Nabbing an iconic role is the pinnacle of onscreen acting. For every twentysomething starting out or fortysomething struggling to hack it, a signature part can make all the difference between twiddled thumbs and Hollywood fame. It really does the trick. Mark Ruffalo has three Oscar nominations under his belt, yet the world will always associate him as The Hulk in Marvel’s Avengers. Fair or not, it's the way Hollywood works, and it’s provided moviegoers with some of the greatest fictional characters ever conceived.
Granted, this recipe relies on more than simply being in the right place at the right time. An actor must possess the perfect set of skills to bring said role to life, whether they be pensive, brash, or a touch-and-go mixture of both. It’s difficult to nail down, but casting directors and fans most certainly know it when they see it. Conversely, there are situations when stars are offered a juicy part, only to realize it's not for them and pass it off. That, or they simply screwed up and squandered a terrific opportunity. Either way, such decisions provide terrific fodder for the wild “what ifs” that make this crazy pop culture machine go.
Here are 15 Actors Who Turned Down Iconic Roles.
15 John Travolta - Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump)
Who doesn’t love Forrest Gump? The 1994 classic weaved the story of a simple man through decades of American history, lovingly composed by Academy Award winner Robert Zemeckis. Adapted from the 1986 novel of the same name, the film’s greatest pre-production hurdle was in finding the right actor to portray Gump, a part that required zero pandering to fully work for the audience. The line between offensive and revelatory was paper thin, and Zemeckis would ultimately struck gold with the gung-ho performance of Tom Hanks. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Hanks was the director’s second choice, after being turned down by Danny Zuko himself, John Travolta.
This would’ve been a little weird. Travolta had yet to resurrect his career with Pulp Fiction (1994), which means Zemeckis was rolling the dice on a guy whose last film had him playing second fiddle to a baby. But the Look Who’s Talking (1989-93) series aside, there wasn’t much else to suggest Travolta could tackle such a delicately balanced performance. He later regretted giving the part to Hanks, though it turned out for the best, as both men nabbed acting noms in '95 (though it was Hanks who walked away with the win). Vincent Vega was better with milkshakes than boxes of chocolate, anyways.
14 Emily Blunt - Black Widow (Iron Man 2)
Emily Blunt was a rising star in 2010, and studios responded with a flood of big-budget offers. One of which just so happened to be a little superhero sequel by the name of Iron Man 2. The role offered was that of the Black Widow, a hyper-slick S.H.I.E.L.D. agent sent to evaluate party boy Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) for the Avengers initiative. While intrigued by the notion, the British actress ultimately opted out due to scheduling conflicts with films Wild Target and Gulliver’s Travels.
Given the lackluster response to both projects, it's tough to say Blunt made the right call. But taking into account the fact that she also turned down the part of Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), it seems as though Blunt and Marvel simply aren’t meant to be. Scarlett Johansson and Hayley Atwell stepped in and owned their respective roles with style, so no harm no foul. As for anyone still feenin for butt-kicking Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and Sicario (2015) have filled that prescription but good.
13 Will Smith - Neo (The Matrix)
Will Smith was on top of the world in 1999, so it seemed logical that the Wachowskis would approach him for their sophomore project, The Matrix. Pitched almost exactly how it is in the final film, Smith simply couldn’t wrap his head around the idea, as he recounted in later years: “You know, The Matrix is a difficult concept to pitch. In the pitch, I just didn’t see it. At that point I wasn’t smart enough as an actor to let the movie be.” Undoubtedly disappointed, the directing duo hit paydirt with the casting of yet another action movie star: Keanu Reeves.
As for who the better actor is, well that remains to be seen. But as Neo, Reeves washes any and all competition away. Whether harnessing his chiseled composure or delivering dead-panned dialogue, each shortcoming and personality quirk only benefits the groundbreaking story at hand. Smith, while missing out on one of the millennium's most influential films, was able to recognize the poor fit, saying “I watched Keanu’s performance — and very rarely do I say this, but I would’ve messed it up.”
If only his foresight had kept him out of the film he did instead: Wild Wild West.
12 Brad Pitt - Jason Bourne (The Bourne Identity)
Back in 2001, director Doug Liman was on the lookout for his Jason Bourne. CIA assassin, amnesia victim, and brainchild of writer Robert Ludlum, it was a role that demanded a unique set of contradictions. For one, the actor had to be adept at combat and spy-heavy tactics. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there needed to be a decency to the man, a boyish quality in comparison to espionage deities like James Bond. Guys like Russell Crowe and Sylvester Stallone were tossed around to no avail, before Liman stumbled upon the golden goose idea of Brad Pitt.
While hardly the average joe, Pitt supplied the right mixture of calm and decency to play the part, a fresh break from the steroid soaked decades of yesteryear. Ironically, almost as if it were a double-agent move, the actor dropped out to appear in Spy Game (2001) instead, opening the floodgates for Will Hunting (Matt Damon) to become the badass we all know and love. While Spy Game was a solid thriller, Damon was definitely the dude who won big, and is continuing to do so with this summer’s Jason Bourne.
11 Tom Selleck - Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
The fact that Tom Selleck sidled so close to the role of Indiana Jones is mind-boggling. A veteran of television, the actor had barely made a blip on the cinematic scene, save for a few bit parts in Midway (1976) and Coma (1978); not exactly the stuff of an A-list celebrity. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, had already become a megastar on the strength of Star Wars (1977), and was relegated to running lines for incoming actors. The rationale behind this was that writer/producer George Lucas didn’t want to cast Ford in every film he made, and intentionally sought out new talent to combat the “Bobby De Niro” syndrome.
So, with a supposedly stunning audition, Selleck was offered the iconic role outright. Torn between his commitment to Magnum, P.I. (1980-89) and a potential big screen crossover, the actor stuck with his small screen roots and turned the role down. With only three weeks left before production started, director Steven Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy finally convinced Lucas to cast Ford, and the rest is pop culture history.
10 Mel Gibson - Maximus (Gladiator)
Mel Gibson’s ability to act is inarguable. The man simply knows how to evoke feeling from the fans, whether as a soldier in Gallipoli (1981), a scavenger in The Road Warrior (1982), or a revolutionist in Braveheart (1995). The latter project, in particular, showcased Gibson’s talent for historical warfare, something Ridley Scott was acutely aware of when approaching the actor for his 2000 film Gladiator. Seeking grandiose levels of commitment for the lead role, the director felt Gibson provided the perfect blend of cynicism and optimism to play Maximus, the fallen commander. And while the Mad Max star fully supported such an ambitious tale, he ultimately opted out on the pretense he was too old, at 43, to convincingly play the part.
He was right. Gibson would’ve been great, but Russell Crowe is utterly spectacular as the combative rebel with a personal score to settle. Crowe’s Maximus bears a brutish nuance that goes above and beyond what Gibson would’ve brought to the table, and critics agreed by awarding the actor his first and only Academy Award. Mel already had a few golden statues at home, he didn’t need anymore.
9 Jim Carrey - Edward Scissorhands (Edward Scissorhands)
Coming off of the blockbuster hit Batman in 1989, Edward Scissorhands (1990) was a project that spoke to the alienation of growing up an oddball in the suburbs. As such, director Tim Burton needed someone who could play marvelously sweet and horribly awkward all at one, while winning the heart of blonde beauty Winona Ryder. Nearly everyone in Hollywood auditioned for the role, with Tom Cruise, Robert Downey, Jr. and Michael Jackson (!) being among the most notable to try on Edward’s sharp duds. Somehow, comedian Jim Carrey was even given consideration for a bit, before finally getting the boot due to his inexperience as a dramatic actor.
Envisioning Ace Ventura in Burbank is beyond bizarre. One can only guess where the film would’ve gone with Carrey at the core, a verbal joke machine relegated to saddened silence. That Burton ultimately went with Johnny Depp proved to be the best decision of both careers, jumpstarting an actor/director relationship that’s lasted over twenty years. Carrey, on the other hand, would have to wait nearly a decade before his dramatic chops were allowed to shine with The Truman Show (1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
8 Hugh Jackman - James Bond (Casino Royale)
By 2006, the James Bond brand was all but washed up. Pierce Brosnan’s increasingly mellow adventures came to a limping close with Die Another Day (2002), leaving the waters wide open for a fresh approach to the character. Enter filmmaker Martin Campbell, who had successfully rebooted the Zorro franchise in 1998, and was poised to bring a vital, action-packed edge to his 007 reinvention. To do this, of course, Campbell would need a younger, less refined Bond to convey his gritty vision. Several of Hollywood’s hottest up and comers were thrown around in contention, including Henry Cavill, Karl Urban, and Sam Worthington.
Hugh Jackman, however, was the one that nearly made the cut. Called up by his agent with regards to taking over the Aston Martin, the Australian actor turned it down on the spot. Explaining his decision after the fact, Jackman simply felt overwhelmed by the notion of taking on another iconic character in the midst of his X-Men franchise. The mutton-chopped mutant made a strong case, and given the tremendous success Daniel Craig has since had with the role (but now may be done with), it looks this refusal turned out to be a win-win.
7 Harrison Ford - Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List)
Harrison Ford is the biggest box office star in U.S. history. Given this startling statistic, it seems only natural that there were a bevy of scripts thrown his way over the last thirty years, most of which he turned down. In quick succession, the parts that Ford declined include starring roles in Alien (1979), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), and Cape Fear (1991), amidst smaller works like The Patriot (2000) and Syriana (2005). But the big whig rejection of Ford’s career dates back to 1993, where Steven Spielberg considered passing the title role in Schindler’s List to his Indiana Jones star.
The frontrunner over actors Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner, Ford possessed the world-weariness needed to make Oskar Schindler a truly inspiring redemption story. Unfortunately, the hurdle of a German accent seemed far more daunting, coupled with the concern that his movie star status might take away from the film’s message. In response to these red flags, Ford talked things over with buddy Spielberg and departed the project, leaving leading man duties to the brilliant Liam Neeson, who earned an Oscar nod as Schindler.
6 Tom Hanks - Jerry Maguire (Jerry Maguire)
“Show me the money!” would’ve been wildly different if delivered through Tom Hanks’ nasally inflection. Ironically, filmmaker Cameron Crowe wrote the story with such a tone in mind, passing Hanks the finished script long before it got the green light from TriStar Pictures. The two-time Oscar winner enjoyed Crowe’s winning blend of comedy and drama, though he felt unfit to play the part, citing a lack of aggression that seemed crucial to Jerry Maguire’s character. As a result, Hanks passed on the film, choosing instead to direct and star in That Thing You Do! (1996), while Crowe talked Tom Cruise into taking the title role instead.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for both Toms. Hanks scored an excellent indie project with That Thing, and Cruise delivered arguably his most iconic performance to date. The rambunctious energy, manic freakouts, and sincere regret hit audiences where they lived, netting huge box office numbers and the actor’s second Academy Award nomination. When asked about Jerry Maguire in later years, Hanks affirms everyone else’s opinion by saying “I think you look at it now and it couldn’t have been anybody other than Tom Cruise.”
5 Molly Ringwald - Vivian Ward (Pretty Woman)
This one is baffling. Molly Ringwald — the same teen who ruled the '80s with films like Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty In Pink (1986) — was given an early draft of Pretty Woman (1990), then titled $3,000. Considered a well known actress at the time, director Garry Marshall felt Ringwald was the ideal age to portray Vivian, a sex worker who gets swept off her feet by a rich suitor. Several other actresses had been considered and quickly dismissed for their youth, namely Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Winona Ryder, leaving the John Hughes muse as the prime candidate by 1989.
Ringwald wasn’t buying it, though. She was uncomfortable with the idea of portraying a prostitute, and disliked the degrading aspects that were apparently peppered into the film’s plot. Turning the project down almost immediately, Marshall was forced to gamble on Julia Roberts, a relative unknown with a few supporting credits (Mystic Pizza, Steel Magnolias) to her name. Of course, Pretty Woman became the biggest rom-com of all time, elevating Roberts to star status and forever supplying cliches for future chick flicks to follow. Molly made a big mistake, huge!
4 Leonardo DiCaprio - Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)
The cold war between Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale has been going on for a great many years. DiCaprio beat Bale out for star-making parts in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) and Titanic (1997), even going as far as to snag American Psycho (1999) when Lionsgate implemented the duo of DiCaprio and director Oliver Stone. Though the two had never worked together, the potential behind Stone’s bloodthirsty bleakness and the young actor’s gutsy commitment would’ve made for quite the splash across a spotless floor.
But commercial promise called, and Leo dropped the project to star in Danny Boyle’s tropical thriller The Beach (2000), a successful flick that received muddled reviews from critics. Conversely, the restored duo of Bale and director Mary Harron made for a brutalized cult classic, spurned by the actor’s staggering dedication to his craft. Viewers praised the film, and Bale in particular, who overcame the commercial success that had been achieved by The Beach with critical acclaim across the board. And let’s be honest, no one could've returned video tapes or praised Huey Lewis any better.
3 Mickey Rourke - Butch (Pulp Fiction)
Pulp Fiction was a lifeboat for washed-up actors come 1994. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino, a guy who spent years in a video store absorbing the knowledge of a thousand Wikipedia pages, wanted performers he loved, whether the public remembered them or not. John Travolta? Check. Eric Stoltz? Check. The real challenge was Mickey Rourke, the smooth '80s rebel who had since taken up professional boxing as his main focus. The former indie star has lost some of his good looks through botched surgeries, though Tarantino had eyes on him for the part of Butch, the washed up boxer who pulls a fast one on the mob.
Commenting on how he mishandled the situation, Rourke explains, “Tarantino called once - I think it was for Pulp Fiction. I didn’t even read the script. I allowed myself to get proud and angry because I could do the acting.” The part eventually went to Bruce Willis, who does a bang-up job, though one has to wonder if Rourke’s performance could’ve boosted his career as it did Travolta's. Guess we’ll never know.
2 Al Pacino - Han Solo/John McClane (Star Wars/Die Hard)
Al Pacino already has enough iconic roles for ten careers, so it almost seems unfair that more were thrown his way back in the day. But sure enough, the legendary actor was offered the part of Han Solo (!) when casting of the original Star Wars (1977) was underway. Long before Harrison Ford entered the picture, Pacino perused George Lucas’ story and didn’t find much merit to it. No joke, in his words, the role was “mine for the taking, but I didn’t understand the script.” As a result, the part made Ford the man he is today, while Pacino, coming off of two Godfather films and Dog Day Afternoon (1975), was none the worse for it.
History repeated itself a decade later when the performer passed on a little project called Die Hard (1988), which wound up becoming one of the biggest blockbusters of the '80s. As for the Oscar winner’s thoughts on the Bruce Willis classic, Pacino wryly replied with “I gave that boy a career.” Both roles would’ve been exceptional in the actor’s capable hands, though it's tough to imagine anyone better than those that succeeded him.
1 Everyone - Michael Corleone (The Godfather)
Mario Puzo’s novel skyrocketed up the charts in 1972, elevating Paramount’s big screen version to the level of ‘must-see’ movie event. In response to this success, the studio began tinkering with director Francis Ford Coppola, pressuring script changes, violent additions, and a slew of Hollywood stars they believed should play Michael Corleone. Paramount wasn’t screwing around either, as the names provided enough to solidify the film’s status as a once-in-a-lifetime event: Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, and Robert Redford. Each actor was touted to be Michael at one point or another, as execs felt the role demanded a bankable star for the film to fully work.
Coppola, on the other hand, could only envision Al Pacino. The relatively unknown actor not only possessed quiet intensity, but the brooding Italian features that none of the other candidates could match. Fortunately (and incredibly), each of those other guys turned down the part, forcing Paramount to bite their tongue and go ahead with the unproven actor. The result, of course, was one of the greatest movies ever made, and Pacino’s nuanced turn transformed him into a legend overnight. Ultimately, he gave a performance Paramount couldn’t refuse.
Which of our entries shocked you the most? Did we forget any of your favorites? Let us know in the comments.