Not many actors are as lucky in their careers as John Travolta. Sure, your Tom Hankses and Jack Nicholsons have remained at the top of the Hollywood A-list for decades, but they don’t know the bitter taste of Tinseltown rejection following stardom quite like Johnny T. In the 1970s, Travolta rose to stardom with Welcome Back, Kotter and became a full-fledged movie star with Saturday Night Fever and Grease, only to fall into a pit of box office bombs for much of the 1980s. If Quentin Tarantino hadn’t taken a chance with him in Pulp Fiction, we might be asking, “Whatever happened to that guy from the talking baby movies?”
While John Travolta has been part of plenty of solid movies — and just as many flops — over his four decade-long career, he’s missed out on a number of incredibly big roles. When Travolta squandered a prime acting opportunity, Tom Hanks was usually hanging around to pick up the slack.
1. Rambo: First Blood I and II (1982, 1985): It seemed like nearly any working actor in 1981 was in the running to play John Rambo, with everyone from Kris Kristofferson to Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino throwing their names in the hat. John Travolta didn’t get the part, of course, but his name came up again when Rambo First: Blood Part II rolled around. Producers were interested in having Travolta play Rambo’s partner, but Stallone quickly nixed the idea.
2. Top Gun (1986): Tom Cruise had a lot of competition for the role of Maverick, going up against Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Nicolas Cage, and Charlie Sheen. Travolta was considered for the part, but producers felt that his agent was asking for too much, especially considering his string of box office flops like, Two of a Kind, at the time.
3. The Doors (1991): Not unlike some of Oliver Stone’s other projects, his script for The Doors movie kicked around for the better part of a decade before the cameras started rolling. During that time, actors like Tom Cruise, Richard Gere, Johnny Depp — no surprise there — and John Travolta expressed interest in the film. The script was even passed around to real-life rock stars Bono, Michael Hutchence, and Ian Astbury before it was decided that Val Kilmer was fit to play the lizard king.
4. Forrest Gump (1994): ’94 was a good year for John Travolta — he’d made a huge comeback as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction — but it could have been an even bigger year. Travolta was the original choice by Robert Zemeckis for Forrest, but he declined the role, later admitting that it was a mistake and that it should have been him rambling on about life and chocolates on that park bench.
5. Apollo 13 (1995): Travolta really should have learned his lesson after Forrest Gump, but again, let Tom Hanks swoop in and star in one of the year’s biggest films. Before Hanks was putting on the space suit, John Travolta was offered the lead role of Jim Lovell. Travolta turned it down, though, in favor of Get Shorty, and Tom Hanks went on to star in the Oscar-winning drama.
6. Donnie Brasco (1997): At one point, Travolta was attached to the gangster pic and in the running to star as undercover agent, Joseph Pistone. At the same time, Travolta was working on a Mandalay Entertainment project with director Roman Polanski called The Double. When Travolta walked off set and ditched the project, Mandalay sued him for breach of contract, but Travolta counter-sued, claiming the production company had dropped him from Donnie Brasco after a deal had already been made. The lawsuit was eventually settled, but the part of Donnie Brasco went to Johnny Depp.
7. As Good as It Gets (1997): Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for his part of curmudgeon Melvin Udall. That part was at one time attached to Travolta, but as is probably the case with any role, once Jack Nicholson expresses interest, it becomes HIS part.
8. The Green Mile (1999): Why John Travolta declined the lead role in The Green Mile that would go to Tom Hanks hasn’t been made clear, but there was definitely a pattern going on in the ’90s with Travolta giving up roles to Hanks. He told Reuters in a 2009 interview that he was well aware of his missteps, but not bitter about the lost parts.
“Green Mile I probably should have said yes to and An Officer and a Gentleman. But I gave Richard Gere and Tom Hanks a career! What you turn down can be a gift to someone else. There is enough to go around.”
9. World Trade Center (2006): Oliver Stone’s first choices for the lead role were Mel Gibson and George Clooney, but when they didn’t pan out, Stone considered Travolta before settling on Nicolas Cage. Travolta reportedly turned down the part because he had already played a similar role in Ladder 49 two years earlier.
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story floated around to various directors in the ’90s, and in 1998, it landed in the hands of Ron Howard. Howard wanted Travolta to play the lead that would eventually go to Brad Pitt, but he got sidetracked with EDtv, and the script was put back on the shelf for another decade.