Michael Rosenbaum is one of those actors who has been everywhere but you might not recognize if you ran into him in real life. He’s been around for a while but unless you see him in his most well-known persona, he might just be another face in the crowd on a movie or TV screen. He had one career-making role that kept him in the spotlight for seven years, then he walked away.
Here’s what happened to Michael Rosenbaum and why he quit Smallville.
MICHAEL ROSENBAUM BEFORE SMALLVILLE
Michael Rosenbaum’s career started back in 1997 when he starred in three features. His first was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and starred two-time Oscar winner (and since disgraced) Kevin Spacey. Little did the two actors know it at the time, but they would be linked forever to a classic comic book legend.
Rosenbaum was also seen in The Devil & the Angel, 1999, and Urban Legend. He did his first voice work on Rocket Power, The Wild Thornberrys, Batman Beyond, and The Zeta Project and even tried his hand at his first TV series with the short-lived Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane. All this led Michael Rosenbaum to his greatest role.
Michael Rosenbaum nailed the role of the supervillain to be Lex Luthor on his second try. On his first audition for Smallville, Rosenbaum didn’t feel he took it as seriously as he should have but luckily he got a second. His second audition went so well that he was offered the part and he quickly jumped on it.
Michael Rosenbaum’s role as Luthor was much like Tom Welling’s as Clark Kent. It was a slow build to becoming bad. Real bad. Lex was the son of a billionaire and was sent to the town of Smallville to run the local fertilizer plant. His first meeting with Clark resulted in Clark saving his life, thus having the two becoming fast friends. But as the series progressed, Lex began to take his slow turn toward evil and by the time all was said and done, Clark and Lex were enemies.
Even though Rosenbaum’s role as Luthor was pre-evil, he did have some big shoes to fill as Gene Hackman was the first to portray Luthor on film. The link we spoke of between Rosenbaum and Spacey would come in 2006 when Spacey took on the role of Lex Luthor in the Bryan Singer movie Superman Returns that also had Brandon Routh star as Superman.
Michael Rosenbaum embodied the role as Luthor. He attacked it, made it his own, and became synonymous with the name of Luthor. He was so good at what he did as Lex that TV Guide had him on their 2013 list of The 60 Nastiest Villains of All Time. He was nominated for multiple awards for his portrayal of Luthor winning the 2002 Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor on Television and the 2003 SFX Award for Best Newcomer. So, why then, did Michael Rosenbaum walk away from this choice role after seven seasons?
WHY MICHAEL ROSENBAUM QUIT SMALLVILLE
Ego? Desire? Tired? Could be any or all, but let’s let Michael Rosenbaum explain why he left Smallville.
This is from his Empire interview. “I remember sitting with Peter Roth, the president of Warner Brothers … I’ve never really told this story. Everybody has an ego and I think everybody likes to get their way. Peter took me to dinner, because he tried to get me to do two more seasons of Smallville. I was very polite and respectful. I said, “Peter, my grandma thinks I’m funny and I’ve always wanted to do comedy, and I started out in comedy, and I was doing tons of comedy, and then I was catapulted into this role that I love and it’s been great, but I was contracted for six years to play Lex Luthor, I did seven, and I’m just ready to move on and I’m just ready to take a new step.” He looked at me and says, “You know, Julianna Margulies, she turned down millions of dollars to stay with ER and look where she is now.” It wasn’t two or three years later where she just made a fortune with The Good Wife and all of that, and her career just took off. I said, “I’m going to bank on my talent. I’m just going to take a chance on me. I think I’ve done this long enough, I did this character for seven years and I just don’t feel like shaving my head for two more years.” I came back for the finale, but at the time I just wanted to take a chance.”
AFTER LEX LUTHOR
So, Michael Rosenbaum moved on. Yes, as he mentioned, he did return three years later for the series finale, but that was it. No more Lex. He moved on to other things, but early on he realized, with the help of director friend Greg Beeman that perhaps, no one would know who he was with hair.
“I remember Greg Beeman, who directed License to Drive, The Wonder Years and a lot of Smallville episodes, said, “You realize, dude, you’re the only person in the cast that looks different. Once you grow your hair out, you won’t look like you.” I hadn’t thought of that. I called my agent and said, “Hey, set up general meetings with everybody. They need to see me with hair.” We started doing that and then I was cast on Breaking In. Then I directed my first feature [2014’s Back In The Day] with Morena Baccarin, Nick Swardson, and Harland Williams. I couldn’t have done more … Again, I think you really have to know your ability and you have to know who you are. It wasn’t ego, it wasn’t, “I’m not doing Smallville because I’m too good for it.” It was more, “Hey, I’ve got more to offer.” Look, luck is a commodity of preparation and opportunity and I feel like I’m always prepared when that moment comes. I think it comes down to just believing in yourself.”
It’s not that Rosenbaum hasn’t been asked to reprise his role as Luthor. In fact, as the CW was putting together their Crisis on Infinite Earths, Michael Rosenbaum was approached to return as the character.
He took to Twitter shortly after turning down the offer. “Friends, many of you have tweeted and asked me about joining the Infinite Crossover,” Rosenbaum wrote. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me. I’ll just be straight up about this. WB called my agents Friday afternoon when I was in Florida visiting my grandfather in a nursing home. Their offer: No Script. No idea what I’m doing. No idea when I’m shooting. Basically no money. And the real kick in the ass ‘We have to know now.’ My simple answer was ‘Pass.’ I think you can understand why.”
REFUSING OTHER SUPERHERO ROLES
Michael Rosenbaum also recently revealed that he had been approached by director James Gunn in efforts to have him be part of the upcoming Suicide Squad reboot but as Rosenbaum told Comicbook.com he, unfortunately, had to pass.
“Let’s just say I was supposed to be in it, but I had neck surgery and I couldn’t do a role. I couldn’t do the role because it was too physical at that time, and I couldn’t jeopardize my neck, but there was, there was the role. I won’t say the role, but there was the role. James is always so gracious and kind and reached out and so I think when the time’s right. Look it’s nice when your friends think of you, it’s nice when your friends have a part.”
MICHAEL ROSENBAUM NOW
Throughout his career, even during his seven seasons on Smallville, Michael Rosenbaum has remained busy. He has done extensive voice acting as well as more features and TV series. The bet he made on himself paid off (for a while anyway) when he pulled down the lead role in the TV series Impastor where he played a slacker on the run from loan sharks, ending up in a small town as their new gay pastor. The series lasted two seasons.
Later, thanks to Gunn, played a small role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 but since that time has been fairly quiet on the acting front. Michael Rosenbaum hasn’t been seen on screen since 2018. It could be recovery; it could simply be choice. Maybe we’ll see him shave his head again someday, but I doubt it.
Instead these days he’s busy hosting a podcast called Inside Of You with Michael Rosenbaum. Through that podcast he interviews celebrity friends such as comedian Jim Jeffries, director Eli Rother, Henry Winkler, and Buffy’s James Marsters.