Re-Cast: Five Blockbusters Completely Changed For Their Star

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As espionage actioner Salt proves, movie twists can sometimes happen before the cameras starts rolling. Reworked to incorporate Angelina Jolie, Evelyn Salt was originally Edwin Salt, similarly adept at the whole running, shooting and spying business but marginally less likely to get a pedicure. Kurt Wimmer tweaked the script to swap Tom Cruise’s spy for Jolie’s more enigmatic spook, which got us thinking about other big movies that could have been oh-so-different.

The original idea: Who doesn’t love Beverly Hills Cop? It’s as close as the Simpson/Bruckheimer/Eisner ’80s juggernaut came to movie perfection – 105 minutes of wisecracking, smart-mouthed banana-in-the-tailpipe mayhem, with belly laughs and weapons-grade synthesisers. Audiences lapped it up to the tune of $316m (or about $644m in today’s money). That we know. What’s less well known is that it was all nearly very different. After Mickey Rourke turned the part down, Eddie Murphy’s Alex Foley was going to be Sylvester Stallone’s Cobretti – an East Coast detective marked out as a whole different kind of cop by his tight-fit tees, Wham shades and a machine gun that looked like it had been specially made for him by Black And Decker. And that tooth pick. This was a cop who meant business. He was nonchalant. He was cool. He had no food between his teeth.

What went wrong? Cobretti’s shoot first, ask questions shoot again policy was all set to unleash a shitstorm of carnage on LA the like of which wouldn’t be seen again until the bit of T2: Judgment Day when the entire place melts. Sadly for everyone except its inhabitants, Paramount took a look at the figures and realised they couldn’t afford to destroy a whole city. Stallone and homicidal mania were out, Eddie Murphy and jokes were in.

How much do we want to see this movie? Stallone’s Beverly Hills Cop is no laughing matter. As the man himself has admitted, his rewrites of Danilo Bach and Daniel Petrie Jr.’s script took the story of a Detroit detective on the tail of some serious white-collar slime and turned it into the opening of Saving Private Ryan. No-one knows if this stretched to bangalore torpedos down Rodeo Drive, but it spelt curtains for Billy Rosewood (‘Siddons’ in an early draft), bumped off at the midpoint. Michael Tandino, meanwhile, swapped from childhood friend to brother, giving Cobretti reason to unleash supplementary whoop-ass. In place of the mansion shoot-out there was a colossal car chase involving a Lamborghini, a Pontiac and, in a unfortunate twist for Victor Maitland, an oncoming train. This would clearly have been awesome. The bean-counters thought otherwise. Eight weeks before the shoot was due to start, Murphy, Reinhold and co. were on board, the script was re-funnied, and Stallone and his avenging-cop-lunatic were bundled off to killing fields new. And the rest was Cobra.

Nods to the original casting? No, but in one of the great in-jokes, posters of Cobra and Rambo adorns Billy Rosewood’s room in Beverly Hills Cop 2.

The original idea: If Ghost Stoppers with John Candy sounds like a shoo-in for worst movie ever, take a moment to consider that this is where Ghost Busters began. Dan Aykroyd’s original story involved time travel, giant space critters and a team of spectre detectors that could have doubled up as back up for Delta Force (the Ghost Stoppers were going to be clad in SWAT-like outfits with riot police helmets, although they’d be armed with wands rather than proton packs). There was no Zuul and no Gozer, although Aykroyd’s script did have room for a zero-gravity Stay-Puft. It was basically Spaceballs meets Event Horizon on the psychiatrist’s couch. Eddie Murphy would be the Winston character. Candy was a white-collar Louis Tully. And who’d play Peter Venkman? Mighty SNL veteran and scourge of minibars everywhere, John Belushi.

What went wrong? Money was the problem, at least for Aykroyd’s original script which was so thick it was described by Ivan Reitman as ‘a phone book’. The stratospherically high-concept was rejected by the producer/director who put the kibosh on the space setting and the super-silly effects fest that he estimated would cost $200m to make (and in 1980s money, that wasn’t just the tea budget). “I influenced its realism,” says Reitman, “I wanted to make a comedy that also had science-fiction stuff and neat effects in it.” And tonnes and tonnes of ectoplasm. But while Reitman and Aykroyd hunkered down to redraft for two weeks in a Martha’s Vineyard bomb shelter, Belushi died. Another SNL alumnus, Bill Murray, who’d worked with Reitman on Stripes and Meatballs, was the new Venkman.

How much do we want to see this movie? The thought of Jake and Elwood Blues crossing streams with Axel Foley – in the future – in space – may sound completely insane, but the three old SNL muckers had a chemistry that would no doubt have bounced off the screen. John Belushi would have made a harder-living, if less caustically wisecracking, Venkman, a parapsychologist more terrifying than any ghoul or Sumerian demigod. Gozer the Destructor versus Belushi the Demented would have been a movie showdown for the ages.

Nods to the original casting? Dan Aykroyd joked that Slimer was “the ghost of John Belushi” which we think he meant affectionately. Even Belushi didn’t tackle the room service trolley in the corridor.

The original idea: Will Smith attracts trouble. Wherever he goes, night-crawling darkseekers, rogue NSA agents, megalomanic aliens and scripts for Wild West West aren’t usually too far behind. Not a stretch then to see him as Thomas Anderson’s hacker-turned-messiah tearing about inside the Matrix, battling an army of agents, SWAT teams and deadpanning with Hugo Weaving. So easy in fact, it’d only take a few tweaks to give him his own theme song (“I'd like to take a minute if you don’t mind me tryin’, and tell you how I became the prince of a town called Zion”), and we can see him handling those martial arts with more ease than another choice for the role, Nicolas Cage.

What went wrong? Smith turned it down. Even as a fan of their noir-thriller Bound, he was sceptical about the Wachowski brothers’ then-pioneering use of bullet-time technology. “Honestly, I didn't think they could do it, it was too ambitious,” he told Empire. “The Matrix is exactly what they pitched, but they were designing those cameras to get those freeze-frames, and I was like, ‘If that doesn't work, the movie looks ridiculous.’” While Keanu Reeves donned the robe and shades, Smith went off to battle a giant mechanical Kenneth Branagh. Unsurprisingly, this is one career choice he rues.

How much do we want to see this movie? It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone but Keanu Reeves as the gun-barrel straight Neo, a fact later acknowledged by Will Smith. “Somehow when you see somebody do it like Keanu you think, ‘Thank God!’ I don't think I was mature enough as an actor at that point to get out of the way and just let it be and allow the directors to make the movie. I’d have been trying to make jokes.” He’s got a point. It probably wouldn’t have taken the machines to find the Nebuchadnezzar with Will Smith’s booming laugh reverberating through the Matrix.

Nods to the original casting? Nope. The bit where Neo greets Agent Smith with “Welcome to Earth!” and a punch in the kisser presumably didn’t make the cut.

The original idea: Despite ending up as the kind of turkey Bernard Matthews would have a tough time loving, The Saint came into being with some pedigree. The first script, penned by Schindler’s List writer Steven Zaillian, had Sydney Pollack attached as director and a whole mess of bank robberies, sports cars and jetsetting swagger. Another draft was bashed out by Jonathan Hensleigh and brought in a MacGuffinsome plot involving the theft of cold fusion technology and some banshee-mad stunts (wheelchair skydiving anyone?). At different stages in the process the script ended up as bedtime reading for a strangely mixed array of Hollywooders, including Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Grant, Johnny Depp and Mel Gibson. And the other choice to play Simon Templar, the suave, nimble superthief with a flirtacious wit and an eye for the ladies? Yup, Arnie. Obvs.

What went wrong? Development hell happened. Robert Evans departed the project, rewrites were ordered, brows wiped, double scotches poured, unfeasible set-pieces okayed then canned, until eventually Val Kilmer was signed up and Cape Fear writer Wesley Strick brought in. Strick’s brief was to pepper up the script to suit Kilmer’s lighter touch and cut back on the budget-sapping action in favour of more stealthier stunts and smart-mouthed patter. This was probably good news for whoever had been charged with trying to land a Lear Jet in Red Square. Bad news for Arnie though. He’d passed on The Saint in favour of Batman And Robin.

How much do we want to see this movie? With the same effortless ability to blend in and disappear as, say, the BT Tower, Arnie’s Simon Templar would have needed to do a lot less disguising and a lot more punching. That Volvo would also have got swiftly traded for a Hummer. The whole orphanage backstory would probably have to go too – no-one spanks Arnie, even child Arnie – and the flirty banter with Shue’s kooky scientist would be replaced with Mr. Freeze-style one-liners (“I am going to rob you. Of your heart.”). To overcome the ‘no killing’ remit, Arnie’s Templar just shoots people in the leg instead. We’re thinking True Lies 2 without the jump jets and dodgy pole dancing.

Nods to the original casting? None whatsoever, although a scene where Simon Templar disguises himself as a fat woman with a retractable face wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The original idea: Along with a young(ish) Liam Neeson, Touchstone’s unlikely pick for the role of the inspirational Whitman-quoting, Tchaikovsky-whistling English prof John Keating was, er, Dustin Hoffman. In early script drafts the character was the focal point of the story until his battle with leukemia was sidelined in favour of the students and their trials, tribulations and cave-based poetry jams. Robin Williams jumped at the role, bringing with him an improv approach that delivered many of the movie’s best lines.

What went wrong? Hoffman had a packed slate and passed. With romance Random Hearts (later made with Harrison Ford), a Shostakovich biopic and Louis Malle conman drama Moon Over Miami also in his in-tray, he sprang for crime caper Family Business followed by comic-book crime caper Dick Tracy. We’re saying that if Dead Poets Society had had a bit where Keating sticks up a bank with a tommy gun, he would have taken it. When Robin Williams picked up a Best Actor nomination at the 1990 Oscars, Hoffman probably wished he had.

How much do we want to see this movie? Imagine Dead Poets Society with Hoffman channelling Ratso’s nervous energy and Marathon Man’s sweaty paranoia into the kind of twitchy teacher that used to have students competing for the seat nearest the exit. Instead of the Walt Whitman poems, inspiring life lessons and Latin bon mots, there’d be double chemistry and extra cross-country. Can’t see it? Us neither. Hoffman would definitely amped up that potent final scene pay-off though, as his class rise to salute him with the stirring ‘Oh captain, my captain’ and he skulks out muttering “I’m walking here!”

Nods to the original casting? Sadly, no; a scene where John Keating drives away from the school sitting silently in the back row of a bus might not have been out of place.