CHRISTOPHER WALKEN AS HAN SOLO: George Lucas had a very hard time finding his Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). This character was the last of the lead figures to be cast. Lucas’ leading contender at one point was none other than Christopher Walken. Just think about the possibilities in that performance! However, a chance meeting with Harrison Ford (Who was working as a carpenter at the time) inspired Lucas to cast Ford in the part instead, which launched him into super stardom in the 80s.
TOM SELLECK AS INDIANA JONES: Another role that Harrison Ford almost didn’t get was that of Dr. Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tom Selleck (Magnum P.I.) was the lead contender for the role in the beginning but Lucas had always had Harrison Ford in mind and pushed until the execs bent. Ford was perfect for the role and I doubt Selleck could have done any better.
BILL MURRAY AS BATMAN: Before Tim Burton persuaded the WB studio to make a grim-and-gritty version of Batman, the execs wanted to make a campy “Pow! Zowie!” version, similar to the comical 1960s Adam West series. Bill Murray was the executive’s top pick for the role, until Burton got the studio to pay attention to the very dark interpretation of Batman that had been popularized by Frank Miller’s best-selling “Dark Knight” graphic novel. They decided to listen to Burton’s idea of a grimmer portrayal of the Caped Crusader. Murray was out and Michael Keaton, who’d recently proved his acting chops in Clean & Sober, was in.
WILL SMITH AS NEO IN THE MATRIX: Can you picture Will Smith as Neo? It certainly would have been a very different interpretation. Keannu Reeves was so deadpan and dispassionate as Neo. Will Smith is a very lively actor who tends to throw a lot of comedy into his characters. How would he have portrayed Neo? We’ll never know since negotiations fell through before filming began.
SYLVESTER STALLONE AS AXEL FOLEY IN BEVERLY HILLS COP: The mega-successful 1984 comedy film that made Eddie Murphy into the biggest comedy star of the 80s started out as a standard cop action flick called “Beverly Drive”. It went through several re-writes before it was changed to Beverly Hills Cop. Sylvester Stallone, who had already done the first few Rocky films and the original Rambo movie, was in talks to play the lead role. However, Stallone insisted on some changes to the script which the studio did not like, mostly because they raised the budget too high. Later, Sly himself admitted that his proposed changes were not very inspired. In an interview he said, “When I read the script for Beverly Hills Cop, I thought they’d sent it to the wrong house. Somehow, me trying to comically terrorize Beverly Hills is not the stuff that great yuk-festivals are made from. So I re-wrote the script to suit what I do best, and by the time I was done, it looked like the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan on the beaches of Normandy. Believe it or not, the finale was me in a stolen Lamborghini playing chicken with an oncoming freight train being driven by the ultra-slimy bad guy. Needless to say, they dropkicked me and my script out of the office, and the rest is history.”
SEAN CONNERY AS GANDALF. The creative minds behind the wildly successful Lord of the Rings series wanted Oscar-winning screen legend Sean Connery–the original James Bond–as the wise wizard Gandalf, but Connery turned them down. His career was winding down and he didn’t want to get caught up in another major franchise. He would retire soon after. Ian McKellan stepped into the role and got an Oscar nomination for his work.
IAN MCKELLAN AS DUMBLEDORE: Richard Harris played Professor Dumbledore in the first two entries in the incredibly popular “Harry Potter” franchise, but after his untimely death, the crucial role of the Hogwart’s headmaster had to be recast. For a time, Ian McKellan was on top of the list but his heavy schedule of film commitments caused him to pass on the role and therefore Michael Gambon got the part.
THE CAST OF THE WIZARD OF OZ: Imagine the Wizard of Oz with Shirley Temple as Dorothy; W.C. Fields as the Wizard, Buddy Ebsen as the Tinman and Gale Sondergaard as the Wicked Witch of the West? It almost happened! This was the original cast that MGM wanted for the movie. Little Shirley Temple was one of biggest box-office draws of her day and MGM tried to make arrangements to borrow her on loan from the studio which had her under contract, but negotiations fell through, and Judy Garland stepped into movie legend. WC Fields turned down the role of the Wizard when they wouldn’t meet his price and therefore was replaced by Frank Morgan. Buddy Ebsen had a nearly fatal allergic reaction to the make-up they covered his face with to play the Tinman part, and so had to pull out of the project, which gave Jack Haley the chance to portray his most famous role. Gale Sondergaard was replaced because she was considered too refined and classy to be the ugly old witch; thus hatchet-faced Margaret Hamilton got the role of a lifetime. Who else could have played the Wicked Witch better than her?
JAMES CAGNEY AS ROBIN HOOD: This seems like a very strange notion now, but you have to take into account Cagney’s drawing power in the 1930s. Cagney was one of the biggest stars in the world and the studio felt he would bring in the crowds to see The Adventures of Robin Hood. Director Michael Curtiz decided to pass on Cagney because he was short and looked too small compared to the villain (played by 6-foot-4 Basil Rathbone). Curtiz choose dashing Errol Flynn, who was perfect for the role.
DAVID NIVEN OR CARY GRANT AS JAMES BOND: When the 007 series was first brought to the screen with Dr. No, the studio execs wanted suave film superstar Cary Grant to take on the role, but Grant didn’t want to be tied down to a continuing franchise. Bond creator Ian Fleming wanted actor David Niven instead, but the studio felt Niven was too old by that point. This left the door open for lucky young Sean Connery to begin his long, successful career.
SEVERAL ACTORS FOR VITO CORLEONE IN THE GODFATHER: Although director Francis Ford Coppola wanted Marlon Brando from the beginning, the studio felt that his reputation for being a hard-to-work-with primadonna was a red flag and so they auditioned several other big name stars including Lawrence Olivier, Rod Steiger and Orsen Wells. Ultimately, Coppola’s insistence and Brando’s excellent screen-test won over the execs and Brando got to win his Oscar as Don Vito.
ROBERT REDFORD AS SUPERMAN: When Richard Donner’s big-budget film Superman: the Movie was in the planning stages, the studio wanted a big name in the role and were considering Robert Redford as the Man of Steel. However, Donner convinced the studio to go with an unknown, as so Christopher Reeve got to play his most famous role. (Similarly, when the later sequel Superman Returns was announced, Nicholas Cage was announced as the Man from Krypton but the part went to another unknown, named Brandon Routh, who is now playing Ray Palmer, AKA the Atom on Legends of Tomorrow)
There are many more examples of this. But these are some of the major examples.