When she was in Dublin recently to accept a lifetime-achievement award from the Irish Film and Television Academy, Judi Dench was asked if there were any roles she regretted turning down. “There is a part, but I’m not going to tell you what it was that I turned down. But it was an enormous success,” she said. We will never know what she waved away. But the comment encourages us to consider those juicy parts that, for one reason or another, actors pushed to the side of their plate. We begin nearly a century ago.
Bela Lugosi: Frankenstein (1931)
Following his huge success in Universal’s film of Dracula, Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian stage actor of sinister aspect, was approached to appear as the creature in the studio’s inevitable assault on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi fancied the role of Victor Frankenstein but baulked at playing a shambling monster with no dialogue. “Excited at last to be a big Hollywood star whose image adorned all Dracula’s posters, his sudden fame perhaps went to his head,” a biographer explained. The unknown Boris Karloff won the role – and remained a horror star for the succeeding 40 years.
Myrna Loy: It Happened One Night (1934)
Frank Capra’s delightful romantic comedy was the first of only three pictures to win the “big five” – best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, best screenplay – at the Academy Awards. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert took those two acting prizes and continued their journey to legendary status. Yet it seems casting the picture was something of a nightmare. Robert Montgomery, a tough guy with a flexible voice, and Myrna Loy, so funny in the Thin Man films, were approached but proved uninterested. Loy later claimed that the first script, very different from the finished article, was one of the worst she had ever read.
Gertrude Lawrence: All About Eve (1950)
It now seems inconceivable that anyone other than Bette Davis could have mastered the terrifying diva Margo Channing, but the role was put the way of several actors before landing with that legend. Indeed, Claudette Colbert (see above) was actually cast as Margo but had to withdraw after an injury. Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck were busy. Gertrude Lawrence, Noël Coward’s great collaborator, was the unfortunate who actually turned it down. It seems Lawrence’s lawyers insisted that the character would not smoke or drink and that she would get at least one big song. Imagine Margo with no booze.
Charles Bronson: A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Neither Bronson nor the other guy (Clint somebody?) was Sergio Leone’s first choice for the character erroneously referred to as the Man With No Name. The Italian director wanted Henry Fonda, but the production company discovered he was too expensive. The part of the strange loner, actually “Joe” in the credits, was then put the way of Bronson, but – a story common in this list – he could make neither head nor tale of the script. Why take a risk on a modestly budgeted Italian western shot in Spain? Eastwood (that’s the guy) was braver and became a star. Fonda and Brosnan later appeared in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
Jack Lemmon: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
You would have a time guessing which role Lemmon turned down. A full 11 years older than Robert Redford, Lemmon, comfortably into his 40s, didn’t seem like any kind of “kid”. Nor did he have Paul Newman’s grizzled suavity. He was, indeed, offered the Sundance Kid but turned it down because he didn’t fancy riding a horse. This is arguably the least likely alternative in the list, but it is fascinating to consider what Lemmon, one of cinema’s great comic actors, would have made of the part. Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty were also considered before Redford, a modest star on the back of Barefoot in the Park, got the call. Without that we would have no Sundance Film Festival.
Natalie Wood: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Shirley MacLaine was initially favourite for the role of Bonnie, but when her brother, Warren Beatty, decided to star as well as produce, that idea obviously had to be knocked on the head. Cher (!) auditioned for the part, but the actor Beatty really wanted was Natalie Wood. It is said that he begged her to sign on – even if no official offer went her way – but she felt that working with Beatty on Splendour in the Grass a few years earlier had been a difficult experience. The role ended up with Faye Dunaway, and the film transformed the way Hollywood went about its business.
Burt Reynolds: Live and Let Die (1973)
Wait! Come back! Burt Reynolds as James Bond is really not such a ludicrous notion. Let us for the moment assume he could have managed the accent. (After all, the old Etonian has been played by a Scot, an Australian, an Irishman and a Welshman.) He had just the right combination of charm, wit and toughness for what 007 had then become. Cubby Broccoli, the long-time Bond producer, certainly thought so and offered him the role after Sean Connery stepped away. It seems Reynolds, who had just broken through in Deliverance, felt the part should go to a British actor. “It was a stupid thing to say,” he told USA Today in 2015. “I could’ve done it and I could’ve done it well.” He’s not wrong. His loss was a gain for Roger Moore’s right eyebrow.
Henry Winkler: Grease (1978)
The producers were not doing too much deep thinking when they offered the role of Danny Zuko, retro-greaser at Rydell High, to the amiable Henry Winkler. The actor had, after all, been playing the Fonz, the very embodiment of that spirit, on Happy Days for the previous four years. But he was worried about being typecast. He later said, “You get offered the part of the lead in Grease over John Travolta, before John Travolta, and you turned it down. Are you a damned fool?” An understandable reaction, but it seems unlikely the film would have been such a smash with the less threatening, more comic Winkler in the lead. We will never know.
John Lithgow: Batman (1989)
A long time ago, in a whole other century, it did not seem immediately obvious that superheroes were the future. It was Joe Dante, initially the director of Batman, who felt Lithgow would have made a creepily persuasive Joker. When Tim Burton came on board he could see the logic, but Lithgow, already twice Oscar nominated, couldn’t imagine himself in the role. “I have never told anyone this story,” he said much later. “But I tried to persuade him I was not right for the part, and I succeeded. I didn’t realise it was such a big deal. About a week later I heard they were going after Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson.” The role, of course, went to Nicholson. Two actors, Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, went on to win Oscars for the part.
William Hurt (and everyone else): Misery (1990)
We single out William Hurt because he was offered it twice, but the role of the hobbled writer Paul Sheldon was, perhaps, rejected by more prominent actors than any other in the history of the medium. Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman and Robert Redford are all said to have turned up their noses. James Caan, then going through a quiet period, said yes and enjoyed his best notices in a decade. His co-star Kathy Bates won the Oscar.
Sandra Bullock: The Matrix (1999)
No, not to play Trinity. It seems the script was sent to Sandra Bullock with a suggestion that the role of Neo, eventually played by Keanu Reeves, could be tweaked to accommodate a woman actor. “We went to Sandy Bullock and said, ‘We’ll change Neo to a girl,’” the film’s producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura told The Wrap a few years ago. “We sent her the script to see if she was interested in it. And if she was interested in it, we would try to make the change … It just wasn’t something for her at the time. So, really, it didn’t go anywhere.” Intriguing.
Emilia Clarke: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
It made sense at the time. Three years into the run of Game of Thrones at the time of pre-production, Emilia Clarke was very much in casting agents’ minds. Given the controversy about explicit sexuality in the fantasy series, some may be surprised to hear Clarke turned down the spanky sex film because of concerns about nudity. Then again, “I did a minimal amount and I’m pigeonholed for life,” she said. “So me saying yes to [Fifty Shades], where the entire thing is about sensuality and sex and being naked and all of that stuff, I was just, like, ‘No way am I going to voluntarily walk into that situation.” Fair enough. Dakota Johnson stepped up.
And a bonus entry
Jordan Peele: The Emoji Movie (2018)
“The Emoji Movie actually helped me quit acting. I was offered the role of Poop,” the director of Get Out explained. Vaguely insulted, he thought “That’s f**ked up” and went to sleep on it. The next day his manager broke the bad news: “They’ve already given it to Sir Patrick Stewart.” Perhaps Dame Judi Dench had also turned it down.