5 Fortuitous Casting Substitutions (Mania.com)

By:Ken Pasini
Date: Wednesday, July 21, 2010


This Summer, Angelina Jolie returns to the screen as a CIA Agent who becomes a fugitive accused of being a Russian spy in Salt. What makes this interesting is that the role was originally written for a male lead, and had Tom Cruise attached to the lead. This is similar to the lead character Ripley from the Alien franchise, originally written as male only to be changed shortly before production began. The male dominated action genre often benefits from this type of character deviation, and audiences tend to embrace those films that can rise above the stereotype. Altering the gender of a lead character, or replacing an actor with another, often has a very positive effect on the end product. Let’s explore some other films where this has occurred, and speculate on what may have been different. 

5. Indiana Jones

Spielberg began pitching Harrison Ford shortly after signing on to direct, but George Lucas was reluctant to cast an actor with whom he’d worked before. He was concerned about Ford becoming synonymous with Lucas, as he’d seen happen with DeNiro and Scorsese. Lucas had signed Tom Selleck to don the Fedora, but Selleck could not break from his obligation to Magnum PI to meet the film schedule. Spielberg slyly arranged for Ford to do some carpentry work at the studio during pre-production, and again lobbied for Ford as the lead, while they were all together one day. Lucas finally relented, and Indiana Jones was born. Selleck would have brought a strong sense of character to the role, but based on his body of work at the time, may have delivered a decidedly different take on Jones than Ford. Ford had somehow infused the character with humility, sarcasm, wonder, sense of adventure, and an everyman quality that invited the audience to sympathize with his many plights. This ability to translate script into a character that the audience can identify with is so uniquely Ford, and has served him well over his long career. Ford continues to accept roles that personally challenge him, and in stories he that he finds interesting. Selleck’s career has not been nearly as successful, but whose body of work is still impressive. He is currently helming the Jesse Stone made-for-TV movies, all of which are critically well received.

4. Batman

Many key action stars from the late ‘80s were initially considered for the role of Batman, including Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Selleck, and even Bill Murray. Micheal Keaton was favored by producer Jon Peters, and director Tim Burton, who had already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, finally agreed. Once the casting decision was announced however, the production was immediately thrust into controversy. This relaxed a bit with the casting of Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker. This role was initially anticipated to be much smaller in the original script, with many actors considered for the role, including David Bowie, Willem Dafoe, James Woods, and Robin Williams. Williams was actually close to signing the deal, and was surprised when the role was awarded to Jack Nicholson. As dailies were screened, the production team became so enamored with Nicholson’s performance, that they immediately began tweaking the script to include more of his character. This changed the entire direction of the film, and more equally balanced the story between the tormented Batman and the delicious insanity of the Joker. Nicholson was able to lay down a foundation of evil intensity, and then build this into full on insanity over the course of the film. Although Robin Williams has demonstrated he can step away from comedic genius on which he’s primarily built his career, his penchant for over-the-top comedy may have shown the Joker as an insane clown than a menacing crime lord who continuously devolves further into the depths of insanity. Both are greatly respected and considered Hollywood royalty to this day, with Jack still headlining films well into his 70s, and Williams reviving his stand-up comedy routine for tour.     

3. The Matrix

Keanu Reeves solemn portrayal of Thomas Anderson, the reluctant hero of the human races ageless war against the machines, was relatively effective when played off of the other strong actors in the cast (including Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Hugo Weaving). The casting of the lead may have alternatively gone to Will Smith, who was originally offered the role before Reeves. He turned it down to make ‘Wild, Wild, West’, a role he felt more comfortable with as it was not such an effects-laden production. He’s since admitted that he did not feel he was mature enough as an actor at the time, to handle the difficult source material. Smith has often tackled serious subject matter since then, by slowly building an impressive resume as an acclaimed actor in films such as The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds, Ali, and Legion. Both Reeves and Smith are still acting and receiving decent roles, with Smith probably outpacing Reeves in acting credibility at this point.

2. Back to the Future

The ‘80’s introduced Robert Zemeckis Back to the Future franchise. Michael J. Fox was always the first choice as lead, but had to decline due to his obligations on the TV series Family Ties. The role then fell to Eric Stoltz, who when cast, had filmed several scenes before the production team decided that he was not right for the role. They again approached Fox, who with some wrangling of schedules, was able to accept the role second time around. This posed a significant production challenge however, requiring numerous reshoots to replace Stoltz’s scenes with Fox portraying McFly. Once Fox began filming, the filmmakers immediately knew they had struck on exactly the right actor they needed to carry the film, and in the summer of 1985, Back to the Future began its run to become the most successful movie of that year. Fox’s was able to hone his craft on Family Ties, and leverage the razor wit, animated facial expressions, and quirky, adrenalin fueled antics he had displayed so successfully on the show. Stoltz, a fine actor to be sure, has a radically different style, and the producers wisely elected to seek a second audience with Fox for the lead. While the story and its colorful characters are certainly important, it is doubtful that the franchise would have achieved such success with anyone other than Fox as the young man who drove the DeLorean back to the future.

1. X-Men

It was only a matter of time before one of the most successful comic book titles in history would find its way to the silver screen. From the beginning, the production was plagued with many challenges, including numerous script submissions and rewrites, shuffling of directors, and budget issues. Casting problems were also evident, particularly with the characters Cyclops and Wolverine. When James Cameron was attached to the project early on, Michael Biehn was heavily considered to wear the ruby quartz spectacles, but lost out when Cameron exited the production. The role of Cyclops then went to Jim Caviezel, who pulled out of the film shortly before filming began. James Marsden eventually distanced himself over the other contenders to finally win the role. Many also aspired to become Wolverine, of which Dougray Scott eventually won. However, due to an extended filming schedule to handle reshoots on Mission Impossible II, Scott was forced to relinquish the role to the then unknown Hugh Jackman. Jackman leveraged his extensive stage experience in Australia to infuse Wolverine with just the right amount of ferociousness and humanity needed to for the character. Similar in popularity of Wolverine in the Marvel universe, Jackman has successfully reprised the role three more times since, and Wolverine II is already in the works. He credits the rare opportunity he was given when offered the role as the basis for his success. Dougray Scott is seen on occasion in film and television, but has never risen to the level of success as Jackman since missing this golden opportunity to portray such an iconic character.
The list of films we had planned to cover for this article extended beyond our available word count. There are several other prime examples of fortuitous casting substitutions, which we would like to invite our readers to suggest. We focused this article on films that fell into a sci-fi / action genre, but the list is certainly not limited to these few offerings.  Let us know what you think, and if you have a film(s) to add, offer it up. 
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