Great movies and great movie characters invariably wind up synonymous with the actors who portrayed them. Once a big screen bonanza has captured the imagination of its audience, a deep affection and long-standing association is built, and it becomes hard – often almost impossible – to imagine any other actor taking the role in question.
Of course, such is the nature of the film industry that, in almost every instance of an actor playing what proves to be their signature role, there was another actor waiting in the wings who came this close to taking the part instead, leading to all kinds of fascinating ‘what if?’ scenarios.
How many of the following actors did you know were very nearly cast in movie roles made iconic by another actor?
20. Tom Selleck: Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark
When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg first collaborated on 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, they were keen to cast an unknown as their central hero, the adventuring archaeologist Indiana Jones.
They decided on Tom Selleck, at that point a little-known 35-year-old actor who’d mainly done TV bit parts.
However, TV network CBS had Selleck under contract for a new series called Magnum PI, for which a pilot episode had already been shot – and CBS would not release the actor from this contract.
Subsequently Selleck was forced to pull out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which prompted Lucas and Spielberg to cast Harrison Ford – who would reprise the role in three sequels, with a fourth on the way.
Though doomed to always be remembered as the man who was almost Indy, Selleck has always been gracious about it, calling Ford’s performance “indelible” and insisting that signing on for Magnum PI was “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
19. Terri Nunn: Princess Leia in Star Wars
Speaking of George Lucas and Harrison Ford, back when Lucas was casting his 1977 film Star Wars and Ford was in the running for Han Solo, the director screen-tested him alongside an actress who was a serious contender to play Princess Leia.
The actress in question was Terri Nunn, a virtual unknown with no screen credits to her name beyond an episode of TV series Police Story.
Lucas was impressed with Nunn, and was leaning towards casting her for a time – but of course, ultimately Carrie Fisher won the role.
Nunn would go on to take plenty of TV bit parts and small film roles in the years ahead, but enjoyed her greatest success as the lead singer of new wave band Berlin.
Berlin are best known for performing Take My Breath Away, the theme song to 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, which was a chart-topping hit and won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
18. Jack Nicholson: Michael Corleone in The Godfather
Director Francis Ford Coppola and studio Paramount Pictures were keen to cast nothing but big name actors in the ambitious 1972 production The Godfather.
Having cast the revered Marlon Brando to play Vito Corleone, Coppola offered the role of his son Michael to Jack Nicholson.
Nicholson turned the offer down, however, explaining years later that he believed “Italians should play Italians.”
Coppola subsequently gave the part to Al Pacino, much to the surprise and alarm of many at Paramount.
Though The Godfather and its sequel would make him one of the most respected actors of his generation, Pacino was comparatively little-known at the time, having worked primarily in theatre.
17. Molly Ringwald: Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman
1990 rom-com classic Pretty Woman has a curious history, having started life as something very different from the sweet Cinderella story it became.
Initially the script for the film was entitled $3,000, and was intended as a far darker, more serious look at the realities of prostitution in 80s Los Angeles, with John Hughes veteran Molly Ringwald in line for the central role of Vivian Ward.
However, the actress was hesitant due to the subject matter, and ultimately decided to walk away from the project.
Extensive script revisions ensued not long thereafter, and after many other actresses passed, the previously unknown Julia Roberts was cast opposite Richard Gere.
The resulting film was far removed from the original vision, but proved to be massively popular, even earning Roberts a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
16. Will Smith: Neo in The Matrix
Back in the late 90s, everybody knew who Will Smith was thanks to his rap career, his hit sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and his star turns in Independence Day and Men in Black.
However, rather less people at the time knew who the Wachowskis were, the filmmaker siblings having made only one film in 1996 thriller Bound.
As such, when Smith was offered the lead role in the Wachowskis’ ambitious follow-up movie The Matrix, the one-time Fresh Prince wasn’t sold.
Not convinced by their pitch, Smith turned the filmmaking siblings down, clearing the way for Keanu Reeves to take the role of computer hacker and possible messiah Thomas Anderson/Neo in the 1999 sci-fi smash.
Smith has since admitted, “it turns out (the Wachowskis) are geniuses,” and laments the fact that he chose to instead make Wild Wild West – but also believes he “probably would have messed The Matrix up.”
15. Charlize Theron: Roxy Hart in Chicago
Charlize Theron had worked her way up from modelling to acting in the 90s without quite managing to hit the stratosphere.
Then, around 2001, she landed a role that looked certain to take her career to the next level: Roxy Hart, in the big screen adaptation of stage musical Chicago.
However, Theron had been hired by the man initially poised to direct Chicago, Nicholas Hytner – and when he was taken off the project, so was Theron, with Rob Marshall and Renée Zellweger taking their places.
Theron lamented years later that she was “really bummed about it… I had it, I was like, ‘Ah, I’m gonna make this movie’ and I got kicked off it.”
Not that Theron had to be disappointed for long; one year after Chicago scooped the Best Picture Oscar, she got herself a Best Actress Oscar for 2003’s Monster.
14. Johnny Depp: Ferris in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
In the mid-80s, Johnny Depp had a few film credits to his name, but was still just another young actor waiting for his big break.
However, Depp might have got that break just a mite sooner, had the actor said yes to the lead role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the 1986 comedy from John Hughes.
Depp was the first choice to play the role of the teen who makes truancy an art form, but due to a scheduling conflict he was forced to decline.
Matthew Broderick wound up being cast instead, and made Ferris one of the most beloved film characters of the decade – although, with hindsight, he’s really not that nice a guy.
Depp, meanwhile, would find fame of his own via TV series 21 Jump Street, before really taking off in movies in the 90s.
13. Millie Bobby Brown: Laura/X-23 in Logan
2016 first saw Millie Bobby Brown wow the world as the troubled telekinetic Eleven, in Netflix’s Stranger Things.
As a child actress with an uncanny knack for brooding menace, Brown seemed an obvious choice to play Laura, the pre-teen clone of Wolverine, in 2017’s Logan.
The English actress was determined to land the role, declaring afterwards, “I went for it. It meant so much to me.”
Ultimately the role instead went to Dafne Keen, since seen in TV’s His Dark Materials, but Brown insists there are no sour grapes.
Brown describes Keen’s performance as “incredible,” and says that even though she didn’t land the role, reading for Hugh Jackman and director James Mangold was her best ever audition.
12. Will Poulter: Pennywise in It
The 2017 big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s epic horror novel It was in development for some time.
Early on, director Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective season 1, the upcoming Bond movie No Time To Die) was attached, and for the pivotal role of the monstrous Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Fukunaga chose young English actor Will Poulter.
However, Fukunaga wound up quitting the film over creative differences with the producers, and Poulter went with him.
Andrés Muschietti took over in the director’s chair, and hired Bill Skarsgård to terrify audiences worldwide as Pennywise.
Not that Poulter’s career was hurt much, as the actor has since enjoyed scene-stealing roles in such acclaimed films as Detroit and Midsommar.
11. Christina Applegate: Elle Woods in Legally Blonde
Actress Christina Applegate made her name playing stereotypical dumb blonde Kelly Bundy on Married… with Children, a hugely popular sitcom which ran from 1987 to 1997.
Not long after the show ended, a film script was sent to the actress entitled Legally Blonde.
Applegate was offered the central role of fashion-obsessed airhead turned star law student Elle Woods.
However, like many actors Applegate was worried about typecasting, and turned the film down over fears that the role of Elle was too similar to Married’s Kelly Bundy.
This allowed Reese Witherspoon to take the part, catapulting her to super-stardom once the film hit screens in 2001.
10. Dougray Scott: Wolverine in X-Men
Things were looking up for Scottish actor Dougray Scott in 1999, after he broke through in Hollywood with roles in Deep Impact and Ever After.
As well as being cast as the main bad guy opposite Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible II, Scott had also secured the pivotal role of Wolverine in the big screen adaptation of Marvel comic book X-Men.
Unfortunately, the Mission: Impossible II shoot fell behind schedule, forcing Scott to stay on set longer than originally planned.
As this extended shoot clashed with production on X-Men, Wolverine suddenly had to be recast, allowing Hugh Jackman to take over.
Scott – who recently took his first comic book-related role in TV’s Batwoman – has since insisted he “didn’t want to do it” anyway, and thinks Hugh Jackman “did a really great job.”
9. Julia Roberts: Viola in Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love was in development for quite some time before it won big at the Academy Awards in 1999.
The project first got moving in the early 1990s, and quickly secured Julia Roberts to play Viola, the fictitious actress and muse to the great Bard.
However, Roberts only wanted one man to play her Shakespeare: Daniel Day-Lewis, who unfortunately had no interest in the project.
When she failed to persuade Day-Lewis to sign on, Roberts dropped out, and the project collapsed. It would not gain momentum again for several years.
Ultimately Gwyneth Paltrow played the role of Viola, and tearfully collected a Best Actress Oscar for her trouble.
8. Pierce Brosnan: James Bond in The Living Daylights
Okay, we know what you’re thinking: Pierce Brosnan did play James Bond, so this isn’t exactly an iconic role he missed out on.
However, while the Irish actor wound up the fifth actor to don the mantle of 007, he was originally intended to be the fourth.
In 1986, Brosnan was announced as Roger Moore’s successor, poised to make his Bond debut in 1987’s The Living Daylights.
However, Brosnan’s fate was similar to that of Tom Selleck on Raiders of the Lost Ark; the actor was contracted to TV series Remington Steele, and network NBC insisted Brosnan shoot another season rather than lose him to Bond.
Timothy Dalton was hired for The Living Daylights in his stead, and Brosnan would have to wait nine years before finally becoming 007 in 1995’s GoldenEye.
7. Gwyneth Paltrow: Rose in Titanic
James Cameron knew he needed just the right combination of leading man and leading lady to really sell his epic historical romance Titanic.
To this end, the writer-director met with plenty of high profile actors and actresses, and came very close to giving Gwyneth Paltrow the part of Rose.
Paltrow was just on the cusp of breaking big at the time, off the back of her key supporting turn in 1995’s Seven and the title role in 1996’s Emma.
Ultimately, Paltrow lost out to Kate Winslet – and the rest is box office history, as Titanic wound up the highest-grossing film of all time for almost 12 years after its 1997 release.
In a way Paltrow got the last laugh, though, as she nabbed a Best Actress Oscar sooner than Winslet, and later starred in Avengers: Endgame, now the biggest movie ever.
6. Matthew McConaughey: Jack in Titanic
Speaking of the former biggest movie of all time, there was another future Oscar winner who came close to bagging one of the romantic lead roles.
When Gwyneth Paltrow screen-tested as Rose, it wasn’t opposite Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack, but Matthew McConaughey.
James Cameron screen-tested his potential stars in pairs to see what their chemistry was like, and Paltrow and McConaughey came close to sealing the deal.
But of course, Cameron ultimately felt that DiCaprio and Winslet had the chemistry he was looking for – and cinemagoers agreed, to the tune of over $1 billion worldwide.
McConaughey has said since that he was almost certain the part was his, but drily admits the film “worked out alright” without him.
5. Thandie Newton: Alex in Charlie’s Angels
Thandie Newton is another British star of the screen whose fortunes, like Dougray Scott’s, seemed to be taking a turn for the better around the turn of the millennium.
The actress had landed the plum role of Alex, one-third of super-spy trio Charlie’s Angels, alongside Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore in the 2000 big screen take on the TV hit.
However, before that Newton had to finish her work on another big budget blockbuster – Mission: Impossible 2.
That’s right – just as Scott was forced to quit X-Men when the M:I2 shoot fell behind schedule, so too did Newton have to relinquish her role in Charlie’s Angels to Lucy Liu.
Years later Newton would claim she turned the part down due to “fear of fame,” but at the time she openly badmouthed Liu when rumours arose of tension on the Charlie’s Angels set, stating “if I had been working on the film there would have been no arguments and everyone would have been happy.”
4. Warren Beatty: Bill in Kill Bill
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film Kill Bill (and yes, he insists it counts as one, even though it was released in two volumes) made quite the gory splash when it landed in 2004.
However, Tarantino had been working on Kill Bill for quite a while (at least the seven years since his third film, Jackie Brown), and as such the shape of the film changed significantly in that time.
One particularly notable change was that the key role of Bill – the nemesis/one-time lover that Uma Thurman’s Bride is out to kill – was originally set to be played by Warren Beatty, Tarantino having written the part with the actor in mind.
Accounts vary as to why Beatty ultimately left the film – some say he quit, others say Tarantino fired him for “not understanding” the script – but either way, David Carradine was hired to replace Beatty shortly thereafter.
Tarantino has said since that he rewrote the script once Carradine was cast, and that Beatty’s Bill would have been an entirely different character: “James Bond as Blofeld,” according to the writer-director.
3. Marilyn Monroe: Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Marilyn Monroe was beyond question one of the most iconic Hollywood stars of the 20th century, based less on any one specific role than her own unmistakable persona.
However, it turns out one truly iconic role which helped cement the legend of another superstar actress could easily have been Monroe’s.
When Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was adapted for the screen in 1961, the author only had one choice for the lead role of Holly Golighty, and that was Marilyn Monroe.
However, Monroe was studying method acting under famed teacher Lee Strasberg at the time, and turned the part down under his advice, fearing it would impede her efforts to be taken more seriously.
With Monroe out of the picture, the project underwent a radical rethink and Audrey Hepburn was hired – and of course, it’s the key role she’s remembered for.
2. Henry Cavill: Superman, James Bond AND Edward in Twilight
They say that some guys just can’t catch a break – and for a time, that looked to be the case with British actor Henry Cavill.
First, the Jersey-born actor was all set to play Superman in a new take on the character from J.J. Abrams in 2004 – but the project failed to get the green light.
Next, Cavill came down to the final few contenders to take over from Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, in 2006’s Casino Royale – but was deemed too young for the part, and missed out to Daniel Craig.
Then, Cavill very nearly played vampire love machine Edward Cullen in 2008’s Twilight – but this time was considered too old for the part, losing to Robert Pattinson (who, just to rub salt in the wound, also beat Cavill to the part of Cedric in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire years earlier).
Of course, come 2013 Cavill finally got his chance to be Superman in Man of Steel, so it all turned out alright – and who knows, with Daniel Craig’s imminent retirement from the role, playing Bond might still be a possibility…
1. Jennifer Lawrence: Bella in Twilight
That’s right: in a parallel universe and/or alternate timeline, Twilight stars Superman as Edward Cullen and Mystique/Katniss Everdeen as Bella Swann.
Before the future Oscar-winner got her breakthrough in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence was among the young actresses who auditioned for the female lead in the big-screen adaptation of Stephanie Meyer’s best-selling novel.
Lawrence has since admitted to Howard Stern that she “didn’t really know what it was” when she was called in to read for the part of Twilight’s Bella, and didn’t think much of it when she missed out on the role to Kristen Stewart.
Of course, when the film became a huge popular sensation, Lawrence tells Stern she went “Hot damn! Woah!”, realising what she’d missed out on.
Not to worry though, as Lawrence soon landed her own massively popular (and more critically-lauded) teen franchise in 2012’s The Hunger Games, while also landing the part of the shape-shifting Mystique in the X-Men prequel series.