Long before there were YouTube reaction videos (and we all had to find someone to surprise in our own time), there was nothing quite like sharing the fun fact that Christopher Walken auditioned for the role of Han Solo. The reaction is complex: laughter, disbelief, confusion, this desperate need to hold onto the sense that something so absurd could not be real.
But casting back stories are often absurd: You may think when you watch your favorite film that they got everything right, but read the behind-the-scenes notes and you'll discover a lot of wrongs. Sometimes it was the right person but the wrong role. Sometimes it was Nicolas Cage.
Here are 10 of the best, worst, and strangest casts that very nearly came to a theater near you:
10. Sean Connery and Stuart Townsend in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03)
Poor Stuart Townsend: First Peter Jackson kicked him out, then Charlize Theron. The vampire-rocker turned "Was that Stuart Townsend?" did all the training and prep for the role of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings franchise and then got let go just a day before filming.
Jackson wanted someone older - and while we're thankful that he gave us Viggo Mortensen, couldn't the hobbits have at least written Townsend a nice goodbye card? How about a fruit basket?
Lesser known than Townsend's controversial departure is Sean Connery's epic mistake. Connery was offered the role of Gandalf - with a pretty little 15 percent of worldwide box office receipts to tempt him, an ultimate net of something like $400 million - but didn't connect with the script and turned it down. Now we'll never hear "You shall not passshhh" in his signature Scottish brogue.
9. Matthew McConaughey and Gwyneth Paltrow in Titanic (1997)
Considering that even Titanic on paper wreaked of money, it's a little shocking how many people turned down the role of Rose - Gwyneth Paltrow and Claire Danes among them. Both had the look Cameron was going for, which, oddly enough, Kate Winslet did not. Winslet famously campaigned heavily for the role, practically stalking Cameron with cards and phone calls and a lot of begging until he gave in.
Leonardo DiCaprio, however, was coy; he considered himself a serious actor - and we all eventually came to agree - and didn't want to take the role unless Jack was given a little more depth. Figuratively. Cameron put his foot down (don't try to complicate the juggernaut, just let it do its thing) and DiCaprio finally accepted, but the shortlist of alternatives included both Chris O'Donnell and Matthew McConaughey.
8. Will Smith, Nicolas Cage, or Ewan McGregor in The Matrix (1999-2003)
If you believe the reports, the starring role in The Matrix trilogy was, for some time, the Tinseltown bicycle; everybody who was anybody had a ride. Among the confirmed actors who turned it down: Will Smith and Nicolas Cage. This was back when Cage was turning down great roles (was every day in the late '90s Opposite Day?) for more time with his family. Smith went ahead with Wild Wild West instead, but has said in interviews that in retrospect he wouldn't have been right for Neo at the time.
But the best backstory goes to Ewan McGregor, whose name popped up on fan sites early on as a possible Neo, and for some time was reported as having rejected the part. McGregor reacted to these stories in a 2005 interview with Playboy, furious that someone might have turned it down on his behalf. Not sure where that anger's coming from; the last thing McGregor wants is another franchise's obsessive fandom chasing him down with their official trinkets.
7. Renee Zellweger in Fight Club (1999)
It's hard to question director David Fincher's taste, but what went on behind-the-scenes in casting Fight Club may give even hardcore Fincher fans some pause.
Renee Zellweger was offered the role of Marla Singer - the ugly/pretty femme fatale who is so quintessentially Helena Bonham Carter - but turned it down as too dark for her. Good call, Bridget Jones. Also seriously considered for the role: Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Gellar. These are the kinds of poor decisions that get you kicked off reality show competitions.
6. John Travolta in Forrest Gump (1994)
Travolta has since said he made a mistake in turning down the role of Forrest in Forrest Gump, possibly Tom Hanks' most iconic performance. Mistake is a strong word. Have you seen the way John Travolta walks? His running may have been a bit too sexaaay-yeeeaaah for the role.
5. Mel Gibson and Jennifer Lopez in Gladiator (2000)
Coming off his Braveheart fame, Gibson was approached by director Ridley Scott as a seemingly obvious choice to star as the gladiator-who-defied-an-emperor Maximus. We owe Gibson for this one, as the actor felt he was too old for the part. Think of how this could have upset the balance at the Oscars that year: Russell Crowe wouldn't have been there to accept the award he should have gotten for The Insider, the one that went instead to Denzel Washington, who should've gotten one long before for - let's face it - being Denzel Washington.
4. Tom Selleck, Nick Nolte, or Jeff Bridges in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Tom Selleck's mustache couldn't get out of its contract with TV series Magnum, P.I., to star in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but the release of his long-lost screen test has inspired some pretty incredible fan art (Selleck Waterfall Sandwich goes Selleck Hat Treasure?). It's hard to imagine anyone but Harrison Ford as Indy, but Sellek at least deserves some credit for knowing a good thing when he saw it: Both Nick Nolte (Nick Nolte?!?) and Jeff Bridges reportedly turned down the role of dashing archaeologist with a whip.
3. Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix in Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Rumors circulated that Wahlberg and friend Phoenix (who later starred together in We Own the Night) had originally landed the lead roles in this Oscar-nominated masterpiece after Wahlberg talked openly - and kind of contentiously - about his negative response to the script's graphic sex scenes.
Turns out Wahlberg was being intentionally aloof, hoping to downplay the fact that he was never officially offered the role. Still, there was definitely a meeting with the director and a script read, so believe it: This could have happened.
2. Julia Roberts in Basic Instinct (1992)
Amidst a long, long, long list of actresses who turned down the lead role - from Demi Moore to Michelle Pfeiffer to Brooke Shields - Roberts is perhaps the most out of place to have been offered it (but then, it does take a special kind of arrogance to offer the notorious leg-uncrossing part to British icon Emma Thompson).
Roberts can add a number of missed opportunities to her list; she turned down the leads in Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping, and Shakespeare in Love. But this rejection was a very good call: Wielding an ice pick only two years after Pretty Woman? Not exactly the loveable, fiery redhead audiences had fallen for.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
1. Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer (and Johnny Depp) in Thelma & Louise (1991)
Thelma & Louise went through a number of cast changes: Both Cher and Melanie Griffith turned down the role that ultimately went to Geena Davis (nothing to weep over there), while Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep once considered doing the film together but picked Death Becomes Her instead (if you haven't seen that campy comic freakshow, you need to). The pair that came closest before the final casting was Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer.
But that's nothing compared to the backstory of casting young, strapping sex symbol J.D. Johnny Depp reportedly turned it down (like he does, the little hermit), and George Clooney - then an unknown - auditioned at least five times with no success. Instead, the role went on to launch the career of future BFF Brad Pitt.