Casting sometimes is fate and destiny more than skill and talent, from a director’s point of view.
– Steven Spielberg
Ah, the joys of hindsight, such as they are. It is so easy to look back on what came about from the small decisions coming together to form an unforgettable whole, and laugh at those who didn’t display prescient vision. This applies to the world of film too, of course, where even the most minor of calls can prove absolutely crucial. There is a reason that these guys are paid so much, after all. But sometimes retrospect shouldn’t be required to spot a blatantly dunce call, even if its long term implications probably would have been hidden from view. The executives and the blindsided directors were, on occasion, spared by fate’s demand for fruition.
Casting is a huge part of filmmaking, and many a movie has been rescued from mediocrity and obscurity by a crucial central performance or utterly shoaled by the wrong leading man. In the examples below, history was very nearly made for the wrong reasons, in some cases killing iconic screen roles and in others merely evoking memory of Einstein’s musings on infinity. After all, we live in a world where we nearly got to see…
Adam Sandler as the Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds
It may be a minor part and not really a hinge on which Quentin Tarantino’s epic caper hangs, but as the most violent exponent of the titular elite squad the Bear Jew is a figure who sticks in the memory and perhaps deserves better than an awkward (if amusing) portrayal by horror director and Zachary Quinto look-a-like Eli Roth. Though not naturally an actor, Roth is certainly a substantial improvement on Tarantino’s first choice for the baseball bat wielding psycho, namely one Adam Sandler.
It’s easy to pick on Sandler these days, who’s on the lowest ebb of his career following the indisputably awful Jack and Jill and has steadily mounted a decline in respect and acclaim since the boon of respectability offered by Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Furthermore, it would perhaps be a little snobbish to disdain at the thought of his presence in a film that features the equally unfashionable Mike Myers as a British General. If anything, the role plays to Sandler’s strengths.
But in a film that overcomes its inherent silliness and camp nature to become a thrilling slice of pulp stuffed with spoiled goodness, one would not be pleased to hear the Sandman screech and swagger on screen to bash a German’s brains in. Given his current standing, it would barely be acceptable if the roles were reversed. Thankfully, Sandler’s commitments to the misleadingly titled Funny People prevented either from occurring.
Stuart Townsend as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings
The next choice got a little bit further than courting, with young Irish actor Stuart Townsend making it all the way to principal photography on Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy before being given the heave ho in favor of the older Viggo Mortenson. Considering the cult of fandom, particularly among the ladies, that Mortenson’s perfect incarnation of Aragorn enjoyed following the saga’s ungodly success it’s almost impossible to imagine anybody else in the crux role as rightful king turned outcast turned war defining hero.
Yet Townsend nearly made it, lasting three weeks before Jackson’s sudden epiphany resulted in balance being restored to the universe, along with a rather bad tasting dispute which led to Towsend missing out on not only the global hype but also any kind of a paycheck. You have to imagine that Townsend brought something truly special to the audition, given that he was a fresh faced twenty five year old without the rugged charisma and sex appeal of the character, but his slogging in the foothills of mediocrity with efforts such as Queen of the Damned and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the years since suggest otherwise.
Nicolas Cage as Randy ‘The Ram’ in The Wrestler
Rarely has a film role even seemed so perfectly tailor fitted to an actor. Mickey Rourke helter-skelter career meant that he didn’t have to travel too far to find inspiration in playing Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s superb The Wrestler, and only Sean Penn stood between him and a well deserved Oscar for a part that Rourke was born to play, from the effortlessly convincing self loathing nature to the life weathered appearance. It couldn’t have been any other way, could it?
Well, it nearly was, with the personified ball of crazy that is Nicolas Cage offered the role. Cage accepted, and underwent training before apparently being the first person to realize the glitch in the matrix of life that was occurring around him. For the very same reasons that he would never have pulled off the part, Cage dropped out and opened the way for his Rumble Fish costar Rourke to step forward and fulfill his destiny and complete one of Hollywood’s most unlikely comebacks. The real irony is that Cage, with his memetic image and crazed persona, was the only soul to display sanity on this occasion.
Robert Redford as Michael Corleone in The Godfather
That same level of sanity is coldly present in the office of film executives, and it has a tendency to roll over logic and artistic sense in favor of cynical commercialism. When you have all the money, you have the luxury of being able to decide what is the right choice in the face of adversity taking the form of intrinsic truth. It’s well known that The Godfather was a film that never seemed likely to become the absolute classic it became, a classic so grand in fact that its often considered, along with its first sequel, the greatest piece of film-making ever mounted. It was adapted from a pulpy novel by an indie hero intent on waging war on the financiers to maintain a vision. Francis Ford Coppola’s resolve held, hence Marlon Brando, hence career making role for Al Pacino…
A role, incidentally, that the producers were desperate to see land at the feet of blonde heartthrob Robert Redford, riding the wave of popularity created by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You could make the argument that running partner Ryan O’Neal was an equally unwise choice, but Redford’s image and façade are perhaps the most starkly contrasted with the dark and understated Corleone. It was understandable that the money men didn’t want the then unknown Pacino leading such a big film; less understandable is why they’d prefer a movie star who, while a decent actor, was the 70’s answer to Brad Pitt. The Godfather without Pacino is like a sandwich without bread, and the image of Aryan Redford as the younger Corleone brother is so absurd it can barely be allowed to exist.
Somehow, it is more likely than what almost became of his All The President’s Men costar, however…
Dustin Hoffman as…Rambo in First Blood
That very sentence sounds like the title of a particularly obtuse Mad-TV skit, one almost too silly and obviously mismatched to be anything other than dense parody fodder. Instead, it was a statement of fact which very nearly came true in 1982. Of course, nobody could envisage where First Blood would lead, namely a long and increasingly ridiculous series in which John Rambo mutated into a meat head film super hero, as synonymous with Sly Stallone as Rocky Balboa. At the time, it was a standalone film about a traumatized Vietnam vet pushed too far by society’s bullies. Still, a Special Forces commando and potentially savage one army doesn’t sound like the forte for Hoffman.
It wasn’t, on many levels. Despite being the first choice for producers, Hoffman rejected the role in a film he considered too violent. His interpretation of action man himself would no doubt have been a sight to enjoy, and perhaps would have grounded First Blood as a visceral but gritty thriller with a sharper edge of realism. In short, it would have prevented the franchise from growing into the monster that followed. Think of Adrien Brody’s performance in Predators. Then again, considering that film’s standing, that perhaps would not have been a good thing.
For better or for worse, we’ll never know.