Top 10 Actors Who Regret Passing on HUGE Movies
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Joshua Garvin
We all make mistakes! For this list, we'll be looking at stars of the silver screen who passed up roles that could have completely changed their careers or altered those films. Our countdown includes actors Bruce Willis, Eddie Murphy, Michelle Pfeiffer and more!
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Actors Who Regret Passing on Huge Movies. For this list, we’ll be looking at stars of the silver screen who passed up roles that could have completely changed their careers or altered those films. Did we pass on any big names on this list? Let us know in the comments below!
#10: Bruce Willis
“Ghost” starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze was the highest-grossing film of 1990. Swayze was grateful for the part. After “Dirty Dancing” and “Road House,” he was often typecast as a tough guy or a jerk. “Ghost” allowed him to show off his sensitive side and take his career in new directions. He almost didn’t have the chance, though. The role was originally offered to Demi’s husband, Bruce Willis. When asked in 1996 why he turned it down, Willis replied: ‘Hey, the guy’s dead. How are you gonna have a romance?’ Famous last words.” Maybe that lesson was still on his mind when he accepted the lead in “Sixth Sense” a few years later.
#9: Henry Winkler
Sometimes, actors audition for roles and don’t get cast. Other times, they turn them down. John Travolta, for example, auditioned for Potsie on “Happy Days,” which of course starred Henry Winkler as Fonzie. On the “Rich Eisen Show” in June of 2022, Henry Winkler confirmed a rumor that’d been circulating for years. Ironically, Winkler had been offered the role of Danny Zuko in “Grease.” Afraid of getting stuck playing another ‘Greaser’ character, Winkler said no. Although he admits that his decision was a mistake, there was one small wrinkle: “Grease,” famously, is a musical. Winkler, to his own admission, cannot carry a tune.
#8: Josh Hartnett
“Batman Begins” (2005)
We all tend to look back on the careers of once young stars and starlets and think about what could have been. Do they regret the track their careers have taken? Do they wish they didn’t miss that big payday? For Josh Hartnett, the answer is a little more complicated. The number of actors who turned down superheroes could fill a phonebook. Josh Hartnett is one of the more well-known, having passed on “Batman Begins.” Though Hartnett may have made a great Bruce Wayne, he doesn’t mind. As he tells it, his regret has nothing to do with the part or the money. He wishes that he’d have formed a working relationship with director Chris Nolan.
#7: Eddie Murphy
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)
In the days before ubiquitous CGI, there were only a handful of movies that combined live-action and animation. One of the biggest was 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” The film had the animated stars of Disney and Warner Bros. alongside live actors. Back in the mid-80s, the idea seemed insane. At least, it did to Eddie Murphy, who was originally offered the lead role of private detective Eddie Valiant. The concept made no sense to Murphy whatsoever, and he turned the part down. They eventually cast Bob Hoskins, and it became the most recognizable film of his career.
#6: Dustin Hoffman
“Taxi Driver” (1976)
In film, certain actors and directors form bonds that can last for decades. One of the most famous partnerships in Hollywood is that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. They’ve worked together on several films spanning fifty years. It all began with Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” in 1973. It may not have gone any further, though, without the tremendous success of “Taxi Driver.” Originally, De Niro wasn’t supposed to play the now iconic Travis Bickle. The part was first offered to Dustin Hoffman. When Scorsese pitched it, Hoffman had no clue who the director was. According to Hoffman, Marty seemed like a crazy man speaking a mile a minute. It was the first of many hit roles that Hoffman regrets rejecting over his long career.
#5: Christina Applegate
“Legally Blonde” (2001)
Fear of typecasting isn’t limited to male actors. For ten years, Christina Applegate co-starred in the hit comedy “Married with Children” on Fox. After the show ended, she looked to expand her horizons with other film and TV opportunities. A script came her way for a new movie called “Legally Blonde.” Though she appreciated the humor, she ultimately declined. Elle Woods, she thought, was way too similar to her character in “Married with Children.” She admitted in an interview with Andy Cohen that she thinks Reese Witherspoon ultimately crushed it. Though Applegate undersells her own talents, she definitely has a point given the film’s huge success.
#4: Denzel Washington
“Michael Clayton” (2007)
For an actor, working with a young or inexperienced director can be a real crapshoot. Some actors love the process. Others, absolutely refuse. The end product can often be so bad, that stars are left wondering what they were thinking by saying yes. All those questions were in Denzel Washington’s head when he first read the script for “Michael Clayton.” According to Denzel, it was the best material he’d read in a long time. But since it was Tony Gilroy’s first stint in the director’s chair, Washington passed. The film went on to win multiple awards, including a BAFTA and an Oscar for Tilda Swinton. Five years later, Washington confessed to GQ Magazine that he made a mistake.
#3: Michelle Pfeiffer
“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
At the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, Michelle Pfeiffer was at the height of her career. She was offered dozens of roles she decided to avoid. The biggest, by far, was Clarice Starling in “Silence of the Lambs.” That part would ultimately net Jodie Foster an Oscar, though that’s not the source of Pfeiffer’s regret. The script was great, but, as she put it, there was too much evil in the film. Lecter escaping was too dark of an ending for her. As she put it, she “didn’t want to put that [evil] out into the world.” Having loved working with director Jonathan Demme before, it was a tough decision. She wishes she’d gotten a chance to reunite with him.
#2: Will Smith
“The Matrix” (1999)
All movies start with one thing: The Pitch. For many actors, a decision to pass or move forward is based on the pitch rather than the script. For years, there were rumors and speculation about Will Smith turning down Neo in “The Matrix.” In 2019, Smith put out a YouTube video confirming them. It can be difficult, years later, to imagine the pitch for a modern classic like “The Matrix.” Smith gave us his perspective. The Wachowskis, fresh off of their only film at the time, reportedly didn’t focus their pitch on the story, but on the now famous ‘bullet-time’ action sequence. In 1998, their description made no sense to Smith. He chose to star in “Wild Wild West” instead.
#1: Matt Damon
In the late 2000s, James Cameron approached Matt Damon about a new project he was about to start. The film would be a sci-fi feature about blue aliens fighting human colonizers. During the pitch, according to Damon, Cameron was blunt: “I don’t need anybody. I don’t need a name for this, a named actor.” He told Damon that if he turns it down, he would pluck someone out of obscurity for the role. But, were Damon to take it, Cameron would offer him 10% of the box office. Matt Damon turned it down as he was busy at the time working on “Bourne Ultimatum.” Had he accepted, Matt Damon would have raked in around 250 million dollars.