Fairly or unfairly, Lost's reputation has kind of taken a hit over the years, with many seemingly unable to get past its divisive finale and lack of resolution to many of the mysterious questions it posed. With that in mind, it's sometimes hard to remember just how big of a deal Lost was for most of its run, hanging out consistently at or near the top of the ratings for broadcast dramas, and usually being showered in praise by critics.
One little trivia tidbit for Lost that has become pretty well-known over the years is that actor Michael Keaton was originally set to play Jack in the pilot, the lead role that eventually went to Matthew Fox. Equally well-known is that Jack was originally intended to die in the first episode, as a shock designed to assure the audience that anything could happen on the series. One assumes that Keaton's Jack would have been characterized quite differently, as not only is he a much more intense presence on-screen in general, he's also 15 years older than Fox.
Many slightly altered variations of the exact reasoning why Keaton didn't take the Jack Shepard role, and how far along he was in the negotiation process have long floated around online. Seemingly seeking to clarify what exactly happened, Keaton laid out the complete scenario during a recent interview with THR:
"Yeah, you know, I started to feel badly about this – I think that got – because it sounds like … it didn’t exactly playout like that, and I always think, ‘Jeez, you know maybe has been misinterpreted, or that I mischaracterized that.’ J.J. and I had a conversation– and I like what he does – I thought ‘Well, this guy’s worth talking to, he’s real smart.’ I had read some things he had written, and he told me about this idea … it’s no news now, I’m not revealing anything.
He said, ‘Here’s what happens: the guy that you think is the lead dies in the last ten minutes,’ and I immediately –when I hear things like that – like Soderbergh calling and going, ‘Hey, I want Ray Nicolette to pop up in this movie,’ … those type of things intrigue me. AndI thought, ‘Yeah!’ The idea of doing an hour television show … I’m just too lazy. So I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty good! Then I don’t have to be in the series!’ […]
I think what happened was – and I’ve never really talked to him about this – I guess maybe we had a brief conversation where … he thought better of [the twist], or the studio said ‘That ain’t gonna happen.’ And then there was kind of a half a conversation like ‘Well, do you have any more interest?’ So … it’s not like they offered it to me, and ‘Oh, I turned that down.’
Yes [the offer changed], and that didn’t interest me. And I know [Jack’s death] was what was going to happen, and that I probably would have done. Even though people would say, ‘Why would you ever do that, where you’re the big lead guy, and then you die?’ And I thought ‘Oh, that’s pretty interesting to me.’ And [J.J.]’s so good, you know you want to hang out with a guy like that.
So, according to Keaton, he was never actually offered the role of Jack, so the scenario that some prior reports have suggested of Keaton turning down the part and the studio then offering it to their second choice of Matthew Fox seems to be incorrect. What Keaton describes sound like more of a series of unofficial conversations intended to gauge the actor's interest that didn't end up going anywhere concrete after the decision was made to keep Jack alive.
Would Lost have been a better show overall had the sometimes polarizing Jack Shepard character been written out early and/or played by Michael Keaton? It's impossible to know for sure, but it's certainly debatable. Either way, when one considers the successful career resurgence Keaton has had in the years since Lost ended - and just how little of note some of Lost's cast members have gone on to do - it's highly doubtful that he regrets his decision.