Disney’s Hercules, and the Challenge of Casting

Jack Nicholson was originally in line for Disney’s Hercules – but 1989’s Batman movie put an end to it…

If you believe the rhetoric, then between The Lion King and the current resurgence for Walt Disney Animation Studios, Disney didn’t release an animated movie of any merit. I’ve long been one of those calling nonsense on this. Between The Lion King and, say, Tangled, we had The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Mulan, Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet, Meet The Robinsons, and The Princess & The Frog, for example. I’d argue there’s a mix of underappreciated and flat-out excellent movies in that lot.

And we also had Hercules.

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1997’s Hercules wasn’t a raging box office success, and it was the first Walt Disney Animation Studios project to fall shy of $100 million at the American box office since The Rescuers Down Under in 1990. Granted, it only just missed that mark, bringing in $99 million in the US, and a grand total of $252 million worldwide. Still, Disney’s stock price dropped nearly 10% in the aftermath of the movie’s box office opening. The glory years for Disney animation’s resurgence, at least financially, appeared to be over, following the slightly depressed box office of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Pocahontas too.

And yet Hercules is a film whose name seems to come up over and over. It’s clearly one that holds a lot of affection for many, and I’ve always been a fan of it. It was the fourth film of directing team John Musker and Ron Clements, following Basil The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. The pair have just finished work on the terrific Moana too, incidentally.

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With Hercules, though, they had a casting problem, and I thought it worth looking at that in more detail, to give a snapshot of one of the less-talked-about challenges of an animated movie.

It’s a casting problem that Musker explored in a series of excellent posts at the Howard Ashman Part Of His World appreciation website. There, Musker recalls how Treasure Planet was set to be the next film for the pair following Aladdin, yet Disney top brass weren’t convinced about that project,. Thus, Musker and Clements struck a deal with the-then boss of Disney animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who agreed they could do Treasure Planet if the pair tackled another movie for him first.

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They chose Hercules.

The pair threw themselves into the development of the movie, and Musker gave an insight into what they were up against. In particular, at the start of Hercules, Musker noted that “we wanted the film to open with very sober, stentorian narration as we panned through a Museum of Classical Antiquities, but then be interrupted by the informality of our muses as they come to life off Attic vases. When they want to take over the narration of the story, the narrator concedes and even exhorts Calliope in a manner a bit out of character for him: ‘You go, girl…’”

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A call went in to the late Charlton Heston, who agreed to lend his voice to the film. He came in to record the lines of said narrator. The problem? He wasn’t happy with the grammar of what he had to say.

The directors checked if he was okay with the lines, and he questioned him having to say ‘you go, girl’. “He was insistent that rather than ‘you go, girl’ it should be said, ‘go ahead…young lady!” I don’t think Chuck was familiar with the colloquialism we were playing with,” Musker noted.

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Eventually, Heston agreed to do the line their way, “grudgingly,” and his narration does indeed lead the film.

That was minor, though, in the scheme of things. A genuine casting problem came when some of the people Musker and Clements wanted involved in the film wouldn’t come in to read for it. The directors admit their reluctance to cast people without hearing them speak the lines of the character concerned. They did make an exception for Nell Carter, who was duly cast in the role of Thalia, but problems quickly followed. In hindsight, the directors learned that she’d “reportedly declared bankruptcy that week”, amongst one or two issues. In terms of Hercules, she simply wasn’t working out though, something that was evident very quickly. It became clear that the role needed to be recast, and was. Roz Ryan came in and read for it, and would take the part on.

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Danny DeVito didn’t read for the role of Philoctetes either, incidentally, and thus other actors were auditioned, including Ernest Borgnine. But in DeVito’s case, the role was written for him. After a lengthy meeting – whilst DeVito was shooting Matilda – that piece of casting worked out, as Musker and Clements broke their casting rule on that one.

Still, when Hercules was released, it was James Woods amongst the voice cast who took the lion’s share of the plaudits. Yet the role wasn’t originally his. In fact, the part of Hades was originally set for Jack Nicholson.

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By the time Hercules was in active production, Jeffrey Katzenberg had left the studio – ultimately to co-found DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen – and thus Disney chief Michael Eisner was taking a more active role in animated productions.

As Musker noted, “Michael wanted to play the role that Jeffrey had previously, the heavyweight executive who would help us land the big name.” Katzenberg had snared Robin Williams for Aladdin, and now Eisner had his eye on Jack Nicholson for Hercules.

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Nicholson was certainly interested. He went along to Disney’s development building in Glendale, and brought along two of his young children. Nicholson was given the tour, shown the artwork for Hercules, and then some test work, with his lines for A Few Good Men set to animation. “We had a simmering Hades idly playing with a lick of flame as he said ‘take caution in your tone, commander. I’m a fair guy, but this f—‘in heat is driving me absolutely crazy…’”, Musker recalled. That animation has stayed under lock and key in the Disney vault, sadly. Oh for it to appear on YouTube.

Nicholson was impressed, though. By the time he left, with bags of toys for his children, it looked as if he was set to sign on the dotted line. Yet as it turned out, his Hercules appearance was scuppered by 1989’s Batman. For taking on the role of The Joker in Tim Burton’s film, Nicholson had been awarded one of the richest contracts an actor had ever secured, one that included profit points not just on the first film, but its sequels.

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That set the financial bar very high, and it was one Disney couldn’t – or more to the point, wouldn’t – reach. Nicholson was looking for a similar deal, including a slice of the merchandising receipts as Warner Bros had awarded him, and Disney didn’t play ball. The casting fell through when a package couldn’t be agreed upon. The casting was back to square one.

Hercules was still some way off signing up James Woods, even at this point, and after bringing in actors such as Kevin Spacey and Phil Hartman to read, one more intriguing choice surfaced: Robert Evans.

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Evans was, in the 1970s, one of the most famous Hollywood producers, and he’d headed up Paramount in that decade, overseeing huge hits such as The Godfather and Love Story. With a similarity to the casting that had seen producer Joel Silver landing a role at the start of Who Framed Roger Rabbit as, well, a raging film producer, Evans’ name surfaced. At the time, he’d written and was promoting his (very readable) autobiography, The Kid Stays In The Picture, and Musker noted the “silky purr” of his voice.

He mooted the suggestion of Evans to Michael Eisner. “Michael’s eyes lit up,” Musker said. “’Evans?!! He would be great!! He is the devil!’ Then he corrected himself, ‘well, actually, David Geffen is the devil, but Robert Evans is right behind him!’”

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Evans did have some acting pedigree, albeit not much, but did show interest in joining Hercules. As it turned out, he worked on his take on Hades with a little bit of help from an old friend of his: Jack Nicholson. Yet when he came in to read for the part, Evans stumbled. “Robert Evans plays pretty much one character, and it’s the one that he invented and for which he writes all the lines: Robert Evans,” Musker noted.

The search continued for a while longer, with the likes of John Lithgow also considered. But in the end, it was James Woods who would land the part, and complete the Hercules ensemble. The rave reviews for his work suggest that Musker and Clements made the right call for their film there.

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John Musker goes into a great deal more depth about the casting of Hercules here, and it’s a fascinating read. And just to bring this to the current day, the pair confirmed to me last week that the casting of Dwayne Johnson in their new film, Moana, was a lot, lot more straightforward. There was no Charlton Heston moment, either…