Special Report

Actors Who Turned Down Iconic Roles

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For movie fans, there are certain famous roles that are so closely associated with the actor or actress that you cannot envision anyone else playing that character. Is there anyone else other than Julie Andrews who could have been Mary Poppins? Who else could have carried the weight of justice better than Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird”? Can you picture anyone else besides Marlon Brando playing the aging Don Corleone in “The Godfather?” (These are the actors with the longest careers.)

But film history is filled with examples of performers who turned down roles that went on to become indelibly identified with their replacements. While Sean Connery ultimately made James Bond an iconic film figure, he was not the actor the franchise’s filmmakers had in mind originally. And at least two subsequently famous actors almost had Keanu Reeves’ iconic role in “The Matrix” and its successors.

To create a list of actors who turned down blockbuster roles, 24/7 Tempo drew on information from IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon, and from The Hollywood Reporter, Biography, and several other film industry and general interest sources.

Click here to see a list of actors who turned down iconic roles

Actors and actresses decline roles for a variety of reasons. A scheduling conflict forced one to drop out of the starring role in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Another believed he was too old to play the role of Maximus Decimus Meridius in “Gladiator” and declined the part. Role stereotyping was the reason an actress opted not to play the lead in “Legally Blonde.” 

The glib weatherman role in “Groundhog Day” played by Bill Murray was rejected by a different actor because he didn’t understand the part. Several actors who starred in hit television series had to decline roles in successful movies because their TV producers wouldn’t let them take the parts for reasons of scheduling or perceived image. (These, though, are TV stars who made the jump to movies.)

 Some of the stars who turned down major roles – including Madonna, Bette Midler, Rod Steiger, and WIll Smith – later regretted their decision. Others didn’t, and went on to other triumphs.

Al Pacino
> Role: Han Solo
> Movie: “Star Wars” (1977)
> Portrayed by: Harrison Ford

Following his role as Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies, Al Pacino was in great demand. George Lucas approached Pacino about starring as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” (retroactively retitled “Episode IV: A New Hope”). It was a role Pacino could refuse. He said he didn’t understand the script and passed on the project. The film helped launch Harrison Ford into superstardom.

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Angelina Jolie
> Role: Ryan Stone
> Movie: “Gravity” (2013)
> Portrayed by: Sandra Bullock

Angelina Jolie passed on the lead role of “Gravity” because she was too busy making her directorial feature debut, 2011’s “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” a love story set during the Bosnian conflict.

Anne Hathaway
> Role: Tiffany Maxwell
> Movie: “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)
> Portrayed by: Jennifer Lawrence

Anne Hathaway left “Silver Linings Playbook” because of creative differences with director David O. Russell and scheduling conflicts with another film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Jennifer Lawrence took the role and would go on to win the Best Actress Academy Award.

Bette Midler
> Role: Deloris
> Movie: “Sister Act” (1992)
> Portrayed by: Whoopi Goldberg

Midler declined the part of the Las Vegas showgirl hiding out in a convent because she felt her fans would react badly to her playing a nun. She regretted the decision. For Goldberg, who already had an Oscar win, the movie was a box-office smash, grossing almost $232 million worldwide.

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Brad Pitt
> Role: Neo
> Movie: “The Matrix” (1999)
> Portrayed by: Keanu Reeves

Brad Pitt told an interviewer at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2020 that he turned down the role of Neo in “The Matrix” without giving a clear reason. Keanu Reeves has gone on to define the role in the successful franchise.

Bruce Willis
> Role: Sam Wheat
> Movie: “Ghost” (1990)
> Portrayed by: Patrick Swayze

Bruce Willis rocketed to fame on television in the series “Moonlighting” and on the big screen as the relentless cop John McClane in the Die Hard movie series. Even though he has had movie hits such as “Armageddon” and “The Sixth Sense,” Willis regretted turning down the role of Sam Wheat in “Ghost” because he didn’t believe a romantic relationship between a ghost and a living person could work. He also missed the opportunity to star with his then-wife Demi Moore.

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Burt Ward
> Role: Benjamin Braddock
> Movie: “The Graduate” (1967)
> Portrayed by: Dustin Hoffman

Fans of campy television remember Burt Ward as Robin in the television series “Batman.” Ward was approached by a producer of the film “The Graduate” about playing the role of Benjamin Braddock. He wanted to do it, but ABC, which was airing “Batman,” said no because it would hurt the popularity of the television series. “The Graduate” became a touchstone film of the counterculture in the 1960s and made Dustin Hoffman a star.

Cary Grant
> Role: James Bond
> Movie: “Dr. No” (1962)
> Portrayed by: Sean Connery

Film producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had Cary Grant in mind to play James Bond. However, the suave movie star would only commit to one Bond movie and the producers wanted an actor to play the British agent in a series of films. Eventually they convinced Sean Connery to take the iconic role.

Charlie Hunnam
> Role: Christian Grey
> Movie: “Fifty Shades of Grey” (2015)
> Portrayed by: Jamie Dornan

American audiences know British actor Charlie Hunnam from series such as the “Sons of Anarchy.” After signing to play Christian Grey, Hunnam dropped out because he was wrapping up “Sons of Anarchy” and felt the shooting schedule was too grueling.

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Chevy Chase
> Role: Lester Burnham
> Movie: “American Beauty” (1999)
> Portrayed by: Kevin Spacey

The “Saturday Night Live” alum, who found big-screen success with the National Lampoon Vacation series, passed on the chance to star in “American Beauty,” saying it would hurt his family-friendly image. “American Beauty” would win five Oscars, including one for Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham.

Christina Applegate
> Role: Elle Woods
> Movie: “Legally Blonde” (2001)
> Portrayed by: Reese Witherspoon

Christina Applegate was afraid of repeating the role of a loopy blonde in the film “Legally Blonde” after playing what she thought was a similar role on the television series “Married … With Children.” She regrets her decision but believed Reese Witherspoon was better than she would have been in the role.

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Dana Delaney
> Role: Carrie Bradshaw
> TV series and movies: “Sex and the City” (1998-2004, plus two movies and a follow-up series)
> Portrayed by: Sarah Jessica Parker

Dana Delaney turned down the role of fashionista Carrie Bradshaw on “Sex and the City” because the timing was wrong. She had just starred in a comedy titled “Exit to Eden” in a provocative role and felt appearing in “Sex and the City” would damage her image. She did not regret her decision, complimenting the way Sarah Jessica Parker embraced the role of the fashion icon.

Dustin Hoffman
> Role: Roy Neary
> Movie: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
> Portrayed by: Richard Dreyfuss

Director Steven Spielberg asked Dustin Hoffman to take the part of the perplexed Roy Neary but the actor turned him down. Richard Dreyfuss, who eventually took the part, had played a small uncredited role in “The Graduate,” which made Hoffman a star.

Emily Browning
> Role: Bella
> Movie: “Twilight” (2008)
> Portrayed by: Kristen Stewart

Emily Browning turned down the role of Bella in “Twilight” and never regretted it. She told the Huffington Post in 2014 that the fanfare that came with the film might have forced her to quit acting altogether.

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Emma Watson
> Role: Mia Dolan
> Movie: “La La Land” (2016)
> Portrayed by: Emma Stone

Emma Watson, who starred in all eight Harry Potter films as Hermione Granger, passed on the role of Mia Dolan in “La La Land” because she was preparing to perform in the live version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Emma Stone took the part and won an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Gillian Anderson
> Role: Lady Cora Crawley
> TV series and movies: “Downton Abbey” (2010-2015, pluis two movies)
> Portrayed by: Elizabeth McGovern

Gillian Anderson, who first gained fame as the cool cerebral FBI agent Scully on the “X-Files,” turned down the role of Lady Cora Crawley on the international period-piece hit “Downton Abbey.” Anderson has appeared in similar projects such as “Great Expectations” and “The Crown.”

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Gwyneth Paltrow
> Role: Rose
> Movie: “Titanic” (1997)
> Portrayed by: Kate Winslet

Paltrow turned down the role of Rose, the female lead in the blockbuster “Titanic,” the highest-grossing film of all time until another James Cameron-directed epic “Avatar” topped it. Winslet was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Rose, but lost to Helen Hunt for “As Good As It Gets.” Paltrow won a Best Actress Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love” in 1999.

Harrison Ford
> Role: Oskar Schindler
> Movie: “Schindler’s List” (1982)
> Portrayed by: Liam Neeson

Harrison Ford has created two of filmdom’s iconic swashbuckling characters: Han Solo from the Star Wars franchise, and Indiana Jones, from the movie series of the same name. Ford was the first choice to play Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved Jews during the Holocaust. However, he turned down the role because he felt people wouldn’t see beyond his Indiana Jones persona and that would diminish the film’s importance. “Schindler’s List” won seven Academy Awards

Henry Winkler
> Role: Danny Zuko
> Movie: “Grease” (1978)
> Portrayed by: John Travolta

Henry Winkler, who played the “greaser” character The Fonz on the long-running 1950s-nostalgia series “Happy Days,” was the top contender for the role of greaser Danny Zuko in “Grease.” He backed out because the role called for singing and dancing talents that he felt he did not possess. “Grease” became a worldwide success.

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Jack Nicholson
> Role: Michael Corleone
> Movie: “The Godfather” (1972)
> Portrayed by: Al Pacino

Jack Nicholson was on the cusp of major stardom when he was considered for the role of Michael Corleone, the eventual don of the Corleone crime family. He turned it down, telling Movieline that “Italians should play Italians” in movies. “There were a lot of actors who could have played Michael, myself included,” he said, “but Al Pacino was Michael Corleone. I can’t think of a better compliment to pay him.” Nicholson’s career wasn’t hurt by declining the iconic role. He’s been nominated for an Oscar 12 times and won three Academy Awards.

Jennifer Connelly
> Role: Vivian Ward
> Movie: “Pretty Woman” (1990)
> Portrayed by: Julia Roberts

Jennifer Connelly has had a very good film career with movies such as “A Beautiful Mind” (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and “Requiem for a Dream” to her credit. Her career might have been bigger had she taken the role of Vivian Ward in “Pretty Woman.” She turned it down because the original script was darker than the frothy love story it became, and in any case director Garry Marshall thought she was too young to play a prostitute.

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Jennifer Hudson
> Role: Precious
> Movie: “Precious” (2009)
> Portrayed by: Gabourey Sidibe

Jennifer Hudson was intrigued by the movie role – about an abused woman of color seeking an education – but she ultimately decided that gaining weight to play Precious wasn’t something she wanted to do. Gabourey Sidibe took the part and received an Oscar nomination.

Jeremy Irons
> Role: Hannibal Lecter
> Movie: “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
> Portrayed by: Anthony Hopkins

Director Jonathan Demme wanted Jeremy Irons to play Hanibal Lecter in his celebrated adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel “The Silence of The Lambs,” but Irons didn’t want to play another dark character after he had just portrayed Claus von Bülow in “Reversal of Fortune.”

Jodi Foster
> Role: Louise
> Movie: “Thelma & Louise” (1991)
> Portrayed by: Geena Davis

Jodi Foster turned down the role of Louise for “Thelma & Louise” because of production delays. Foster, who had already won a Best Actress Oscar for “The Accused,” would win her second Academy Award a year after “Thelma and Louise” was released for role in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

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Johnny Depp
> Role: Ferris Bueller
> Movie: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)
> Portrayed by: Matthew Broderick

In an interview on “Inside the Actors Studio,” Johnny Depp said he was offered the part of Ferris Bueller, but had to turn it down because of scheduling conflicts. The role made Matthew Broderick a star.

Julia Roberts
> Role: Leigh Anne Tuohy
> Movie: “The Blind Side” (2009)
> Portrayed by: Sandra Bullock

Before Sandra Bullock became the lead in the blockbuster movie “The Blind Side,” a role that would win her an Academy Award, execs at 20th Century Fox wanted Julia Roberts to star in the film. According to the real-life Tuohy, the part was written for Roberts, but there were time constraints because of the shooting schedule and “She’d already had two commitments, and she could not fit that time frame and they worked, they tried to juggle and it just didn’t happen.”

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Kate Winslet
> Role: Viola De Lesseps
> Movie: “Shakespeare In Love” (1998)
> Portrayed by: Gwyneth Paltrow

After starring in the blockbuster “Titanic,” Kate Winslet turned down the role of Viola De Lesseps in “Shakespeare in Love” to appear in the independent film “Hideous Kinky.” Gwyneth Paltrow took the role and won an Oscar.

Kevin Costner
> Role: Andy Dufresne
> Movie: “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)
> Portrayed by: Tim Robbins

Kevin Costner became box-office gold in the 1980s, and had a string of hits including “The Untouchables,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” and “Dances with Wolves.” He had to pass on the role of prisoner Andy Dufresne because he was tied up with making his passion project, “Waterworld.” Over time, “The Shawshank Redemption” has come to be regarded as one of the greatest prison films of all time.

Kim Basinger
> Role: Catherine Tramell
> Movie: “Basic Instinct” (1992)
> Portrayed by: Sharon Stone

Even though Michael Douglas recommended her for the part, Kim Basinger turned down the role of Catherine Tramell in the thriller “Basic Instinct.” The role made Sharon Stone a star.

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Lee Marvin
> Role: Quint
> Movie: “Jaws” (1975)
> Portrayed by: Robert Shaw

Lee Marvin was director Steven Spielberg’s first choice for the role of Quint. Marvin appreciated it, but replied that he would rather go fishing.

Madonna
> Role: Catwoman
> Movie: “Batman Returns” (1992)
> Portrayed by: Michelle Pfeiffer

In an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Madonna said she regretted turning down the chance to play Catwoman in “Batman Returns.” Michelle Pfeiffer had a memorable star turn in the part, a role she told The Hollywood Reporter she had been obsessed with since she was a young girl.

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Marilyn Monroe
> Role: Holly Golightly
> Movie: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961)
> Portrayed by: Audrey Hepburn

Marilyn Monroe declined the role of the flighty Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in favor of “The Misfits,” which was written by her then-husband Arthur Miller. The Holly Golightly role is the one most associated with the career of Audrey Hepburn.

Mark Wahlberg
> Role: Jack Twist
> Movie: “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
> Portrayed by: Jake Gyllenhaal

Director Ang Lee weighed casting Mark Wahlberg in “Brokeback Mountain.” Wahlberg read some pages of the script and declined the role of Jack Twist because he was uneasy playing a gay cowboy.

Matthew Broderick
> Role: Walter White
> TV series: “Breaking Bad” (2009-2013)
> Portrayed by: Bryan Cranston

It’s hard to imagine Matthew Broderick – who made the carefree character of Ferris Bueller his own in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” – playing the meth-making teacher Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” but he turned down the role. It went instead to Bryan Cranston, who would win four Emmy awards in the now iconic role.

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Mel Gibson
> Role: Maximus Decimus Meridius
> Movie: “Gladiator” (2000)
> Portrayed by: Russell Crowe

Mel Gibson became a box-office star through films like “Lethal Weapon” and history-themed movies like “Gallipoli,” “The Patriot,” and “Braveheart.” He turned down the role of a Roman general in “Gladiator” because he felt he was too old. It was picked up by fellow Australian actor Russell Crowe, who won a Best Actor Oscar, one of five Academy Award wins for the film.

Michael Keaton
> Role: Phil
> Movie: “Groundhog Day” (1993)
> Portrayed by: Bill Murray

It’s not a stretch to picture Michael Keaton as the glib, cynical television weatherman in “Groundhog Day.” But Keaton declined the role, telling Entertainment Weekly he simply “didn’t get it.” He regretted passing on the role.

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Michelle Pfeiffer
> Role: Clarice Starling
> Movie: “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
> Portrayed by: Jodie Foster

Michelle Pfeiffer turned down the role of federal agent Clarice Starling because of the way the movie ended, with cannibal Hannibal Lecter escaping prison and stalking another victim. She told Entertainment Weekly in an interview that evil had won out in the end. “The Silence of the Lambs” won out at the Oscars, winning five statues, including one for Jodie Foster for Best Actress.

Mickey Rourke
> Role: Eliot Ness
> Movie: “The Untouchables” (1987)
> Portrayed by: Kevin Costner

Mickey Rourke, who has had a checkered career in Hollywood, turned down the role of Eliot Ness in the 1987 film “The Untouchables.” Kevin Costner was cast in the role, starting him on a string of hits.

Paul Giamatti
> Role: Michael Scott
> TV series: “The Office” (2002-2013)
> Portrayed by: Steve Carell (2002-2011)

Paul Giamatti rejected the role of the clueless boss Michael Scott because his acting ambitions were focused on the big screen rather than on television. Giamatti would eventually return to television but in roles with more gravitas such as the well-received miniseries “John Adams” and the Showtime series “Billions.”

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Rachel McAdams
> Role: Andy Sachs
> Movie: “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
> Portrayed by: Anne Hathaway

Rachel McAdams was offered the role of Andy Sachs in “The Devil Wears Prada” three times. She rejected the role because she wanted to play more low-key characters. The part helped boost the career of Anne Hathaway, who had already gotten the industry’s attention with appearances in “Brokeback Mountain” and “Ella Enchanted.”

Ralph Macchio
> Role: Marty McFly
> Movie: “Back to the Future” (1985)
> Portrayed by: Michael J. Fox

Ralph Macchio, famous for his role in the Karate Kid movies, considered the role of Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.” “I did meet and have a few conversations for Marty McFly,” he told People magazine. “But the right guy was cast.” That guy was Michael J. Fox, and the film became a blockbuster and spawned two sequels.

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Rod Steiger
> Role: General George S. Patton
> Movie: “Patton” (1970)
> Portrayed by: George C. Scott

Rod Steiger had already won a Best Actor Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night” when he was approached to play the controversial U.S. general George S. Patton. He declined the role that went to George C. Scott, who won the Best Actor prize for his portrayal (and famously turned it down, expressing his distaste for the idea of actors competing against each other). Steiger has said rejecting the role was the biggest mistake of his career..

Rooney Mara
> Role: Maya Harris
> Movie: “Zero Dark Thirty” (2010)
> Portrayed by: Jessica Chastain

Mara was originally cast as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty” but dropped out to do the film “Side Effects.” Jessica Chastain replaced her and received the second of her three Oscar nominations.

Sandra Bullock
> Role: Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald
> Movie: “Million Dollar Baby” (2004)
> Portrayed by: Hilary Swank

Sandra Bullock was the first actress slated to play Maggie, and she pushed hard for the project. By the time a studio expressed an interest in the project that she initially supported, however, Bullock was committed to the film “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous” and that prevented her from doing this movie. Hilary Swank played Maggie and won a Best Actress Academy Award, one of four won by the movie.

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Steve McQueen
> Role: Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, aka the Sundance Kid
> Movie: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969)
> Portrayed by: Robert Redford

Steve McQueen had plenty of Western credits (“The Magnificent Seven,” “Nevada Smith,” etc.) when he was approached by Paul Newman to play alongside him in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” But when McQueen found out Newman would get top billing, he dropped out, allowing Robert Redford to fill the iconic role.

Tobey Maguire
> Role: Will Turner
> Movie: “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)
> Portrayed by: Orlando Bloom

Tobey Maguire, who has played Spider-Man in that wildly successful franchise, was offered the role of Will Turner in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” but declined the role to do “Seabiscuit.” Orlando Bloom was cast in his place.

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Tom Cruise
> Role: Ren McCormick
> Movie: “Footloose” (1984)
> Portrayed by: Kevin Bacon

Instead of Kevin Bacon, it might have been Tom Cruise playing Ren McCormick in “Footloose.” But Cruise turned down the role because of scheduling conflicts with the film “All the Right Moves.”

Tom Hanks
> Role: Andy Dufresne
> Movie: “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)
> Portrayed by: Tim Robbins

Tom Hanks has appeared in many of filmdom’s biggest hits over the last 42 years, and he’s passed on a number of notable roles. One was playing Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption.” Hanks turned down the role in favor of “Forrest Gump,” which won six Oscars, including Hanks’ second for Best Actor.

Tom Selleck
> Role: Indiana Jones
> Movie: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)
> Portrayed by: Harrison Ford

Tom Selleck as the swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones? He was originally cast in the role and even did a screen test, but the producers for his television series “Magnum, P.I.” would not let him out of his contract, so he had to decline. The role went to Harrison Ford, and the rest, as they say, is history.

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Warren Beatty
> Role: Bill
> Movie: “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003)
> Portrayed by: David Carradine

Warren Beatty turned down the role of Bill in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” because of the violent nature of the movie.

Will Smith
> Role: Neo
> Movie: “The Matrix” (1999)
> Portrayed by: Keanu Reeves

We associate Keanu Reeves with the runaway hit “The Matrix,” but along with Brad Pitt, another actor considered for the part, Will Smith was offered the role of Neo in the 1999 blockbuster film. Smith admits turning down the role of Neo for the film “Wild Wild West” was a decision he regretted.

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