15 Actors Who Almost Played Iconic Roles

POSTED BY Tayyab Khalil, UPDATED ON November 22nd, 2023
Actors Who Almost Played Iconic Roles

When it comes to film-making, the director’s task of cast selection has always proven to be the most crucial and critical decision of the entire project. Just as the perfect cast can practically make the director, the wrong selection can mercilessly break one too. From a Friends lead actor having the chance to portray Agent J to a would-be convicted felon almost starring as the Terminator, the following list mentions over a dozen actors who almost played iconic roles, for better or worse:


15. Tom Selleck Was Almost Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones Franchise)

Tom Selleck Indiana Jones

Image Copyright: AP/Lucas Films

Even to this day, Steven Spielberg’s 1981 action-adventure film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Having won multiple Academy Awards, a lot of the success of the first film of the franchise can be attributed to lead actor Harrison Ford. However, things could have taken a different road entirely if story writer George Lucas had intervened.

Director Spielberg intended to cast Ford from the very beginning but Lucas disagreed as he believed that the role should be played by an actor with comparatively less amount of fame. Though Tom Selleck was offered the role after his audition, he dropped out of the project due to his involvement in Magnum, P.I. television series. The fallout convinced Lucas to agree with Steven Spielberg’s decision to cast Ford and the rest is history.


14. Jim Carrey Was Almost Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean Series)

Jim Carrey Was Almost Jack Sparrow

If there is one role that truly exemplifies the cunningness of Johnny Depp in terms of acting on so many different levels, it is none other than Captain Jack Sparrow. Having played the iconic pirate in four films to date the fans still cannot have enough of the theatricality of The Pirates of the Caribbean. Though Jim Carrey could have been able to pull off the character to an even much greater height, the actor could not settle due to his scheduling conflicts with Bruce Almighty.

Due to the comedic presentation of Carrey that could have made the character of Captain Sparrow more enthralling, it can be safely said that things could have taken a greater leap but by looking at the big picture, it happened for the very best since the actor has never been too fond of reprising his roles in sequels; thus eliminating even the slightest chances of The Curse of the Black Pearl is the first part of the series.


13. Jack Nicholson Was Almost Michael Corleone (The Godfather Saga)

Jack Nicholson Almost Played Iconic Role of Michael Corleone

There is no denying that John Joseph Nicholson has worked from his heart and soul to give all he can to his career which has spanned fifty-six years now. He climbed the ladder of success and has three Academy Awards and six Golden Globes under his belt to prove that he is one of the most gifted actors of all time. From the romantic Frank Chambers to the psychotic Joker, Nicholson has played a variety of roles but possibly the biggest one he could have played was that of Michael Corleone from The Godfather and its sequels.

Director Francis Ford Coppola strongly believed that the role of Italian-American Don Vito Corleone’s youngest son Michael should be portrayed by someone unknown to the audience as opposed to Paramount Pictures’ desire for someone popular. Once offered to Nicholson, the actor turned it down believing that:

“Indians should play roles written for Indians and Italians should do the same.”

The role was then accepted by then-newcomer Al Pacino who looked Italian-American to Coppola.


12. Russell Crowe Was Almost Wolverine (The X-Men Series)

Russell Crowe Almost Played Iconic Role of Wolverine

Image Source: Pure People / IMDb

When director Bryan Singer was in search of actors who could pull off the roles of mutants from Marvel Comics, the New Zealand actor Russell Crowe was his first choice for the main role of James Howlett aka Wolverine. However, when the salary demands of the actor were not being satisfied, negotiations were canceled and Crowe turned down the role but did Singer a huge favor by recommending then-unknown Australian actor Hugh Jackman for the role.

Despite being cast three weeks into the shooting, the suggestion indeed proved to be extremely fruitful as Hugh Jackman delivered a promising performance that matched the ferocity and essence of the comic book character. Jackman owes a great deal to Crowe as he stated:

“Bryan Singer asked Rusty to do Wolverine, and he said, ‘Nah mate I’ve just done Gladiator, it’s not for me but you should look at this guy.” 

Jackman recently portrayed the role of Wolverine for the seventh time in X-Men: Days of Future Past.


11. John Travolta Was Almost Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump)

John Travolta Forrest Gump

After achieving a credible amount of success from the 1994 comedy crime film Pulp Fiction, John Travolta became a hot commodity in Hollywood. Fresh from the role of raunchy hitman Vincent Vega, the famed actor was offered the role of the physically and mentally challenged Forrest Gump by director Robert Zemeckis. Judging the competency of the film revolving around such a character, Travolta declined the role and was passed to Tom Hanks.

The actor learned that one should not judge a book by its cover the hard way as the movie became a massive hit and won six Academy Awards including one for Best Picture and another for Best Actor by Tom Hanks. Travolta has regretted his decision and expressed on numerous occasions that turning down the role was a terrible mistake.


10. Matt Damon Was Almost Jake Sully (Avatar Series)

Matt Damon Jake Sully

When filmmaking technology became advanced enough for James Cameron to make his vision of Avatar a reality, the director made the wise decision of casting Sam Worthington, a then-unknown actor who was living in his car, for the role of disabled former Marine Jake Sully to keep the budget down.

Luck would strike Worthington as the film became the highest-grossing film of all time and signed for reprising the role for possible sequels; elevating his status to superstardom from a nobody.

What might not be known to everybody is the fact that Cameron offered the same role to Matt Damon who instantly declined it and later deeply regretted it as he revealed to Playboy, “I particularly wanted to work with James Cameron, and still do… He knew he was the star of that movie and that everyone was going to see it anyway.

When he said:

“Look, I’m offering it to you, but if you say no, the movie doesn’t need you, I remember thinking, Oh God, not only do I have to say no because of scheduling, but he’s going to make a star out of some guy who’s going to start taking jobs from me later.”


9. Hugh Jackman Was Almost James Bond (James Bond Franchise)

Hugh Jackman Almost Played Iconic Role of James Bond

Though he initially declined the offer, controversy ensued when Daniel Craig was finally cast as the MI6 agent James Bond for the reboot of the franchise with Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale. Fans openly expressed their intense dislike and believed that the production team made a huge mistake. It would be Craig having the last laugh when he proved everyone wrong to the point of not only portraying it two more times but also becoming the highest-paid Bond actor of all time.

Hugh Jackman – famous for his role of the mutant Wolverine – was initially offered the role but declined; fearing that his acting career would become limited as he explained:

“My natural instinct is to keep as many doors open as possible.”

After witnessing the overwhelming reception Craig achieved by playing Agent 007, Jackman stated that he would have an opposite answer if offered the role again.

“I will just wait. The thing about Daniel is that he’s, what, 62 now, isn’t he?

He’s falling apart at the seams, Jackman explains to Digital Spy:

“So I just keep telling him, ‘I’m ready, whenever you want to let him go. The good thing is I also have a British passport.”


8. Sean Connery Was Almost Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings Series)

Sean Connery Gandalf

Without a shadow of a doubt, Sean Connery has dedicated almost every ounce of his life to the art of acting and is one of the best actors alive today. The man can take any role and elevate his persona as a force to be reckoned with. When director Peter Jackson was deciding on the cast of the world imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien, his first option for the role of Gandalf the Grey was Connery.

As difficult to believe it may be, Connery was offered £19 million to portray the white wizard in the one-of-a-kind fantasy film. Once hesitant, the actor was offered fifteen percent of the trilogy’s box office earnings; which would have amounted to a ridiculously handsome amount of £283 million. However, the deal was still unable to attract Connery who declined the role because he could not understand the script.

The role of Gandalf the Grey was then passed over to Sir Ian McKellen who portrayed the role in the Rings Trilogy as well as the Hobbit franchise. After seeing the movie, Connery stated:

“I read the book. I read the script. I saw the movie. I still don’t understand it.”


7. O.J. Simpson Was Almost The Terminator (The Terminator Series)

O.J. Simpson The Terminator

Directed by James Cameron, the 1984 science fiction action film The Terminator was truly a masterpiece. Starring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger as the title character – a cyborg assassin disguised as a human sent back in time from the year 2029 – the movie remained dominant at the American box office for two weeks and practically kick-started the recognition of Cameron as a director.

As far as the casting of the pivotal role was concerned, the studio had the retired American football player O.J. Simpson in mind but Cameron was hesitant as he thought that he would not be believable as a killer.

The irony of the scenario is the fact that Simpson was accused of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman though he was later acquitted with the general belief that the jury made a mistake. Later in his life, the retired football player received 33 years of imprisonment due to being charged with armed robbery, kidnapping, and assault.


6. Henry Fonda Was Almost The Man with No Name (The Dollars Trilogy)

Henry Fonda The Man with No Name

Throughout his professional movie career which has amazingly spanned more than five decades, Henry Fonda solidified his image with that of a western cowboy. Having played one in more than twenty films with the most notable one being Once Upon a Time in the West which was directed by Sergio Leone, Fonda could play the role so many times and still perform better than the last one.

However, Fonda may have starred as a cowboy in several films but he missed his chance to play the most famous fictional cowboy of all time i.e. The Man with No Name from Leone’s The Dollars Trilogy. While casting for A Fistful of Dollars was taking place, Leone intended to collaborate with Fonda again.

The plans came to a halt as the production company was not able to afford such a major actor. Once Clint Eastwood was offered the role, the actor managed to make the decision and starred in its two sequels as well.


5. Mel Gibson Was Almost Maximus Decimus Meridius (Gladiator)

Mel Gibson Maximus Decimus Meridius

Ridley Scott’s historical drama film Gladiator was nothing short of epic. The movie reinvented the art of storytelling and became a huge box-office success. None of that could have been possible if Russell Crowe had failed to understand how delicate the entire project is as it heavily depended upon his emotions and theatricality while portraying the character of Maximus Decimus Meridius.

However, the fate of the film could have been more or less the same because Mel Gibson might have accepted the role since he was the studio’s first choice. The Braveheart star would have indeed pulled the role to an equal amount of sanctity, if not more. Gibson declined the offer as he thought that he was too old and the role was passed on to Crowe who proceeded to bag an Academy Award for Best Actor.


4. David Schwimmer Was Almost Agent J (Men in Black Series)

David Schwimmer Was Almost Agent J

The role of James Darrell Edwards III, former New York Police Department detective and current Men In Black agent, demanded an actor who could pull out the funniest stunts in the most troubling situations. Will Smith was offered the role upon director Barry Sonnenfeld’s wife’s wishes as she was a fan of the actor’s previous work, the NBS sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Before the finalization of Smith, actor David Schwimmer of Friends sitcom was heavily considered for the role as his comedic portrayal of Ross Geller had a striking resemblance to that of Agent J. The actor declined the role of The Pallbearer which performed extremely poorly at the box office. Schwimmer regretted the decision and explained that as an actor, he aimed to:

“grow rather than go for the quick cash.”


3. Al Pacino Was Almost John Rambo (Rambo Series)

Al Pacino Almost Played Iconic Role of John Rambo

The iconic character John James Rambo has become synonymous with recklessness, violence, aggressiveness, and complete disregard for orders due to the dramatic portrayal by Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo film series. The first part of the series that started the franchise was based upon the 1972 thriller novel First Blood written by author David Morrell and centered on the violent misadventures of the Vietnam War veteran.

Due to the film adaption’s attempt to showcase the highly violent tale, potential actors Clint Eastwood, John Travolta, and Robert De Niro quickly backed out of the project without any second thought. While Al Pacino was strongly considered for being cast, things, unfortunately, failed to work out when the actor turned down the role after his request for Rambo to be portrayed as a madman was rejected. The studio then opted to cast Sylvester Stallone who took the character to a whole new level of eminence.


2. Laurence Olivier Was Almost Vito Corleone (The Godfather Saga)

Laurence Olivier Vito orleone

It was a crime novel that caused a sensation and a film adaption considered perhaps the absolute greatest ever made: The Godfather. Written by Italian author Mario Puzo, the story was about the Corleone crime family – particularly their head Don Vito Corleone – who were behind organized crime in New York. Director Francis Ford Coppola and author Puzo’s first choice for the main role was Marlon Brando as opposed to Paramount Pictures’ wishes.

The striking contrast in their choices made the production an extremely difficult time to the point of Coppola threatening to be fired numerous times during the shoot. Puzo told Brando that he was “the only actor who can play the Godfather” since he imagined him as the very character in terms of appearance while writing the story whereas the then-president of Paramount told Coppola that:

“Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture.”

Due to Brando’s recent unsuccessful films and his troubled reputation as a difficult actor to cope with, the very idea of his involvement – let alone starring – was out of the question for Paramount Pictures who sought to make a deal with Laurence Olivier. The latter’s agent refused on his behalf citing poor health; which was a cover-up for his involvement in Sleuth.

After overwhelming pleas from director Coppola, Brando was reluctantly given a chance for a screen test. Impressed by the performance, the actor was given the most vital role in the film and proceeded to win an Academy Award for Best Actor; defeating Olivier for the coveted prize as well.


1. Will Smith Was Almost Neo (The Matrix Series)

Will Smith Almost Played Iconic Role of Neo

Directed by the Wachowski Brothers, The Matrix was a one-of-a-kind science-fiction action thriller film that was surprisingly ahead of its time. Filled with dramatic fight scenes integrated with computer technology, the movie revolves around Thomas A. Anderson aka Neo – a hacker who discovers that the human population is unknowingly being restrained and deceived by a computer-simulated reality known as the “matrix”.

Despite the role of Neo portrayed by Canadian actor Keanu Reeves, it does not hide the fact that he was one of the very last options the studio was left with. Among the first choice of actors for the agile role, Will Smith seemed a fine choice but turned it down due to his involvement in Wild Wild West and his disbelief over the film’s distinct bullet-time visual effects.

Upon The Matrix’s success, Smith highlighted that he was “not mature enough as an actor” when he was offered and “would have messed it up” if he had accepted.

Did we miss any actors who almost played iconic roles that you are aware of? Let us know in the comments below!

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