Once an actor spends a few years playing the same role — particularly an iconic one — it’s hard to imagine anyone else in it. I love Timothy Olyphant, for instance, but can anyone imagine him playing Tony Stark in Iron Man? He auditioned for it, but eventually lost out to Robert Downey, Jr., who launched one of the most successful franchises in movie history. Now it’s almost impossible to picture anyone else.
Nevertheless, those actors who eventually inhabit classic television roles weren’t always the first choices of the network or the showrunners, but due to other circumstances — family obligations, illnesses, scheduling conflicts, or indifference — the original choices turned the roles down, paving the way for indelible performances from better-suited runners-up.
Here are ten of those actors who only got the part after someone else declined.
Lost — Jack Shephard
J.J. Abrams had originally wanted Michael Keaton to play the Lost role that would eventually go to Matthew Fox, and Michael Keaton was keen to play it. There was, however, a catch: As originally conceived, Dr. Shepard was the show’s ostensible lead, but only for one episode. He was set to die at the end of the pilot. That’s the role that Michael Keaton wanted to play because he wasn’t interested in doing a weekly television series. Things, however, changed, according to Keaton, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast:
I think what happened was–and I’ve never really talked to him about this–[either] he thought better of it or the studio said, ‘That ain’t gonna happen.’ And then there was kind-of a half a conversation about, ‘Well, do you have any more interest.’ The offer changed.
Keaton was not interested in an open-ended project. Fox was cast, and the character survived the series’ run. (Interestingly, Forest Whitaker was also originally cast in the pilot as Sawyer.)
The Walking Dead — Rick Grimes
The Walking Dead would have had a completely different feel to it has Frank Darabont cast his first choice for the role of Rick Grimes, Thomas Jane, who Darabont had worked with on The Mist. The AMC series went through years of development, and was rejected by several networks (including NBC, which liked the show but requested that it not have any zombies). Before Darabont brought it to NBC or AMC, however, he pitched it to HBO, and as conceived at that time, Jane was supposed to play Grimes. HBO passed on the project, however, and by the time AMC had picked it up, Thomas Jane had already been cast in Hung.
Mad Men — Don Draper
It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the Mad Men lead, but when Matthew Weiner began casting the series, Hamm was not a well-known quantity. As Hamm tells it, they’d actually approached someone else before casting him. “Nobody knew who I was. The casting directors didn’t know who I was. I wasn’t on anybody’s lists … The funny thing was, I think they went to Thomas Jane for it, and they were told that Thomas Jane does not do television. Now starring in Hung, by the way.”
Thomas Jane was apparently a hot commodity in 2007, in which he approached to play the lead in Mad Men and pitched as the lead in The Walking Dead. He ended up two years later in Hung, which lasted three seasons, by the way. Mad Men ran for seven, and The Walking Dead is currently in its seventh season and still going strong. Jane is currently on the SyFy network’s The Expanse.
Full House — Danny Tanner
Both Paul Reiser and Bob Saget were the first choices to play the lead role in Full House back in 1987, but neither were available when the series shot the pilot. At the time, Saget was committed to CBS’s news show, The Morning Program. That show, however, lasted only nine months before it was canned, which freed Saget to take the role that had been given to John Posey in the interim. “[ABC] picked it up with me, and everything was fine, until about a month or so later when I heard otherwise,” Posey told Yahoo. He found out after his beeper went off while he was driving through Mississippi. Posey was let go, and Full House lasted for eight season on ABC and was spun-off into a sequel two years ago on Netflix where Saget continues to play Danny Tanner. Posey, meanwhile, continues to act, appearing most recently in MTV’s Teen Wolf and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder.
The Wire — Detective Jimmy McNulty
In season four of The Wire, Jimmy McNulty’s role was significantly reduced at the request of Dominic West, who wanted to spend more time with his family back in London after traveling back and forth between England and Baltimore for three years. Interestingly, character actor Ray Winstone (The Departed) was originally offered the role and rejected it for the same reason West bailed on much of season four, as he told Digital Spy.
“I was offered a part in The Wire years ago, and it’s probably a good thing I never did it because it turned out to be a fantastic series and I probably would have ruined it.”
“The reason for that was my [daughters] were a certain age and at school and I’d have had to be in Baltimore for seven months. There’s nothing wrong with Baltimore but I wouldn’t see my kids and it was the wrong time for me. I’ve no regrets at all.”
I couldn’t imagine Ray Winstone having the same chemistry with Bunk (Wendell Pierce), though if Winstone had been cast, he might have been better matched with Lance Reddick, who auditioned for the role of Bunk before landing Lt. Daniels.
Deadwood — Al Swearengen
Deadwood never would’ve been the classic Western it was without Ian McShane’s depiction of Al Swearengen and his creative use of profanity. However, as Alan Sepinwall tells it, Ian McShane was actually creator David Milch’s third choice.
First he wanted to use Ed O’Neill (who had just played the lead in Milch’s short-lived CBS cop show Big Apple, which also featured Kim Dickens), but HBO was too nervous about building one of its shows around a man still too associated with Al Bundy. Then Milch cast Powers Boothe, but Boothe took ill shortly before the pilot was supposed to film.
Milch, however, did make it up to Boothe by casting him as Cy Tolliver in the series, a character that Milch created specifically for the actor.
Friday Night Lights — Coach Taylor
One of my favorite television characters of all time is Friday Night Lights‘ Coach Taylor as embodied by Kyle Chandler, who is the perfect mix of hard-nosed disciplinarian and soft-hearted Dad. But the show’s creator, Peter Berg, didn’t want Chandler for the role. He didn’t even like Chandler; he thought he was too pretty for the role and seemed like the exact opposite of the character played by Billy Bob Thornton in the movie. Berg wanted Dwight Yoakam, and he almost landed him until Yoakam began making too many demands, as Berg explained to Grantland in the site’s oral history of the show.
I couldn’t find a coach. The only actor I liked was Dwight Yoakam. He seemed interesting — kind of a flawed, messed-up Southern boy who wanted to act. I met with him a couple times, but then he started making demands. He would need eight weeks off to tour. He’d only be able to give us eight days of filming. And he wanted a ton of money. He made it impossible for us to say yes.
As much as I like Yoakam in the roles I’ve seen him in, he would not have been anything like the Coach Taylor that eventually made it to the small screen.
Homeland — Carrie Mathison
Carrie Mathison, the lead character in Homeland — entering its sixth season this month — seems like it was written for Claire Danes, who has five Emmy nominations and two wins for playing the role. In fact, Danes was the first actor cast in the series, but she apparently was not the first choice. Halle Berry said she was offered the role, as well as the lead in CBS’s Hostages. However, she declined both because she wasn’t ready to make the move to television, although she eventually agreed to star in CBS’s Extant, which ran for two seasons.
Sons of Anarchy — Clay Morrow
Not just anyone could play the volatile Sons of Anarchy character based on Hamlet. In fact, Kurt Sutter originally cast someone else, a terrific actor who brought something completely different to the role than did Perlman, as the latter explained to Fresh Air:
PERLMAN: I did have to audition for [Sons of Anarchy]. They had already shot the pilot with another actor playing Clay Morrow. And the network decided that they weren’t getting what they were hoping to get and that they were willing to — they loved the series enough to — if they thought they found the right actor, they were willing to reshoot the pilot and start – restart the clock and green light the show for a whole first season, which is 13 episodes.
GROSS: Did you have any idea what the original actor had done wrong that they thought was not quite right for the part?
PERLMAN: The original actor is a brilliant actor. I won’t mention his name, but he’s — I’m a huge fan of his. But he’s a very subtle guy. And he has a very kind of a quiet, understated presence about him, which, in terms of this particular guy, Clay Morrow, they were looking for way more dynamic.
That actor? Scott Glenn (Daredevil, Silence of the Lambs), pictured above during his short time on the set of Sons of Anarchy.
The Good Wife — Alicia Florrick
Julianna Margulies was neither the first, second, nor third choice to play the lead in The Good Wife, by her own admission. Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas) was offered the role first, but she declined because she wanted to spend more time with her family. The role was offered to both Helen Hunt and Ashley Judd before it came to Margulies, who nearly declined the role because CBS didn’t come to her first, as she told THR:
I wanted to hate it, because you know, “F– you! You didn’t want me to begin with,’ ” she says. “The [Good Wife] writers always say: ‘No, we always wanted you. It’s just the studio wanted Helen Hunt!’ But my agent said a great thing: ‘No one will know when they watch this show that Helen Hunt was offered it before you.’ “
Margulies was great in the role, in which she was nominated for four Emmy Awards and won two, but I admit: I might have liked Elisabeth Shue just as much.