11 Famous Actors Who Gave Away Iconic Roles

Victoria Webster

Apr 29, 2016

A role can make or break an actor, catapulting them to new levels of success and acknowledgement (think Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club, True Detective and Mud) or resulting in the end of their career.

Here are just 11 famous films that might have turned out completely different if the casting had gone in another direction.

1. When Harry Met Sally

Would When Harry Met Sally be the same if Tom Hanks had taken the role of Harry Burns instead of Billy Crystal? The director Rob Reiner admitted that he had had conversations with Hanks about taking on the role of leading man opposite Meg Ryan, as their chemistry was so strong in Sleepless in Seattle. Luckily for us, they would work together again in You’ve Got Mail to cement their partnership as ultimate rom-com duo.

Left: Billy Crystal as Harry Burns. Right: Tom Hanks. Image: © 1989 Twentieth Century Fox

2. The Matrix

Will Smith was the ‘go to’ leading actor during the 90’s and the makers of The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers, were desperate for him to play Neo.

Will Smith later said that he regretted turning down the role, but felt that he wasn’t mature enough of an actor to take on the roll and was worried about whether the special effects would work or not.

The Matrix is a difficult concept to pitch. In the pitch, I just didn’t see it. I watched Keanu Reeves’ performance – and very rarely do I say this – but I would have messed it up. I would have absolutely messed up The Matrix. At that point I wasn’t smart enough as an actor to let the movie be. Whereas Keanu was smart enough to just let it be. Let the movie and the director tell the story, and don’t try and perform every moment.”

Left: Keanu Reeves as Neo. Right: Will Smith. Image: © Creative Commons

3. Forrest Gump

It would be a big leap for John Travolta to go from playing characters like Danny in Grease to Forrest Gump. Travolta admitted that one of the biggest mistakes of his career was passing on the heartwarming, complex character of Forrest. The part was then offered to Bill Murray and Chevy Chase before landing on the incredible Tom Hanks. Hanks went on to win Best Actor at the Oscars, which was one of six the film won, including Best Picture.

Left: Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump. Right: John Travolta. Image: © Creative Commons

4. Sex and the City

Sarah-Jessica Parker is Carrie Bradshaw. It is hard to imagine any one else as the pint-sized, party girl and fashionista. However, SJP was not the first choice for the part. Originally Desperate Housewives star Dana Delaney was considered for the role. She turned it down due to the sexual nature of the show, and even after the phenomenal global success of the sitcom, she still has “no regrets”.

Left: Dana Delaney. Right: Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw. Image: © 2003 HBO

5. Pretty Woman

Everyone fell in love with Julia Roberts as Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman. Little did you know that The Breakfast Club star Molly Ringwald was originally up for the role.

Molly, like us, thought that Julia was perfect for the part.

“I think I saw an early draft and it was called ‘$3000’. I don’t specifically remember turning it down. The script was okay but I gotta say, Julia Roberts is what makes that movie. It was her part. Every actor hopes for a part that lets them shine like that.” she said.

Left: Molly Ringwald. Right: Julia Roberts as Vivian Ward. Image: © Creative Commons

6. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Is Johnny Depp too dark and unconventional to be the charming, easy-going rebel Ferris Bueller? Depp declined the lead role due to scheduling conflicts, which meant that the part was given to Matthew Broderick. Johnny Depp is one of the best character actor’s out there, but we think that Broderick made the film the pop culture classic that it is.

Left: Johnny Depp. Right: Mathew Broderick as Ferris Bueller. Image: © 1986 – Paramount Pictures

7. The Lord Of The Rings

Although Sean Connery will always be James Bond to us, he was still acting into the late ‘90s, and Peter Jackson offered him the role of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. He declined as he “didn’t understand the script”, which is a shame, but it was clear that Sir Ian McKellen absolutely did understand the script, and how to bring the character to life.

Left: Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf The Grey. Right: Sir Sean Connery. Image: © 2001 – New Line Productions, Inc.

8. Legally Blonde

Christina Applegate was the first choice for the bubbly blonde Elle Woods. She had been playing Kelly Bundy in Married With Children for 10 years and wanted to avoid being typecast as a dumb blonde. Reese Witherspoon became incredibly successful after being Elle and went on to tackle many juicier and more serious roles (some even with brown hair). Applegate now admits that turning down the role was stupid. How ironic!

Left: Christina Applegate. Right: Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods. Image: © 2001 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. Hopper Stone – © 2014 Warner Bros

9. Clueless

If you have seen Legally Blonde, then you can understand why Reese Witherspoon was considered for the part of Cher in Clueless. Although Alicia Silverstone was a favourite of writer and director Amy Heckerling’s from the outset, the studio insisted that she audition other actresses, including Keri Russell, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alicia Witt and a not yet famous Reese Witherspoon.

Left: Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz. Right: Reese Witherspoon. Image: © 1995 Paramount HE.

10. Bridget Jones’s Diary

The casting of skinny, American Renee Zellweger as the beloved, not-so-skinny British Bridget Jones was a controversial one. Emily Watson and Kate Winslet both also auditioned for the part, but did not make the cut as they were seen as too young to play Bridget. In the end, Zellwegger dedicated herself to perfecting the accent and gaining the kilos, and brought Bridget to life with amazing comic timing and genuine charm.

Left: Image: © 2003 Miramax Films.

11. Romeo + Juliet


The beautiful and highly intelligent Natalie Portman is a natural choice for Shakespeare’s Juliet. However, she was only 13-years-old when director Baz Luhrmann was remaking the classic tale. He realised that the age difference was too great when she screen-tested with Leonardo DiCaprio, who was eight years her senior, and the role instead went to the wonderful Claire Danes (above left).


By Victoria Webster

Victoria Webster is a contributor for The Carousel. She began her journalism career by studying Media and Communications at The University of Sydney.



The Carousel