FILM THREAT’S TOP TEN LOST CASTING OPPORTUNITIES OF ALL TIME Image

Among film actors, there is only one thing more frustrating than turning down a plum role, and that’s being cast in a plum role (or at least getting very close to signing a contract) only to have the part yanked away by unforeseen circumstances.

A surprisingly high number of noteworthy stars have found themselves in these frustrating situations. One could debate endless whether the finished films would’ve been better or worse had the original actors been cast, but the back stories of their abrupt exile from cherished film roles is often more interesting than the movies in questions. Thus, Film Threat presents 10 of the most unusual (and, in one case, fatal) cases of kiboshed casting decisions in movie history.

1. Joan Collins not in “Cleopatra” (1963).
In 1958, 20th Century Fox decided to cash in on the popularity of sword-and-sandal films by mounting a mini-epic biopic on the life and loves of ancient Egypt’s most famous queen. Contract player Joan Collins was pegged to play Cleopatra, and make-up and costume tests were done for the young actress. However, the production hit a series of delays and Collins wound up diverted to other projects. The studio decided to hunt around for another actress and the role of Cleopatra went to Elizabeth Taylor, who was paid the record amount of $1 million (Taylor would later claim she requested that fee as a joke and never expected to receive it).

The result of the kibosh: Collins film career faded dramatically into the 1960s and was only resurrected by her 1980s small screen triumph on “Dynasty.” As for “Cleopatra,” 20th Century Fox nearly went bankrupt when the production poured wildly over budget – thanks in large part to delays created by Elizabeth Taylor’s health and marital scandals.

2. Joan Crawford not in “From Here to Eternity” (1953).
The casting of Crawford as the sexually rapacious wife of an Army base commander seemed like a good idea – except to director Fred Zinnemann, who balked at Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn’s insistence on casting Crawford. Much to Zinnemann’s unexpected pleasure, Crawford proved difficult in the pre-production stages and made repeated complaints about the costumes she was assigned to wear. Zinnemann used Crawford’s difficult behavior as the tool to pry her out of the film, and she was replaced by Deborah Kerr.

The result of the kibosh: Kerr received an Oscar nomination, and Crawford never quite got another role that equaled this part.

3. Laird Cregar not in “Laura” (1944).
Another 20th Century Fox tale: studio head Darryl Zanuck was eager to cast contract player Cregar as the venomous writer Waldo Lydecker in the big screen version of “Laura.” But director Otto Preminger was adamant against casting Cregar, claiming the actor (who specialized in playing leering villains) was too familiar as a heavy – not to mention being too heavy (he often tipped the scales at 300 pounds). Preminger opted instead to cast Clifton Webb, a theatrical star who had not been in films since the silent era, and Zanuck reluctantly agreed.

The result of the kibosh: Webb launched a new career in movies thanks to “Laura.” But the loss of the role devastated Cregar, who began an extensive weight loss regimen that ultimately weakened his heart and sped his premature death in 1945.

4. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby not in “The Sunshine Boys” (1977).
MGM bought the rights to Neil Simon’s Broadway comedy and envisioned it as the ideal vehicle to reunite one of the great comedy duos of all time. Having Hope and Crosby together again delighted everyone who heard the news – except for Neil Simon, who argued the aged vaudeville stars of his comedy were supposed to be Jewish New Yorkers. After something of a struggle, Simon prevailed and Hope and Crosby were dropped.

The result of the kibosh: Walter Matthau and George Burns starred in the film, respectively winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar for their performances. Hope and Crosby decided to create their own starring vehicle with a comedy called “Road to the Fountain of Youth,” but Crosby suffered a fatal heart attack in 1977 and the film was never made.

5. Buster Keaton not in “The Optimists” (1973).
British novelist Anthony Simmons wanted to bring his book “The Optimists of Nine Elms” to the big screen in the early 1960s as a comeback vehicle for Buster Keaton. The choice of the American comic legend Keaton was curious, since the book was about a London busker’s friendship with two lonely children. However, Simmons ran into endless problems trying to obtain financing for his project, owing primarily to Keaton’s perceived liabilities (both as a box office draw and his long-running problems with alcohol).

The result of the kibosh: “The Optimists” was eventually made seven years after Keaton’s death, with Peter Sellers starring as the busker.

6. Anna Magnani not in “Two Women” (1961).
The fiery Italian icon was originally cast as the mother trying to protect her daughter from the horrors of World War II in Carlo Ponti’s film version of the Alberto Moravia novel. But Ponti’s insistence on casting his wife, Sophia Loren, as Magnani’s daughter created a major problem. Magnani refused to play the mother of a grown woman and insisted on another (and much younger) actress to play the role. Ponti was equally adamant about having his wife in the film. Magnani became so frustrated with the stalemate that she flippantly suggested that Ponti cast Loren as the mother instead. Ponti, who never considered that option, quickly agreed and Magnani was axed.

The result of the kibosh: Loren took the role, later winning the Academy Award for her performance. Magnani went on to star in Pasolini’s “Mamma Roma,” which she considered her best film work.

7. Maureen O’Hara not in “The King and I” (1956).
When “The King and I” premiered on Broadway, Gertrude Lawrence had a clause in her contract that she would recreate her role of the schoolteacher Anna for the film version. But Lawrence’s death in 1952 opened the role of Anna in the film version, which was produced at 20th Century Fox. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was ready to sign Maureen O’Hara as Anna, but composer Richard Rodgers disliked the actress. Even though O’Hara was an accomplished singer, Rodgers successfully pushed for Deborah Kerr, who couldn’t sing (Marni Nixon dubbed her musical numbers).

The result of the kibosh: Another Oscar nomination for Kerr. O’Hara continued acting in films, albeit with few genuinely memorable performances.

8. Christopher Plummer not in “Doctor Dolittle” (1967).
Rex Harrison, fresh from winning his Oscar for “My Fair Lady,” was signed to star in the film musical “Doctor Dolittle.” Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote “My Fair Lady,” was signed to write the new film but abruptly walked out of the production. Harrison tried to join him in the walkout but was contractually obligated to the role. The actor tried repeatedly to break his contract, and in frustration producer Arthur P. Jacobs signed Christopher Plummer as Harrison’s replacement. But Harrison had a swift change of heart when he saw the new screenplay and decided to go forward with the role. Jacobs reluctantly was forced to drop Plummer and pay him the agreed-upon fee of $300,000 to sit out the production of the film.

The result of the kibosh: Unlike the other films cited here, “Doctor Dolittle” was a major flop and helped to speed the wreckage of Harrison’s film career; Plummer’s career, however, went along quite nicely without “Doctor Dolittle.”

9. Peter Sellers and Shirley Bassey not in “Oliver!” (1968).
Columbia Pictures acquired the rights to the hit musical show “Oliver!” and wanted to ensure its investment by casting Peter Sellers in the plum role of Fagin. But director Sir Carol Reed did not want Sellers, preferring to allow British actor Ron Moody to recreate his stage triumph as Fagin. Moody was not a film star and Columbia was not happy to have him in that expensive production. However, Columbia’s brass was less thrilled at Reed’s insistence on having Welsh singer Shirley Bassey play Nancy. The studio was jittery that the inclusion of the black Bassey in the all-white cast would create problems with audiences uncomfortable with interracial romance, especially since her character is in love with a man who kills her. A compromise was reached between the studio and director: Moody was cast as Fagin but white actress Shani Wallis was cast as Nancy.

The result of the kibosh: Moody received an Oscar nomination, but neither he nor Wallis enjoyed any degree of film stardom. Sellers carried on, with varying degrees of success, but Bassey never ventured into film acting and concentrated her career in music.

10. Barbra Streisand not in “Gloria” (1980).
In 1976, Barbra Streisand tried and failed to get John Cassavetes to direct her in “A Star is Born.” The two crossed paths again four years later when Columbia dangled the offbeat action flick “Gloria” in front of Streisand. The star liked the vehicle, but she voiced serious concerns when the studio informed her that Cassavetes would be at the helm. Streisand reportedly issued a he-goes-or-I-go demand and Columbia stood up for Cassavetes. Streisand departed the project and Cassavetes cast his wife, Gena Rowland, in the starring role.

The result of the kibosh: Rowland received an Oscar nomination for her performance. Streisand took a secondary role in the dismal comedy “All Night Long,” then decided to direct herself in “Yentl.”

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