15 Iconic Movie Roles That Were Landed at the Last Minute

Some of the big screen's most memorable performances came from actors who were cast just before the cameras started rolling...

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Good casting makes all the difference in the movie business. You can have a great script, a big budget, and the best director but without the right actors, everything can fall a little flat.

Yet even good casting can go wrong every now and then. Someone who once seemed perfect for a particular role suddenly falls flat once the cameras start rolling, unable to bring to life what they once successfully conveyed during an audition and initial screen test. Other times injuries, contractual obligations, or other unforeseen personal circumstances can put paid to the best-laid plans.

Then there are the dreaded “creative differences” where conflicts between actors and directors end with one of the injured parties exiting a project amid a storm of bad press.

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In the wake of such shenanigans comes the mad scramble to try and find a replacement.

However, when it comes to re-casting a major role, sometimes a project has to lose something precious in order to gain something priceless. In fact, some of the most iconic actors and the roles that made them household names have been born out of necessity rather than any long-term planning on the part of the studio or those behind the scenes on the film.

To quote the James Bond classic GoldenEye: “Half of everything is luck. And the other half? Fate”. Here are 15 examples of iconic roles that actors landed at the last minute…

Viggo Mortensen – The Lord Of The Rings

Viggo Mortensen – The Lord Of The Rings

Mortensen landed the role of Aragorn as a late replacement for Irish actor Stuart Townsend who was fired in unfortunate circumstances just two days into filming on the fantasy epic. A contender for Hollywood’s most unlucky leading man, Townsend spent two months training for the role of the would-be King, including swordplay and language coaching, only for director Peter Jackson to suddenly realize he was a little too baby-faced to play the seasoned 87-year-old Dúnedain ranger.

read more: 70 Fantastic Moments in the Lord of the Rings Movies

Executive Producer Mark Ordesky had previously met with Mortensen and put him forward as a more mature-looking alternative. Even then Mortensen only agreed to take the role at the behest of his 11-year-old son who was a fan of the books. Thankfully his can-do attitude on set along with a willingness to read the book and learn to fence on the fly made Mortensen a firm favorite on set and culminated in a performance that was a hit with audiences and critics alike. Townsend, meanwhile, moved on to a lead role in another major franchise – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

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Michael J. Fox – Back To The Future

Michael J. Fox – Back To The Future

Michael J. Fox was always first choice to play Marty McFly in Back to the Future but didn’t end up landing the role until the very last second. Fox was starring as America’s most popular Young Republican, Alex P. Keaton, in the hit sitcom Family Ties at the time and the show’s producer, Gary David Goldberg, was reticent to let the charismatic Fox leave. With Fox unavailable, Back to the Future’s writer/director duo Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis settled on Eric Stoltz, who had won rave reviews for his performance in the drama Mask. It was a decision that would soon leave them wishing they had access to their very own time machine.

read more: 88 Things You Might Have Missed in the Back to the Future Trilogy

A fine dramatic actor, Stoltz was simply too serious to play Marty. A trained method actor, his insistence on staying in character at all times also won him few friends on set, while his lack of comic timing and inability to skateboard made him a bad fit for the role. After five weeks of filming, Gale, Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg bit the bullet. Stoltz was fired with Fox drafted in under the proviso his work on the film would not impinge on his Family Ties commitments. Fox worked like a dog, sleeping just three hours a night, while the recasting ate up $3 million of the film’s budget but by then they had a smash hit.

Hugh Jackman – X-Men

Hugh Jackman – X-Men

Dougray Scott must rue the day he ever agreed to play the villainous rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose in John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II. With Woo eager to craft a sequel that was bigger and better than Brian De Palma’s original, the production proved tricky to say the least, with the film’s various outlandish stunts proving time-consuming and resulting in disagreements on set, crew member drop-outs and, ultimately, delays. Though costly enough to the studio, Paramount, that was nothing compared to the price Scott paid. Prior to working on the film, the Scottish actor had bagged the coveted role of Wolverine in Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie. That soon changed.

read more: Marvel X-Men Relaunch Explained

With production overrunning on M:I-2 and little end in sight, Singer was left with little choice but to recast the role. He eventually landed on the little-known Hugh Jackman. An actor known mostly for his work on musicals like Oklahoma! at the time, Jackman landed an audition on the recommendation of Russell Crowe, who had already turned down the role himself. A relatively cheap and readily-available replacement who impressed in his auction and screen test, Jackman was initially deemed a little too clean-cut for the role by comic book fans but the resulting performance proved otherwise.

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Michael Biehn – Aliens

Michael Biehn – Aliens

On paper, the casting of Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks in James Cameron’s Aliens made perfect sense. Cameron had a habit of casting the same actors in his films – as the late Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen could happily attest. But despite the fact Biehn had played Kyle Reese in Cameron’s breakthrough hit The Terminator, he only got the Aliens gig after original star James Remar messed up big time.

read more: How James Cameron Crafts Perfect Sequels

Remar got the gig thanks in part to his association with Aliens producer Walter Hill, whom he worked with on The Warriors, The Long Riders, and 48 Hrs. However, from the start, Remar was causing trouble, starting with an incident during a planned Marine-style training exercise in which he ended up accidentally firing a hole in the wall of an adjacent set using live ammo. He was eventually fired after he was found in possession of drugs on set in a development that was hushed up at the time but did some damage to his career. Biehn was brought in with little time to spare, missing out on the two-week boot camp the rest of the cast underwent. Cameron also worked with Hicks to rewrite his character to avoid any comparisons with Kyle Reese. It’s since gone on to be arguably his most enduring role.

Michelle Pfeiffer – Batman Returns

Michelle Pfeiffer – Batman Returns

The villains dominated Tim Burton’s deliciously demented Caped Crusader sequel Batman Returns with Michelle Pfeiffer putting in a career-defining turn as Catwoman. Pfeiffer was obsessed with the character in her formative years but by the time she heard Burton was planning on including the DC Comics’ favorite in his Batman sequel, it was too late as Annette Bening had bagged the part.

Pfeiffer would eventually end up like the cat that got the cream though after Bening dropped out of the project after becoming pregnant. Despite the deranged best efforts of rival Sean Young, who is rumored to have turned up on set dressed as the Catwoman to try and impress Burton into giving her the role, Pfeiffer was eventually approached to take over. She jumped at the chance, reading only half the script before agreeing to star and immersing herself in months of training, that included sessions with a whip master.

read more: How Batman II Became Batman Returns

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Pfeiffer put in an all-action performance made all the more impressive for the fact she did almost all her own stunts. The sight of Pfeiffer squeezed into the perfectly-fitting but remarkably restrictive Catwoman suit remains the movie’s most iconic image.

Harrison Ford – Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Harrison Ford – Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Tom Selleck is often remembered as the man who turned down the part of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark to star in Magnum P.I. – but that’s not technically true. The moustachioed actor, who was an unknown at the time, was actually Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ first choice to star, with Lucas opposed to the idea of bringing Harrison Ford on board amid fears he would become his “Bobby De Niro” or “that guy I put in all my movies.”

read more: How Raiders of the Lost Ark Continues to Influence Popular Culture

However, as they prepared to start filming, it was discovered Selleck had already filmed the pilot for Magnum P.I. and was contractually obliged to remain on the show should it be picked up for a full series. Though Spielberg and Lucas held on for a month, trying desperately to negotiate Selleck out of his Magnum P.I. contract, the decision to green-light the first season left them with little choice but to look elsewhere. Spielberg eventually persuaded Lucas to relent on Ford, who was still working as a carpenter at the time, and he signed on two weeks before filming started, carving out an altogether different career in the process. 

Ed Harris – The Truman Show

Ed Harris – The Truman Show

Ed Harris put in a career-best performance as Christof, the mysterious executive producer of The Truman Show in Peter Weir’s sci-fi satire of the same name – and yet none of it would have been possible without the efforts of Dennis Hopper. A notorious troublemaker in his heyday, quite what went on with Hopper on the set of The Truman Show is the source of some speculation. In any case, after just two days of filming, he was gone from the project, leaving under the familiar cloud of “creative differences”.

With filming already in full swing, Weir was left scrabbling around for a replacement. After rejecting a few notable names, Harris was floated as a possible option in part because he was living near where filming was taking place at the time and was available. Harris read the script, liked what he saw and headed straight over to set to meet with Weir who ended up hiring him on the spot.

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read more: The Truman Show and its Very Late Casting Change

The fact most of Christof’s scenes were removed from those of Jim Carrey and the world Truman inhabits meant Harris was also able to film all of his scenes in the space of 10 relatively stress-free days towards the end of the production. His understated performance was nearly markedly different though – at one point Harris toyed with the idea of giving Christof a hunchback. Thankfully the idea was scrapped.

Sandra Bullock – Demolition Man

Sandra Bullock – Demolition Man

Speed may have established Sandra Bullock as an A-list star, but it was her turn as the 20th-century-loving Lenina Huxley in Sylvester Stallone’s brilliantly silly sci-fi actioner Demolition Man that first put her on the map. Yet it was also a project that landed in Bullock’s lap late in the day – two days after filming had started, in fact. Up until that point Point Break and A League Of Their Own star Lori Petty was playing the part of Huxley but it hadn’t been going well.

read more: The Origin of the Demolition Man Three Seashells Revealed

For one thing, Petty despised the part and was only too happy to tell producer Joel Silver all about it. Unhappy with the script and her role in the film, Petty left the project following – you’ve guessed it – “creative differences.” Bullock had recently appeared on the far more forgettable though wonderfully named Warner Bros. production Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, where she quickly made friends. Drafted in in double-quick time, on the recommendation of several producers, it proved a canny, if fortuitous, move.

Martin Sheen – Apocalypse Now

Martin Sheen – Apocalypse Now

A notoriously troubled production from the off, Francis Ford Coppola originally cast Harvey Keitel as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now after seeing him in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Two weeks into shooting in The Philippines, however, Coppola had a change of heart, axing Keitel and bringing Martin Sheen in to replace him. With Willard serving as an onlooker to the unfolding madness at the center of the story adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola concluded Keitel would find it “difficult to play him a passive onlooker” with Sheen’s more expressive approach helping him land the part.

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It was a role that almost proved to be the death of Sheen, who suffered a heart attack during a chaotic, accident-strewn shoot plagued by illnesses and delays. Coppola, for his part, blamed himself for Sheen’s illness and even suffered an epileptic seizure one night on set. Throw in a difficult and decidedly overweight Marlon Brando and you have all the ingredients of a critical and commercial disaster. And yet, somehow, it all came together in the end. Just about.

Scarlett Johansson – Her

Scarlett Johansson – Her

Incredibly, Scarlett Johansson didn’t land the pivotal voice role as Joaquin Phoenix’s audio-only robot love interest in Her until the film had already entered post-production. Up until then, Samantha Morton had played the part of computerised companion to Phoenix’s soon-to-be-divorcee Theodore Twombly in Spike Jonze’s distinctive sci-fi romantic drama. Morton was even on set throughout filming in an effort to strike up some sort of physiological bond with Phoenix.

read more: The Best Modern Sci-Fi Movies

However, when it came time to edit much of the audio Morton and Jonze had worked together on, the director realized the results weren’t entirely in line with what he had in mind for the film. It was at that point that Jonze was forced to make what must have been one of the most awkward calls of his life, ditching Morton and recruiting Johansson in her place with time ticking on. Even then, voicing the character proved a tricky task, with Johansson required to articulate Her’s evolution from lifeless robot to something more emotive. To her credit, she nailed it with a performance that drew widespread praise and may have even helped her land that Ghost In The Shell remake. So not all good news then.

Mike Myers – Shrek

Mike Myers – Shrek

When comedian Chris Farley tragically passed away in December 1997, he left behind a comedic legacy unlike any before or since. But perhaps the saddest thing about the young comic’s untimely demise was the exciting unfinished projects that remained unfinished.

A long-gestating Fatty Arbuckle biopic, which would have represented Farley’s first foray into serious drama, could have signalled the start of an exciting foray into the world of serious filmmaking, while his work on a new animated feature from the fast-emerging DreamWorks animation company suggested more mainstream success ahead.

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Voicing the role of the titular character in the film that came to be known as Shrek, Farley imbued proceedings with his own distinctive comedic style and had frustratingly recorded around 85% of his lines prior to his death. Eager to complete the film but opposed to the idea of bringing in an impersonator to complete his work, DreamWorks ultimately decided to take a different route, a few years later, by bringing in fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus Mike Myers to make the role his own. Eager to inject more of his own comedic personality into the project, Myers rewrote much of Shrek’s lines and gave the character a Scottish accent. Coming a few years after Austin Powers, the film and its sequels gave Myers’ career the shot in the arm it needed and kicked off a blockbuster animated franchise to rank among the best.

Kevin Peter Hall – Predator

Kevin Peter Hall – Predator

A former basketball player who represented George Washington University at college while majoring in theatrical arts, after struggling to make it in the professional ranks the 7ft 2in Kevin Peter Hall decided to put his height and dramatic capabilities to good use. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s he emerged as one of Hollywood’s go-to-guys when it came to playing monsters on the big and small screen, turning up in films like Harry and the Hendersons albeit under heavy makeup and prosthetics.

read more: When Jean-Claude Van Damme Played the Predator

Yet his big break came in 1986 when Hall took a call from producer Joel Silver. Silver was having trouble with his latest project, a jungle-set thriller about an elite military rescue team who find themselves facing off against a technologically-advanced alien hunter. The film, Predator, was having particular issues with its central alien – the alien’s costume had undergone serious revisions and the actor currently playing the part – a pre-fame Jean-Claude Van Damme – just (high) kicking up a fuss and at 5ft 10in cut a far from oppressive figure. With Van Damme rumored to also be unhappy with his costume and the fact his face was largely obscured, Silver decided to cut his losses, dispatching with the Belgian’s services and bringing Hall onboard instead. It was an inspired choice with JCVD’s presence and untimely exit remaining the source of much fascination.

Arnold Schwarzenegger – The Terminator

Arnold Schwarzenegger – The Terminator

Legend has it that James Cameron first came up with the basic concept for The Terminator during a fever dream suffered during a trip to Italy. He originally envisioned the central robot assassin as a terrifying killing machine with the appearance of an ordinary man, capable of blending into a crowd. It wasn’t long before Cameron hit upon the perfect actor for the part; no, not Arnold Schwarzenegger but Lance Henriksen. You read that right. To the director’s way of thinking Henriksen fit the role to a tee and impressed enough during his audition – covering his teeth with foil and kicking down the door to the audition room – to terrifying everyone and bag the part. The filmmaker even began sketching out ideas for storyboards with Henriksen as the killer robot.

read more: The Terminator’s Perfect Shot

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Cameron also had someone in mind for the role of Kyle Reese too – Schwarzenegger. But everything changed over the course of Cameron’s first lunch with Arnie, set up to try and convince the Austrian Oak to play Kyle. As Arnold began to lay out his vision for the Terminator and the movie as a whole, Cameron reached the conclusion Schwarzenegger was better suited to play the T-800. Arnie still took some convincing though amid concerns over playing a villain, but he eventually relented. Henriksen, meanwhile, was downgraded to the role of the cop Hal Vukovich. It did at least clear the way for him to become one of only two actors to be killed by a Terminator, an Alien, and a Predator. So at least there is that.

Christian Bale – American Psycho

Christian Bale – American Psycho

Plenty of blood, sweat and tears went into Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s inspired adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho – a book many deemed unfilmable – even if Bale wasn’t even meant to be playing him. Ignoring the advice of friends and agents, the child star turned serious actor signed on to star in Harron’s adaptation. However, the project hit a pretty major obstacle when, out of nowhere at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, Lionsgate announced Leonardo DiCaprio would be starring.

Harron, to her credit, refused to even meet with DiCaprio, dismissing the idea of him in the role. Bale, in the meantime, hit the gym, working out with ferocious intensity to gain the physique Ellis’ Bateman details at excruciating length in the book, again even though he hadn’t actually been cast. Over the course of nine months, Bale worked out, turning down roles in the hope the situation would change. For a long time, it didn’t.

read more: How Batman Begins Resurrected a Franchise

At one point, Harron even dropped out with Oliver Stone lined up to direct DiCaprio but Bale refused to back down and when Stone and DiCaprio finally dropped out, he got the 11th-hour call. Even then, Harron was told she would have to make the movie on a strict budget of $10 million with tight turnaround time. She also had to agree to the casting of a series of familiar faces in supporting roles with Reese Witherspoon, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, and Chloë Sevigny recruited. It was all worth it. Bateman’s deranged performance – supposedly inspired by Tom Cruise’s real-life behavior – paved the way for Batman Begins and everything that followed.

Clint Eastwood – Dirty Harry

Clint Eastwood – Dirty Harry

Clint Eastwood wasn’t the first choice to play “Dirty” Harry Callahan. In fact, he wasn’t the second, third, fourth, or fifth choice either. Frank Sinatra was originally supposed to star as the iconic movie cop but a broken wrist suffered on the set of The Manchurian Candidate ruled him out, mainly because he was physically unable to lift Harry’s iconic .44 Magnum – a pretty crucial requirement.

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read more: Dirty Harry’s Scorpio is the Most Overlooked Screen Villain

When he quit, the part was offered to John Wayne but he turned it down, unhappy at being second choice to Sinatra. Robert Mitchum then rejected the part, branding the script “a piece of junk.” Burt Lancaster was then handed a chance to star but he said no on account of the film’s violent overtones. With time ticking on Eastwood finally got the call, taking on a much-changed script and going on to make it his own. You just have to ask yourself though: did he feel lucky all those other actors turned down Dirty Harry? Or did he feel like a punk?

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