What happens when an actor quits a movie? Chaos, that’s what. A lot of negotiations go into convincing an actor to take on a role. Millions of dollars in pre-production money is already spent by the time a star signs his or her name on a contract. Quitting causes delays that add to the budget, as it creates a scramble to find a replacement. If one isn’t found quickly enough, the production might have to shut down altogether, causing the cast and crew to lose their jobs. Despite all of these repercussions, every once in a while, an actor decides that they simply can’t follow through on a movie.
Sometimes they quit for pretty shocking reasons, so we’ve collected fifteen examples of performers leaving a project under surprising circumstances. A few of them are creative differences gone very, very wrong. Others are due to outside influences, health issues, offensive material, and public backlash. In each instance, a well-known name had to make the uncomfortable — and sometimes costly — decision to un-commit from a film they had previously committed to. We think you’ll find these stories fascinating, as they give you a glimpse into what might have been had they stayed.
These are 15 Actors Who Quit Movies For Shocking Reasons.
15. Jean-Claude Van Damme – Predator
Once upon a time, a young Belgian martial artist came to Hollywood hoping to make it big in the movie industry. His name was Jean-Claude Van Damme, and he quickly scored a few minor roles. Then came what could have been his big break, playing the title character in the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Predator. It’s not a great career move for an up-and-comer to quit a big studio film, yet that’s exactly what JCVD did.
A full body cast was made of the actor, and a costume was produced from the mold. Van Damme hated the appearance of it, griping that it made him look silly. What he failed to realize was that the red suit he was forced to wear would be chroma keyed out by the visual FX team, to achieve the effect where the Predator is invisible. Once he found out the truth, JCVD was even madder, because he wouldn’t fully be seen onscreen. He dropped out after just two days.
14. James Remar – Aliens
James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi/action classic Aliens features Michael Biehn as Corporal Dwayne Hicks. It was a re-teaming of the director and the actor, who previously played Kyle Reese in The Terminator. Biehn came to the project a couple weeks after it had begun filming, however, leaving him with little prep time. That’s because the original Hicks, James Remar, bolted from the production.
Initially, the actor blamed his abrupt departure on family issues that he needed to attend to. In an interview a few years ago, however, he came clean, saying that he had a fairly serious drug problem at the time. After getting busted for drug possession, it became clear that he wasn’t in shape to continue working, especially for a no-nonsense filmmaker like Cameron, who famously refuses to tolerate less than 100% effort from anyone. With Remar out of the picture, Biehn stepped in.
13. Woody Harrelson – Benny & Joon
Today, we all know Woody Harrelson as a gifted and diverse actor. In the early ’90s, though, he was still mostly known for comedies (White Men Can’t Jump, TV’s Cheers) and he was eager to show another side to his talents. That led him to walk away from the 1993 comedy Benny & Joon, in which he was supposed to co-star alongside Laura Dern.
Harrelson has claimed that he left after Dern departed the project, which may be partially true. But it’s also true that he was offered — and accepted — a dramatic role in Adrian Lyne’s provocative Indecent Proposal, opposite Demi Moore and Robert Redford. The studio, MGM, sued the actor for leaving, and the case was eventually settled out of court. In the end, Aidan Quinn took over for Harrelson, and the latter had pulled off an excellent career switcheroo. Indecent Proposal became a massive hit, and Benny & Joon died a quick box office death.
12. Winona Ryder – The Godfather Part III
Winona Ryder was one of the top up-and-coming starlets in the mid-to-late-1980s, thanks to acclaimed performances in hit films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Heathers. It was no wonder that Francis Ford Coppola wanted her to take a significant role in his highly-anticipated sequel The Godfather Part III. At the time, the third installment of the Corleone family saga was as big a deal as you could get.
Ryder was supposed to play Al Pacino’s daughter in the film, but she dropped out on the eve of production. Rumors abounded — she had a drug problem, she was pregnant, and so on. The actress’s official explanation was “exhaustion” from having just shot three other movies back-to-back. She also stated that an accompanying 104-degree fever caused her doctor to urge her to choose rest over work. Now in a pinch, Coppola gave the role to his own daughter, Sofia, whose performance was widely derided, thanks to her lack of acting experience.
11. Leonardo DiCaprio – Berserker
Following his massive success as a director with the Oscar-winning Braveheart and the religious drama The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson planned to make a Viking epic called Berserker. It was a project that he’d long wanted to tackle. To that end, he brought in Leonardo DiCaprio to star, knowing that the actor would deliver a commanding performance while also attracting audiences to the unconventional material.
Berserker never got made for a number of reasons, most of which are fairly routine in “development hell”, but DiCaprio walking away was certainly a significant one. The standard scheduling conflicts and creative differences were cited, although the timing was suspicious. The star bailed right after Gibson’s threatening, profane voice mails to his then-girlfriend were leaked to the media. DiCaprio understandably didn’t want to be associated with Gibson following that and his previous, much-publicized drunken racist rant to police officers.
10. Kel O’Neill – There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a drama about deranged oil magnate Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. His character’s nemesis in the film is Eli Sunday, the passionate pastor of a local church. The two more or less meet because of Eli’s twin brother Paul. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Eli and Paul are twins, both played by Paul Dano…but that wasn’t always the case.
Dano was originally cast only to play Paul. Eli was played by actor Kel O’Neill — for about two weeks, at least. According to a New York Times Magazine article, O’Neill was “intimidated” by Day-Lewis’s intensity in the role of Plainview. The Oscar winner’s well-known penchant for staying in character between takes allegedly also rattled the younger, less-experienced actor. Unable to handle the pressure, O’Neill left, and the decision was made to have Dano play both parts. All the scenes featuring Eli had to be reshot.
9. Buddy Ebsen – The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz is an indisputable classic, so it’s kind of a shame that one unlucky actor missed out on his chance to be part of it. That actor is Buddy Ebsen, who later went on to achieve massive television success playing Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. He was cast as the Tin Man, but had to abandon the role a little more than a week into the shoot.
Unfortunately for Ebsen, he developed a severe reaction to the makeup required to turn him into the character. Made of aluminum powder, it coated his lungs after many days of breathing it in. He had to be hospitalized and even put in an iron lung. The complications were nearly fatal. For obvious health reasons, Ebsen could no longer continue, and he was replaced by Jack Haley, who apparently had no such issues with the makeup.
8. James Purefoy – V For Vendetta
V For Vendetta is the screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. One of the two central characters is “V,” a Guy Fawkes mask-wearing vigilante who attempts to lead a revolution against a fascist regime. The other is his captive, Evey, played by Natalie Portman. Actor James Purefoy, now best known for the TV series Rome and Hap and Leonard, was cast as V. He didn’t last too long.
The actor publicly denies it for reasons that are completely understandable, but the story goes that he abandoned the role of V because he was having trouble acting beneath the mask that he was required to wear throughout, to the dismay of the director and producers. Of course, since his face is never seen, it was ridiculously easy to replace him. The filmmakers brought in Hugo Weaving to take over, although there are moments in the movie that remain Purefoy’s work.
7. John Travolta – The Double
John Travolta not only quit a movie, he got sued over it. The project was called The Double, and it would have been directed by the legendary (and highly controversial) filmmaker Roman Polanski. The actor and his director had a substantial disagreement over the material, particularly as it related to the lead character. When Travolta came to rehearsals and discovered that Polanski had commissioned some rewrites without his knowledge, he walked off and never came back.
Travolta was paid $17 million to star, so the studio and producers were none too happy about this particular development. They promptly took legal action against their one-time star for breach of contract. Travolta counter-sued, claiming Mandelay Entertainment reneged on a deal for him to appear in another picture, Donnie Brasco. In the end, the parties settled out of court. Polanski ended up abandoning The Double altogether after this fiasco.
6. Charlie Hunnam – Fifty Shades of Grey
When a screen adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey was announced, many fans had strong ideas about who should portray Christian Grey. The suggestions could not have been more different, but most people seemed pleased when Charlie Hunnam was announced as the director’s pick. He was perfect for the role. Hunnam was stoked to play it, although he never got the chance.
Aside from having to finish up a season of his TV series Sons of Anarchy, Hunnam had previously promised friend Guillermo Del Toro that he would play one of the lead characters in the director’s Gothic romance Crimson Peak. The shooting of that picture directly conflicted with Fifty Shades, meaning that he had to choose one over the other. In what he describes as a painful decision, Hunnam opted to honor the commitment he made first. That paved the way for Jamie Dornan to get his breakout role in what has become one of the more divisive franchises around.
5. Kim Basinger – Boxing Helena
Kim Basinger hit the big time with the S&M drama 9 1/2 Weeks, so you wouldn’t think she’d have any problem doing explicit material. The actress did have some trepidation about writer/director Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena. She signed on for the lead role of a cruel woman held hostage by a former lover, who amputates her limbs and, as the title implies, keeps her trapped inside a box.
Basinger’s reason for leaving was that she switched agencies, and the top brass at the one to which she defected convinced her that the role would not be good for her career. As a result, she began demanding script changes to make the character softer and more sympathetic. When Lynch wouldn’t budge, Basinger was out. The producers sued her and won, with a court ordering her to pay nearly $9 million in damages. Sherilyn Fenn ended up starring in the movie, which grossed less than a quarter of the final payout from the lawsuit.
4. Harvey Keitel – Eyes Wide Shut
The late Stanley Kubrick was known for being very exacting when he made a film. It wasn’t uncommon for shoots to drag on, or for him to demand an unreasonable number of takes on a scene, hoping to get everything just the way he wanted it. That incessantly demanding quality cost him a talented actor when Harvey Keitel exited a supporting role in Kubrick’s Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman sexual thriller Eyes Wide Shut.
Keitel, widely respected for his immense professionalism, showed up in London to begin rehearsals, but Kubrick repeatedly stalled their start date. By the time they finally began weeks later, Keitel realized that there was a very real possibility the director would make them take forever, then shoot Eyes Wide Shut at a snail’s pace once the cameras started to roll. Given that he had a pending start date on another film, he left in frustration.
3. Christian Bale – Steve Jobs
Michael Fassbender received an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for his work playing the famous Apple CEO in Danny Boyle’s biopic Steve Jobs. But he only had the chance to take on that juicy role because a different star who was once strongly considering for the part ended up passing. That star is another exceptionally talented actor, Christian Bale.
Bale was pretty psyched to play this fascinating real-life figure. Then he got a phone call from Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, who was allegedly intent on trying to stop the movie from being made. In fact, she had previously reached out to persuade Leonardo DiCaprio to avoid the project when he was thinking about signing on. She then did the same with Bale. Shortly after their conversation, the star opted out, saying that he no longer felt he was right for the part. What specifically she said to convince him of this remains between them.
2. Native American extras – The Ridiculous 6
Adam Sandler’s movies are known for being politically incorrect. This quality ended up biting him on the backside when he co-wrote, produced, and starred in the made-for-Netflix comedy The Ridiculous 6. A spoof of Westerns, it employed a large number of Native-American extras and bit players. When these good folks arrived on set, chaos ensued, leading to some much publicized behind-the-scenes tension that was anything but funny.
A dozen of the actors feuded with the production team over what they saw as a racist depiction of the Apache culture. Specifically, they objected to the portrayal of Native-American women. The movie’s jokes included giving female characters offensive names such as “Never Wears Bra” and “Beaver’s Breath.” When the producers wouldn’t back down and alter the material, about a dozen Native actors walked off the set in protest.
1. Will Ferrell – Reagan
Will Ferrell knows a thing or two about playing American presidents, having hilariously taken on George W. Bush during his stint on Saturday Night Live. When it was announced that he would play Ronald Reagan in a comedy called, appropriately, Reagan, it seemed like great casting. The plot of the film — which remains unmade — involves a White House intern trying to convince the Alzheimer’s-suffering Reagan that he’s actually playing a president in a movie.
The idea of milking laughs from Alzheimer’s really did not sit well with Ronald Reagan’s family. Son Michael and daughter Patti Davis, who watched their father die of the disease, both publicly slammed the project, pointing out that there’s nothing funny about this illness. The Alzheimer’s Association also took exception, calling the movie’s premise “appalling.” The backlash was so swift and so intense that Ferrell jumped ship a mere two days after it was announced that he’d signed on.
What do you think about the reasons these actors quit movies? Do you know of any other examples of shocking reasons for departures? Give us your thoughts in the comments.
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