Home Entertainment Top List Thursdays – Top 10 Actors Who Almost Played Famous Roles – Part 1

Top List Thursdays – Top 10 Actors Who Almost Played Famous Roles – Part 1

10 min read

Back in 1998, Dougray Scott was busy playing the baddie in Mission: Impossible 2, when the production ran behind schedule, forcing Scott to pull out of this other little project he was working on and giving up his role to a relatively unknown Australian stage actor and soap star. The movie was X-Men, the actor was Hugh Jackman, and the rest is history. 

Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine anybody else besides Jackman in the role of Wolverine, but as I just recounted, it very nearly happened. Similarly, there are several other roles that have become iconic to certain actors, that very nearly ended up with somebody else. Here are 10 of them (with another 10 to follow next week).

  • OJ Simpson – T-800 Terminator in The Terminator


The role of the cold-blooded T-800 killing machine in James Cameron’s classic The Terminator, really didn’t require much of an acting range, as long as the actor had an imposing physical presence. So naturally NFL running back OJ Simpson, who had shown some acting chops in TV mini-series Roots, was considered. Eventually though, Cameron passed on Simpson in favour of rising star Arnold Schwarzenegger (who had initially been asked to read for the role of Kyle Reese, if that can be believed).

The reason? The producers thought OJ was just too nice of a guy and that nobody would ever believe he could be a killer. Oy vey!

(Bonus trivia: Dark Horse Comics produced an early comic book adaptation of Cameron’s screenplay before the movie was released, and the Terminator in there is modelled after OJ Simpson.)

  • Sean Connery – Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy


Just imagine the scene: Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring have just witnessed Gandalf defeat the Balrog, when suddenly the wizard is gripped from behind by a fiery lash. He is dragged to the edge of the bridge, where he clings dearly, and before being pulled into the abyss below, he utters those heartbreaking words: “Fly you foolsh”.

This is very, very nearly what happened, as writer-director Peter Jackson was hell bent on casting Sean Connery in the role of Gandalf in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. He apparently offered Connery a $30 million paycheck for all three films, which Connery turned down. He then offered him an additional 15% of the net profit of the entire trilogy (which would eventually have scored him the ludicrous amount of about $450 million!), but Connery still gave him the cold shoulder, forcing Jackson to settle on his second choice, Sir Ian McKellen.

And the reason why Connery kept turning the gig down? He admitted that he didn’t understand the book or script when read them.

  • Ashton Kutcher/Jude Law/Josh Hartnett – Clark Kent/Superman in Superman Returns


Want one more entry on your already ginormous list of reasons to dislike director Brett Ratner? Before Bryan Singer stepped on board Warner Bros’ proposed Superman reboot (which at the time was still the JJ Abrams penned Superman: Flyby) and cast Brandon Routh (whose performance is easily the best thing about the movie), Brett Ratner was at the helm. And at various points in production, he wanted to cast either Jude Law, Josh Hartnett or Ashton Kutcher in the role of Superman.

While I think that Josh Hartnett has a slight chance of pulling it off, can you even imagine Kelso and Watson in that role?

  • Jim Carrey – Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean


Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards inspired pirate in Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, has become a modern legend. His manic, permanently half-drunk, idiosyncratic performance was a delight to behold, and has cemented its place in pop culture. And it nearly never happened. Because before producer Jerry Bruckheimer decided to go with the edgier Depp to contrast with the Disney aesthetics, the role had actually been offered to rubberfaced funnyman Jim Carrey, who had to pass due to a scheduling conflict with Bruce Almighty, which he opted to focus on instead.

While I love Depp’s iconic take on the character, I would actually be interested to see what Carrey could have done. It may not have been as memorable, but it would probably have been a bit crazy.

  • Will Smith – Neo in The Matrix


Just one “Woah” into The Matrix, and you knew that Keanu Reeves was the perfect choice for spaced-out hacker turned techno-messiah Neo. Reeves was certainly not a nobody at the time, but the genre redefining sci-fi classic really upped his stock like never before. But before picking Reeves to be the One, the Wachowski’s had a much higher profile actor in mind: Will Smith.

Smith would eventually pass on the role to rather do Wild Wild West because he was skeptical that the film’s revolutionary bullet-time special effects would even work (…..yeah) and because he realized that he was just not right for the role at all. And by “not right” I mean, he would actually try and act.

“I watched Keanu’s performance – and very rarely do I say this – but I would have messed it up. I would have absolutely messed up The Matrix. At that point I wasn’t smart enough as an actor to let the movie be. Whereas Keanu was smart enough to just let it be. Let the movie and the director tell the story, and don’t try and perform every moment.”

Ah, smart Keanu just let it be? Right.

  • Liam Neeson – James Bond in Goldeneye


After the cheesy lunacy (or should that be lunar-cy, Moonraker?) of the tail end of the Roger Moore era, the James Bond franchise took a well deserved break. When it eventually came time to reintroduce the character – now stripped of his campness again – to a new audience in 1995, EON Productions needed somebody who would mean badass business. And clearly EON employs a room full of psychics, because they really wanted future “most badass grandpa on the planet” Liam Neeson for the role.

After initially auditioning, Neeson was called back several times for further readings, and it looked like he would be the next man to add 007 to the end of his name. And then a lady got involved. According to Neeson, his now-late wife but girlfriend at the time Natasha Richardson simply gave him an ultimatum: If he took on the role of James Bond, she would never marry him. And he really wanted to marry her, so the role ended up with Pierce Brosnan.

(Bonus trivia: the producers had wanted Brosnan to take over the role from Moore back in 1986 already, when Brosnan became available after his TV series Remington Steele got cancelled. However, the announcement of Brosnan’s Bond gig created so much publicity, that Remington Steele was un-cancelled, making Brosnan unavailable for the role of Bond again.)

  • David Schwimmer – Agent J in Men In Black


Much like you just can’t see Will Smith as Neo in The Matrix, I really can’t see anybody else as Agent J, the fast talking, wise-cracking, alien busting agent in Men In Black. Smith’s persona infects virtually every aspect of the film so much, that it would probably have been a very, very different movie with somebody else. Somebody like, say, dopey Friends star David Schwimmer.

Yes, not-quite-so lovable loser Ross was once picked to battle aliens and drive cars upside down on tunnel ceilings. I have a very vivid imagination and easy access to drugs, and I cannot picture how that would work.

Schwimmer would eventually turn down the role to instead star in rom-com The Pallbearer with Gwyneth Paltrow, explaining that “This is an opportunity to grow rather than go for the quick cash.”

Yeah, how’s that working out for you, Schwimmer?

  • Bill Murray – Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman


If you think fans were in an uproar when Ben Affleck was announced as Batman last year, you should have heard the rage when Tim Burton picked Michael Keaton for his dark, gothic take on the Dark Knight’s first feature film. Let’s just say that Keaton can be glad the internet didn’t properly exist back then. But I have feeling that all of that rage would have been eclipsed by the news that Bill Murray would be the one in the Batsuit. Obviously, after a few minutes, people would realize that it’s Bill f@#$ing Murray and then be all cool with it, but those few minutes before that, it would be a raging inferno of fanboy hate.

And we very nearly saw it, as Murray was actually Warner Bros’ first choice, as they envisioned a camp and goofy Adam West-like take on Batman for his first big screen appearance. But then Burton came on board and took the film in a much darker, much more serious direction. BUT BILL MURRAY WAS ALMOST BATMAN, MAN!

  • Al Pacino – Han Solo in Star Wars


Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is one of the most recognisable characters in movie history, and arguably the actor’s most iconic role (yes, I would be doing the arguing in favour of Indiana Jones). The character has all that laidback roguish charm, deadpan comic timing and heroic swagger down pat, not too mention a very human fallibility. Had things gone a different way though, all of that would probably have been replaced by shouting.

Writer/director George Lucas considered several woefully different (and wrong for the role) actors before settling on Ford, and one name he was seriously eyeballing: Al Pacino. So what happened? Al Pacino pulled a Sean Connery, saying that “It was mine for the taking but I didn’t understand the script.”

You shoot first. What else is there to understand?

  • Frank Sinatra- Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry


Clint Eastwood had made a career out of playing gun-blazing, hard men with no visible pupils, which made him a perfect choice for the gritty, no-nonsense “Dirty” Harry Callahan in the critically acclaimed 1971 crime thriller. Perfect choice, but definitely not first choice.

When Dirty Harry was originally written (titled Dead Rights back then), the eponymous character was a hard-nosed police inspector in his mid-50’s. Eastwood was only in his early 40’s at the time, so he wasn’t even being considered. Who was the right age for the character? Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. No known more for singing in the rain and doing things his way, than waxing lyrical about .44 Magnums, its not easy to picture Sinatra in the role of the badass policeman, but that’s exactly what was going to happen. Until a small tragedy struck.

Suffering a broken wrist while film The Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra was unable to comfortably handle Harry’s signature hand cannon, and had to pull out of the role. It was then offered to and refused in quick succession by John Wayne, who claimed he didn’t want Sinatra’s hand-me-downs; Robert Mitchum, who thought the role was “a piece of  junk”, and Burt Lancaster, who didn’t agree with the film’s violence.

With all other options out of the window, the script finally ended up at Eastwood’s door, who readily accepted as he loved the way the film shone a spotlight on how bureaucracy was aiding criminals. And the rest was movie history.

I guess you could say Eastwood got lucky, punk.

Last Updated: May 29, 2014


  1. Some of them aren’t bad, but wow, some are just pure “what were they thinking” moments.


  2. UltimateNinjaPandaDudeGuy

    May 29, 2014 at 13:10

    Liam Neeson = YES
    Bill Murray = Yes, because who the hell doesn’t want to see a Bill Murray batman? COME ON! o/


    • Unavengedavo

      May 29, 2014 at 15:02

      Jim Carry would have over acted the role of Captain Jack Sparrow O_o


  3. RinceofFuturePast

    May 29, 2014 at 13:28

    Awesome Kerv. Nice list and a lot of wtfs were had!


  4. Unavengedavo

    May 29, 2014 at 14:54

    • Kervyn Cloete

      May 29, 2014 at 15:00

      Don’t worry, there’s a Part 2 coming 😉


  5. Skyblue

    May 30, 2014 at 09:19

    Interesting read, thanks.


  6. Admiral Chief 0

    October 6, 2014 at 16:14

    Al Pacino as Han????



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