In the course of a popular star’s acting career, he gets offered a lot of challenging roles, from which he chooses only a few to portray.
What guides him in making this key decision? The talent fee is a big consideration, of course—but the biggest stars get top money (in Hollywood, around $20M to $25M) all the time, anyway. So, other factors have to kick in, for example, what the new movie would do for his stellar career.
It’s important even to the biggest superstar that the upward ascendancy of his acting career will be sustained, so he’s always on the lookout for the “different” kind of script or character that would do this.
In addition, the popularity of his costars in the new project is a big factor, because screen magic and “chemistry” happen when two major players “catch fire” together on the screen.
Despite these and other clear-cut parameters, stars’ role choices sometimes or even often go awry—because they decide to do the wrong movies, and let some eventual blockbusters or award-winners get away, for their stellar competition to benefit from.
Even the biggest names have nightmares about these awesomely inept decisions, and the film trade is still talking about the great roles that some thoughtless stars allowed to slip through their fingers.
In the 1960s, the bleak dramatic film “Alfie” was up for casting, but established leads like Terence Stamp and Laurence Harvey opted to pass up playing the title role. Well, the then not very well-known Michael Caine much more savvily decided to accept it, and the film’s “sleeper” (unexpected) success did wonders for his career—and got him a prestigious Oscar nomination.
Much earlier, “Casablanca” was also up for casting, and the male lead role was offered to the popular screen toughie George Raft. He sniffed, “Whoever heard of Casablanca? And I don’t want to star opposite an unknown Swedish broad.”
Well, the “broad” was Ingrid Bergman, and the film went on to become a screen classic that is still viewed and loved to this day—and made a big star out of Raft’s replacement, Humphrey Bogart.
In 1954, the title role in the “small” drama, “The Country Girl,” was offered to Jennifer Jones and Greta Garbo, but they both nixed it.
Lucky for Grace Kelly, who at the time needed to establish herself not just as a great screen beauty but also as a sensitive actress—which the film definitely helped her achieve.
Another film classic that experienced casting contretemps was none other than “Gone With the Wind”: The plum male lead role of Rhett Butler was first offered to the then very popular Gary Cooper, who most incorrectly predicted, “This film is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m just glad that it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his face, and not me.”
As for “Superman” (1978), the title role was first dangled in front of James Caan, who turned it down—so, it went instead to Christopher Reeve, who benefited enormously from its success.
Instructively, it turns out that Caan has had a history of nixing some of the best male lead roles: He also snubbed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” whereupon Jack Nicholson played it—and won an Oscar. In addition, Caan rejected an offer to play the male lead in “Kramer vs Kramer,” dismissing it as “middle-class, bourgeois b.s.”—and Dustin Hoffman also won an Oscar for his exceptional performance in it.
Choose the best roles? James Caan—can’t.