Robert De Niro Was Originally The Lead For One Of Tom Hanks’s Best Films

Robert De Niro is one of America's most treasured acting talents, but could he really have played this iconic Tom Hanks roles?

By Nathan Kamal | Published

robert de niro

Robert De Niro is generally considered one of the greatest living film actors. He is the recipient of two Academy Awards, a Cecil B. DeMille Award, a Screen Actors Guild lifetime achievement award, and is the ground zero for a thousand bad “you talkin’ to me?” imitations. However great his skill at acting is, however, it is undeniable that there is a “Robert De Niro” type of role. One could not see him as, for example, Willy Wonka. He would be hard to buy as George Costanza in Seinfeld. And you can pretty much take for granted that if Tom Hanks has played a role, it would be hard to picture Robert De Niro performing it. However, it turns out that the long-standing rumors are true and one of Tom Hanks’ most iconic roles was originally to be played by Robert De Niro: 1988’s comedic fantasy film Big

In the above clip, Robert De Niro is being interviewed by Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, dropping the kind of classic trivia bits you might expect, such as his famous line from Taxi Driver in which he threatens his own reflection in a mirror being an adlib. He also casually confirms that the lead role in Big was originally intended for him, but apparently, negotiations (presumably over salary) went south and he bailed. 

Fortunately for Robert De Niro, he has his own iconic role in 1988, playing bounty hunter Jack Walsh in the buddy comedy classic Midnight Run. In that Martin Brest-directed movie, the actor was paired against Charles Grodin as two men on the run from the Chicago mob and eventually the FBI. On the other side of this casting equation, Tom Hanks was cast in the Penny Marshall-directed film Big as the adult version of 12-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow), who is inexplicably aged overnight by a coin-operated fortune teller and becomes a successful toy company executive and forms a romantic bond with Elizabeth Perkins. In retrospect, it is a pretty weird movie with or without Robert De Niro. 

Apparently, Tom Hanks was pretty low on the casting sheet when it came to Big. In addition to Robert De Niro, reportedly everyone from Kevin Costner, Steve Guttenberg, Warren Beatty, John Travolta, Dennis Quaid, Andy Garcia, Gary Busey, and Sean Penn were all in the running before Tom Hanks finally landed it. Even after he did, Tom Hanks apparently had a difficult time working with Penny Marshall, who did not seem to hold him in high esteem at the time.

Things seem to have worked out for both Robert De Niro and Tom Hanks, both of whom have two Academy Awards apiece for acting. Robert De Niro’s career does not seem to have been affected by his not acting in this role, and Tom Hanks managed to become a leading man largely based on its success. But perhaps there is some parallel universe in which Josh Baskin was played by Josh Baskin, and that could be interesting to see.