Tootsie the Sailorman Six Cases of Near-Miscasting that Would Have Improved Classic Movies By Mike Sullivan. How did you react when you found out the star of your favorite film wasn’t the director’s first choice? What did you do when the filmmakers revealed they wanted a comedian best known for strumming a banjo and putting an arrow through his head to play the rugged archeologist or Frank Sinatra’s best friend as a foul-mouthed poltergeist? Did you breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the director dodged a bullet? Laugh in shocked disbelief? Well, if you did any those things you are wrong, because the correct response is severe disappointment and regret...
How did you react when you found out the star of your favorite film wasn’t the director’s first choice? What did you do when the filmmakers revealed they wanted a comedian best known for strumming a banjo and putting an arrow through his head to play the rugged archeologist or Frank Sinatra’s best friend as a foul-mouthed poltergeist? Did you breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the director dodged a bullet? Laugh in shocked disbelief? Well, if you did any those things you are wrong, because the correct response is severe disappointment and regret.
Sure, you may roll your eyes at that statement but that’s only because you never really sat down and considered how any of those actors would have fared in the role. You only heard their names, laughed at the "giant mistake" the filmmakers almost made and forgot about it.
But here’s the thing. I have sat down. I have considered it and hopefully by the time you finish reading this article you’ll be just like me and all of your favorite movies will be ruined by visions of what could have been. You’ll never sleep again, you jerk.
Bill Murray as Batman in Batman (1989)
In the summer of 1989 it was impossible to enter a comic shop and not have your tympanic membrane shattered by the indignant, porcine squeals of angry nerds. Michael Keaton had been cast as Batman and this was cause for serious, earth-shattering alarm. Over time those angry nerds eventually accepted and even kind of liked Keaton as Batman, but I shudder to think how they would have reacted if another comedic actor had been cast in the role (Suffice it to say there would have been a car and it would have been nearly tipped over.)
Believe it or not, Bill Murray was one of director Tim Burton’s original choices to play the Dark Knight and it’s a choice that seems spectacularly wrongheaded, at least on the surface. Murray’s Batman wouldn’t have been brooding or intense. He would have been glib, a sarcastic sad-sack who continues to fight crime even though his spirit had been crushed long ago by the criminal elements of Gotham City. Murray’s take on the character would have been unprecedented. Comic fans of the day would have found it to be far more off-putting and disrespectful than Adam West’s absurdist take on the character. Murray would have effectively killed the franchise before it even began.
Or would he?
One of the biggest problems behind the Batman franchise is the fact that Batman doesn’t have much of a personality. Sure, he hates crime and he talks like your drunken uncle trying to imitate Clint Eastwood at your grandfather’s funeral (this actually happened to me) but he’s not an interesting character. People go to the Batman movies to see the Joker or Bane or Marion Cotillard’s cleavage, not to see Batman. But with Murray that would have changed. Murray’s Batman would have been world-weary and damaged but he still would have held onto his sense of humor. He’d be the kind of Batman who might describe his apprenticeship in the League of Shadows as a Cinderella story or describe his vendetta against Gotham City’s underworld as "cold, gray and [...] gonna last you for the rest of your life." Even better, his Bruce Wayne would be a charming slob who glibly sings the theme from the 1966 "Batman" TV series to entertain guests at one of his posh shindigs. Basically what I’m trying to say here is that Batman would have been Peter Venkman and that’s probably one of the biggest missed opportunities in film.
Dustin Hoffman as Popeye in Popeye (1980)
The Popeye the world knows today isn’t the same Popeye the world knew during the height of his fame in the early ’30s. Before the Fleischer brothers turned the Thimble Theatre character into an animation icon, Popeye was far more layered, complicated and recognizably human. In fact, during the 1931 "Skullyville" storyline, when Popeye is rejected by Olive Oyl, he puts his head down on a table and proceeds to cry his one remaining eye out. It’s this flawed vision of the cartoon sailorman Robert Altman wanted to bring to life when he made Popeye and Altman’s first choice for the role reflects this more nuanced take on the comic strip. Dustin Hoffman was the original choice to play Popeye before he left the film in a huff when Jules Feiffer was hired as screenwriter. Unlike Robin Williams, Hoffman looks nothing like the disfigured character and it’s unlikely he could ever effectively nail Popeye’s gravelly, high-pitched voice. Besides, Hoffman’s status as a sensitive ’70s everyman clashes with Popeye’s rough and tumble personality. However, people often forget that Hoffman stole the show in Dick Tracy (1990) playing Mumbles, a similarly grotesque cartoon character. As divided as critics and audiences were over Dick Tracy, the one thing everybody could agree upon was Mumbles. People loved that character. Hoffman’s indelibly weird turn in Dick Tracy proves he was more than capable to put a prosthetic ass on his chin and punch bearded fat men. Popeye would have retained his outrageousness but he’d have been a much more layered character. He’d have been tough but tender, ridiculous but more grounded; the performance wouldn’t have been an extended impression like Williams’s take on the character. It would have been the Popeye that would have made his late creator, E.C. Segar, proud.
Robin Williams as Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980)
I know I’m in the minority when I write this, but I never liked Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining. Jack Torrance was supposed to be a troubled but relatively decent man struggling with normalcy. Jack’s gradual descent into madness had to be subtly portrayed to ensure that the scenes where he brutally turns against his family would be horrifying.
But with Nicholson there was no subtlety. His Torrance was an unhinged lunatic the moment we’re introduced to him. The only shocking thing about the sight of Torrance chasing his family around with an axe is the fact it didn’t happen during the opening credits. Ironically, director Stanley Kubrick could have given us a more effective film if he stuck with an early, incredibly unlikely choice. Weirdly, Robin Williams was one of the actors up for the highly coveted role and, as odd as it may sound, he was the only one who made sense. Now please understand, I’m not a fan of Robin Williams. But I can admit that if given the right director Williams is a more than capable performer and Kubrick was the right director. First of all, Williams is far more comfortable playing a harried but loving father figure than Nicholson. In fact, I’d say that 87% of Williams’s career was spent playing harried but loving father figures and The Shining would have been one of those rare moments where Williams’s overfamiliarity with the role would have paid off. Of course, there’s the obvious danger that Williams could get a bit maudlin in the role but, as World’s Greatest Dad (2009) demonstrated, Williams can mix the sweet with the sour.
Now the obvious question: Would Williams have been able to pull off the film’s more intense moments without falling back on his hacky improvisatory bits? Yes. As seen in films like One Hour Photo (2002) and Insomnia (2002), Williams can turn off the shtick when he’s exploring darker material.
Granted, during the end of the film, Williams probably would have broken down and some of his hoary comedic chestnuts would have burbled to the surface. (He’s only human after all: A severely unfunny human.) But at that point he’d be chasing his family around with an axe, screaming things like, "Ooh, I’d kill to have your bangs" in the voice of a flamboyantly gay hairdresser and, in my opinion, that’s far creepier than, "Here’s Johnny." Hate Williams all you want (it’s all right – we all do) but the ugly reality is that he would have made The Shining a much better film.
Sammy Davis Jr. as Beetlejuice in Beetlejuice (1988)
By now you’ll notice this is the second time I’ve snubbed Michael Keaton in this article and, I want to assure you, I have nothing against him as a person or as an actor. I’m a fan and I believe it was his performance in Beetlejuice that made the film a modern classic.
However, with that said, I would gladly sacrifice the existence of the Michael Keaton Beetlejuice if it meant we’d get to watch that film starring a certain one-eyed Rat-Packer. Apparently, Tim Burton is the world’s biggest Sammy Davis Jr. fan. Burton loves the Candy Man so much that he was the director’s first choice for and main inspiration behind Beetlejuice. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. executives talked him out of it and convinced Burton to cast somebody (anybody) else in the role. It was probably for the best considering the film probably would have flopped and languished in relative obscurity. Also, even though Davis Jr. would have nailed the glib, used car salesman aspect of the character, he probably would have played the role a lot more impishly and dulled the sleazier edges off of the character.
But what works in Davis Jr.’s favor here is the novelty factor. He was never going to be as good as Keaton, but who cares? There’s just something so irresistible about seeing the man who kissed Archie Bunker turn into a snake or announce, "Attention K-Mart shoppers..." shortly before murdering Robert Goulet. More than likely Davis Jr. would have played Beetlejuice in the same mildly grating way he played his zany satanic emissary in the little seen "Poor Devil" TV pilot. But again, who cares? The opportunity to watch Davis Jr. honk his crotch like an old-time bicycle horn far outweighs the fact that he’d probably be just performing a bad Jerry Lewis impression throughout the film (like he did in "Poor Devil").
Steve Martin as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Unlike the other roles listed here, you get the sense that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas definitely had an obvious type in mind for Indiana Jones. Early contenders for Indy most famously included the likes of Tom Selleck and Chevy Chase, actors with strong comic timing who could easily go through the paces of an action movie. But, before they eventually settled on Harrison Ford, Spielberg and Lucas briefly flirted with casting an actor who could have changed the comedic tone of Raiders of the Lost Ark into full-blown parody.
During the peak of his wild and crazy guy period, Steve Martin could have gone on to wear the iconic fedora of Dr. Henry Jones. Sure, it’s difficult to consider anyone but Ford as Indiana Jones but people often forget that a lot of what was funny in Raiders came about simply because Ford had diarrhea, didn’t want to be there and just wanted everybody to put their goddamn cameras down and just stop all of the shit already, Christ! Now, Ford’s curmudgeonly grandpa bit is fine but I’d much prefer to see what kind of straight-faced absurdity Martin could have brought to the role. Just imagine what could have been in the film if its star wasn’t constantly looking for excuses to go back to his hotel room and scowl in the darkness.
With Martin – in his prime and presumably diarrhea-free – working closely with noted comedy nerd, Spielberg, Raiders would have finally become the loving satire of Saturday morning serials it was always meant to be. It would have been a straighter, but no less silly variation on Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). Instead of undercutting Jones’s ruggedness with a withering dose of world-weariness, Martin’s Indy would have been goofier and irreverent. Raiders of the Lost Ark would have been solid proof that Spielberg could direct a legitimately funny comedy.
Of course, you may smirk, would there have been a banjo number in it? Probably, but I still prefer Crystal Skull (2008) over Temple of Doom (1984) so fuck you, nerd!
Gilda Radner as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (1987)
According to IMDb, "when Glenn Close’s agent first called to express her interest in playing Alex Forrest [in Fatal Attraction], he was told, ‘Please don’t make her come in. She’s completely wrong for the part.’" Director Adrian Lyne also thought that Glenn Close was "the last person on Earth" who should play Alex. This is one of those statements that seems like it should be funny in retrospect. We should be laughing at the short-sightedness of Lyne and the casting director but we can’t because their instincts were correct. Close isn’t so much an actress as much as she’s a broken Meryl Streep action figure that’s perpetually stuck on the pensive setting. She’s a Merchant Ivory production of a human being, the living embodiment of middle-brow. Glenn Close is boring and that’s why her performance in Fatal Attraction isn’t fun or interesting. Her Alex Forrest is basically just Freddy Krueger with abandonment issues.
With all that said, Lyne is wrong about her being the last person on Earth who should play Alex Forrest. That honor should probably go to Gilda Radner.
Radner was one of many actresses who auditioned for the role of Alex and she’s still the only one who raises eyebrows. After all, she’s best known for her broad interpretations of little girls, nerds and grotesque anchorwomen on "Saturday Night Live." How could she pull off a comparatively more serious character like Alex? Well, first of all, I wouldn’t categorize those characters as broad; ridiculous, sure but definitely not broad or one-dimensional. Radner was an incredibly versatile comedic actress who could not only make us laugh at her collection of delusional losers and outcasts but make us care about them as well. As Alex, Radner wouldn’t have resorted to the Grand Guignol theatrics of Close. Instead Radner would have brought a vulnerability to the character, a sympathetic edge that would have made her obsessive behavior slightly more excusable. Radner would have realized she’d have much more to lose if she made the character ridiculous and campy. There would have been a sweetness hidden behind the insanity of Alex that would have made the character far more heartbreaking and real. It’s possible that Radner could have single-handedly turned this movie into something worth watching instead of the cinematic laughing-stock it eventually became.
Jack Lemmon as Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974)
When author Brian Garfield wrote the novel Death Wish, he envisioned Paul Benjamin (or Paul Kersey, as he would eventually be redubbed for the movies) as a meek, liberal accountant. Paul was supposed to be an ordinary guy who reached his breaking point and did something unthinkable, repeatedly. He wasn’t a tough, Clint Eastwood-type. He was your father, your neighbor, you. This familiarity is what made the book so cathartic yet chilling. So it’s more than a little strange that Charles Bronson – a man who Timothy Thomerson once joked could dig holes with his face – went on to play this tragic everyman. Shouldn’t the guy who’s playing Paul look less like someone who could punch Dirty Harry to death after he was shot in the chest at point blank range and more like a pleasant work associate of your father?
Well, that was the plan originally. When director Sidney Lumet was still attached to Death Wish, Jack Lemmon was set to play Paul. But when Lumet walked off the film, so did Lemmon. Instead of merely pulling the plug on the movie, Michael Winner was hired as the new director and the role of Paul was offered to Bronson (after Clint Eastwood wisely turned it down).
Bronson is just not convincing as Paul. We don’t believe for a second that his character is uncomfortable around guns or that he’d vomit after murdering some no-good punk. You needed someone with a lighter, more affable persona in the role so that Paul’s gradual transition into a gun-wielding lunatic would carry more impact. With Lemmon, Paul wouldn’t have been a stock ’70s anti-hero; he’d be a tragic figure, a man who was violently consumed by his own grief. Besides, just imagine how shocking it would be to watch the star of Some Like It Hot (1959) shooting future Sweathog Lawrence Hilton Jacobs in the back? Now picture Lemmon in the final scene of the film grinning ominously as he makes a finger-gun at a group of thugs? Now do you wish this film starred Lemmon? Isn’t there a part of you that wants to see Lemmon in Death Wish 3 (1985)? You know there is, you liar.
Without Lemmon Death Wish is a glossy grindhouse movie. With him the film is still a glossy grindhouse movie but also a devastating character piece.