10 Times Actors Turned Down Roles That Would Have Been The Biggest Of Their Career 

Here are 10 times that famous actors turned down famous parts.

By Sckylar Gibby-Brown | Published

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While it might be hard to imagine any other actor portraying these iconic roles, other than the ones who ended up in the final cut, each of the following blockbusters originally had a different actor lined up to play the lead characters. Imagine if Sean Connery had played Gandalf instead of Sir Ian McKellen, or Tom Selleck had just wrapped up filming the fifth Indiana Jones. We’re glad things turned out the way that they did, but here’s why these Hollywood A-listers turned down what might have been the biggest roles of their careers.

10. Emma Watson – Mia in La La Land (2016)

In the mid-2010s, Emma Watson had a choice. It was a few years after the final Harry Potter movie concluded and she was trying to find her feet as an actress not portraying Hermione Granger. Having already been in several movies in various genres, including the historical fiction Noah, the teen coming-of-age movie Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the crime drama The Bling Ring, Watson was now about to cross “musical” off of her genre bucket list, but she had to choose between La La Land and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast live-action remake.

Unfortunately, due to production schedules, Watson couldn’t do both, so she went with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which she starred in with Dan Stevens and Luke Evans. This left the role of Mia in La La Land to another Emma, Emma Stone. The film was also a break into the musical genre for Stone, who ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Actress in the movie.

9. Al Pacino – Han Solo in Star Wars (1977)

According to Al Pacino, it’s thanks to The Godfather star that Harrison Ford even has an acting career. Pacino recently revealed that he was offered the part of Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie without ever auditioning or petitioning for the part, but he ended up turning it down because he didn’t understand the movie. According to the Scarface actor, he was handed parts left and right back then, as he was Hollywood hot stuff and everyone wanted a bit of Al in their films.

It’s probably a good thing Pacino didn’t get the movie though, because, even though Ford has admitted he doesn’t love the character as much as his other most recognizable role (the one where he trades his blaster pistol in for a hat and a whip), he made Han Solo absolutely iconic and he’s a big reason why the Star Wars franchise has become what it is today.

8. Jack Nicholson – Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972)

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While Harrison Ford might have Al Pacino to thank for his movie career, Pacino himself has a different actor he should send flowers to as appreciation for turning down one of his most iconic roles. Apparently, The Godfather was an offer Jack Nicholson could refuse, and probably rightly so. Nicholson turned down the part of Michael Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather because he isn’t Italian.

It’s a controversial debate that some people are still fighting over today (case in point, see Chris Pratt in The Super Mario Bros. Movie), but it seems that fifty years ago Nicholson had the right idea as he said he turned down The Godfather because “Italians should play Italians.” And we’re glad he did because Al Pacino is absolutely iconic in this film.

7. John Travolta – Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump (1994)

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This one is a little hard for us to imagine. While we’ve seen that John Travolta has range as an actor and can portray anything from a teenage heartthrob in Grease to Christopher Walken’s loving wife in Hairspray to even terrible sci-fi villains in Battlefield Earth, we just can’t quite picture him as Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump. Perhaps it’s because Tom Hanks is too iconic in this feature.

But, long before Mr. Hanks was cast as the titular character about a man from Greenbow, Alabama who unwittingly left an imprint on a numerous number of historical events, John Travolta was asked to play the part. However, Travolta turned down the role in order to play a drugged-up hitman in Pulp Fiction. It was a good call because Vincent Vega is quite possibly Travolta’s best film role of all time.

6. Mel Gibson – Maximus in Gladiator (2000)

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While Mel Gibson was an action movie staple in the 90s, the Braveheart actor ended up turning down the role of Maximus in Gladiator because he was over putting his body through the physical demands that action movies require. He felt that he was too old for the role. At the time, he was 44 years old and not getting any younger, so if he felt like his body couldn’t handle it, turning down the part was probably a good call.

Instead, the role of Maximus went to Kiwi actor Russell Crowe, and while we can imagine how Gibson would have done a great job in the film, Crowe made Gladiator nothing short of historic. In fact, Crowe ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Actor that year.

5. Michelle Pfeiffer – Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs was a record-breaking horror film that ended up winning multiple Oscars, including being the only horror film to ever win Best Picture and also taking home Best Actress for Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. It’s an award that could have gone to Michelle Pfeiffer, only the Stardust actress turned down the part because she believed the script to be “too evil.” 

To be fair, Pfeiffer had a point as The Silence of the Lambs is about a rookie FBI agent who is forced to work with a psychopathic serial killer who eats people in order to catch another serial killer who skins his victims. The movie isn’t exactly a Winnie the Pooh type of warm and fuzzy.

4. Tom Selleck – Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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Apparently, Harrison Ford has more than one famous actor to thank for his decades-long career as an iconic franchise actor since Tom Selleck was originally offered the part of Indiana Jones long before the script ever ended up on Ford’s desk. Selleck was interested in the role, too (we mean, it’s Indiana Jones, who wouldn’t want to play that part), but he was forced to walk away due to scheduling conflicts with Magnum, P.I.

While it was probably a big bummer for Selleck to turn the part down, we’re glad it happened that way. After all, Selleck was simply iconic in Magnum, P.I., and we honestly can’t really picture Indiana Jones with a mustache.

3. Burt Reynolds – Han Solo in Star Wars (1977)

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As it turns out, Harrison Ford wasn’t the first or even the second, choice for Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. Burt Reynolds was offered the part after Al Pacino, but he also turned it down. While Pacino didn’t quite understand the concept of a space fantasy adventure story, Reynolds simply wasn’t interested in playing a space cowboy.

It seems that hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to Han Solo, however, as Reynolds has later come out and said that he would have played the part if he knew what it would turn into. The Boogie Nights actor actually has a long-standing pattern of turning down high-profile parts, as he also said no to Michael Corleone in The Godfather and James Bond.

2. Sean Connery – Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

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While many of these would-be actors in these iconic roles are hard to imagine, Sean Connery playing Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably the most difficult. While we admit, Connery’s famous vocal tonality could have been a nice touch to the Grey Wizard, we simply don’t believe he could master the twinkle in his eyes the way that Sir Ian McKellen’s baby blues did.

We believe we stand for all Lord of the Rings fans when we say it’s a good thing Connery didn’t understand the books and passed up on the part to make way for McKellen, who perfectly portrayed the character in all the movies. As it is, the first Lord of the Rings movie cast its Fellowship perfectly from McKellen as Gandalf to Elijah Wood as Frodo, all the way to Sean Bean as Boromir.

1. Will Smith – Neo in The Matrix (1999)

Will Smith has had quite a few blunders in his three-decades-long career—the infamous Oscar Slap and making After Earth to name just two—but one of his biggest faux pas might have been turning down Neo in The Matrix for Wild Wild West.

The Matrix was being made hot off the tail of Men in Black, which smashed all expectations at the box office and brought in a mind-blowing $589.4 million on a $90 million budget. After an action-packed money-manifesting feature like that, it makes sense that the Wachowskis would want someone like Smith to headline their film. However, Smith turned them down for the oddball action comedy, Wild Wild West

It was a bad choice for Smith, as Wild Wild West was a flop that only brought in $222.1 million on a budget of between $170 and $241 million. However, the Wachowskis hired Keanu Reeves instead, and The Matrix absolutely slayed at the box office, totaling $467.2 million on a budget of only $63 million.