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Legendary Hollywood Roles, and the Actors Who Snoozed on Them

Legendary Hollywood Roles, and the Actors Who Snoozed on Them: Columbia Pictures; Paramount Pictures

Columbia Pictures; Paramount Pictures

The old hindsight is 20/20 axiom goes triple when it comes to Hollywood stars who’ve turned down roles that sent other actors’ careers—and paychecks—into the stratosphere.  

By now, it’s blood under the bridge how Hugh Jackman nixed playing 007 in Casino Royale and that the eponymous Forrest Gump role was rejected by John Travolta, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. Of course, Tom Hanks went on to win an Oscar for his Gump, but he might have at least been nominated for another if he’d said yes to starring in Jerry Maguire. Al Pacino snubbed Die Hard plus the chance to play Han Solo in the original Star Wars (as did Burt Reynolds) and Gwyneth Paltrow chose not to board Titanic. Director Jonathan Demme wanted Michelle Pfeiffer for The Silence of the Lambs and both Michael Douglas and director Paul Verhoeven thought Pfeiffer would be killer in Basic Instinct but no go.  

Meanwhile, it’s become part of Hollywood what-were-they-thinking? lore that Sandra Bullock gave a wide pass to Million Dollar Baby, that Frank Sinatra blew his shot at Dirty Harry and that Will Smith just wasn’t into The Matrix. And when Mel Books directed the raucous Western comedy Blazing Saddles, veterans Dan Dailey, Johnny Carson and Gig Young (whose alcoholism got him replaced after production starred) were all ahead of the much lesser-known Gene Wilder, who went on to play the Waco Kid.

“It’s easy to slam an actor for missing the boat on what later seems like a slam dunk,“ says a studio production executive once involved in many such billion-dollar projects, including the Matrix franchise. "Sometimes the actor just can’t ‘see’ the movie on the pages of the script. Other times, the actor moves on to something else before the screenplay gets much better and a great director and costars get attached. The problem can also boil down to a breakdown in salary negotiations or an agent who never even shows the actor the material. Some actors can also be poor judges of material and others have an uncanny knack for shooting themselves in the foot. Plain old bad luck can also come into it, and too much of that can kill a career.”

Whatever the reason, actors miss out on plum roles all the time. No one’s going to accuse Brad Pitt of bad luck or being a poor judge of material, but remember he turned down The Bourne Identity to do the 2001 thriller Spy Games; as a result, the more likable, accessible and, at the time, affordable, Matt Damon became a bona fide international action movie star who will be seen this month running, jumping, shooting and ducking assassins in his fourth outing as Jason Bourne.  

We have a hard time imagining a Silver Linings Playbook co-starring Zooey Deschanel and Vince Vaughn instead of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. According to director David O. Russell, those were his picks for the role when he was going to make the film in 2008. By 2014, Russell had nabbed Mark Wahlberg and Anne Hathaway–until the latter pulled out because of creative differences with the director. Mercifully, Jennifer Lawrence stepped in and waltzed away with the movie–and a Best Actress Oscar.  

Maybe some actors brood long into the night about how they were contenders for major roles in high profile flicks. But for moviegoers, sometimes things work out for the best. Otherwise the fickle finger of Hollywood fate might have given us Dougray Scott as Wolverine, Sylvester Stallone as Axel Foley or Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones.  

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