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Top 20 Major Film Roles That Actors Regretted Turning Down

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Imagine a world where Johnny Depp never got the part... chilling, isn't it?

Imagine a world where Johnny Depp never got the part... chilling, isn't it?

Whenever we think of actors, their most iconic performances often spring to mind alongside their image. If I asked you to think of Christopher Reeve, for example, the mental image you probably have of him will be of Reeve playing Superman in 1978 in the famous character's costume with his hair slicked back and Margot Kidder in his arms as he flies over Metropolis. But you might not realise that Reeve was not the first choice to play that part - in fact, he was one of more than 200 actors who auditioned for the part and after other stars had already turned the part down, including Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Warren Beatty and James Caan. The point I'm trying to make is that there are countless 'what-if's' that are floating around the Hollywood sphere featuring an alternative world where some of the most legendary movie parts are played by alternative actors. Let's look at some of the biggest stars who turned down a part and then later regretted their decision.

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20. Denzel Washington in 'Se7en'?

Washington was asked in 2012 if he had ever turned down roles that he should have accepted and he answered with two films - Michael Clayton and Se7en. He didn't explain which part in Se7en he turned down - the grizzled detective played by Morgan Freeman or the young rookie played by Brad Pitt - or even why he turned the film down. But he did explain why he passed on the former film, saying that he was nervous about working with first-time director Tony Gilroy. David Fincher, whose only previous experience was the critically reviled Alien 3, may have lacked the experience Washington was looking for but Se7en would become one of the most seminal and influential thrillers of the 90's and would make Fincher one of Hollywood's most in-demand directors for years afterwards.

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19. Will Smith in 'The Matrix'?

The Matrix was one project that took a lot of convincing to get off the ground and not just because of its mind-bending concept and ground-breaking special effects. The list of stars considered for the role of lead character Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) is a long one with names like Nicolas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer and even Sandra Bullock either being offered or suggested for the part. Perhaps the biggest blunder belongs to Will Smith who turned the role down to instead work on legendary steam-punk western turkey Wild Wild West. Smith later stated that he wasn't mature enough at that point in his career but did say that had he accepted, he would have probably messed it up.

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18. Madonna in 'The Matrix'?

And while we're on the subject of the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi shooter, the part of Trinity was equalled contested. While the likes of Salma Hayek, Jada Pinkett Smith (who would later appear in the sequels as Niobe) and Janet Jackson all failed to secure the role, Madonna also claimed to have turned down a part in the film - presumably that of Trinity. “Can you believe that? I wanna kill myself. That’s, like, one of the best movies ever made. A teeny-tiny part of me regrets just that one moment in my life” she said in an interview with Jimmy Fallon. She also turned down roles in Catwoman and Showgirls, something she's presumably less upset about considering how those films ended up.

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17. Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Boogie Nights'?

Boogie Nights is a movie I loved and I wish I would’ve done,” DiCaprio once declared in an interview. He had to turn the part down as he was filming Titanic at the time - not a bad career move, all things considered - but he still found himself wishing he could have done both roles. "The truth is, if I’d not done Titanic, I wouldn’t be able to do the types of movies or have the career I have now, for sure. But it would have been interesting to see if I had gone the other way.” Instead, the film made former rap star Mark Wahlberg a star.

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16. Michael Keaton in 'Groundhog Day'?

Yep, Michael Keaton (who was still playing Bruce Wayne / Batman in Tim Burton's film at this point) was considered for the role of sarcastic, sardonic weather reporter Phil Conners who was wonderfully portrayed by Bill Murray in arguably the best film of his career to date. Keaton felt that the role suited him but he simply couldn't understand the film's time-loop concept and passed on the opportunity. Later regretting his decision, he did say that no-one could play the part better than Murray.

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15. Matt Damon in 'Avatar'?

Damon hasn't explicitly said that he was offered a role in James Cameron's pioneering sci-fi epic specifically but he did turn down the chance to work with the director. Offered the lead role and 10% of Avatar's earnings, Damon still said no and later regretted his decision which ended up costing him around $200 million! Instead, the part went to Sam Worthington and Damon ended up missing out. “I’ve left more money on the table than any actor,” he said in 2019. "So that sucked and that’s still brutal. But my kids are all eating. I’m doing OK.” Nice attitude to have, I guess!

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14. Josh Hartnett in 'Batman Begins'?

How different would Josh Hartnett's career have turned out if he hadn't turned down the dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins? But it wasn't until Nolan's next film came along - The Prestige - that Hartnett realised his error. Both films were led by the same actor, Christian Bale, and Hartnett then understood the opportunity he'd missed. "That’s when I realised relationships were formed in the fire of that first Batman film, and I should have been part of the relationship with this guy Nolan, who I felt was incredibly cool and very talented.” To make matters worse, The Prestige also cast his then-girlfriend Scarlett Johansson in a role!

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13. John Lithgow in 'Batman'?

Speaking of the Caped Crusader, Tim Burton's first Batman film gave us a mesmerising Joker in the grinning shape of Jack Nicholson. But Burton actually approached John Lithgow first for the role. However, Lithgow felt that he wasn't right for the part and ultimately talked himself out of the role, convincing Burton that he should look elsewhere. "I didn't realize it was such a big deal" he later said, regretting the missed opportunity. Other stars considered for the part were Brad Douriff, Ray Liotta, James Woods, Tim Curry and David Bowie!

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12. Michelle Pfeiffer in 'Thelma & Louise'?

Pfeiffer has missed out on a number of roles over the years from Basic Instinct and Pretty Woman to The Silence Of The Lambs and Sleepless In Seattle. But it's Thelma & Louise she regrets the most, missing out on the role purely because of a scheduling conflict. “I still can’t watch it..." she said in 2017. "It still kills me!” She also regrets missing out on The Silence Of The Lambs as she missed out on working with director Jonathan Demme again after their collaboration in 1988's Married To The Mob. Demme always envisioned Pfeiffer for the role of FBI agent Clarice Starling, which ended up earning Jodie Foster an Oscar for her performance.

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11. Halle Berry in 'Speed'?

The role in Speed that made Sandra Bullock a star almost went to Halle Berry instead, who was offered the part before Bullock. Berry turned it down, on the basis that the script was very different at the time and claiming that the bus never left a parking lot. It was only after watching the film that Berry realised what she had missed out on - “I see the movie and I’m like, arrrghhh!”. She also called her decision to pass on the film as "stupid". Still, at least she wasn't contractually obliged to appear in Speed 2: Cruise Control...

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10. Bruce Willis in 'Ghost'?

Now this one would have made sense, given the relationship between Willis and star Demi Moore at the time. The pair of them were sent scripts for Ghost together in 1989 but only Moore agreed to do the film, being cast instead opposite Patrick Swayze as the doomed lovers. "I just didn't get it," Willis said in a 1996 interview, claiming that he didn't understand the concept of the film - which became the biggest earning movie of the year and one of the most beloved romance films of the Nineties. Willis also called himself a "knucklehead" for turning the film down.

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9. Henry Winkler in 'Grease'?

It seems obvious, doesn't it? Why not cast Henry Winkler, who was most famous for playing popular greaser character Fonzie in sitcom Happy Days, as another greaser in Fifties high school musical Grease? Well, he would have been but Winkler turned the filmmakers down, claiming that he didn't want to get typecast. The role instead went to John Travolta and the rest is history. Winkler later said that he didn't realise at the time, he had already been typecast as that sort of character and while Travolta went on to mega-stardom, Winkler "just went home."

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8. Eddie Murphy in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit'?

Murphy's film career has certainly had its ups and down but it's sometimes easy to forget just how in-demand he was at the peak of his powers. Following rave reviews in films like Beverly Hills Cop and Coming To America, he was considered for the role of private detective Eddie Valiant in the part-animated mystery film Who Framed Roger Rabbit - a role that ultimately went to Bob Hoskins. Murphy wasn't convinced by the concept of animation alongside live-action footage, calling it "bulls***" before eventually seeing the film. "Now every time I see it, I feel like an idiot" he said in a 2003 interview.

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7. Al Pacino in 'Star Wars'?

Now this is just getting silly! Who else could play the part of the galaxy's favourite scruffy-looking nerf herder but Harrison Ford, the man for whom Star Wars made an instant star? Initially, George Lucas wanted to cast another actor as he had already featured Ford in his earlier film American Graffiti. A number of actors were considered including Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, James Caan, Sylvester Stallone, Nick Nolte, Chevy Chase, Burt Reynolds (again!), Bill Murray and even a pre-fame Robert Englund who would achieve cinematic immortality as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare On Elm Street. But according to Pacino, he was the closest to getting cast - “It was mine for the taking, but I didn’t understand the script,” he later said in an interview.

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6. Marilyn Monroe in 'Breakfast At Tiffany's'?

According to the author of the novella Breakfast At Tiffany's is based upon (Truman Capote), the role of Holly Golightly was always intended for Marilyn Monroe - so much so that screenwriter George Axelrod was told to adjust the script to make the part fit Marilyn all the better. However, Marilyn's acting coach and friend Lee Strasberg advised her not to take the part as playing 'a lady of the evening' would have been disastrous for her image and she instead ended up appearing in The Misfits which was a commercial flop and the last film Monroe completed before her passing in 1962 at the age of just 36.

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5. Gwyneth Paltrow in 'Titanic'?

Kate Winslet famously played the part of socialite Rose in James Cameron's three-hour romantic drama but only after lobbying extremely hard after numerous other actresses dropped out. Winona Ryder, Reese Witherspoon, Claire Danes and Gabrielle Anwar all turned the part down, as did Paltrow who lamented her decision years later. “I look back at the choices I’ve made and think, ‘Why the hell did I say yes to that? And no to that?'” she remarked. While Paltrow's career didn't exactly suffer as a result at the time, Titanic made Winslet an international star.

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4. Burt Reynolds as James Bond?

After George Lazenby's one-and-done appearance as 007 in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the filmmakers were desperate to get Connery back in the role for the next Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. But that didn't stop them considering other actors including Michael Gambon (who ruled himself out, describing himself as "too ugly"), Clint Eastwood and TV's Batman at the time, Adam West. According to Burt Reynolds, he was seriously considered for the role but he told producers that Bond had to be British and not American. He later called this remark a stupid thing to say in his 1994 autobiography although Reynolds would still enjoy a highly successful film career in the years after. In the end, Connery did return but only after asking for (and receiving) a fee of £1.25 million (about £27 million in 2020) as well as 12.5% of the film's earnings. Not a bad pay day...

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3. Nicolas Cage in 'The Lord Of The Rings'?

I confess that I'm not a huge fan of Nic Cage - he's either brilliant or swivel-eyed insane - so I admit to being rather relieved that he turned down the role of Aragorn in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Cage admits that while the role would have helped his career, he simply was unavailable or unwilling to be away from his family for the three year shoot in New Zealand. Initially, Stuart Townsend was cast but dropped out after filming began and Viggo Mortensen took up the role instead, becoming a household name in the process and nailing his performance as the ranger who becomes a king.

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2. Kevin Costner in 'The Shawshank Redemption'?

By the mid Nineties, Costner could have had almost any role he wanted in Hollywood so it's surprising that he turned down the role of Andy Dufresne, the banker wrongly jailed for life for the murder of his wife and her lover in Frank Darabont's cherished prison drama The Shawshank Redemption. Eventually played by Tim Robbins, the film is considered to be one of the best ever made whereas the film Costner went on to make instead - Waterworld - would become one of the costliest flops in cinema history with its spiralling budget, mixed critical reception and poor box office earnings (in relation to its budget anyway). Never mind, he would bounce back in a few years with The Postman... oh, forget I said anything...

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1. Dustin Hoffman in 'Taxi Driver'?

It seems almost unthinkable these days that anyone other than Robert De Niro could bring Travis Bickle's psychotic rage to the screen but the role was originally offered to Dustin Hoffman who turned the part down. At the time, Hoffman thought that director Martin Scorsese - who Hoffman didn't know at the time - was "crazy" for not having a screenplay and talking non-stop about the project. Later regretting his decision, Hoffman claimed that he had "made so many dumb mistakes" in his career and claimed the list of roles he had missed out on was endless. As we have seen, he is far from the only one so perhaps he shouldn't feel too bad.

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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