Jack Nicholson Was Almost An Iconic Disney Villain

By Jonathan Klotz | Updated

Jack Nicholson

It’s hard to remember a time when Disney wasn’t the dominant force in world entertainment, capable of backing up a dump truck full of money for any celebrity to take a role in one of their movies, but the company was in a very different position in the mid-90s. That’s why when the studio started casting voice actors for the upcoming animated feature Hercules, they approached Jack Nicholson to voice Hades. As we all know, James Woods went on to give a legendary performance as the Disney villain, but that only happened thanks to Nicholson making Disney an offer they had to refuse.

The Challenge Of Finding The Perfect Hades

Hercules was an ambitious project from the start, as it was intended to be a satire of celebrities and sports culture that would appeal to kids and their parents. While Written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the pair had the backing of Disney President Jeffrey Katzenberg to go big with the casting, rounding up major actors for as many parts as possible.

That’s why after Danny DeVito was cast as Philoctetes, he suggested his lifelong friend Jack Nicholson for the role of Hades, and Disney went after one of the biggest stars on the planet.

The Dream Casting

jack nicholson

While the voice cast at the time already included notable stars, including DeVito, Charlton Heston, Keith David, Rip Torn, Bobcat Goldthwait, Samantha Eggar, and Paul Shaffer (remember, this was the early 90s), the mythical villain was proving a challenge to cast. In a fortunate twist of fate, Musker and Clements had considered Jack Nicholson as their dream performer for Hades, but The Shining star was in a different league of name recognition from the rest of the stars. So when he agreed to meet with them to discuss the role, thanks to DeVito’s assistance, Disney pulled out all the stops.

Disney Rolled Out The Red Carpet

jack nicholson

Musker, Clements, and some of Disney’s top executives personally greeted Jack Nicholson when he showed up at Disney Studios in Burbank for the Hades pitch. Nicholson even brought one of his daughters, decked out head to toe as Snow White, and they enjoyed an exclusive backstage tour of the entire studio, topped off with an extravagant lunch in the executive dining area. Everything was going well, Disney even gave a massive bag of merchandise and exclusive swag to his daughter, and then that’s when everything changed.

The Joker Deal


Jack Nicholson is a talented, award-winning star, but he’s also a man who knows his worth, so before accepting the role of Hades in Hercules, he hit Disney with the dollar amount required: $10 million plus 50 percent of all merchandise bearing the villains likeness. That sounds like an awful lot, but it was known as “The Joker deal,” as that’s what Nicholson received for starring in Tim Burton’s Batman, which grossed over $400 million. The Disney executives were not prepared for that type of offer, and they countered it with $500,000 and no merchandise split.

Nicholson Walked Away From Disney

Soon after, Jack Nicholson left Disney Studios with his very happy daughter and her giant bag of gifts, having given her a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even if he passed on accepting the role of Hades. The Hercules production team would go on to cast James Woods and changed the character from the cool and menacing type designed for Nicholson to the fast-talking, sarcastic villain that fans fell in love with.

Though it underperformed at the box office, bringing in $250 million, the animated Greek myth film was ultimately profitable for Disney, as it didn’t have to share any of the lucrative merchandise profits with anyone.

No One Like Jack

Jack Nicholson

That wasn’t the first time Jack Nicholson passed on a Disney role, as he was also considered for the role of Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but Hades is the closest the company ever got to locking down the massive star. Today, Disney offers million-dollar contracts to major stars as standard operating procedure, most notably the massive $400 million contract signed by Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark for over a decade.

Among all of his acting accolades, Jack Nicholson should be noted as one of the smartest businessmen in Hollywood; after all, playing Hades could have been a significant addition to his storied legacy, but he knew what he was worth. Few people can say no to the Mouse and walk away with gifts, but then again, there’s no one else quite like Jack.