When you become an A-list Hollywood star, you pretty much get to pick and choose your roles as you please. One of the great aspects of being a top-billing actor is getting to be first in line for some of the biggest, brightest roles in future films. However, not all actors use this privilege to positive effect. As we'll see here, many actors completely misjudge scripts they're given, and often end up turning down parts that could have defined their careers and won them a much-coveted Oscar.
Everyone makes mistakes, but when you're an actor, one bad decision could see your career going up in smokes. There are some pretty big names on this list, and you'l likely be surprised by the major, often catastrophic decisions they have made.
For some here, the choices they made forever scarred their acting careers, and for others, well, they just made some mistakes that might have cost them an award or two. In all the cases listed here, you'll be scratching your head trying to figure out how these talented people could pass up on some of the greatest opportunities they'd ever be given.
Without further ado, here are 16 Times Actors Turned Down Amazing Roles For Atrocious Ones.
16 Kevin Costner - Shawshank Redemption for Waterworld
It’s pretty much an undisputed fact that Waterworld is one of the biggest cinematic bombs of all time. To make a bad situation worse, it was also the most expensive film ever made at its time of release.
However, before you start weeping over Costner’s career and start feeling sorry for the once great actor, it must be noted that he actually brought this calamity on himself.
Costner was first offered the opportunity to play the role of Andy Dufresne in the universally-loved movie The Shawshank Redemption, a film which repeatedly features near the top of many “best movies of all time” lists, but turned it down in order to develop the disgraced, sci-fi albatross that is Waterworld. This film, along with the critically panned The Postman, solidified the dipping of Costner’s cinematic career.
15 Emily Blunt - Black Widow for Gulliver's Travels
It might be hard to imagine anyone except Scarlett Johansson playing the part of Marvel’s black Widow character, but she actually wasn’t the studio’s first choice. Emily Blunt was the favored actress for the role, and was chosen to be Black Widow in Iron Man 2.
However, Blunt turned down the opportunity due to scheduling conflicts with Jack Black’s misjudged Gulliver’s Travels. Sadly it seems that Blunt was contractually obligated to appear in Jack Black's woefully poor movie, and somehow couldn't get out of it.
Although Iron Man 2 is hardly the most-loved MCU film, it’s certainly in another league than the catastrophe that was Gulliver’s Travels, and with the rumors surrounding an upcoming Black Widow film starring Scarlett Johansson, well there’s no doubt that Emily Blunt will be kicking herself for not getting the chance to play this now-iconic role.
14 Christina Applegate - Legally Blonde for Just Visiting
Legally Blonde is now considered somewhat of a cult classic. Its unlikely, widespread success largely stemmed from its main actress Reese Witherspoon, whose portrayal of the determined, feisty Elle Woods not only inspired countless women to go to law school, but also helped cement Witherspoon as a talented, noteworthy actress.
As much as we can’t imagine anyone else playing the brainy blonde, Reese wasn’t the first choice for the role.
It was actually Christina Applegate who was approached to play Elle, but she turned it down as she didn’t want to play another ditzy blonde character, and thought the part would be too similar to the character she had just finished playing on Married with Children. Well, she lost her chance to play a role of a lifetime, and opted instead for starring in Just Visiting, a remake of a French movie you’re unlikely to ever have heard of.
13 Michael Madsen - Pulp Fiction for Wyatt Earp
Michael Madsen is a staple of Quentin Tarantino films, but fans of the director’s movies will know that the actor did not feature in perhaps Tarantino’s most popular film, Pulp Fiction.
That’s not to say Madsen wasn’t offered the chance, though. The actor, now with 285 acting credits according to IMDB, was given the opportunity to play the role of John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, but passed on the part in order to star alongside Kevin Costner in the Razzie-winning film Wyatt Earp.
This decision caused a rift between Madsen and Tarantino, and it’s reported that the two didn’t speak for a good long while after that. However, they did seem to make up just in time for Madsen to accept a role in Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol 1, and it looks like Madsen learnt his lesson about not passing up on career-defining roles after that.
12 Julia Roberts - The Blind Side for Mother's Day
Julia Roberts famously won an Oscar for Best Actress in 2000 for her titular role in Erin Brockovich and there’s no doubt that she’d probably like another golden statue for the mantelpiece.
Well, she might have passed up her chance when she turned down the opportunity to play Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side, the 2009 sports drama based on a true story. With Roberts showing a lack of interest in the role, the producers approached Sandra Bullock, who not only seized the part, but ended up winning an Oscar for it too.
Meanwhile, Julia Roberts turned her energy towards appearing in the dreadful rom-com ensemble movie Valentine’s Day, which did nothing for her career. Funnily enough, Roberts also declined the lead role in The Proposal which again went to Bullock instead, and made Sandy B the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.
11 Brad Pitt - Jason Bourne for Spy Game
Brad Pitt is known for his strong career choices, and has starred in more than just a few critically acclaimed films in his time. However, even the most seasoned actors sometimes make unwise decisions, and Pitt certainly misstepped on at least one occasion.
His most blatant bad decision was turning down the opportunity to play Jason Bourne in the Bourne films, a role which fanned the flames of fame for Matt Damon. While you might be thinking that Pitt declined the Bourne role in order to star in a completely different kind of film, well sadly you’d be wrong.
Strangely enough, Brad Pitt chose instead to take a very similar role playing a CIA agent in Spy Game. While this movie wasn’t exactly a disaster, it certainly didn’t achieve the success that the Bourne series did.
10 Will Smith - The Matrix for Wild Wild West
One of several actors who could have scored himself an iconic role in The Matrix is Will Smith. Having had huge successes with Men in Black and Independence Day, Smith was one of the hottest, brightest talents around.
It’s unsurprising then that directors were clamoring for him to star in their movies, including the Wachowskis, who had their eyes on the Fresh Prince to play Neo in their sci-fi film. Smith wasn’t sure about the film’s planned special effects, and decided to decline the role.
He instead opted to star in the the steampunk action-western Wild Wild West, a film that has gone down in history as one of the most ludicrous movies ever, which earned Smith a Worst Screen Couple Razzie as well as Worst Original Song.
9 Eddie Murphy - Rush Hour for Holy Man
Eddie Murphy was once one of the biggest names in comedy, and at one time long, long ago, having him in a film guaranteed box-office success. This was the case until Murphy began a downward spiral, taking on projects that were so atrocious that his name began to be synonymous with failure.
Norbit, Meet Dave, and The Adventures of Pluto Nash were some of the actor’s major career low-points, but the movie that arguably started this tragic trend is Holy Man, which even Murphy has called “horrendous."
Eddie didn’t have to take the role. He was actually offered a lead part in Rush Hour alongside Jackie Chan, a part which eventually went to Chris Tucker, but instead unwisely chose to portray the spiritual leader in Holy Man. What a sinfully bad choice that was.
8 Tom Cruise - Footloose for All the Right Moves
Tom Cruise is a force of nature, and as we can see with this year’s release of Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Tom isn’t about to let his age stand in the way of him running, jumping, and shooting his way to continued future success.
However, despite being an action-flick hero and a man known for his rather wise acting decisions, not every choice The Cruiser has made has been great. One such instance is when Cruise decided to turn down the starring role in the '80s classic Footloose. After clearly impressing the Footloose casting directors with his fancy footwork in Risky Business, Cruise was offered the part of Ren McCormack but opted out of it.
He instead decided to pursue the rather lackluster sports flick All the Right Moves.
Well, evidently this wasn’t the right move, as Cruise’s film of choice got a lukewarm reception, whereas Kevin Bacon, who ended up in Footloose, has gone down in cinematic history for this particular role.
7 Matt Damon - Manchester by the Sea for Downsizing
Matt Damon is a huge A-lister name in Hollywood, but lately the actor seems to have fallen out of favor with the public somewhat, and his misguided acting choices are likely partly to blame.
Matt Damon clearly made a huge gaff in dropping out of both directing and starring in Manchester by the Sea, a film that saw its eventual lead Casey Affleck win an Oscar for Best Actor.
What did Damon do instead of committing himself to this critically-acclaimed movie?
He opted for starring in the disastrously ill-conceived film Downsizing. Damon clearly chose the wrong film to put his efforts into. Had he stuck with Manchester by the Sea, he could have potentially been rewarded with an Oscar. In the meantime, we’re looking to see if Damon's next project might redeem him somewhat.
6 David Schwimmer - Men in Black for Pallbearer
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Friends was one of the biggest shows in television, and its stars unsurprisingly wanted to channel their widespread success and fame into doing some big screen projects.
Not all of the Friends stars' movie crossover choices were wise, however.
This was most notably seen in David Schwimmer’s catastrophic decision to turn down the role of Agent J in Men in Black. Movie acclaim would remain alien to Schwimmer as he opted for rom-com mediocrity instead of sci-fi success, and his chosen project Pallbearer didn’t exactly wow audiences or critics: he ended up winning a Razzie for Worst New Star.
Of course, Will Smith ended up playing Agent J, a role which thrust the Fresh Prince into Hollywood stardom and saw him become one of the biggest names in Tinseltown.
5 Tim Roth - Harry Potter for Planet of the Apes
The late, wonderful Alan Rickman will always be Severus Snape to Harry Potter fans, and trying to imagine anyone else playing the Potions Master and Defence Against the Dark Arts professor is pretty much unfathomable.
However, Rickman almost lost out on this coveted role as Tim Roth was first in line for the part. Roth had already misguidedly agreed to appear in Tim Burton’s reboot of Planet of the Apes. At first Roth thought he would be able to do both roles, and would fly between the two shoots, but sadly he eventually realized that doing both movies would be too much to juggle. He therefore chose Apes over wizards, which let’s be honest, was clearly the wrong decision... for him.
While we got the magic of Rickman’s masterful performance, Roth had to endure being a part of one of cinema’s most reviled remakes.
4 Jean Reno - The Matrix for Godzilla
Jean Reno is a well-known French actor, whose talents can be seen in many film fan favorites including Leon: The Professional and the first Mission Impossible movie.
However, Reno could have taken his career to even bigger, more daring heights, had he not turned down quite possibly the biggest role of a lifetime. He was approached by the Wachowskis to play Agent Smith in The Matrix, a truly career-defining role. However, Reno had no desire to move to Australia for the movie’s filming, and agreed instead to take on the role of a French secret service agent in the abysmal 1998 Godzilla, which was heavily criticized and panned by the critics.
The role of Agent Smith of course eventually went to Hugo Weaving and The Matrix has gone down in cinematic history as one of the era’s most iconic films.
3 Brooke Shields - Scarface for Sahara
If ever there was an example of someone who really shouldn’t have listened to their mother, it would have to be Brooke Shields. The supermodel-actress should have listened to her gut rather than her mom when she was offered the opportunity of a lifetime to star in Brian De Palma’s iconic mobster film Scarface.
Brooke’s mother, Teri, convinced her daughter to turn down the role in order to instead star in the critically panned adventure film Sahara. Well, as we know, Brooke Shield’s loss was Michelle Pfeiffer’s gain, whose career was launched much thanks to her role in De Palma’s movie.
Meanwhile, Brooke Shields faced a lot of disgrace for Sahara, but not all was a loss: she won an infamous Worst Supporting Actor Razzie for her part in the film where she’s “disguised” with a moustache, making her the first ever actress to win this award. The lesson we’ve learned? Sometimes mother doesn’t always know best.
2 Burt Reynolds - Terms of Endearment for Stroker
Burt Reynolds has famously turned down many great roles during his acting career, including playing Randall P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman, John McClane in Die Hard, and, if you can believe it, Han Solo in Star Wars.
Clearly Reynolds hasn’t always made the best career decisions, and there’s no doubt he’s racked up more than just a couple of regrets. One of the other major roles he turned down was that of Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, famously played by Jack Nicholson who won a Best Actor Oscar for it.
Director James L. Brooks had apparently written Breedlove’s character with Burt specifically in mind, but Reynolds mistakenly turned it down as he had already committed himself to starring in the car racing comedy Stroker Ace. This was a catastrophic mistake, as we now know, seeing as Terms of Endearment became an Oscar-winning classic, while Stroker Ace was a box office catastrophe.
1 Will Smith - Django Unchained for After Earth
It seems Will Smith has a knack for turning down great roles for bad ones, as once again he’s here on the list, this time for turning down the part of Django in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
This blood-soaked western went on to cast Jamie Foxx as the lead role. It seems like Will Smith really could have used a successful role like this one, as it appeared his filmic endeavors were running out of steam somewhat. This became especially evident when Smith chose to star in the major box-office flop After Earth alongside his son Jaden Smith, instead of working with Tarantino.
Rumors came out that Smith declined the Django role because he was unhappy that the character he would be playing wasn’t the one to shoot the bad guy in the movie, but other reports have said that Smith wasn’t comfortable with the film being about vengeance, preferring that it would have been a story about love. Either way, turning down this role was big mistake.
What other actors bad the wrong call when it came to roles? Let us know in the comments!