It’s fair to say that there are a lot of benefits to being a Hollywood movie star – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t downsides, either. Maybe the biggest challenge actors face on a regular basis – other than trying to keep their private lives, y’know, “private” – is choosing their next role.
This might not sound like too much of a dilemma. Think about it: could you tell whether or not a film was going to be a hit, just by flicking through the script?
Make no mistake, it’s vitally important for actors – even those on the A-list who command astronomical salaries – to consistently appear in commercially successful films, in order to retain their box office viability in the eyes of movie studio executives.
Yet despite their very best efforts, many of the biggest names in the business have passed up the opportunity to feature in hit movies that would almost certainly have had a positive impact on their careers.
True, actors aren’t exactly interchangeable, and there’s no guarantee that a popular flick would have worked as well as it did with an alternative cast member substituted in. However it’s hard not argue that a well-written part paired with a talented performer is likely to pay dividends.
On the other hand, history is fortunately also chock full of instances where industry veterans shrewdly avoided taking part in cinematic outings that tanked financially - and often times, critically, as well.
With this in mind, we’ve rounded up this list of 11 Actors Who Turned Down Hit Movies (And 9 Who Dodged Major Flops).
20 Hit: Nicolas Cage – The Wrestler
Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 drama The Wrestler netted rave reviews and raked in $44.7 million on a $6 million budget. Most importantly, it resurrected Mickey Rourke’s career, with commentators noting the parallels between him and aging professional wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson.
Rourke serves up a highly nuanced turn as Randy, capturing the warmth, loneliness, and passion of this fading entertainer. He was nabbed a Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy Award nomination for his subdued performance.
Funnily enough, Nicolas Cage was originally attached to the role – ironically, someone infamous for OTT acting displays miles away from how Rourke portrayed Randy. Cage ultimately pulled out over concerns he’d be required to take steroids to convincingly achieve a pro-wrester’s bulk, so we’ll never know if he could have crafted a similarly restrained, effective spin on the character.
19 Flop: Natalie Portman – Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights
Dirty Dancing was an unexpected breadwinner back in 1987, amassing a cool $214 million worldwide despite its shoestring budget. Much of the film’s appeal can be chalked up to the smouldering chemistry (and dance moves) between Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, not to mention its insanely good soundtrack.
Unfortunately, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights – released a mere 17 years later – wasn’t able to replicate its predecessor’s success. Initially developed as an unrelated project before evolving into a Dirty Dancing sequel, Havana Nights lacked the memorable musical numbers and inspired choreography of the original.
Also missing was Grey (Swayze shows up for a brief cameo), with British actress Romola Garai stepping in to take on the new lead role of Katey Miller. However, Garai wasn’t director Guy Ferland’s preferred choice to play Katey – allegedly, he approached Natalie Portman first, who (wisely) declined.
18 Hit: Katie Holmes – The Dark Knight
When it arrived in theaters in 2005, Batman Begins did solid box office enough to earn Christopher Nolan the chance to helm another installment. While audiences responded positively to Nolan’s grounded franchise reboot, nobody could have foreseen the recording-breaking commercial success of follow-up The Dark Knight.
This includes Katie Holmes, who opted not to reprise the role of Rachel Dawes for Christian Bale’s second second go-around as Batman, appearing in forgettable comedy Mad Money, instead. Maggie Gyllenhaal was quickly drafted in to replace Holmes – and arguably made for a more convincing assistant district attorney than her precursor.
To her credit, Holmes has no regrets about walking away from one of the most celebrated and lucrative superhero flicks ever made.
She’s even spoken fondly of working with Nolan and praised Gyllenhaal’s performance – which is pretty classy.
17 Flop: Brad Pitt – The Fountain
The second Darren Aronofsky joint on this list, The Fountain certainly isn’t lacking when it comes to narrative scope, thematic subtext, or breathtaking visuals. Taking place in the distant past, present, and far future, The Fountain offers up a heartfelt meditation on love and mortality – and looks utterly gorgeous along the way.
Sadly, this symbolism-heavy cinematic journey proved highly polarizing for viewers, which translated into very underwhelming ticket sales.
This came as bad news to Aronofsky and stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, who were left with a lovingly-crafted box office turkey on their hands. Interestingly, Jackman nearly dodged a bullet on this one – as Brad Pitt originally took on the triple header role of Tomas/Tom/Tommy!
Pitt bowed out seven weeks prior to principal photography, reportedly after alterations to the script that he requested weren’t implemented by Aronofsky.
16 Hits: Will Smith – The Matrix & Django Unchained
It’s bad enough missing out on one blockbuster film – Will Smith let two slip through his fingers. The first of these arrived at the peak of his '90s popularity, when Smith was offered the lead role of digital messiah Neo in The Matrix, but refused the part.
The Wachowskis subsequently cast Keanu Reeves to headline their cyberpunk masterpiece, which scored four Oscars and grossed over $460 million globally. Smith later admitted that he struggled to wrap his head around the admittedly high concept source material, and acknowledged that Reeves was probably a better fit for Neo at the time.
The second hit movie Smith walked away from was Quentin Tarantino’s blistering western Django Unchained.
Approached to play Django himself, the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air turned his nose up at the part, believing it wasn’t a true lead role.
15 Flop: Keira Knightley – House Of Wax
You could be forgiven for entirely forgetting that House of Wax even exists: this formulaic 2005 remake isn’t exactly a landmark entry in the horror genre. That’s not to say that the film – about a group of teens terrorized by twin lunatics bent on turning them into living sculptures – is downright terrible.
It’s just incredibly “middle of the road” fare – which is no doubt why it failed to make much in the way of moolah.
One wonders if House of Wax might have performed better financially if it had boasted a few bigger names in the cast – like, say, Keira Knightley, perhaps?
Rumor has it that Knightly was considered for the Paige Edwards role (handled in the film by Paris Hilton), but she knocked director Jaume Collet-Serra back.
14 Hit: Emma Watson – La La Land
When it came to filling the role of Mia Doolan in Damien Chazelle’s musical rom-com La La Land, it was a case of swapping an Emma for an Emma. This is because Harry Potter star Emma Watson was attached to the project early on, before vacating the role to more fully commit to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast live-action remake, allowing Emma Stone to step in.
On the one hand, we’re sure Watson is pretty comfortable with this decision.
Beauty and the Beast pulled in over $1.2 billion internationally, and earned the actress largely complimentary reviews. On the other hand, when she watched Stone accepting the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Mia, Watson was likely left contemplating what might have been!
13 Flop: Meg Ryan – To Die For
To Die For is wickedly funny black comedy about Suzanne Stone, a wannabe news anchor who plots to bump-off her husband – but the real crime is how few people wound up seeing it!
Critics raved about Gus van Sant’s scathing satire, singling out Nicole Kidman’s Golden Globe-winning turn as Stone for particular praise, but this wasn’t enough to draw an audience.
Meg Ryan – the original choice to bring the ruthless Ms. Stone to life – isn’t likely to have lost any sleep over passing on the film. Sure, the $5 million salary she was promised would have been nice (Kidman was only able to secure $2 million), and awards season silverware is nothing to sneeze at. But no actress – especially Ryan, still riding high in 1995 – wants a box office bomb on her resume.
12 Hit: Sean Connery – The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Sir Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf after seeing the renowned thespian embody the character across six epic films. McKellen very nearly didn’t land the part he played to perfection across the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies – director Peter Jackson tried (and failed) to hire Sir Sean Connery, instead!
Prior to retiring, Connery was of Hollywood’s go-to “wise old mentor” figures, thanks to his commanding screen presence and rich, distinctive voice. Jackson obviously felt these were qualities Gandalf desperately needed, offering Connery $6 million per film – plus 15% of the franchise’s overall profits (which equates to an eye-watering $450 million).
Connery couldn’t understand the fantastical Middle-earth mythology devised by J.R.R. Tolkien.
He he declined the part, and the biggest payday of his life.
11 Flop: Val Kilmer – Batman & Robin
When Val Kilmer donned Batman’s iconic cape and cowl in Batman Forever – vacated by Michael Keaton following Batman Returns – fans assumed he would carry on for at least one more sequel. Yet when Batman & Robin finally rolled around, it was ER star George Clooney who featured as the Cape Crusader, not Kilmer.
It turns out Kilmer and director Joel Schumacher clashed during the filming of Forever, and this – along with the star’s inflated ego, according to Schumacher – is supposedly why he abandoned ship.
Given the disappointing box office returns and critical mauling Batman & Robin received, you’d think this was a savvy move on Kilmer’s behalf - until you remember he made the equally terrible The Island of Doctor Moreau instead!
10 Hit: Julia Roberts – Shakespeare In Love
Comedy-drama Shakespeare in Love charmed audiences in 1999 with its witty re-imagining of the Bard’s love life, and it went on to run away with seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Gwyneth Paltrow also claimed screen acting’s top prize for her turn as Shakespeare’s (fictitious) lost love Viola de Lesseps – a part previously earmarked for Julia Roberts.
Roberts was all set to star as Viola, under one condition: no one other than Daniel Day-Lewis was allowed to play Shakespeare.
The problem was, the venerable actor had no desire whatsoever to take part in Shakespeare in Love, despite Roberts’ best efforts to bring him around. Without her ideal leading man, Roberts resigned – derailing progress on the film for more than five years!
9 Flop: Jennifer Lopez – The Adventures Of Pluto Nash
There are box office bombs, and then there’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash. One of the biggest commercial disasters in cinema history – it recouped $7.1 million of its $100 million budget – this misjudged sci-fi comedy remains the low point of Eddie Murphy’s career.
It wasn’t just Murphy who copped the fallout from this one, though. A talented roster of players including Randy Quaid, Rosario Dawson, John Cleese and Peter Boyle were also unfortunate enough to appear in Pluto Nash, which happens to be one of the worst reviewed movies ever, too.
At least one star managed to avoid this filmmaking fiasco: Jennifer Lopez.
She had signed-on to play love interest Dina Lake, only to withdraw before the cameras rolled.
8 Hit: John Lithgow – Batman (1989)
Before Heath Ledger’s definitive portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, fans generally agreed that Jack Nicholson’s take on the Clown of Prince of Crime was the one to beat. Indeed, for advocates of Tim Burton’s first blockbuster Batman adventure, Nicholson is still the best Joker to tear-up the big screen.
Audiences nearly saw Michael Keaton’s nocturnal vigilante face-off against a very different incarnation of his archenemy, though, as Burton originally wanted John Lithgow for the part. Now, Lithgow’s decade-spanning body of work has shown him to be a versatile actor capable of great comedic and dramatic performances, so we’re sure he would have been up to the challenge.
The actor himself didn’t think he was Joker material, and after repeated attempts to convince Burton otherwise he finally succeeded – by totally botching his formal audition!
7 Flop: Christian Bale & Dakota Fanning – Noah
Noah – the third entry on this list helmed by Darren Aronofsky – is a decidedly weird bit of business. A loose (and frankly, kind of insane) adaptation of the biblical flood story, it left both critics and theologians scratching their heads. Needless to say, a huge box office haul did not materialize.
As with the tale on which Noah is based, there’s a happy ending to all of this – for Christian Bale and Dakota Fanning, anyway. See, Bale was at one point in the mix to play the eponymous ark-builder, while Fanning nearly ended up portrayed his daughter-in-law, Ila, before both declined.
After neither star committed, Aronofsky brought Russell Crowe and Emma Watson onboard in their place, something neither actor is likely to attribute to divine intervention!
6 Hit: Hugh Grant – Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
Kenneth Branagh is wildly capable actor - not to mention a gifted director - and he was great as the dreamily handsome fraud Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
However, perhaps a more conventionally handsome actor, someone able to transform from self-aggrandizing cad to conniving coward, would have better realized author JK Rowling’s character as written. In short, Hugh Grant should have gotten the job – and apparently, director Chris Columbus agreed!
The behind-the-scenes skinny is that Grant was offered the Chamber of Secrets role – only for the actor’s schedule to get in the way. This meant that fans were robbed of the perfect Lockhart, and Grant missed out on starring in yet another box office hit.
5 Flop: Jim Carrey – Evan Almighty & Son Of The Mask
As a rule, Jim Carrey doesn’t do sequels. There are exceptions to this rule – see Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls or Dumb and Dumber To (on second thoughs, maybe don’t). On the whole, it’s fair to say that the Canadian funnyman has little appetite for revisiting previous roles, no matter how tempting it may be.
This explains why Carrey didn’t sign-on for follow-ups to two of his biggest hits, The Mask and Bruce Almighty – which, incidentally, both tanked badly, somewhat validating Carrey’s sequel stance.
Belated outing Son of the Mask was an abysmal failure for Carrey stand-in Jamie Kennedy, while not even the considerable talents of Steve Carrell could save Evan Almighty from sinking at the box office.
4 Hit: Christina Applegate – Legally Blonde
It’s no exaggeration to say that Reese Witherspoon wouldn’t be where she is today without Legally Blonde. Her portrayal of bubbly lawyer-in-training Elle Woods was a breakout performance for the actress, dramatically raising her profile and paving the way for her Oscar-winning turn in Walk the Line.
Believe it or not, Witherspoon almost didn’t play Elle – and presumably, very nearly missed out on joining the ranks of Hollywood’s elite, too. This is because fellow fair-haired performer Christina Applegate was sent the Legally Blonde script ahead of Witherspoon, but ultimately felt it wasn’t for her.
Try not to judge Applegate’s decision-making skills too harshly.
Fresh off of Married… with Children – where she played superficially similar character Kelly – Applegate was afraid of typecasting herself, so this is actually a logical enough call, in context.
3 Flop: Fred Armisen – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows
Despite several critics declaring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows an improvement over Michael Bay’s opening entry in the franchise, this flick underperformed at the box office.
Director Dave Green’s sequel cost $135 million to produce, and only generated $245 million in revenue – making it a flop, once marketing and distribution costs are added on top. As one of the Turtles would put it, “Bummer, dude."
One guy who’s probably not so bummed out is Saturday Night Live alumnus Fred Armisen, who was slated to voice evil alien brain Krang, until scheduling conflicts intervened. Fellow industry veteran Brad Garrett – best known as Ray’s brother Robert on Everybody Loves Raymond – was roped in to fill the vocal void, leaving Armisen to escape this turkey unscathed.
2 Hit: John Travolta & Dave Chappelle – Forrest Gump
Simple-minded yet big-hearted Forrest Gump is one of the roles acting legend Tom Hanks is best know for – not least of all because it brought him his second consecutive Best Actor Oscar. It might seem hard to fathom that auteur Robert Zemeckis’ plans for Forrest Gump started out remarkably Hanks-lite.
Zemeckis’ top pick for Gump was reportedly John Travolta, who wasn’t interested and said “no."
It's a decision Travolta would later say was the wrong call, in the wake of the film’s success.
Travolta wasn’t the only big name to turn down a part in Forrest Gump, either. Comedian Dave Chapelle was in the running to play Forrest’s best pal Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue, but dropped out over concerns regarding the quality of the script and Bubba’s characterization.
1 Warren Beatty – Kill Bill
If you’re an actor, and a writer-director as brilliant as Quentin Tarantino writes a role in his latest film specifically with you in mind, you’d sign on in a heartbeat, right? Well, not if you’re Warren Beatty, who decided not to play titular baddie Bill in both volumes of Kill Bill.
Reports vary as to what exactly went down here. Perhaps a combination of the intensive martial arts training the part would require, the limited screen time Bill has in Vol. 1, and Tarantino’s shifting vision for the character all contributed to Beatty’s departure.
Intriguingly, the late David Carradine – who was universally applauded for his portrayal of Bill in Vol. 2 – actually believed that it was Beatty who recommended him for the gig.
Who are some other actors who passed on hit movies (or dodged major flops)? Let us know in the comments!