Movies

Looking Back At The Casting Decision That Turned ‘Fast & Furious’ Into A Multi-Billion Dollar Franchise

I’m not a religious man, but there is one holy holiday that I celebrate: Toretto Tuesday.

Every Tuesday, fans of the Fast & Furious franchise (FotFFF, for short) share their love for not only Dominic Toretto, but also Brian O’Conner, Letty Ortiz, Roman Pearce, Tej Parker, “Justice for” Han Lue, and the rest of the family, on social media. There are Tumblr photoshops; tweets (F9 star John Cena is a recent convert); and countless tributes to the late Paul Walker. I can’t locate the first use of #TorettoTuesday, but the term / way of life dates back to at least 2015 (it really took off around the release of Furious 7) and was originated by Vin Diesel, because of course it was. Vin Diesel *is* Fast & Furious, even if he doesn’t star in two of the nine movies (arguably the two weakest). He’s the lead, he’s the producer, he’s the franchise architect, he’s the guy who calls out freaking Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — our future president — for not doing a good enough job.

But Diesel wasn’t the studio’s first choice to play Dom Toretto.

In 1995, Diesel’s directorial debut, Multi-Facial, was selected for screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. The short, which he also starred in, wrote, produced, and provided the score of, caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who cast the California-born actor in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. That same year, Vibe published a story, “Racer X,” about New York City’s underground racing scene. “I was making The Skulls with Paul [Walker] and [director] Rob [Cohen], and we were looking for another movie to do together, and Universal approached me about this article in Vibe,” The Fast and the Furious producer Neal H. Moritz told EW. “I’ve always loved movies about subcultures and I knew Paul really loved car racing.” Walker was cast as Brian O’Conner, an undercover cop who’s tasked with investigating the street race scene.

The Fast and the Furious had its Brian, but still needed a Dominic, the family-loving street racing king who lives his life a quarter-mile at a time. It’s obvious in retrospect (and even at the time) that Universal Pictures should have targeted Vin Diesel and only Vin Diesel for the role — his last name is literally Diesel (actually, it’s Sinclair, but you get the idea). But the studio had another actor in mind. “The studio said, ‘If you get Timothy Olyphant to play the role of Dominic Toretto, the movie’s greenlit.’ We went to Tim and he passed, and we wondered if we were going to get to make it,” Moritz revealed.

Look, I love Timothy Olyphant. Justified is one of my favorite shows of all-time, and I was delighted when he popped up in The Mandalorian, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Fargo. But he would have been a terrible Dom. He thinks so too. “It’s not my thing,” he said about turning down the role. “With me, I just thought, ‘Well, this will just be stupid.’ And I thought no one’s going to want to see this movie eight or nine different times. I mean, by the third or fourth sequel, people are going to definitely get bored of it.”

Olyphant, who has his own fast cars movie in Gone in 60 Seconds, does not have the right energy to play Dominic — he would not be able to say lines like, “You don’t turn your back on family, even when they do,” without a smirk. Diesel genuinely believes in what he’s saying. Fast & Furious is also one of the most racially diverse franchises, and having two white dudes, Olyphant and Walker, as the leads, would not have set a good precedent.

After Olyphant declined the part, Moritz’s attention turned to Diesel. “I had seen Pitch Black and knew Vin from [Multi-Facial], and I had convinced the studio that he had to be the guy,” he said. “We had our first meeting at the famed Kate Mantilini’s in Los Angeles, and I remember I’m sitting at the bar waiting for him, and, boy, when those doors opened, it was like there was a klieg light on him — here comes the biggest star in the world.” He’s not wrong: Diesel is in three of the 10 highest-grossing movies of all-time (Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, Furious 7), but he was initially hesitant to play Dom. His reaction to reading the script for the first time: “Eh, I don’t know.”

Here’s co-writer David Ayer (Suicide Squad) on working with Diesel to fix the movie:

“I sat down with Vin and really created that character with him. Yeah, there were characters in the script but it needed life, it needed to become real, it needed to become dimensional. He had a few really specific ideas about the character, and those little touchstones he handed me became something I could flesh out. It’s an honor to help an actor create and achieve a vision.”

Moritz added, “There’s nobody else that could have been Dominic Toretto. There would be no Fast & Furious without Vin in that role.” It’s hard to imagine Olyphant making “a trip to Cuba to understand the character,” as Diesel did, to play Dom. So why didn’t Vin, ever protective of his character, return for 2 Fast 2 Furious? Basically, he thought the script was terrible. When asked about the advice he would have given to himself years later, Diesel answered, “I would’ve said, ‘Don’t walk away from it just because the script sucked in 2 Fast 2 Furious because there’s an obligation to the audience to fight, no matter what, to make that film as good as possible.’ Just walking away doesn’t help that saga at all. I might have had a little bit more patience or belief in the long-term of it.”

He also had the siren song of The Chronicles of Riddick calling him.

Diesel returned for an uncredited cameo in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, but after the Justin Lin-directed film made almost $100 million less than 2 Fast 2 Furious, “the talk internally was that the franchise was played out,” Jeffrey Kirschenbaum, the co-president of production at Universal Pictures, told The Wrap. “At that point, we were weighing whether to go straight to video or not for future sequels. We weren’t sure what we were going to do.” But the studio wisely figured that the Tokyo Drift audience would go “ballistic” for Diesel’s cameo (they did), so an offer was made: “They said, ‘You haven’t returned to this franchise, but if you do this cameo, we’ll let you produce this thing into a true continuation piece of the first story.’ That’s how it all started,” he said. Diesel getting the rights to the Riddick character also sweetened the deal.

Vin was back, baby. Fast & Furious made $363 million at the international box office, dwarfing the totals from 2 Fast 2 Furious ($236 million) and Tokyo Drift ($158 million). From there, the franchise hit a new level of popularity, including two films, Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious, that grossed over $1 billion worldwide. Even without Hobbs and Shaw (it’s a sore subject), the nine films have made well over $5 billion. If the studio had gone with Olyphant, Fast & Furious would have long ago stalled out as a direct-to-video curiosity; it might not have even made it to the VOD-era.

That would be a shame, because if there’s one thing I love, it’s:

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