Friday, May 4, 2012

Alternate Movie Casting Choices

For a film lover and critic like myself, the kick off of summer blockbuster season is a holiday in and of itself, and given the offerings this summer, a jolly holiday indeed. Of course, I'm far from the only one excited given that the movie kicking off the summer is The Avengers, one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Though we don't offer movie reviews here, if you should go see it, I would like for you to consider, given a few butterflies, The Avengers could have been directed by Jon Favreau, Edward Norton as the Hulk, Emily Blunt as Black Widow, Sebastian Stan as Captain America, and seen relative unknowns cast as Iron Man and Thor, and you could have had yourself a very different film, and brings up a very AH-centric part of pop culture.

One of the most critical parts to any film is casting, and a single swap in actors for a role in nearly any film can quite often lead to a very different movie, leading to a number of interesting possibilities for movies that might have been, given a butterfly or two. So to kick of the season of summer blockbusters, I'm going to show you, my dear readers, a number of movies that might have been, given a few swaps of an actor here or there, that we very nearly saw ourselves.

Star Wars

Nick Nolte and Christopher Walken are the well-known original choices for the roles of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, respectively, but they are far from the only ones who could have had the roles instead of Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford. That list ranged from Sylvester Stallone to Al Pacino, yet only two almost made the cut. For Luke Skywalker, you have William Katt. It's a little known fact that the auditions for Star Wars were held in tandem with Carrie, which meant that William Katt and Sissey Spacek could have played Luke and Leia while Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher went on to star in Carrie together. However intriguing that swap might be, I myself am pondering instead the alternate pick for Han Solo: Kurt Russell.
Look, Harrison Ford is a favorite of mine, and his performance as Han Solo is one of my favorite parts about the original Star Wars movies, but if you tell me you didn't have a big ol' grin creep across your face at the idea of Snake Plisken in space, I'm saying you must have had a poor childhood. Of course, the idea that had Russell played Solo, Ford would have spent his career making cabinets, so that’s a little less awesome to think about.

Of course, while we’re talking about Harrison Ford...

Indiana Jones

Even Shia LeBeuof, bad Russian accents and nuked refridgeraters can't ruin three of the best movies ever made, and Harrison Ford's most iconic role, Indiana Jones. The whip-wielding treasure hunter with a talent for high adventure is a cultural icon, and what ensured Ford would have a career post-Star Wars, unlike many of his peers. Once again though, this was almost not the case.

Lucas didn't wan't to cast Ford as Indiana Jones because, in his own words, he did not want Ford to become his "Bobby De Niro" or "that guy I put in all my movies", a reference to Martin Scorsese. Desiring a lesser known actor, Lucas persuaded Spielberg to help him search for a new talent. Among the actors who auditioned were Tim Matheson, Peter Coyote, John Shea, and Tom Selleck, the last of whom was offered the role, but turned it down in favor of Magnum PI.

What if Selleck decides to wield a bullwhip rather than a Magnum? Would Indiana Jones give him the same career boost it gave Harrison Ford? Would Ford be doomed to join Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher at conventions signing $50 autographs for the next thirty years rather then boasting one of Hollywood's most iconic careers? Would George Lucas still attempt to ruin it with an idiotic fourth movie? One can only wonder.

Back to the Future

This one is actually fairly well known, but is worth visiting. Though Michael J Fox was the original pick to play Marty McFly, he had prior commitments to the TV Show Family Ties - as a result, they cast Eric Stoltz. Luckily for moviegoers, but not so much for Stoltz, Fox was eventually able to do both, and they immediately dropped Stoltz for Fox, and the rest is history.

What would the film have been like if that were not the case? Once again, unlike most of the others, we have an idea - there’s clips on YouTube of the bits filmed with Eric Stoltz playing Marty, and if you care to look, even what bits we have feel like a different movie. Part of the charm of these movies was that Michael J Fox was fully believable as Marty McFly, and as a teenager. Stoltz is either clearly acting or painfully obvious about it in what bits we have seen, and odds are good, without our skateboarding, wise-cracking time-traveling guitarist, Back to the Future would not be the classic it is today.

The Butterfly Effect

How could I not visit this movie in an article on what butterflies alternate casting picks could have had on movies? This dark, immensely uncomfortable cult classic thriller examines a theme at the crux of our entire genre: changing a small incident in the past, and watch as it changes everything about your future. Though it has an intriguing premise, and is unrelenting in its dark tone, the big thing critics bashed the movie for was the same thing that kept it from being a classic: the lead role went to Ashton "Dude Where's My Car?" Kutcher, and he gives his typical obnoxious fratboy performance, crippling an otherwise brilliant film.

The shame is, the role originally went to Edward Norton, the superbly talented method actor who literally can make a mind-bending thriller in his sleep (Fight Club if you didn't catch the reference). Norton, who has made a number of thrillers dealing with dark and uncomfortable themes, would have been a perfect fit for the film, and would have elevated the film to a level far more deserving than a high water mark on Kutcher's resume.

Boogie Nights

While the Paul Anderson epic about the 1970s porn industry might be an odd pick for alternate casting, it's only when you realize who they had lined up to play the lead Dirk Diggler, who in real life, was played by Mark Wahlberg, in what would prove to be his breakthrough role. The role however originally went to Leonardo DiCaprio, who dropped out in favor of another role - that of Jack Dawson in Titanic.

Had DiCaprio stayed the course, his career may well have not been too different - Boogie Nights actually got better reviews than Titanic, and got a few Oscar nods. No, where his casting here would have effected was leaving Cameron to cast someone else in Titanic, meaning we'd likely see Matthew McConaughey, Chris O'Donnell, Billy Crudup or Stephen Dorff play Jack, anyone of whom could have likely made the film end up like its namesake at the box office. On the upside, Marky Mark would have likely never had a credible acting career in Hollywood, so it’s not a total disaster.


As an action movie junkie, Rambo is to me what Shawshank Redemption is to some other film critics. Sylvester Stallone's one man army and action hero film is hailed for its action and violence, but people tend to forget it was the latest in a long line of films about the Vietnam War, and the struggles of those who fought in it. Also, since the Rambo franchise is seen as a Stallone vehicle in the years since, it’s hard to forget how close First Blood came to not even having Stallone in it.

Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Dustin Hoffman, James Garner, Kris Kristofferson and Michael Douglas. Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta and Terrence Hill declined the role because they considered it too violent. When Al Pacino, who almost accepted the role was considered for the role of John Rambo, he turned it down when his request that Rambo be more of a madman was rejected; He would get to play his madman the following year in Scarface, had he taken the role, we likely wouldn't have Tony Montana, at least not as we know it. The range in ways the movie could have played out with such a list range from John Rambo turning into the veteran's Dirty Harry (Eastwood) to The Deer Hunter II (De Niro and Pacino), and it’s hard to say if Stallone would have had another iconic role aside from the Rocky franchise.

John Rambo wasn't the only role that nearly saw other actors play them. For the role of Sheriff Teasle, the producers approached Academy Award winners Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall but both turned the part down. Lee Marvin, another Oscar winner, as well as Kirk Douglas, turned down the part of Colonel Trautman. So as you can see, the film that gave us one of the all time great action heroes could have very well played out very differently, as could another such film...

The Terminator

Once upon a time, James Cameron was known for an altogether different sort of lifeless and robotic character, the robotic assassin known as The Terminator. The movie, in addition to introducing pop culture to the roboapocalypse concept was what sent Arnold Schwarzenegger to the A-list. The Governator however, was not the first choice for the role for either Cameron or the film's producers. Cameron wanted to cast his friend Lance Henrikson, whom Cameron would later cast as a different killer robot, the cyborg Bishop in Aliens. The producers however, didn't want to give the role to a relative unknown, so they suggested a more mainstream star of the time: football star OJ Simpson. Cameron however, said no to the idea because he didn't think the audience would believe OJ Simpson could kill people. In the end, Schwarzenegger was the compromise candidate.

While a Terminator with Henrikson might have still been a classic, though one imagines how Schwarzenegger's career would unfold without his most iconic role, I personally like to ponder the effects of an OJ Simpson Terminator, if for no other reason then the layers of irony it would add to later events of Simpson's troubled life if the butterflies don't wipe way a certain car chase. Of course, if irony is your game, there is another casting pick worth mentioning.

Schrindler’s List

Steven Speilburg's epic and sweeping tale of the horrors and heroes of the Holocaust is one of the most powerful films ever made, and one of the reasons why is Liam Neeson's moving performance as Oskar Schrindler. It may surprise many of you that Neeson, a relative unknown of the time, was not cast until Spielberg saw his late audition. Prior to that, Spielberg had cast another actor who had happily accepted the role: Mel Gibson.

While Gibson playing Schrindler may not hurt the movie itself - controversies aside, Mel Gibson is one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen - but one wonders if the actors later outbursts and bigotries might have come out years earlier had Mel Gibson been in a movie where they were a centerpiece, and even if they hadn't, if Gibson's anti-Semitic rants still come out later, one wonders if it would tarnish this masterpiece. In the other direction, perhaps having to confront those demons on set would have changed Mel Gibson for the better, giving the world a Gibson freed from the demons of bigotry, and still revered as one of the world’s finest actors? One can only wonder.

The Lord of the Rings

One of the biggest blockbusters and ensemble casts of all time, it’s not really a surprise that with the size and scope of the movies, there were a number of casting choices that came very close to being altogether different. The one most widely known is Sean Connery as Gandalf, who despite being the first pick of the producers and director Peter Jackson, turned down the role due to not understanding the concept. I love Connery to death (I am named after him after all!) but the idea of his signature Scottish brogue belting out 'You shall not pass!' gives me chills for an entirely different reason than Shakespearean trained Ian McKellen's rendition.

While other alternate casting choices range from Stuart Townsend as Legolas (turned down the role on the advice of his agent) to Russel Crowe as Aragorn (the one might have been cast member that might have improved the film, in my opinion), perhaps the biggest possible alternate casting would be director Peter Jackson. Though it’s easy to forget now with Jackson one of the world’s most talented and beloved directors, at the time his choice to direct was at the center of some controversy, as people wondered why the man chosen to helm the project was a mostly unknown director of gory horror films from New Zealand. There were a number of petitions to have him replaced by a more well known director, and given how deeply they were influenced by Jackson's passion and style, had they succeeded, we might have a very different cinematic Middle Earth, if we'd had one at all.

The Godfather

The Godfather is perhaps one of the only movies that can claim to be the best movie ever made, and for good reason. The extravagant tale of the Corleone family directed by Francis Ford Coppola is perfect, or close to it, in every way, including a stellar ensemble cast of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, James Caan as Sonny Corleone, and Robert Duvall as Tom Hagen, and dozens of others in as many other roles. Given how iconic some of the performances are, it’s hard to see anyone else play them, yet we came very close to just that.

For starters, Coppola was not the first selection to direct - that would be Sergio Leone, who turned it down to make Once Upon a Time in America. Even when Coppola got the job, the studio was always on the verge of firing him, and tried to force their casting picks, which Coppola fought tooth and nail. It's a good thing he did - had the studio gotten their way, The Godfather could have had Danny Thomas play Don Corleone, Robert Redford play Michael Corleone, Paul Newman play Sonny Corleone, and George Kennedy play Tom Hagan - now that would have been a dud to sleep with the fishes!

Soldier, scholar, writer and web-voyeur, Sean CW Korsgaard has been active in the alternate history community since 2006, and was recently elected to succeed Mitro as President of the Alternate History Online Facebook group. In addition to his contributions at the Alternate History Weekly Update, he writes for several websites, including his own, which can be found here.

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