughts about the role, De Niro contacted Marshall to decline the offer. The role became one of Tom Hanks’ most memorable performances (of which there are many). Not long after, Hanks himself passed on the role of Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, which went to Kevin Costner. Another classic 80’s film that could have turned out differently was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The title role was offered to Johnny Depp, who turned the role down due to scheduling conflicts. An intriguing idea to consider, but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Matthew Broderick lip-syncing “Danke Schoen” to the people of Chicago.
Some of the biggest romances from the 1990’s had some interesting alternate cast possibilities. Pretty Woman helped launch Julia Robert’s career, but the role of Vivian was reportedly turned down by Meg Ryan, Molly Ringwold, Michelle Pfieffer, and Daryl Hannah. Many other big name actresses from the time period were considered as well. Al Pacino was offered and turned down the role of Edward, which made way for Richard Gere. Christopher Reeve, Denzel Washington, Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Berenger, and Charles Grodin were reportedly also considered for the role. Another iconic movie couple from the decade, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) in Titanic, could have been quite different as well. Matthew McConaughey auditioned for the role of Jack, though all involved tiptoe around confirming whether the role was actually offered to him or not. “I’m king of the world! Alright, alright, alright!”
One of the most highly praised and memorable performances during the 1990’s was Tom Hanks’ portrayal of the title character in Forrest Gump. It is hard to imagine anyone else in that role, but it was first offered to John Travolta, who turned it down. The role was also rumored to have been turned down by Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. Kevin Bacon turned down the role of Lt. Dan, which went to Gary Sinise. Sinise was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for his supporting role, and Hanks won each for his lead role. Ice Cube, David Alan Grier, Tupac Shakur, and Dave Chapelle reportedly all turned down the role of Bubba, which eventually went to Mykelti Williamson.
John McClane, The Terminator, Dirty Harry, and several other iconic tough guys could have looked quite different from the ones we know and love (or hate depending on the film). Richard Gere was originally offered the role of John McClane in Die Hard, but turned the role down. The role was subsequently offered to and turned down by Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Caan, Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, and Burt Reynolds before it was offered to Moonlighting star Bruce Willis. James Cameron supposedly originally envisioned the title character in The Terminator as a regular guy who could blend in with a crowd, thinking this would make his actions more startling to the audience. For this concept, Cameron had Lance Henriksen in mind for the role. Then Arnold Schwarzenegger auditioned for the role of Kyle Reese and the concept for the cyborg assassin was changed. Henriksen was instead cast as Detective Hal Vukovich. Up until two week before filming was set to begin on Beverly Hills Cop, the lead of Axel Foley was to be played by Sylvester Stallone. However, Stallone didn’t like the comedic aspect of the film and wanted to get removed it from the script. Stallone reportedly rewrote the script to try to create a version that would be a compromise between what he wanted and the existing script. When producers rejected that, he turned the role down. Forty-eight hours after Stallone dropped out, producers convinced Eddie Murphy to take over the role, which would become one of his most highly praised performances. Frank Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board himself, was originally cast as detective Harry Callaghan in 1971’s Dirty Harry and had appeared in advertisements in the Hollywood press announcing the project. Sinatra reportedly backed out due to a past wrist injury, which occurred while filming The Manchurian Candidate, that made holding a pistol difficult and uncomfortable. The role, which he would reprise in four more films, then went to Clint Eastwood.
When casting his epic war film Apocalypse Now, Frances Ford Coppola’s first choice for crazed Col. Kurtz was reportedly Orson Welles, but the role was ultimately offered to Marlon Brando. While Brando mulled over whether or not to take the project, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino were also considered. Brando ultimately landed on a yes answer. Nicholson and Pacino were also considered for the role of Capt. Willard, which had been turned down by Steve McQueen. Harvey Keitel was eventually cast, but was replaced by Martin Sheen after two weeks of filming.
Many of our beloved science fiction and fantasy franchises have had their share of interesting casting possibilities, in an alternate galaxy far, far away. Veronica Cartwright read for the role of Ripley, and only the role of Ripley, several times prior to getting the call that she had been cast in Ridley Scott’s now iconic Alien. It wasn’t until she was called for a costume fitting that she discovered she was in fact cast as Lieutenant Lambert, with the role of Ripley going to Sigourney Weaver. When casting the role of Han Solo, George Lucas wanted to find an actor he had never worked with. Since he had worked with Harrison Ford on American Graffiti, this initially ruled him out (this would turn into a recurring theme for them). The role was offered to Al Pacino, but he turned it down because, according to him, he didn’t quite understand the script. It is rumored that Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray were also considered for the role. Luckily for Ford, Lucas changed his mind about working with someone new.
Jean Claude Van Damme was cast as the title character in Predator. Van Damme only filmed for a few days before dropping out of the project. Production shut down to redesign the alien hunter, which at that point was much different than the one that ended up on screen and was not coming across well on film. There are differing reports on why Van Damme left the film, some say due to his dislike of the suit or dislike of the role, and differing reports on who made the decision. Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which went to Ian McKellen and has become one of his most well-known roles. The ‘wizard’ box appears to remain unchecked on Connery’s extensive resume.
Will Smith turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix and stands by that decision and Keanu Reeves subsequent performance. Smith has said he believes he would have messed up the role. Ewan McGregor also passed on the role in favor of a different sci-fi hero, Obi-Wan Kenobe.
The world of the Mob movie is also riff with fascinating alternatives to contemplate. Bob Hoskins was officially signed on to play the role of Al Capone in The Untouchables and was on vacation prior to filming when he was informed that he would be replaced by Robert De Niro. The penultimate Mob movie, The Godfather, saw quite a bit of casting juggling. Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Redford were considered for the role of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation. Hoffman, Nicholson, and Beatty were all actually offered the role, but all three turned it down. Executives wanted an established star for the role, but Coppola pushed for Al Pacino. James Caan was at one point attached to play Michael, and executives agreed to give Coppola Pacino if Caan was given the role of Sonny instead of then-cast Carmine Caridi (partly because Caridi was almost a foot taller than Pacino). Caan had been Coppola’s initial choice for Sonny, but Coppola didn’t want to take the part away from Caridi. Ultimately, the change was made (Caridi went on to appear in The Godfather Parts II and III). Sir Laurence Olivier and comic actor Danny Thomas were main contenders for the role of Vito Corleone. The studio was also interested in Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Quinn, Carlo Ponti, and Richard Conte. They absolutely did not want Marlon Brando, mainly due to his reputation for being difficult to work with. After much lobbying from Coppola, they agreed as long as Brando got no advanced pay, put up a bond to cover any budget overruns he caused, and submit a screen test. Coppola went to Brando’s house to shoot some “advanced footage.” (Would you ask Brando for a screen test?) The advanced footage included the transformation that Brando, who was 48 when the film was released, had worked out for the character: shoe polish-blackened hair, tissue-stuffed jowls, and throat injury-effected voice. Brando’s transformation helped to sell the executives on his casting. The final cast consisted of the four actors Coppola had wanted from the start for the four male leads.
The horror genre has seen some curious, and disturbing, casting possibilities. When casting Warner Brothers adaptation of The Exorcist, the studio wanted Marlon Brando for the role of Father Merrin, but director William Friedkin did not want his presence to take over the movie and Max von Sydow was cast instead. Jack Nicholson was considered for Father Karras but the role went to Jason Miller. Always a good go-to for horror, Nicholson was Stanley Kubrick’s first choice for the role of Jack Torrance in The Shinning, but other actors considered included Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford, and Robin Williams. Those would have been much different versions of the role. I imagine the Robin Williams version being some confusing combination of his characters in Good Will Hunting and Aladdin. Itty bitty Drew Barrymore was up for the roe of Carol-Anne in Poltergeist, but producer/writer/godfather Steven Spielberg supposedly wanted someone more “angelic”. It did however help her get cast in Spielberg’s other project, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, where she was pretty darn adorable.
Horror master Christopher Lee turned down the role of Dr. Loomis in 1978’s Halloween, which went to Donald Pleasence. Lee reportedly said turning the role down was one of his biggest mistakes. Anthony Hopkins turned down the role of Uncle Fester in The Addams Family. He didn’t lose out on finding work that year though. He instead did a little movie called The Silence of The Lambs, and earned his sole Oscar win. As much as I would like to see that alternate version of Uncle Fester, where would film history be with anyone else as Dr. Hannibal Lecter? John Hurt, Christopher Lloyd, Dustin Hoffman, Patrick Stewart, Robert Duvall, Louis Gossett Jr., Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, and Jeremy Irons were supposedly all also considered for the role. According to director Jonathan Demme, only one other actor was actually offered the role before Hopkins: Sean Connery. Connery supposedly found the subject matter distasteful (pun intended on my part).
The title of King of Bizarre Casting Ideas, as well as general alternate casting, quite possible goes to the King of Bizarre himself: Tim Burton. Burton’s vision for some of his most iconic characters was quite different to him than it was to the studio executives. Burton’s initial choice for the title role in Beetlejuice was one of his idols, Sammy Davis, Jr. The studio didn’t see it and suggested Michael Keaton instead. The Role gave Keaton an opportunity to show some unique range and Burton would cast him for the title role in the following year’s Batman. Burton had also envisioned Marlon Brando as the Penguin in Batman Returns, though a much different version of the character from the one Danny DeVitto ultimately portrayed. Annette Bening was originally cast as Catwoman in that film as well, but had to back out due to her pregnancy. The role (and a much larger payday) went to Michelle Pfieffer. Several actors were affected by the fact that a third Burton Batman film was never made. Marlon Wayans had been cast to play Robin in Batman Returns, but the character was put on hold for a third planned Burton film in the franchise. When a third film was made without Burton, director Joel Schumacher cast Chris O’Donnell for his version of the role. Billy Dee Williams made a small appearance as Harvey Dent in Burton’s 1989 Batman, with the expectation of becoming Two-Face. Like Wayans, the role was recast for Schumacher’s Batman Forever. Two-Face was instead portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones. While the two actors lost the opportunity to play those two iconic roles, they did not walk away empty handed. Williams contract required that he be paid if he did not play the role and Marlon Waynes receives residual payment for the role he lost as well.
The ultimate head scratcher and “What could have been?”, though, is Burton’s unrealized project Superman Lives. Nicholas Cage was set to play the man of steel in this adaptation. Just the idea of the project intrigues so many that there a 2015 documentary was made about the failed project, The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?.
It is amazing to ponder the existence of an alternate universe where all of these unrealized casting decisions came to be. How many iconic movies would have been lost by these changes? But also, how many could exist that we will never see?
Are there any interesting casting changes that we overlooked? Share our oversights or your comments below.