Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hooray for Hollywood: Casting Decisions

Can you imagine CASABLANCA without Humphrey Bogart? GONE WITH THE WIND without Vivien Leigh? LAWRENCE OF ARABIA without Peter O'Toole?
THE WIZARD OF OZ without Judy Garland? MILDRED PIERCE without Joan Crawford? THE GRADUATE without Dustin Hoffman? IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT without Clark Gable? I can't either.

HOLLYWOOD'S FIRST CHOICES How the Greatest Casting Decisions Were Made by Jeff Burkhart and Bruce Stuart, first published in 1994, spills the beans. The thing I find most amazing is how many of these decisions appear to have been serendipitous. How much just plain luck plays in casting. Some of the stories, if true, are absolutely mind boggling in their chance and happenstance.

There were also, of course, the bone-headed decisions made by actors. When offered a certain role, some were unable to see the star making potential and chose to do something else instead. For instance, George Raft turning down THE MALTESE FALCON. That's what I mean by bone-headed.

When I was a kid I wanted to be either a cowgirl or a casting director. But then I grew up and reality intruded. Ha! I still think being a casting director would be lots of fun. (Don't think being a cowgirl would be as much fun anymore.) You know how some films just seem to be made to order for certain actors and then again, how some films are ruined by bad casting? You know how some film stars own their parts to the point that you can't imagine anyone else in the same role? Well, here are some behind the scenes stories to curdle your blood:

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is one my all time favorite films and honest to goodness, I can't imagine anyone else but Peter O'Toole playing T.E. Lawrence. I mean, the guy inhabited the role. Of course he should have won the Oscar, but though he was nominated he lost out to someone else that year. (Can't remember who. Gregory Peck, I think.) If this isn't one of the all time most brilliant film performances, I don't know what is.

But, hard to believe now, O'Toole was not the first choice to play Lawrence: The first casting bombshell landed in 1959 when Sam Spiegel [producer] informed the press that Marlon Brando was going to play Lawrence. Spiegel and Brando had worked together on ON THE WATERFRONT, and [David] Lean regarded Brando as the greatest actor of all time. But casting Brando as T.E. Lawrence would have been the equivalent to having Marilyn Monroe play Queen Victoria. The announcement caused public outrage in the British press. How could an American possibly play the British liberator of Damascus? Fortunately, Brando had to back down, since he was too involved in the remake of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY...

...Once more Sam Spiegel announced a new star for his desert epic. Lawrence would be played by newcomer Albert Finney...Lean was pleased with Finney's rather extensive screentests. But after four days of working, Finney quit the production...

...The search for Lawrence continued. Lean returned to Brando, who once again refused. He considered Laurence Harvey, Anthony Perkins, and Richard Burton, but for various reasons none of them seemed ideal. Montgomery Clift began campaigning for the part...After an exhaustive search, Lean finally took a tip from his great friend Katherine Hepburn on a young actor she'd seen at the Royal Court...the actor was Peter O'Toole. The rest, as they say, is history.

A few more casting tidbits from Hollywood's First Choice:

The eponymous role of DIRTY HARRY was first offered to John Wayne, who turned it down. Frank Sinatra was next in line, but he too was not inclined to play the San Francisco cop. Paul Newman was offered the part, but after he turned it down as well, Clint Eastwood was approached. Clint said yes - and it made his day and his career by doing so.

Tom Selleck was Steven Spielberg's first choice for Indiana Jones, but Selleck was unable to get out of his television series commitment - "Magnum P.I." - so Harrison Ford was cast instead.

Michael Curtiz was insistent about using Barbara Stanwyck for the lead in MILDRED PIERCE (1945). But after Stanwyck turned the part down - she'd already done her 'sacrificing mother' routine in STELLA DALLAS (1937) - the studio forced Joan Crawford on director Curtiz. Curtiz disliked Crawford and bullied her badly on the set. But it was worth it. Joan Crawford won an Oscar for Best Actress as Mildred in Mildred Pierce.

For his directing debut, John Huston decided on a third film version of THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). John, son of actor Walter Huston, was at the time one of Hollywood's finest screenwriters. Still, George Raft was not impressed by Huston, so turned down the part of Sam Spade. Humphrey Bogart, a contract player at Warner's, got the part instead.

George C. Scott reached the pinnacle of his career with his monumental performance in PATTON (1970). But Scott received the role of the cantankerous World War II general only after Burt Lancaster, Rod Steiger, Robert Mitchum, and Lee Marvin said no. John Wayne desperately wanted to play the part, but the producers felt he wasn't a good enough actor for the role. Scott won the Oscar for Best Actor that year for his performance, but he refused to accept the award.

Ben Kingsley won stardom, universal acclaim, and an Academy Award for his performance in GANDHI (1982), the award winning biography by Sir Richard Attenborough. But Kingsley was hardly the first choice for the part. He was selected only after Dirk Bogarde, Peter Finch, Anthony Hopkins, Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, and Tom Courtenay said no.

Casting story about the classic, CASABLANCA:

Before [Hal] Wallis set Bogart for the part of Rick, one memo from Jack Warner confirms his desire to see George Raft play the role. Raft was the perfect prototype for Rick, hard-boiled, desperate, but ultimately a 'good guy.' And Raft had made Jack Warner millions during the thirties. But Raft's judgement had been poor when, in the early forties, he turned down a number of roles that might have salvaged his fading career. Perhaps the biggest mistake he made was in turning down the part of Sam Spade in John Huston's 1941 remake of Dashiell Hammett's THE MALTESE FALCON.....After THE MALTESE FALCON, Bogart inherited another role rejected by George Raft: HIGH SIERRA, directed by Raoul Walsh. This was one of the first film noir classics of the forties, a genre Bogart's personality completely captured.

What do you think? Was George Raft one of the dumbest guys ever to come out of Hollywood or what? I mean, you have to shake your head.

I love these sorts of backstage casting stories and when I cruised through this book, my eyes were sometimes rolling out of my head and my mouth was hanging open. Ha! You have to wonder if fate didn't ultimately have a hand in some of these decisions. As for films ruined by bad casting, you'll have to read the book to find those tidbits.


  1. I've also read that George Raft turned down the Fred MacMurray part in Double Indemnity. This is the story Billy Wilder told in Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe:

    "When I did Double Indemnity, I tried every leading man in town. I went about as low as George Raft, that's pretty low. [Laughs] He had somebody read the script for him, because he could not read. So somebody read the script, and then halfway through, he came over to the studio and said, 'I'm halfway through that script, and where comes the lapel?' And I said, 'The lapel?' 'You know what I mean -- when does he show that he's an FBI man? The lapel!' [He demonstrates turning the lapel of a coat over, showing an FBI badge] 'There's no lapel,' I tell him. 'I really am a murderer!? I wouldn't do that! I wouldn't touch it, for God's sake!' But Stanwyck knew that it was good stuff, and she grabbed it."

    High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Double Indemnity -- George Raft really was as dumb as they get!

  2. Still, on the plus side, Bogart did well out of Raft's poor decisions! One that I've heard is the conflict over casting Harry Lime in The Third Man - Selznick wanted Cary Grant, Korda wanted Noel Coward. Both might have been interesting, but would have resulted in VERY different films...

  3. mythical monkey: Honestly, Raft probably had no insight so probably never knew he'd flubbed it big time. Couldn't read? You mean he was illiterate? Or just didn't have the time or inclination to read? I wonder...

    As for Fred MacMurray in the part, I've always thought he was fabulous in D.I. Precisely because he was playing against type and looked doubly sleazy doing it. He had that certain look of a small time loser.

  4. Nicolas: I would have liked to have seen Cary Grant as Harry Lime. Interesting.

    Yes, you could say that Raft made 'poor decisions.' Ha! I wonder what Bogart thought of Raft. Probably thought he was a chump.

  5. I just finished seeing "Dark Passage," with Bogart and Bacall, the fourth starring those two; I've seen all of them within the last year for the second or third time. It's so amazing how their chemistry and early love affair brightened up the screen and made those movies come alive. I love them. Now I must mourn their loss, and find some other movies to watch--oldies. I found a set of Maigret by Simenon at the library to watch.

  6. How fun to see behind the scenes! I have a mental list of friends to buy this book as a gift for. I adore hearing this kind of "gossip".

  7. Kathy: I think DARK PASSAGE is my favorite Bacall/Bogart film. I've always liked it. I love the ending. ;)

    Oh, there are plenty of good oldies to watch. You'll find something special, no doubt.

  8. Wallace: Me too! I love all the backstage stuff.
    This book is still available, I checked.


Your comment will appear after I take a look.