Creative things to do when an actor won’t return for a sequel

When an actor can't reprise their role in a sequel, how do you fill the gap without the audience noticing? Here are a few solutions...

Filmmaking’s a tricky business, and creative decisions are often informed by pesky details like conflicting schedules, retirement plans and pay disputes. So when studio executives give the greenlight to a movie sequel, and an actor in a major role suddenly can’t – or won’t – appear, filmmakers often have to come up with some creative ideas to make sure their star’s absence doesn’t distract cinemagoers too much.

From recycling snippets of old stock footage to the strategic application of eye patches, here’s a selection of the clever things directors, writers and producers have done to cover the absence of an actor in a sequel. And we start with an infamous case that prompted a fairly major change in the way an actor’s likeness is handled in movies…

Crispin Glover – Back To The Future Part II

Solution: get another actor in and apply prosthetics

Let’s begin with the inspiration for this article: Crispin Glover, and his disagreements with director Robert Zemeckis over his reappearance in Back To The Future Part II. When, for reasons explained in entertaining depth here, Zemeckis opted not to have Glover back as George McFly for the sequel, the actor Jeffrey Weissman was brought in to play the part instead.

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Unfortunately, Weissman didn’t look all that much like Glover, so numerous cunning steps were taken to disguise him: old man prosthetics, originally taken from Glover’s face for the first movie, were appled to Weissman. For good measure, he was given sunglasses, filmed either slightly out of focus or upside-down, while snippets of footage were reused of Glover from the first movie in order to fill in the gaps.

This series of tricks was so successful, audiences often failed to notice that Glover had even been replaced – something that led Glover to successfully sue the filmmakers over their tactics, and hastened the introduction of Screen Actors Guild rules over the use of an actor’s likeness without their permission.

This leads us onto…

Michael Biehn – Alien 3

Solution: smash the character’s head in with a steel girder, then pay the actor a lot of money for a barely recognisable picture. 

Having been among the lucky handful of actors to survive the carnage in 1986’s Aliens, actor Michael Biehn quite logically assumed that he’d appear in the sequel, and that he may even get a better pay check. Unfortunately, Biehn’s character Hicks was killed off in Alien 3′s numerous script rewrites.

Biehn took the news philosophically, until he was tipped off that a rubber cast of his likeness was seen lying around on the Alien 3 set, and that its makers were planning to use Hicks’ body as a carrier for the titular creature. Biehn, furious at the idea that his likeness might about to be used in the movie without his involvement, got his management on the phone to Fox and demanded that it be removed.

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“First, they started to say, ‘We’ll pay Michael a certain amount for this’,” Biehn recalled in the documentary Wreckage And Rage. “And I said, ‘I don’t care how much money you have – I was really stupid back then – that alien is not coming out of my chest.'”

A few months later, Biehn was informed that the makers of Alien 3 wanted to use a photograph of him in the movie – something Biehn says earned him “almost as much” as he got for his performance in Aliens. Perhaps needled by the actor’s refusal to have his character be an alien incubator, the makers of Alien 3 had Dwayne Hicks’ head pulverised by a steel girder in the finished movie – which was illustrated with a pointed shot of the ugly aftermath. Subtle.

Geena Davis – The Fly II

Solution: hire a different actress, and use her voice to overdub scenes of the old actress in stock footage from the first movie. 

The success of David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly made a sequel an attractive proposition in the late 80s, and after various ideas were bandied about, in which Geena Davis would return as science journalist Veronica Quaife, effects artist-turned-director Chris Walas took the helm of the scklocky-yet-entertaining follow-up.

The final version of The Fly II’s script, however, had little for Geena Davis to do, since her character dies in an unpleasant childbirth sequence straight after the opening credits. With Davis now declining to appear in the picture, Walas hired actress Saffron Henderson to play Veronica in that gory opening, and used her voice to overdub some snippets of unused footage from the first movie – this is briefly shown on a videotape in the movie, where we also get a brief, uncredited glimpse of Jeff Goldblum.

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Roy Scheider – Jaws: The Revenge

Solution: just have his face on the wall in some shots, or occasionally cut in sepia-toned footage as a flashback.

By the time the hilariously inept Jaws: The Revenge had rolled around in 1987, Roy Scheider had long since departed his role as Chief Brody, having laughed off the thought of appearing in its predecessor, 1983’s Jaws III (“Mephistopheles … couldn’t talk me into doing [it] … They knew better than to even ask,” he once said).

But where Jaws III was a largely stand-alone story set away from Amity Island (but starring Dennis Quaid as Chief Brody’s son, Michael), Jaws: The Revenge was supposed to posit the idea that a shark had a vendetta against the entire Brody clan. Director Joseph Sargent’s solution? Explain that Chief Brody had been frightened to death by a shark a few years earlier, and occasionally remind viewers of the character’s existence by showing the odd framed photograph in the background of one or two shots.

Just to make the connection between this tawdry sequel and the classic original more clear, the final encounter is intercut with sepia shots of Roy Scheider growling, “Smile, you son of a…” from the original Jaws. Weirdly, this is accompanied by the backwash of the shark roaring like a lion.

Natalie Portman – The Avengers

Solution: have a character loudly explain her absence

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By far the cheapest – and most common – means of getting round an actor’s absence can be found in movies like The Avengers, where their non-appearance is pointedly discussed in a brief, throw-away exchange. If memory serves, someone in xXx 2: State Of The Union explained to us that Vin Diesel’s character died in a speed boating incident between sequels, which was why Ice Cube was mysteriously introduced instead.

In The Avengers, a similar sort of thing happens. Natalie Portman, who played Jane Foster in Thor, was initially supposed to make an appearance in the hit team-up movie, but was too heavily pregnant to be involved.

To make up for this, Agent Phil Coulson shows up with a helpful line of dialogue to explain matters to anyone sitting in the audience and thinking, “Where the hell’s Jane”:

“As soon as Loki took the doctor, we moved Jane Foster. They’ve got an excellent observatory in Tromso. She was asked to consult there very suddenly yesterday. Handsome fee, private plane, very remote. She’ll be safe.”

In short, “She’s up a mountain somewhere. Don’t worry – we gave her cake and fizzy drinks.”

Alan Cumming – X2

Solution: write the character out in a videogame

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Alan Cumming made a great impression as Nightcrawler in X2, but with his makeup taking anywhere between four and nine hours to apply depending on the scene, he wasn’t especially keen on returning to the role for X-Men III: The Last Stand. When it emerged that his part in the already hero-stuffed sequel was relatively minimal, both actor and studio decided to quietly leave Nightcrawler out of the story altogether.

Naturally, an omission like that required some sort of explanation, and the one the makers came up with was quite novel. In The X-Men: Official Game, released around the time of X-Men III’s appearance in 2006, Nightcrawler explains to Xavier that being in the X-Men has all become a bit too intense for him, and so he quietly retires.

Hugh Quarshie – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Solution: get another actor in to play essentially the same character, but change the name and add an eyepatch.

This, perhaps, is our favorite solution of the lot. Actor Hugh Quarshie played a small yet memorable role in The Phantom Menace as Queen Amidala’s personal bodyguard, Captain Panaka. When Quarshie couldn’t appear in the sequel, Attack Of The Clones, its makers did something rather unusual: they hired actor Jay Laga’aia to play another bodyguard, who dressed and behaved almost identically to Captain Panaka, except his name was different (he was called Gregar Typho) and he wore an eyepatch.

As TVTropes rightly put it, “…they’re the same, both in appearance and personality, to the point that some viewers wondered why Captain Panaka was suddenly sporting an eyepatch.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger – Terminator Salvation

Solution: get a younger body builder in, then stick a digital likeness over his face.

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Here’s another story that says a lot about the power of an actor’s face in Hollywood. When Arnold Schwarzenegger quit acting to become the king of California, the Terminator franchise was left without its most famous cyborg. None of this stopped director McG from inserting a small yet noteworthy cameo for Schwarzenegger in his 2009 sequel, Terminator Salvation, and coming up with a high-tech solution: hire body builder Roland Kickinger and apply a digital mask using computer science.

In the finished movie, this provided the quite convincing illusion that Christian Bale and Sam Worthington were fighting another T-800 Terminator. Before Salvation was released, Schwarzenegger was shown the footage, and gave his approval for it to appear in the final cut. But what if he’d refused? McG had a sneaky back-up plan.

“You’ll notice the door flies off,” the director said in an interview with Blastr, “Connor goes down on his back, and he shoots the machine gun up the chest of the T-800. If we were unsuccessful in getting the likeness of Schwarzenegger, we were just going to have the machine gun having blown his face off.”

Schwarzenegger, no doubt remembering the state of Michael Biehn’s head after his refusal to cooperate with the makers of Alien 3, wisely gave the go-ahead.