The Roles That Got Away: 15 Actors Who Missed Out On Other Iconic Parts

The Roles That Got Away: 15 Actors Who Missed Out On Other Iconic Parts

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Jack Nicholson starring as the psychotic protagonist of  The Shining. And where would The Godfather trilogy be without the somber, low-key performance of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone? While we’re at it, can we even begin to conceive of Ghostbusters working as a coherent movie without Bill Murray’s hilarious performance holding it all together? Well, it turns out these roles were almost filled by some noteworthy actors. Here are 15 of your favorite stars and the iconic roles that got away.

Emily Browning

Emily Browning PF WENN


Newcomer Emily Browning is the youngest thespian on this list to have already turned down a hugely iconic role. The actress was Twilight author Stephanie Meyer’s preferred choice to play franchise protagonist Bella Swan, but turned down a sure-thing audition citing exhaustion. Browning later said that, given the high level of media scrutiny given to the cast of Twilight, she was glad to have passed on the project.

Will Smith

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Photo: Dominic Chan/

Will Smith has turned down several iconic roles, the most recent being the lead in Django Unchained. Tarantino apparently wrote the role for Smith, who would have to pass due to scheduling conflicts with Men In Black III. Other iconic roles Smith passed on includes Superman (for the unproduced Superman Lives), The Matrix hero Neo (Smith was skeptical of the film’s ambitious effects), and the title role in Captain America.

Sean Connery

Sean Connery PF WNEN


Sean Connery, the original James, turned down two multi-million dollar roles in the twilight of his career. The actor was director Peter Jackson’s first choice to play Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Turning it down meant turning down a piece of the $450 million of the franchise’s box office earnings. The actor declined the role because the story did not make sense to him, but has praised Sir Ian McKellan’s performance as the character. In a similar move, Connery would also turn down the role of Morpheus in The Matrix.

Marlon Wayans

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Marlon Wayans was cast as Robin in Batman Returns. Yes, this is in spite of the fact that the character doesn’t even appear in Batman Returns. Tim Burton had Wayan’s Robin cut from the screenplay, citing an overabundance of characters. The actor was paid in full and continues to get royalties from the film, but was recast by Chris O’Donnell in Batman Forever. Wayans would later joke, “I get why they picked Chris O’ Donnell, because it would be messed up to have Batman and you’ve got Robin, and his bulge is somewhat bigger than Batman’s. Batman would have a serious problem with that.”

Jake Gyllenhaal

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Jake Gyllenhaal has missed out on a multitude of high-profile roles over the years. Due to his resemblance to Tobey Maguire, he was considered as his replacement for Spider-Man 2 when Maguire began developing health problems. Fortunately, the original actor recovered and shooting commenced as initially planned. Later, Gyllenhaal would be in the forefront to star as Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and Jake Sully in James Cameron’s Avatar. Gyllenhaal would lose an audition to Christian Bale for the former and turned down the starring role in the latter.

John Belushi

John Belushi PF WENN


As we established in the opening, it is hard to imagine Ghostbusters without Bill Murray. Yet franchise creator Dan Aykroyd originally envisioned John Belushi as the lead. Belushi was attached to star as the film was developed, but his unfortunate death in 1982 prevented the Belushi-version of Ghostbusters to come to fruition. Later, the gluttonous ghost character of Slimer was created by Dan Aykroyd to pay homage to his friend, calling it “the ghost of John Belushi” Also worth noting is that, to his demise, Belushi would be offered the title role in Arthur. He would turn it down to avoid “party animal” typecasting, allowing Dudley Moore to take the role.

Julia Roberts

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Despite winning an Academy Award, Julia Roberts has turned down a few Oscar winning roles. The actress refused the opportunity to star as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare In Love. It later went to newcomer Gwyneth Paltrow, who garnered an Oscar for her efforts. Later, Roberts would balk at the idea of playing Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side. Sandra Bullock would take a pay cut for the part and brought home an Oscar for Best Actress as a result.

Robin Williams

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During the early part of his career, Robin Williams was among Stanley Kubrick’s preferred actors to play the part of Jack Torrance in The Shining. The slow-building psychotic would have displayed Williams’ dramatic chops for audiences for the first time, but Jack Nicholson won the role instead. In a repeated bit of history, Williams would lose the role of The Joker to Nicholson during the casting of Batman. Later, the producers offered him The Riddler in Batman Forever before turning around an giving it to Jim Carrey. Though Williams says the Batman producers “screwed” him, he has expressed continued interest in the franchise and lobbied for roles in the later Christopher Nolan films.

Jodie Foster

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Before Carrie Fisher took over the iconic role of Princess Leia, Jodie Foster was apparently George Lucas’ top choice to play the character. Foster was apparently just 14 or 15 at the time Lucas was first developing the film. During that stage, Lucas pictured the character, along with Luke Skywalker, as very young. According to Foster, Lucas aged up his Star Wars characters by the time the film was going into production. Before she piqued her career with Silence of the Lambs, Foster was attached to star as Thelma in Thelma and Louise, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer. Both would eventually pass on the film and Geena Davis would fill the role left by Foster.

John Travolta

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During the height of his 1970s stardom, John Travolta would be offered the lead in Paul Schreader’s American Gigolo after Richard Gere departed the project. Travolta would eventually drop from the film himself, allowing Gere to swoop back in and take back the role. In the process, it made Gere an overnight star. Later, similar occurrences would occur between the career tracts of Travolta and Tom Hanks. Hanks’ parts in Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and The Green Mile were all offered first to Travolta. When he refused, the roles would be taken by Hanks.

Nicolas Cage

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With his recent career decisions, it’s difficult to imagine a time when Nicolas Cage was selective with his roles. In actuality, the actor has turned down or walked away from several iconic parts. He was in line to play Superman for Tim Burton in the aborted Superman Lives, but when the director parted with the project Cage soon followed. Thankfully, costume test images can be found online to give an idea of what Cage would have looked like as the character. In fact, the film has become such a Hollywood legend that a Kickstarter campaign has emerged to finance a documentary examining the collapse of the project. While they haven’t been as heavily publicized as Superman Lives, other parts Cage backed away from include Randy Robinson in The Wrestler, The Green Goblin in Spider-Man, Neo in The Matrix, and Aragon in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Jack Nicholson

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With a career that has lasted as long as Jack Nicholson’s, you can bank on the fact that the actor snubbed some choice roles. Of the long list parts he’s passed on, Michael Corleone is likely the most famous missed opportunity. Nicholson passed on the role due to the fact that he isn’t of Italian heritage– sound reasoning given the film’s dedication to its predominately Italian American cast. Other big roles the actor turned down include Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Hoosiers Coach Norman Dale, and the Apocalypse Now protagonist Willard.

Tom Cruise

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Photo: Andres Otero/

While Robert Downey Jr. seemed to be born to play Iron Man, the part initially belonged to Tom Cruise. The actor and his production company had been developing Iron Man as a Cruise vehicle from the early 90s onward. Eventually, when the film’s script failed to wow him (it would be heavily re-written and improvised during production), Cruise walked away. More iconic roles Cruise would nearly play include Ferris Bueller, Salt (yes, from the Angelina Jolie film Salt), and Ren McCormack from Footloose.

Leonardo Dicaprio

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Following the massive success of Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio had his pick of Hollywood projects. Among his most famous near-starring vehicles included the title role in Spider-Man and Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Though the actor took meetings for the roles, he would later call each project’s scripts terrible.  Continuing this trend, DiCaprio would walk away from characters like Adult Videos star Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Robin in Batman Forever.

Bill Murray

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Photo: Kyle Blair/

Bill Murray does not have an agent. Instead, he uses his answering machine to field projects, a method that, while certainly anti-Hollywood, has caused him to pass up several big movie opportunities. Among the roles Murray has expressed regret over losing are that of Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Other roles Murray almost had in the bag include the role of Batman in the pre-Tim Burton development of the project and Boone from the classic comedy Animal House.

  • Cruise also famously turned down Edward Scissorhands! Thank goodness! YAY Johnny!

  • LPS

    How many times can the word “iconic” be used in one article? More to the point–is it at all possible to water down that word any further? An “icon” is a religious artifact, an object of worship. According to this article, anything popular, even momentarily so, is now considered “iconic.” The only thing that has probably never described as “iconic”? A thesaurus.

  • Major Victory

    Will Smith as Captain America? Yeah, right!

  • VB1970

    Tom Cruise as Ironman would have ruined that series.

    • Yeah, so instead Robert Downey Jr. ruined it. I can’t stand him, he’s just a horrible actor who just acts the same no matter what the role.

      • vbdolman

        Just like Jack Nicholson…

  • Its Aragorn… not Aragon

  • Aprilcot26

    Marlon Wayans didn’t technically turn down the part of Robin. He was cast, the part was cut, and then in third film Robin was recast with Chris O’Donnell. The article even says this, so I’m not sure how this fits on the list…

  • Will Smith as Superman OR Captain America? Who was smoking what to come up with THOSE stupid ideas?!

  • dakmart

    It can be argued in almost all of these cases that the right actor ended up with the roles listed here — in fact, the actors who turned down these roles may have been savvy enough to know they weren’t right for them.

  • ‘piqued’ her career? Don’t you mean ‘peaked’ her career? (Jodie Foster)

  • De-Rek

    You mean Kristin Stewert is Emily Brownings fault! I don’t know if we can forgive for this one Emily

  • Emily Browning was smart to turn that down.

  • Superman and Captain America are white. They just ARE. How on earth could they have considered Will Smith for those roles?

    • Duni1

      Superman and Captain America are FICTIONAL characters. They can be green for all we care. So yea, he could have done the roles. Just because someone writes a fake character in a paticular skin color doesn’t mean they HAVE to stay in that color.

      • Chris M

        If they do a movie about the Black Panther, and they consider casting a white person, I’ll have the same reaction. Othello is a black man, if he was played by a white man (without pretending to be black like Olivier) it would be stupid. Should Iron Man be played by a woman? No.

        • Duni1

          The Black Panther is the name of the character. They can change the story and say that the kid was adopted by the Wakondan tribe and is now the adoptive prince and soon to be king… as long as the characters are fake they can change it.
          Nick Fury wasn’t always black and I’m fine with Sam jack playing him.
          If the actor can do it I see no harm. The green lantern just recently became black… mind you his character can change at anytime if the previous lantern dies.

  • Why was my comment removed? Jesus Christ, stupid internet censors and their complete lack of standards!

  • Troker

    As awesome a job as Laurence Fishborne did, I would have loved Loved LOVED to see Sean Connery in the Matrix. That would have been amazing.

  • Mardorang

    Jake Gyllenhaal as Batman hopefully would have blocked his sister from becoming Rachel Dawes.

  • Emerchex

    would’ve been sweet to have a Matrix with Will Smith and Sean Connery.

  • GeezThisGuy

    I think DiCaprio’s choice not to be part of the films listed where good choices. except for american psycho

  • vbdolman

    Jack Nicholson must have turned down those other big roles because he would have had to act like someone other than Jack Nicholson. If he actually had a range as opposed to a “personality” he might actually deserve his “legend” and “star” stauses.

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