40 Hollywood A-Listers Who Turned Down Iconic Movie Roles

We’ve all done it: turned down an offer for something that seemed like a good opportunity but didn’t quite feel like the right fit. Now imagine doing the same, but as a Hollywood actor. And then you tune into the flick you’ve turned down, and it’s Titanic or The Princess Bride or Pretty Woman. Of course, the 40 actors on this list ended up doing just fine in their careers. But it’s crazy to think they could have starred in these iconic roles – if only they would have said yes.

40. John Lithgow – Batman

It’s hard to imagine anyone else but Jack Nicholson as The Joker in the 1989 version of Batman. But casting directors also tossed around the idea of John Lithgow in the role. The 3rd Rock From the Sun star didn’t see himself as a good fit in the devious role. He recalled his audition to culture website Vulture in 2017, saying, “I tried to persuade him I was not right for the part, and I succeeded.”

39. John Travolta – Forrest Gump

John Travolta has admitted that he would “trade a few movies with Tom Hanks.” And of course that includes 1994 smash hit Forrest Gump. That one must be especially frustrating for Travolta when you consider that he actually turned down the role. Even worse, Hanks went on to win an Oscar for it.

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38. Mel Gibson – Gladiator

At the turn of the 21st century, Mel Gibson was one of the hottest actors in Hollywood. That meant that he could be discerning with the parts he took – and the starring role in Gladiator didn’t appeal to him. The Braveheart actor found that the movie’s action scenes seemed a bit too rigorous for his liking. Plus he felt he had a few too many years on the clock to play the ancient Roman fighter. So the job went to Russell Crowe – and he won an Academy Award for his turn as Maximus.

37. Danny DeVito – The Princess Bride

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If you’ve ever read the novel version of The Princess Bride, the sharp-tongued Italian character named Vizzini seems like the perfect part for Danny DeVito. Yet the actor turned down the role in the beloved 1987 flick for unknown reasons. Wallace Shawn ended up playing the part, and reportedly felt anxiety knowing whose shoes he had to fill.

36. Hugh Jackman – Casino Royale

In 2013 Hugh Jackman jokingly told Fabric magazine, “I cry myself to sleep every night,” over his decision to turn down the part of James Bond. But he did have a good reason for it. The Australian superstar said he was already playing one seminal role in Wolverine, and he didn’t want to take on another.

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35. Jack Nicholson – The Godfather

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Jack Nicholson turned down the opportunity to play Michael Corleone in the 1972 classic The Godfather for one simple reason: he thought an Italian should play the part. Director Francis Ford Coppola seemingly came to agree with him, as he cast Italian-American actor Al Pacino in the role instead.

34. Gwyneth Paltrow – Titanic

Rumor has it that Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow passed on Kate Winslet’s role of Rose in mega-hit Titanic. Still, the Iron Man star told Howard Stern in 2015 that she had been “in contention for it.” What’s more, the Goop guru explained that she “would throw a fit that [she] turned that down!”

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33. Matt Damon – Avatar

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Matt Damon won’t just take any film offer he receives. He turned down major roles including the titular role in Daredevil and Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. But it was a scheduling conflict that forced him to say no to starring in Avatar, which ended up grossing more money than any other film in history. After that, Damon could only laugh about the fact he didn’t take the part. He sarcastically reflected to Access Hollywood, “Clearly my not participating cost the film a lot.”

32. Leonardo DiCaprio – Boogie Nights

Leonardo DiCaprio admitted to GQ in 2008 that he regretted turning down the chance to play porn star Dirk Diggler. Mind you, the choice made didn’t turn out to be bad. “Boogie Nights is a movie I loved, and I wish I would’ve done,” he said. But he did Titanic instead, and Mark Wahlberg did Boogie Nights.

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31. Emily Blunt – Iron Man 2

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Emily Blunt was this close to becoming an Avenger. But scheduling conflicts forced her to turn down the role of Black Widow in Iron Man 2, which left the part open for actress Scarlett Johansson. Afterward, Blunt lamented to MTV News in 2009, “It just got complicated, so I think I had to pull out for my own sanity more than anything.”

30. Reese Witherspoon – Scream

Why didn’t Reese Witherspoon grab the role of Sidney Prescott in Scream? Well, the story is that she had the mistaken belief that it would be a cookie-cutter horror flick. However, the hugely successful original – which featured Neve Campbell as Prescott – would go on to spawn three blockbuster sequels.

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29. Charlie Hunnam – Fifty Shades of Grey

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Turning down the role of Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey was a painful decision for Charlie Hunnam. Unfortunately, though, he had too much going on with his TV show, Sons of Anarchy, and a Guillermo del Toro movie, Crimson Peak. Stepping back from Fifty Shades meant he had to make a tearful call to director Sam Taylor-Johnson. He told entertainment magazine Variety in 2015, “We both cried our eyes out on the phone for 20 minutes.”

28. Julia Roberts – The Blind Side

It’s been claimed that Julia Roberts opted for ensemble rom-com Valentine’s Day instead of a role in biopic The Blind Side. That’s too bad considering Sandra Bullock went home with an Academy Award for The Blind Side, while news magazine Time reckons Valentine’s Day is “just plain boring.”

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27. Jennifer Hudson – Precious

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Gabourey Sidibe famously played the titular character in the movie Precious, but her breakout role almost went to Jennifer Hudson. The singer and actress revealed in I Got This, her 2012 autobiography, that she said no to the film because she “wanted to try a role that had nothing to do whatsoever with [her] weight.” Indeed, Hudson had previously served as a spokesperson for Weight Watchers, so it made sense that she wanted to highlight other sides of herself.

26. Denzel Washington – Michael Clayton

Denzel Washington would come to regret passing on the title role in Michael Clayton. After all, the part would win an Oscar nomination for George Clooney. In 2012 Washington explained to men’s style magazine GQ why he turned it down. The superstar said, “It was the best material I had read in a long time, but I was nervous about a first-time director, and I was wrong.”

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25. Burt Reynolds – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

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When Sean Connery left the James Bond franchise, Burt Reynolds stood at the front of the pack of potential replacements for the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But the actor refused to step in as the famously suave spy for a simple reason: he thought viewers wouldn’t like their Bond to have an American accent. In 2015 he told USA Today newspaper that he had come to regret that decision, saying, “It was a stupid thing to say. I could’ve done it, and I could’ve done it well.”

24. Sean Connery – The Lord of the Rings

Can you imagine Sean Connery in the robes of Gandalf the Grey? Well, you nearly didn’t have to. Connery reportedly didn’t play the beloved wizard in The Lord of the Rings trilogy because he “didn’t understand” the screenplay. The role, of course, went to Ian McKellen, who is now much admired throughout the world for his performance.

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23. Emma Watson – La La Land

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Emma Watson had already committed to Beauty and the Beast when she got the offer to play leading lady Mia in La La Land. She instantly knew she had to turn down the latter offer because, as she said in a 2017 SiriusXM Town Hall interview, “I knew I had horse training, I knew I had dancing, I knew I had three months of singing ahead of me, and I knew I had to be in London to really do that.” So, the part went to Emma Stone, who won an Oscar for her performance.

22. Angela Bassett – Monster’s Ball

When Newsweek magazine talked to Angela Bassett in 2002, it asked her why she had said no to one particular role. Bassett told the magazine that she had passed on Monster’s Ball because she “couldn’t do that because it’s such a stereotype about black women and sexuality.” Halle Berry had no such worries, however, and she wound up with the part and an Oscar.

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21. Jim Carrey – Elf

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Elf came out in 2003, but writers finished the first draft of the movie’s script a decade earlier. At that time, Jim Carrey was supposedly attached to play the story’s main character, the excitable elf named Buddy. But when the film finally went into production, the actor had to back out in favor of other commitments. Plus he worried that his turn as the Grinch would affect his ability to play another Christmas character.

20. Dustin Hoffman – Taxi Driver

Back in the ’70s Martin Scorsese apparently approached Dustin Hoffman about the lead in Taxi Driver. Hoffman was having none of it and reportedly said of their meeting, “I was thinking, ‘What is [Scorsese] talking about?’ I thought the guy was crazy!” Robert De Niro eventually took the iconic role.

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19. Will Smith – The Matrix

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Will Smith told Wired magazine in 2004 that he had no regrets about turning down the part of Neo in The Matrix. The Men In Black star felt Keanu Reeves did the part more justice than he could have. Smith explained, “In the pitch, I just didn’t see it. I watched Keanu’s performance – and very rarely do I say this – but I would have messed it up… At that point I wasn’t smart enough as an actor to let the movie be… Let the movie and the director tell the story and don’t try and perform every moment.”

18. Michelle Pfeiffer – The Silence of the Lambs

Michelle Pfeiffer has admitted that she has turned down quite a few big roles. Among others, she said no thanks to Pretty Woman and Thelma & Louise. But she told The Telegraph in 2013 her biggest regret was passing on “Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.” The role earned Jodie Foster an Oscar.

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17. Molly Ringwald – Pretty Woman

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Playing the leading role in Pretty Woman skyrocketed Julia Roberts to long-lasting fame – but she wasn’t the first actress considered to play Vivian Ward. Eighties-era teen icon Molly Ringwald revealed in a 2012 Reddit post that the Pretty Woman team approached her about starring in the flick. She said she had read the script, but she didn’t explain why she decided to turn the job down.

16. Al Pacino – Star Wars

At the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 Al Pacino revealed that his career could really have gone stellar. Yes, he could have made a splash in space as Han Solo in the original Star Wars. “I remember not [understanding the script] when I read it,” he explained to MTV. That was good news for Harrison Ford.

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15. Tom Hanks – Jerry Maguire

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Cameron Crowe wrote Jerry Maguire with one actor planned for the titular role: Tom Hanks. But when it came time to cast the flick – which Crowe also directed – Hanks had a conflict. The Forrest Gump star was signed on to direct his own flick, That Thing You Do. So, Crowe hired Tom Cruise for the job instead.

14. Cher – Thelma & Louise

When Cher spoke to U.K. tabloid The Mail on Sunday in 2013, she described her “biggest disappointment.” And it turned out that it was being “too sick to do Thelma & Louise. She went on, “It’s still a great film, but I have a saying: ‘What belongs to you, comes to you.’”

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13. Marilyn Monroe – Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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Truman Capote wrote the novella version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When Hollywood came calling – adapting his book into a movie – he had one woman in mind to play Holly Golightly. Capote made it clear that he wanted Marilyn Monroe in the role, but the part was famously played by Audrey Hepburn. And some say he disliked the latter’s take on the character he wrote.

12. Kevin Costner – The Shawshank Redemption

Kevin Costner has made some bold choices in his career, but there is one he might have regretted some. Costner could have been The Shawshank Redemption’s Andy Dufresne had he apparently not been toiling away on Waterworld. Unfortunately for Costner, Waterworld was a bit of a damp squib while Shawshank is a perennial favorite with audiences.

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11. Bruce Willis – Ghost

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Superstar Bruce Willis just didn’t care for the idea of what would turn out to be one of Hollywood’s biggest hits. “I passed on Ghost because I thought, ‘A romance with a dead guy?’” said Willis on the website Ain’t It Cool News in 2007. His confusion over the concept certainly paid off for Patrick Swayze, though.

10. Henry Winkler – Grease

After his star-making turn as a greaser called Fonzie on Happy Days, Henry Winkler was afraid he’d continue to be typecast. So he turned down the chance to play leading man Danny Zuko in the classic movie musical Grease. In 2017 he told seniors interest group AARP that he didn’t regret his decision, but he still wished he hadn’t been so analytical about the choice. He said, “It’s that I turned it down intellectually instead of instinctually. Listen to your gut – it knows everything.”

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9. Tom Selleck – Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Can you picture it? Magnum and the lost ark. Well, it came close to reality. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas originally wanted Tom Selleck for Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Luckily for Harrison Ford, Selleck was committed to the TV series Magnum P.I. at the time and couldn’t be released from his contract.

8. Bette Midler – Sister Act

Whoopi Goldberg’s performance as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act is equal parts beloved and iconic. Yet the role was written with another actress in mind: Bette Midler. Years later, she explained toU.K. newspaper Metro why she didn’t take the job. She said in 2010 that her fans likely didn’t “want to see [her] in a wimple.”

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7. Emily Browning – The Twilight Saga

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Amazingly, Emily Browning passed on Twilight before she even auditioned for the part of Bella, which eventually went to Kristen Stewart. Browning told HuffPost Live website in 2014 that she isn’t comfortable with that level of fame. “I don’t think I would have been able to handle it,” she said.

6. Tom Cruise – Footloose

Tom Cruise had a string of hit movies in the 1980s, and he could have continued that trend with Footloose. However, after starring in Risky Business and Top Gun, he signed on to star in All the Right Moves. This meant that he had no time to film the dance-centric film, which left the leading role of Ren open for actor Kevin Bacon instead.

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5. Nicolas Cage – The Lord of the Rings

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Nic Cage usually knows a good thing when he sees one, but there was one time he didn’t. Cage hinted to Newsweek in 2015 that he “probably would have benefited” from taking the role of Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He dropped out because of “different things going on in my life at the time,” which was good news for Viggo Mortensen.

4. Sandra Bullock – Million Dollar Baby

Sandra Bullock had long dreamed of starring in a movie about a professional boxer. By the time Million Dollar Baby got the green light, though, the actress had signed on to star in the film Crash. So, actress Hilary Swank took on the role of Maggie Fitzgerald instead, and won an Oscar for her knockout performance.

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3. Christina Applegate – Legally Blonde

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Christina Applegate could have had Reese Witherspoon’s career if she’d accepted the part of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. Applegate told entertainment website ETonline in 2015 that it was because she’d already played a similar role on TV. “I got scared of kind of repeating myself. What a stupid move,” she joked.

2. Robin Williams – The Shining

When you think about The Shining, you probably envision Jack Nicholson’s wildly smiling face through a splintered wooden door. Now try and picture that same image but with Robin Williams grinning in place instead. Supposedly, the movie’s director, Stanley Kubrick, initially wanted the Mrs. Doubtfire actor to play Jack Torrance. It’s unclear why Williams turned down the opportunity.

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1. Josh Hartnett – Batman Begins

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Josh Hartnett deeply regrets not taking on Batman for director Christopher Nolan. “I was so focused on not being pigeonholed and so scared of being considered only one thing as an actor,” he told Playboy magazine in 2015 of his decision. And, of course, eventual Batman Christian Bale majorly benefited from Hartnett’s unwise choice.

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