Secondhand Roles: Who Said No to What

When actors are deluged with offers, how do they choose? Some might seek out quality projects or box-office gold, or a change-of-pace role to keep from being typecast. Others can’t resist an exotic location or a chance to work with colleagues they admire.

Whatever the rationale, it doesn’t always translate to sound judgment in selecting roles. Or rejecting them.

Ghost was the smash of 1990, but Patrick Swayze got the part because a roster of top actors wanted nothing to do with it: Tom Cruise, Kevin Bacon, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Nicolas Cage, Kevin Costner, Johnny Depp, David Duchovny, Mel Gibson, Dennis Quaid, Mickey Rourke and John Travolta.

That year’s third biggest hit, Pretty Woman, made a superstar of Julia Roberts after many others nixed it. These included Sandra Bullock, Diane Lane, Daryl Hannah and Molly Ringwald.

Meg Ryan opted out of Ghost, Housesitter and Roberts’ roles in Pretty Woman and Steel Magnolias, enabling the young redhead to earn Oscar nominations for both.

Pretty Woman was among the many movies Michelle Pfeiffer declined, and both she and Ryan passed on To Die For and Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs. Pfeiffer could have had Sharon Stone’s roles in Basic Instinct and Casino along with the lead in Lorenzo’s Oil and Julianne Moore’s Oscar-winning Still Alice role.

Another star who didn’t want Pretty Woman was Kim Basinger, who also was offered Roberts’ role in Sleeping with the Enemy, Sharon Stone’s in Basic Instinct, Meg Ryan’s in Sleepless in Seattle and The Accused, the film that earned Foster her first Academy Award. Basinger said no to Risky Business and Thelma & Louise as well.

The male lead in Pretty Woman went begging for awhile too. Burt Reynolds, Al Pacino, Albert Brooks and Sylvester Stallone declined it and Richard Gere reportedly was about to do the same when Julia Roberts gave him a note asking him to “Please say yes.”

Gere had already rejected the iconic starring roles in Wall Street and Die Hard. Earlier, Gere’s career had gotten a big boost from John Travolta’s refusal of three films: Days of Heaven, American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman.

Jane Fonda reaped similar benefits from Barbra Streisand’s rejection of Julia, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Klute–plus an Oscar for the latter. Streisand also refused Evita and Liza Minelli’s Oscar-winning Cabaret role while Fonda passed up Norma Rae, which earned Sally Field her first Academy Award. Field, in turn, declined Friday the 13th, The Fly and Moonstruck. Cher won an Oscar for the latter but turned down Thelma & Louise.

Travolta decided to forego Forrest Gump, as did Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. After being cast in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Murray dropped out due to conflicts with Saturday Night Live. Tom Selleck had to forfeit because he was committed to Magnum P.I. Steve Martin, who preferred making Pennies from Heaven, begged off from the Indiana Jones role and so did Jeff Bridges.

Other roles Bridges rejected were 48 Hours, An Officer and a Gentleman, Pretty Woman, Ghost, Love Story, (also declined by his brother Beau) and Witness.

Witness was offered to Sylvester Stallone and Jack Nicholson before it went to Harrison Ford. Other films Stallone spurned were Coming Home, Superman, Beverly Hills Cop, Die Hard and Travolta’s roles in Pulp Fiction and Face/Off. Nicholson said no to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Caligula, Nixon, One Hour Photo, The Sting, Three Kings and Hoosiers.

After Nicholson couldn’t be persuaded to star in the 1990 hit Misery, James Caan played the captive writer. It was a turnabout from 1975, when Caan’s refusal of the McMurphy role in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest cleared the way for Nicholson to win his first Academy Award.

Caan rejected many other offers including The Godfather’s Michael Corleone–though he did play Sonny–Close Encounters, The French Connection, Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer and Superman. He also turned down Elliott Gould’s roles in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and MASH.

In retrospect actors may wish they had made certain films though some say if a role is wrong for them, attention and awards won’t compensate for it. Often their favorites brought little in the way of prizes or acclaim. And starring in what turn out to be blockbusters, profitable franchises or award-winners can be unsatisfying in the long run.

Nevertheless, some have admitted to reconsidering at least one role. Richard Gere, who might have won the Wall Street Oscar Michael Douglas earned, said giving up this film is his biggest regret. For Jack Nicholson it was the title role in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, played by Robert Redford. Patton is the film for which George C. Scott won (and refused) an Oscar after Rod Steiger turned it down–a decision he called his “dumbest career move.”


About famewalker

Loretta Wish is a novelist, essayist, playwright, musician and writer of print and online columns and feature stories. A former newspaper reporter and government communications writer, she is now a freelance writer/editor and plays guitar in a classic rock band. A devotee of old movies and TV, she hopes that in the next life Eve Arden will star in her biopic. Unless Thelma Ritter is already attached to the project.
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