Necessity is the mother of invention. Whether it’s budget cuts or sudden casting changes, sometimes the best thing that can happen to a film is to have the rug pulled out from under it because it forces filmmakers to make remarkable improvements they wouldn’t have been able to consider otherwise.
Today I’m going to highlight six examples of last-minute casting changes that definitely turned out for the best. These mini-miracles were painful at the time, but they led to profitable and creative results.
Timothy Dalton as James Bond in The Living Daylights
Who He Replaced: Pierce Brosnan
How It Happened: NBC decided to resurrect the TV series Remington Steele after its star, Pierce Brosnan, was cast as James Bond in 1986. Unfortunately, this cost Brosnan the role of Bond and only six more episodes of Remington Steele were produced before the show was cancelled again. Timothy Dalton, who had been considered for the role as far back as 1969, graciously accepted it this time.
Why It Was for the Best: At that time, James Bond had been played by Roger Moore for 12 years and seven movies. His films had become more comedic in tone, especially 1979’s Moonraker. In the late 1980s, what the series desperately needed was a younger, more serious Bond. At just 33 years old, Brosnan was nearly half Moore’s age. But he was mostly known for his comedic timing. That may not have been enough to differentiate his films from Moore’s.
Dalton, on the other hand, was 42 and an experienced Shakespearean actor. He brought a sense of deadly seriousness back to the role in his two films, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. His second film under-performed in the U.S., but it’s one of my personal favorites of the James Bond series. After that, Bond spent several years in hiatus and in 1995, an older and wiser Brosnan finally landed the coveted role for the quasi-reboot, Goldeneye. We got two excellent films from Dalton before diving back into a little more Moore-esque films with Brosnan. It was the best of both worlds.
Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Who He Replaced: Tom Selleck
How It Happened: Like Pierce Brosnan, Tom Selleck was doing a TV show at the time called Magnum P.I., and there was simply no way to get the conflicting filming schedules to work. Harrison Ford was Steven Spielberg’s second choice, so he won the role.
Why It Was for the Best: Selleck is no slouch when it comes to action films. In 1990’s underrated Quigley Down Under, he played a sharpshooting cowboy with the perfect balance of confidence, charm, and vulnerability that were essential characteristics for Indiana Jones. But there is one thing that we will forever be indebted to Harrison Ford for bringing to the character that no one else could have.
It was Ford who suggested that rather than engaging in a protracted fight with a swordsman on the streets of Cairo that he simply pull out his gun and shoot the bandit. Always the cynic, Ford had rubbed George Lucas the wrong way in his work on the Star Wars films by questioning Han Solo’s motivations and dialogue the whole way through. But that pushback led to many great character moments and served to strengthen his performances. Similarly, without Ford, Indiana Jones wouldn’t be quite as iconic.
Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future
Who He Replaced: Eric Stoltz
How It Happened: Darn these TV shows; they really mess with actors’ schedules. In this case, writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale desperately wanted Michael J. Fox for the role of Marty McFly, but the producers of Family Ties refused to let him go for the weeks it would take to film Back to the Future. So Zemeckis picked Eric Stoltz for the role and started filming. But within a few weeks, he knew he had made a mistake. The comedy wasn’t working as well as he had hoped, so he had to let Stoltz go and start over with Fox.
Why It Was for the Best: Having a chance to go through a lot of scenes twice turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave Zemeckis a chance to test things out and fix things that weren’t working. Michael J. Fox was born to play the role of Marty McFly. Despite working on virtually zero sleep, he carries most of the film with energy and wit to spare. It’s likely the film would have suffered greatly without him in the central role.
Ed Harris as Christof in The Truman Show
Who He Replaced: Dennis Hopper
How It Happened: Ever the temperamental actor, Dennis Hopper quit on his first day of shooting. Ed Harris was then brought in with virtually no time to prepare.
Why It Was for the Best: You would never know that Harris was a last-minute replacement. He nails the role of Christof, making him both a loving father and a vengeful god. He conveys so many emotions and rich characteristics in his few scenes that we don’t need a long backstory on how he came to be who he is. All we need to know is what he tells Truman at the end: “I am the creator… of a television show that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions.” Harris was nominated for his second Academy Award for his work in The Truman Show. He definitely deserved it.
John Hurt as Kane in Alien
Who He Replaced: Jon Finch
How It Happened: John Hurt was Ridley Scott’s first choice to play Kane, but the filming schedule conflicted with another film he was about to start work on in South Africa. So Scott cast Jon Finch instead. However, John Hurt was mistaken by South African officials for John Heard, a vocal anti-Apartheid activist, and thus Hurt wasn’t allowed to enter the country. At the same time, Finch got extremely sick and had to decline the role of Kane just as filming was starting. Scott called Hurt and within days Hurt was working on the set of Alien.
Why It Was for the Best: Kane is, in my opinion, the most important member of the Nostromo crew. He is responsible for the crew even finding the alien eggs because of his insatiable curiosity. The chestburster scene is the film’s signature set piece, mainly because Hurt sells it so perfectly. First he acts like he’s choking, but then he builds the sense of powerlessness his crewmates feel as they try to help him while his panic builds to a crescendo until he shrieks in agony and a blood-soaked alien erupts from his chest. Perhaps Finch could have pulled off a similar performance, but in my mind Hurt is the ideal casting choice. The rest of his career cements his place as one of the greatest actors of his generation, too.
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in X-Men
Who He Replaced: Dougray Scott
How It Happened: Wolverine was the most-contested role in the first X-Men film. A half-dozen actors were seriously considered before Dougray Scott was chosen. Unfortunately, Scott had to leave part way through filming to work on Mission: Impossible II. This left the filmmakers scrambling to find a replacement. Thankfully, they quickly cast an unknown Australian actor named Hugh Jackman, and the rest is history.
Why It Was for the Best: Dougray Scott is a good actor. I particularly enjoyed his conflicted Prince Charming in Ever After. But I don’t think he could have pulled off the animalistic role of Wolverine nearly as well as Jackman did. Hungry to make a name for himself at the time, Jackman enthusiastically threw himself into the part. Despite the handicap of joining production more than a month into filming, he made up for it by transforming his physique in a hurry and taking a lot of cold showers to get into character. He’s starred as Wolverine in so many other movies since his humble beginning, there’s no question that Jackman deserved the role and will continue to do an excellent job for years to come. I can’t wait for X-Men: Days of Future Past and (hopefully) the third Avengers movie, if they can squeeze him into it.
There are many other examples of last-minute casting changes that proved fortuitous. What are your favorites? Or if you disagree with any of the ones I mentioned, feel free to let me know.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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