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Marlon Brando as the Sundance Kid and other casting near-misses

Movie casting remains a popular spectator sport, as evidenced by the reaction to Deadline's report yesterday that Brendan Fraser will play the villain in the upcoming Warner Bros./HBO Max Batgirl movie. “We Could Not Believe Our Eyes, Brendan Fraser Might Play Firefly,” read the Vulture headline. The New York Post declared Fraser “the comeback kid.” There were happy GIFs on Twitter.

Will this become a pivotal role for the 52-year-old Mummy actor? What if another actor played the Batgirl villain? Would that change the trajectories of the movie and performers' careers?

Movie history, after all, if filled with fascinating casting what-ifs. Here are some favorites.

Finney as Lawrence. ©Sony Pictures Releasing

Albert Finney in Lawrence of Arabia

Finney did a screen test, preserved by the British Film Institute, and supposedly was director David Lean’s first choice to play Lawrence. According to the Independent, Finney turned down the role because he was afraid “he’d be trapped in a long-term, restrictive contract.” Peter O’Toole received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Marlon Brando in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

According to screenwriter William Goldman, the part of the Sundance Kid opposite Paul Newman was offered to Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty, all of whom rejected it. Goldman recalled that when Robert Redford was suggested for the role, a studio executive told him: “He’s just another California blond – throw a stick at Malibu, you hit six of him.” The film made Redford a big star.

Bill Murray in Airplane!

Robert Hays played Ted Striker, the lead in “Airplane!” But as directors David and Jerry Zucker told the Guardian: “The studio wanted Bill Murray or Chevy Chase, the reigning comic actors at the time. We loved them but they weren’t right. … Bruce [now Caitlyn] Jenner read for Ted Striker, the ex-pilot, three times but wasn’t right. Sigourney Weaver and Shelley Long tried for Elaine, the air stewardess, and were both good, but Julie Hagerty was so strikingly different we knew she was the one.” The pilot role played by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was written for Pete Rose, but he was busy with the baseball season when the directors wanted to shoot the film.

Angela Bassett in Monster’s Ball

The film role that made Halle Berry the first Black woman to win a Best Actress Academy Award was rejected by Bassett, who told Newsweek she was put off by the explicit sex in the film and saw it as “a stereotype about black women and sexuality. Film is forever. It’s about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later. I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that.”

W.C. Fields in The Wizard of Oz

After Ed Wynn turned down the role of the Wizard, it was offered to Fields, who was interested but reportedly didn’t think the part was big enough or that he’d get paid enough. Frank Morgan ended up with the part. There was another major casting shuffle: Buddy Ebsen (later of “Beverly Hillbillies” fame) was offered the role of the Scarecrow, then swapped roles with Ray Bolger to become the Tin Man, but then had a bad reaction to the aluminum makeup and dropped out, replaced by Jack Haley.

Robert De Niro in Do the Right Thing

Director Spike Lee wrote in his published journal that he wanted De Niro to play the pizzeria owner in his film, but De Niro “said he’s done roles like Sal before and doesn’t want to repeat.” Danny Aiello took the part and received his one Oscar nomination for the supporting performance.

Kirk Douglas in Cat Ballou

Lee Marvin won a Best Actor Oscar for the 1965 film, portraying both a cold-blooded killer and his drunken-gunslinger brother. Douglas later admitted making a mistake by turning down the role. “My agent talked me out of it because he thought the part was too small,” Douglas recalled. He also turned down another Oscar-winning part: the lead in “Stalag 17,” played by William Holden. Douglas had seen the play and found it “disjointed.”

Federico Fellini in Annie Hall

Remember that scene where a guy standing in line at a movie theater is waxing pseudo-intellectually about philosopher Marshall McLuhan? Woody Allen’s character brings the real McLuhan into the scene to tell the man, “You know nothing of my work!” Allen told interviewer Stig Björkman: “My first choice was Fellini, because it would be more natural if people were standing in line talking about movies, that they would be talking about Fellini. But Fellini didn’t want to come over to the United States to do this, which is OK. So I got Marshall McLuhan.”

Michelle Pfeiffer in The Silence of the Lambs

Pfeiffer told the New Yorker that she passed on “Lambs” because “there was such evil in that film. … It was that evil won in the end, that at the end of that film evil ruled out. I was uncomfortable with that ending. I didn’t want to put that out into the world.” Jodie Foster got the part of Clarice Starling and won the Academy Award. Gene Hackman had acquired rights to the story and planned to direct and star as FBI agent Jack Crawford. But the grim subject matter eventually dissuaded him too, and he gave way to Jonathan Demme as director and Scott Glenn as Crawford.

1 Comment

I am still besotted by the prospect of Doris Day as Mrs. Robinson. And James Mason was an early choice for George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

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