When it comes to hiring an actor for a main role, a lot has to come into consideration before they get the job. Can they pull off the role? Do they look the part? Are they dependable, and not likely to embarass themselves in front of the press? Choosing the correct actor for a part is one of the most essential pieces of the movie making process, and it is something that Hollywood does not take lightly.
There have been occasions, though, where actors have been hired for reasons other than their talent. Sometimes an actor starred in a older project that is now being remade (as was the case with Battlestar Galactica). You might have a cast member that is closely linked to another actor from a previous project. It is not unheard of for an actor to be hired simply as a reference to their previous work, one that acts as a wink to the audience.
We are here today to talk about the actors whose roles were a reference to their earlier, more famous works. From Supergirl’s parents being pretty familiar with kids from Krypton, to the bird-themed superhero who could be mistaken for a bat. Here are the 20 Actors Whose Casting Was An Inside Joke.
20 & 19 – Dean Cain & Helen Slater In Supergirl
In the current Supergirl TV show, when she came to Earth, she was placed in the custody of two people who would become her adopted parents – Jeremiah and Eliza Danvers. While they may be fine performers, this specific duo of actors were chosen due to their previous roles in Superman TV shows and movies.
Dean Cain is best known for playing Superman in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Unlike most other adaptations of Superman, the Lois & Clark show focused on the romance between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, with the superhero stuff taking a backseat.
Eliza Danvers is played by Helen Slater, who has two connections to the Superman franchise. She played the original Supergirl in the 1984 movie of the same name, which was part of the same continuity as the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. Supergirl received overwhelmingly negative reviews (although critics did enjoy Helen Slater’s performance), and it currently stands at a 7% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Helen Slater also appeared in Smallville, where she would play Lara-El, Superman’s mother.
18 – Colin Firth In Bridget Jones’s Diary
In both the original novel and its film adaptation, Bridget Jones’s Diary is about the titular character choosing between the two men in her life. There is Daniel Cleaver, her handsome alpha male boss, who was played by Hugh Grant, and Mark Darcy, the awkward dork, played by Colin Firth.
Bridget Jones is obsessed with the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, and the romance between it’s two leads, Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy. She finds it ironic that the Mr Darcy in her own life is the opposite of the dashing fictional one from Pride and Prejudice.
The casting of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary was an intentional reference to the most famous screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. In 1995, the BBC produced a miniseries based off Pride and Prejudice. Colin Firth played the role of Mr Darcy, and he became a sex symbol in the UK from his performance (especially for a scene where he strips off and goes swimming). The casting of Firth as the nerd Mr Darcy was intended as a reference to his previous performance as the sexy Mr Darcy.
17 – Adam West In Batman: The Animated Series
Adam West will forever be known for playing Batman in the camp 1960s show of the same name. Since then, he has made a name for himself in the voice acting world. Adam West usually plays crazier versions of himself in shows like Family Guy, The Simpsons and The Critic.
In 1992, Adam West would return to the Batman franchise, but in a different role. In the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Beware the Gray Ghost”, Adam West would play an actor named Simon Trent, who played a masked vigilante called the Gray Ghost. Due to being so associated with that one role, he was never able to find new work, and is destitute as a result. In the episode, it was revealed that Bruce Wayne was a fan of the Gray Ghost movie serials as a child, and that the character was part of the inspiration for Batman.
The episode is regarded as one of the best by fans, and it manages to capture the relationship between Adam West and the character of Batman. The Simon Trent character is portrayed as a washed up actor, who is only known for one role, yet we see the effect that the role had on the fans that loved it.
16 – William Shatner in 3rd Rock From The Sun
In the show 3rd Rock from the Sun, the main characters were aliens masquerading as humans. During the earlier seasons, it was mentioned that their commander was the “Big Giant Head”, an unseen character who communicated with them from afar.
In the season 4 episode “Dick’s Big Giant Headache: Part 1”, the Big Giant Head is seen onscreen for the first time. In his human form, he was played by William Shatner. The purpose of the character was to boss around the main cast, and generally cause havoc whenever he showed up.
You might be thinking that this is a reference to the obvious Science Fiction/Star Trek connection, and while that is partially right, Shatner’s casting was a chance for the writers to make a rare double reference. When the Big Giant Head first appears, he says that his flight over was terrible because “he saw something on the wing of the plane”. His subordinate, Dick Solomon, says “the same thing happened to me“.
Dick Solomon was played by John Lithgow. The two of them mentioning seeing something on the wing of the plane is a reference to The Twilight Zone. In the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, William Shatner played a man who sees a Gremlin tearing off the wing of the plane he is a passenger on. This episode was remade as part of Twilight Zone: The Movie, where the same role was played by John Lithgow.
15 – Antonio Banderas In Shrek
Antonio Banderas is a Spanish actor, who received worldwide acclaim after appearing in Philadelphia and Interview with the Vampire. His first major starring role was as the masked swashbuckler Zorro, in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro.
In the 2004 movie Shrek 2, one of the new characters introduced was Puss in Boots, an adorable cat who is sent to assassinate Shrek. Puss in Boots was voiced by Antonio Banderas, and the character design is heavily influenced by Zorro. He fights with a rapier, and carves his initials into the clothes of his enemies. Puss in Boots would become the breakout character of the series, and would appear in the later Shrek sequels. Puss in Boots would also get his own TV show, but he was not voiced by Antonio Banderas (he was voiced by the presumably cheaper Eric Bauza).
In 2011, Puss in Boots got his own prequel movie. His love interest in the film, Kitty Softpaws, was played by Selma Hayek, who also played Antonio Banderas’ love interest in Desperado.
14 – R. Lee Ermey In Toy Story
Before making it in the movie business, Ronald Lee Ermey was a United States Marine Corps staff sergeant, where he served as a drill instructor. After leaving the army, Ermey went into acting. He was a technical advisor for Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, and would go on to have several minor roles in other films. His big break came when he was brought on as a technical advisor on Full Metal Jacket. Stanley Kubrick was so impressed by Ermey’s ability to rattle off insults, he not only gave him a major role in the film as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, but he even allowed him to write his own dialogue (which is something Kubrick almost never allowed).
R. Lee Ermey’s performance has become so iconic that it has given him numerous other military based movie roles. This has included TV shows like Miami Vice and The Simpsons. Despite his most famous role in Full Metal Jacket being filled with expletives, he has been cast as a similar character in productions meant for children. He has played the role of “Sarge”, the leader of the green toy soldiers in all three of the Toy Story movies.
13 – Christopher Lloyd In Spin City
The first four seasons of the sitcom Spin City starred Michael J. Fox in the lead role of Mike Flaherty. He was the Deputy of Mayor of New York and it was his job to deal with the press, as the Mayor of New York (played by Barry Bostwick) was a total screw-up. Fox left the show at the end of the fourth season, after retiring from full time acting due to struggling with Parkinson’s Disease. He was replaced by Charlie Sheen for the final two seasons of the show. The audience did not take to Sheen’s character (although to be fair, it would have been hard for anyone to replace Fox, especially considering why he left). The show would be cancelled in 2002, after six seasons.
In the 3rd season episode “Back to the Future IV – Judgement Day”, Mike hires his old mentor, Owen Kingston, to help him with a project. If the title hasn’t given it away already, Owen Kingston was played by Christopher Lloyd. If the name of the episode and the casting of Doc Brown was too subtle for you, then watch the opening scene, as it is a cavalcade of time references.
12 – Dean Stockwell In Star Trek: Enterprise
In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Detained”, Captain Archer and Travis Merryweather are captured by the alien race known as the Tandarans. The Tandarans are at war with a race known as the Suliban, and had created several military zones with no-flight laws. Archer and Merryweather had accidentally wandered into a military zone, and are detained in a prison run by a Tandaran Colonel named Grat. It is up to Archer and Merryweather to come up with an escape plan, whilst Colonel Grat tries to find evidence of their collaboration with the Suliban.
Colonel Grat was played by Dean Stockwell. He is best known for starring as Al the Hologram in Quantum Leap, where he would give advice to Dr. Sam Beckett, a man who was constantly being thrown backwards and forwards through time, and taking over other people’s roles in history. Dr. Sam Beckett was played by Scott Bakula, who also played Captain Archer in Star Trek: Enterprise. Scott Bakula recommended Dean Stockwell for the position, an act which allowed the two of them to share the screen once more.
10 & 11 – Fred Savage & Jason Hervey In Justice League Unlimited
The original Justice League cartoon focused on seven members of the team – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl, and The Flash. The show would go on to be replaced by Justice League Unlimited, where the team now had numerous members, who would make recurring guest appearances.
In 1968, Steve Ditko and Steve Skeates created two characters known as Hawk and Dove. They were two brothers whose powers were based on opposing political concepts. In real life, politicians and leaders who seek out military conflict are often referred to as Hawks, whilst those who try for peaceful solutions are called Doves. Hawk and Dove are superheros who were defined by these ideals – Hawk would represent aggression, whilst Dove would seek a nonviolent approach.
Hawk and Dove would appear as superheroes and brothers in Justice League Unlimited in the episode “Hawk and Dove”. They were played by Fred Savage and Jason Hervey, who had previously played brothers in the acclaimed late eighties coming of age series The Wonder Years.
8 & 9 – David Hyde Pierce & John Mahoney In The Simpsons
The longest running celebrity voiced character in The Simpsons is Sideshow Bob. He has been voiced by Kelsey Grammer since the first season of the show, and still makes appearances to this day.
Whilst Sideshow Bob is a very popular character, Kelsey Grammer is better known for playing Dr. Frasier Crane for 20 consecutive years in Cheers and Frasier. The character became more popular in Frasier, where he became the main character. The role would earn him four Emmy awards.
It didn’t take long for his Frasier castmates to become part of The Simpsons. In the episode “Brother from Another Series”, Sideshow Bob’s brother Cecil makes an appearance. He was played by David Hyde Pierce, who also played Frasier Crane’s brother Niles. The episode had numerous references to Frasier, including Bart blinding Cecil and asking “Guess who?” to which he responds “Maris?” (a reference to Niles’ unseen wife in Frasier).
The Simpsons would reference Frasier again in the 2007 episode “Funeral for a Fiend“, where Sideshow Bob’s father appeared for the first time. He was voiced by John Mahoney, who also played Frasier Crane’s father Martin Crane. With Frasier ending in 2004, this episode is the closest thing that fans have had to a reunion show.
6 & 7 – Tony Sirico & Bruce Springsteen in Lilyhammer
Lilyhammer is a show about a New York mobster who enters the witness protection program, and is sent into hiding in Norway. Lilyhammer is the name of the town that he is residing in. The main character is Frank Tagliano, played by Steven Van Zandt.
Throughout the show, Frank Tagliano’s two brothers appeared in several episodes. They were played by two men who are closely associated with Steven Van Zandt, in very different ways.
In season 2, Frank’s brother Tony Tagliano makes his first appearance. He is played by Tony Sirico, who is best known for playing Paulie Walnuts in The Sopranos. Steven Van Zandt also appeared in The Sopranos, where he played Silvio. Paulie and Silvio were close friends in The Sopranos, and the two shared many scenes together.
In season 3, Frank’s other brother, Giuseppe Tagliano, appears for the first time. He is played by the famous musician Bruce Springsteen. Steven Van Zandt has been a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band since 1975, and he was better known for being a guitarist before appearing in The Sopranos.
4 & 5 – Meat Loaf & Barry Bostwick In Glee
When Glee announced that they would be doing an episode based on the famous musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show, fan reaction was divided. The songs from Rocky Horror are considered sacrosanct to some, and to have them appear in a watered-down form on a teen show would be considered blasphemy. After the episode aired, those fears were confirmed – some of the songs had to have their lyrics toned down for TV. Whether you like the performances of the Glee actors is a matter of opinion, but one thing is for sure – the episode helped expose the film to a whole new generation of fans.
In the episode “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”, two journalists from a local news station convince the Cheerleading Coach to help them with an undercover expose of the school, due to them putting on a performance of The Rocky Horror Show (the name given to the play). It is an odd idea that it would be considered scandalous for a high school to put on a sanitised version of The Rocky Horror Show in 2010 – while the film may have been considered shocking when it was released, it would seem tame by today’s standards (hell, Glee itself has more objectionable content).
The two journalists in the episode, that want to do a news report on the local high school production of The Rocky Horror Show, are played by Meat Loaf and Barry Bostwick. The two of them had prominent roles in the original Rocky Horror Picture Show. Bostwick played main character Brad Majors, and Meat Loaf played the Eddie, the ex-delivery boy.
3 – Scott Baio In Arrested Development
Arrested Development had numerous references to the old TV show Happy Days. This is not really a surprise, as the show was originally pitched by Ron Howard, who had played Opie in Happy Days before becoming a successful director in his own right. Not only did Ron Howard narrate the show, but he would appear in the flesh during the show’s fourth season (when they moved to Netflix).
One of the main recurring characters on Arrested Development was the incompetent family lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, who was played by Henry Winkler. Even if he brought peace to the Middle East with one hand, while curing cancer with the other, Henry Winkler would still forever be known for playing The Fonz on Happy Days.
In the third season of Arrested Development, the Bluth family consider getting a new lawyer. They eventually go with Bob Loblaw, a younger lawyer played by Scott Baio. In Happy Days, Scott Baio was cast as Chachi Arcola. Chachi was The Fonz’s cousin, and was originally intended to be a one-off character. He was eventually brought back as a main character, after he had received a positive fan reaction from teenage girls (who were sending in thousands of fan letters every week). The Bluth family picking the younger, more attractive Bob Loblaw over Barry Zuckerkorn was intended as a reference towards the same situation happening with Chachi and The Fonz on Happy Days.
2 – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson In Star Trek Voyager
Even though Dwayne Johnson now credits himself with his birth name when he appears in movies, he will forever be known by his wrestling gimmick name – The Rock. He was one of the biggest stars of the Attitude Era, which is the name given to the period running from 1997 to 2002, when professional wrestling was at the height of it’s popularity. At it’s height, WWF Raw hit 8.1 million live viewers, and a large part of that success was due to The Rock. He is considered one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, and is in the same league as Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
In the year 2000, UPN arranged a tie-in with the WWF (the company would not change their name to World Wrestling Entertainment for another two years). They decided that this crossover should include two of their biggest properties – The Rock and Star Trek: Voyager.
The crossover took place during the episode “Tsunkatse”. In order to save a wounded Tuvok’s life, Seven of Nine agrees to fight in an arena. Her opponent is the Pendari Champion, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The character may as well have just been called “Alien Version of The Rock”, as he plays up to his character from the WWF. During the fight, the Pendari Champion does the People’s Eyebrow, and wins with a Rock Bottom.
1- Michael Keaton in Birdman
Birdman was a 2014 surreal black comedy starring Micheal Keaton. The film was about an actor named Riggan Thomson, who was best known for playing the superhero Birdman in a series of movies. He is putting on a broadway show in an attempt to distance himself from the role. As the film goes on, Riggan keeps having hallucinations of Birdman, which he repeatedly attempts to drown out. Riggan has to perform in the play with the voice of Birdman talking in his head.
Whilst the film was not initially made with Michael Keaton in mind – the moment he was cast, the film became all about him. In some ways, the film parallels Michael Keaton’s own attempt at distancing himself for the role of Batman, which he had played in the 1989 Tim Burton film of the same name.
Michael Keaton was not the only actor in the film that had played prominent roles in superhero movies. Edward Norton was the original Bruce Banner in the Marvel Cinematic Universe film The Incredible Hulk (aka, the one no one talks about). Emma Stone was also still starring as Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man movies (that were still being made when Birdman was released).
There are very few actors who could have pulled off this role with the same weight as Keaton did, due to his connection with Batman. He would go on to be nominated for “Best Actor” at the Academy Awards for his role in Birdman.