Who doesn’t love to listen to stories of actors and actresses who passed on roles over the course of the past 100 years of movie making. Lugosi as the Frankenstein Monster in 1931 is the stuff of legend as is the missing reel of test footage Lugosi supposedly filmed.
I’ll bet there’s not a single classic film buff who hasn’t heard the story that George Raft turned down nearly every role Bogie made his own in the early 1940’s from High Sierra to The Maltese Falcon to Casablanca.
Are they fact or partly fiction? If you know the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance then you’ll know this quote, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”
Maybe I should be writing a book on this subject going decade by decade on just who was up for key roles we are all familiar with but somehow either passed up or the studio/producer opted for someone else. I’ve heard the story that Sinatra broke a wrist and bowed out of Dirty Harry. Or how about Peter Ustinov backing out of playing Inspector Clouseau at the last second allowing Peter Sellers to move in to his most identifiable role in 1963’s The Pink Panther. Mitchum as Patton. John Hurt as Ghandi. Mary Pickford as Norma Desmond and on and on…
Well let’s have some fun with a look at 7 films I’ve picked out to ponder what might have been.
Errol Flynn was well on his way thanks to the success of 1935’s Captain Blood followed by The Charge of the Light Brigade. Robin Hood was just around the corner and Flynn will always remain the screen’s greatest Robin of Loxley who takes refuge in Sherwood Forest and claims the hand of Maid Marian essayed by the beautiful Olivia de Havilland. However Flynn was no shoe in to play the man in the green tights. Apparently as early as 1935 it was James Cagney who was set to play the role but could it have been his ongoing war against studio head Jack Warner that cost him the role? I love Jimmy Cagney but I’m sure happy the way things turned out with Flynn in what I would call his greatest role and easily one of the greatest adventures ever caught on film. Period!.
The legend of Frank Sinatra and his Oscar winning turn in 1953’s From Here To Eternity has only grown over the years. At the time of the production Sinatra’s career was spiraling downwards and he was grasping for a lifesaver. He was convinced the character of Angelo Maggio was exactly what he needed to get his career back on track and he was right. He’d be playing opposite Monty Clift and Burt Lancaster. But lurking in the weeds was a young actor catching Broadway by storm, Eli Wallach. Did Wallach have the role? The stories have only grown over the years and most famously that it’s the mob that stepped in getting Frank the coveted role by making a not so subtle demand that their boy get the part he wanted. Otherwise someone might wind up with a horse’s bloody head under the bedsheets as was referenced in Coppola’s Godfather. Then again maybe Frank was the logical choice as his performance indicated. Maybe Eli wanted to much cash or was tied up in a long Broadway run. If that’s the case, it was pure luck for Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Every time I think of Elvis Presley on screen I wish Col. Tom Parker never existed. No one is ever going to convince me that he did much good for The King when it comes right down to it. Sure there were some decent movies early on and a couple of real good ones but Parker did more to hinder the singer than help him when it came to picking movies. As a huge fan of Robert Mitchum I love the story where The Mitch goes to visit the very young King who had just starred in Love Me Tender. Mitch had a bottle in one hand and a script in the other for his pet project and wanted to have Elvis play his kid brother in the now cult favorite moonshine flick, Thunder Road. The meeting supposedly went like this as is covered in Lee Server’s excellent bio on Mitchum titled Baby, I Don’t Care.
“Here’s the f-king script. Let’s get together and do it.” When Elvis deferred to his manager Mitch said, “F-k, I’m talking to you. I don’t need to talk to your manager. Let’s do the picture.” Needless to say it never happened and in Mitchum’s style of phrasing I can only add, “that’s a f–king shame, man.”
Now here’s one of cinema’s great what if’s and one that leaves us all to wonder if a certain actor on the TV show Rawhide would have ever found a huge break and an identifiable role elsewhere let alone become one of the greatest icons of cinema over the past 60 years. I’ve heard the stories of Sergio Leone attempting to make a western remake of Yojimbo numerous times and his many attempts to land an American film star to no avail before settling on a young Clint Eastwood. According to Christopher Frayling’s book on Leone, Something To Do With Death, Henry Fonda’s agent never bothered to show him the script, James Coburn was too expensive at $25,000 for the producers to afford him and Charles Bronson thought the script was “just about the worst I’d ever seen.” Had any one of these three men taken on the role of The Man With No Name, there’s little doubt movie history would have changed drastically in the ensuing years. Eastwood? Who knows. Fonda was already established so I don’t think his career would have played out much differently but when it comes to Coburn and Bronson who knows where their career paths may have taken them.
In 1967 it was Anne Bancroft seducing a young Dustin Hoffman in the now classic Mike Nichols film, The Graduate. Nichols won the Oscar for Best Director and all the principles scored Nominations. I’ve always found this piece of movie “what if’s” intriguing. One of my all time favorite leading ladies, Doris Day in the role of Mrs. Robinson. Stories vary from Doris not thinking she was a good fit for the role to her manager/hubby Martin Melcher turning down the project. Who can be sure but I do think it was a missed opportunity for Miss Day to turn the movie world on it’s ear and show us her acting chops that had mainly been used in the romcom field since her knockout performance in 1955’s Love Me Or Leave Me opposite Jimmy Cagney.
Before Michael Winner offered Charles Bronson a chance to shoot muggers in an adaptation of Brian Garfield’s novel, Death Wish, director Sidney Lumet was attached to the project with Ensign Pulver starring. I can’t help but admit that Jack Lemmon taking on the role of Paul Kersey leaves me wishing there was an alternate universe where the film actually exists. The film is far too often overlooked as a lesson in violence when in fact it’s a fine dramatic piece with Bronson delivering a solid performance and Lemmon was clearly one of the best dramatic actors of his generation even if he’s best remembered for his comedic touch in Billy Wilder comedies and other assorted titles. Many alongside his screen partner, Walter Matthau. I think we can be certain of one thing had Lemmon starred in the film, there would never have been a Death Wish 2,3,4 and 5.
I’ll close with One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest which was one of Kirk Douglas’ great regrets. He owned the rights to the source novel by Ken Kesey. The cleft chinned Douglas first played the part of Randall McMurphy on stage in 1963 with Gene Wilder in the part of Billy. Douglas relates the story of the stage production and it’s ultimate failure in his book, The Ragman’s Son. Kirk tried to get the studio system interested over the course of the next decade but to no avail. When he turned the project over to his son Michael, the younger Douglas got the film produced scoring great acclaim and Oscars for all five of the main categories. Best Picture. Director (Milos Forman), Actor and Actress (Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher) and Screenplay (Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman). Kirk was on to something but time wasn’t on his side and by the time the film was greenlit he was deemed too old for the part. Of course Jack Nicholson scored a bullseye and for my money it’s his finest motion picture and greatest performance among so many. Again, who knows how history would have differed had Kirk gotten the project off the ground in the mid 60’s.
I’m sure you’ve got some favorite what if’s of your own when it comes to casting your favorite movies. Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones? Edward G. Robinson as Dr. Zaius? Claudette Colbert in All About Eve?
Yeah they go on and on….
Till next time and another look at Movie Might Have Beens.