Sometimes, a combination of unfortunate circumstances forces a performer to pass on a role that could have been important or even career saving. Cases in point:

Bela Lugosi, unhappy that the role of the Monster in “Frankenstein” (1931) had no dialogue, rejected the role. An unknown named Boris Karloff achieved his stardom through the role. Lugosi reportedly rued his decision and never rejected another script again, which may explain his excessively poor career output. Years later, Karloff had a previous commitment that prevented him from reprising his Broadway role in “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944), which was actually based on his film persona and appearance. Raymond Massey got the screen part instead.

Broadway actress Lee Patrick was struggling for a foothold in 1930s Hollywood, but her agent unwisely told her to forget about the small role of the prostitute in “Dead End” (1936). Claire Trevor got the role and achieved immediate stardom; Lee Patrick’s career rarely rose out of bit parts.

Jane Russell turned down the chance to play Ruth Etting in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1956) because she was offered the part of Lillian Roth in “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (1956). Doris Day was signed to play Ruth Etting instead, but the producers of “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” reneged on their agreement and cast Susan Hayward instead. Russell’s film career was virtually over within two years.

Dorothy Dandridge followed her pride and Otto Preminger’s advice and refused to be cast as the slave Tuptim in “The King and I” (1956). Rita Moreno won the part and stardom through it. Dandridge would play a slave two years later in the French flop “Tamango” (1958).

Alfred Hitchcock was ready to make a major star out of Vera Miles in “Vertigo” (1958), but her pregnancy forced her to withdraw. Kim Novak was brought in to take the role, which many consider her finest performance. Miles never achieved the stardom Hitchcock envisioned.

Pregnancy also forced Tuesday Weld to lose the lead in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) in favor of Faye Dunaway, who achieved superstardom in that part. And pregnancy kept Lucille Ball from having a bona-fide hit as the star in the Oscar-winning Cecil B. DeMille epic “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952). Betty Hutton took that role instead.

Joan Collins followed the advice of then-boyfriend Warren Beatty to forego starring in “Sons and Lovers” (1960). British stage actress Mary Ure inherited the role and received an Oscar nomination; Collins’ Hollywood movie career was virtually over after rejecting the part. Beatty got his comeuppance years later when he spurned “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) in favor of the crashing flop “The Only Game in Town” (1970). Robert Redford profited from Beatty’s decision.

Rip Torn was forced to withdraw from “Easy Rider” (1969), which enabled Jack Nicholson to gain his star-making part. Likewise, the withdrawal of John Travolta from “American Gigolo” (1981) secured Richard Gere‘s star, while George Segal‘s withdrawal from “10” (1979) helped Dudley Moore‘s film comeback.

Ty Hardin‘s contractual obligations kept him from going to Italy to star in a cheapie Western called “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964). His replacement, Clint Eastwood, reaped the whirlwind instead.

Cary Grant felt no one could fill the role of Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man” (1962) than the man who created the part on Broadway, Robert Preston. Grant’s generosity gave Preston his definitive screen part, while Grant retired from films four years later.

Tom Selleck‘s contract for “Magnum, P.I.” forced him to lose the part of Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) to Harrison Ford. Pierce Brosnan‘s contract for “Remington Steele” kept him from accepting the part of James Bond following Roger Moore’s retirement from the 007 series. Timothy Dalton took over as James Bond, but Brosnan was fortunate enough to replace him after Dalton failed to connect with audiences.

Ann-Margret‘s agent pushed back the script of “Cat Ballou” without telling her; Jane Fonda won the role and A-M found her career hitting the skids in a series of silly movies.

Col. Tom Parker pushed back the offer for Elvis Presley to star in the racially charged drama “The Defiant Ones” (1958), fearing it would alienate Elvis’ fans. Tony Curtis took the role instead. Col. Parker would later also nix Elvis from appearing opposite Barbra Streisand in “A Star is Born” (1976). Kris Kristofferson got the part in the hit film; Elvis was dead within a year of its release.

Nick Nolte was given the role of “Superman” (1978), but insisted that the character be rewritten to suggest schizophrenia. The part was taken away and given to Christopher Reeve instead, bringing him to stardom.

W.C. Fields‘ obligations to Universal Pictures kept him out of “The Wizard of Oz” (1939); Frank Morgan achieved immortality in the title role instead.

Jackie Gleason was uninterested in playing The Advocate in Orson Welles‘ film of “The Trial” (1962). Welles took the part himself while Gleason concentrated on making “Gigot” (1963), a major flop.

George Raft turned down both “High Sierra” (1940) and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). Humphrey Bogart won both roles and stardom thanks to Raft’s poor judgment.

Get the rest of the story in part three of TURNING DOWN A PLUM ROLE>>>

Posted on April 22, 2003 in Features by

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