10 Movie Franchises That Lost Their Lead — And What Happened


If you felt a slight gust from the west yesterday, it may have been the folks at Universal Pictures letting out a sigh of relief; The Bourne Legacy, the newest (and Bourne-less) entry in their venerable franchise put up respectable numbers over the weekend, selling $40 million of tickets to a picture that was, from the outset, a bit of dicey proposition. Its success got us thinking about other film series that lost their lead actors, and whether those franchises succeeded or failed in their absence; we collect and analyze the data for you after the jump.

The Bourne series

LOST: Matt Damon GAINED: Jeremy Renner VERDICT: Succeeded

The idea of a Bourne movie without, y’know, Bourne is a little hard to swallow, and Damon’s absence is certainly felt in writer/director Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy — it’s full of dialogue like “Jason Bourne was just the tip of the iceberg” and Damon’s face popping up in file folders and that kind of thing. But Gilroy manages to make this story seem like a natural extension of those that came before, and Renner is a robust and muscular replacement. The fourth Bourne movie doesn’t quite match its predecessors, but it’s a far better film than we’d feared, and its $40 million opening weekend indicates, as Box Office Mojo notes, that “audiences eventually accepted the idea of expanding the Bourne universe.”

The Bond series

LOST: Sean Connery GAINED: George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig VERDICT: Succeeded

There was some question as to whether the James Bond movies could carry on when Sean Connery decided to put down his martini glass and step away from the role in 1967, following his fifth outing as 007, You Only Live Twice. His first replacement was George Lazenby, who stepped into Bond’s shoes for only one film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; conventional wisdom is that he wasn’t up to the job, but Lazenby actually chose not to return after Secret Service, which offset mixed reviews with very respectable box office. The Bond producers basically backed a truck of money up to Connery’s house to get him back for one more film, but after that, they had to find a new, long-term Bond, and ended up going with Roger Moore; he made the character his own over the course of seven films, and was eventually succeeded by Timothy Dalton, Pierce Bronsnan, and Daniel Craig. And we can probably all agree that Connery was the best Bond (we can all agree on that, right?), the series did just fine without him, particularly in the early Moore films and the thrilling Craig reboot Casino Royale.

The Smokey and the Bandit trilogy

LOST: Burt Reynolds GAINED: Jerry Reed VERDICT: Failed

The first two Smokey and the Bandit films, featuring Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, and Sally Field under the direction of stuntman-turned-filmmaker Hal Needham, were wildly successful, grossing a combined $190 million domestic. But only Gleason was interested in a third go-round (Reynolds would only commit to a cameo), so the filmmakers cooked up a cockeyed premise in which Gleason would effectively play both the Bandit and Sheriff Buford T. Justice. The long-circulated rumor was that Gleason was playing a dual role, somehow inhabiting both his character and Reynolds’, and that test audiences were confused by the gimmick, so Jerry Reed (“Snowman” from Smokey I & II) was brought in to play the “Bandit” surrogate. The real story is a bit more complicated: based on the final cut of the film and a rare teaser trailer unearthed a couple of years back (above), the original premise was, it seems, that the two characters were effectively combined into one via a plot that had the Sheriff taking on an outrageous bet from Big and Little Enos, who usually hired Bandit for those jobs. Reed was probably brought in less as a response to audience confusion than audience distaste for the lackluster picture (even by Smokey standards), but it didn’t matter: Part 3 grossed a miserable $5 million and buried the franchise — until the inevitable remake, that is.

The Terminator series

LOST: Arnold Schwarzenegger GAINED: Sam Worthington VERDICT: Failed

The 2003 threequel Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was a giant let-down, an utterly unnecessary sequel with none of the grace, wit, or thoughtfulness of James Cameron’s first two films, but you had to give it this: at least it had Arnold. However, by the time Hollywood was ready to go back to the Terminator well, Schwarzenegger was off doing a bang-up job as the governor of California, and while some filmmakers would have taken that as a cue to maybe let this one go, director McG decided to put his star power into his John Conner, bringing in Christian Bale for the role that two other actors had played before him and casting charisma-free Sam Worthington in, effectively, the terminator role. The filmmakers also softened the sex and violence to make Terminator Salvation the first PG-13 film in the series, trying to chase down some of those teenage box office dollars, but to no avail; it opened to mostly negative reviews and disappointing box office. Whether it actually sank the series remains to be seen — rumors circulated last year that a fifth Terminator film was being shopped around, with Schwarzenegger back in the mix and Fast and Furious director Justin Lim at the helm, because what the hell why not.

The Hulk movies

LOST: Eric Bana, Edward Norton GAINED: Mark Ruffalo VERDICT: Succeeded

Expectations were high for Ang Lee’s 2003 big-screen version of Hulk — it came on the heels of his award-winning international hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it hit theaters a month after the critical and commercial success of another Marvel property, the second X-Men movie. But response to Lee’s somewhat cerebral take was mixed, and while the film did bang-up business opening weekend, its 70% drop in weekend two was all anyone needed to know about audience word of mouth. Five years later, Marvel and Universal made The Incredible Hulk, a strange hybrid of reboot and sequel that basically picked up where Hulk left off, but modified the backstory. Edward Norton was the Hulk this time around, and while the movie outpaced its predecessor at the box office, it was still a strangely unsatisfying picture. Nonetheless, it concluded with Tony Stark recruiting Bruce Banner for the Avengers, and Norton was originally to reprise the role in that film. Why he didn’t remains up in the air — some say salary, some say personality conflicts (Norton has a bit of a reputation for prickliness) — but Mark Ruffalo was brought in for The Avengers, and made the role his. Part of it may be his natural charisma and skill as an actor; he was certainly aided by having a far better script than Bana or Norton, and one that certainly “got” Hulk in a way the earlier films never did. (There’s more going on in that brief close-up of Banner’s eyes during his first transformation than in the entirety of the earlier films.) Ruffalo has since been signed to play Banner/Hulk six more times, which sounds like something someone just cold made up for hyperbole’s sake.

The Batman films (first wave)

LOST: Michael Keaton GAINED: Val Kilmer, George Clooney VERDICT: Failed

Tim Burton’s decision to cast comic leading man Keaton as the Caped Crusader was only one of the offbeat choices he made for his 1989 Batman, but it was a giant hit, so he must’ve been right, right? And as we’ve noted, Keaton was a peculiar but successful choice, bringing his wry likability to Bruce Wayne and proving a credible Batman. But when Warner Brothers let Burton indulge his darker impulses in Batman Returns, the result was the most depressing superhero movie that side of The Crow. The franchise was handed over to Joel Schumacher (Burton stayed on as executive producer) with the directive to lighten it the hell up, and Keaton declined to return out of loyalty to his director and distaste for the new direction. Val Kilmer, then hot off Tombstone, was brought in, but he ended up fading into the background of a film dominated by its scenery-chewing villains (Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey), and he was said to be less than delightful to work with. But Batman Forever made boatloads of money, so Schumacher was kept on to navigate the series toward its nadir: Batman & Robin, this time with George Clooney stepping into the cape and cowl. He’s actually not a terrible Batman, but the badness of the movie is simply overwhelming, and after the scathing reviews and disappointing box office, the series sat dormant for eight years until somebody had the weird idea to turn it over to Christopher Nolan.

The Jack Ryan adaptations (first wave)

LOST: Alec Baldwin GAINED: Harrison Ford VERDICT: Succeeded

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels hit the big screen in a big way with 1990’s Hunt for Red October, with rising star Alec Baldwin taking on the role of CIA analyst Ryan opposite top-billed Sean Connery. The picture was a giant hit — the combination of handsome young Baldwin, distinguished Connery, and the built-in audience of Clancy readers brought in a total of $200 million worldwide. Paramount was, of course, anxious to get a follow-up out ASAP, and Clancy had provided them with plenty of sequel fodder, so they fast-tracked an adaptation of Clancy’s book Patriot Games. But Baldwin didn’t come along for the ride. The official story was that he was unavailable due to a commitment to a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but he’s since claimed that “the studio cut my throat” and had shut him out to pursue Harrison Ford, who owed them a movie. However it happened, Ford took over the role for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, with the second film doing respectable business and the third besting Hunt’s impressive numbers. And then they brought Affleck in…

The original Dracula movies

LOST: Bela Lugosi GAINED: John Carradine VERDICT: Failed

1931’s Dracula remains one of the greatest of all horror films, setting the template (along with Frankenstein, released later that year) for Universal’s distinctive horror films and placing Bela Lugosi in the role that made him immortal: Count Dracula. But Lugosi found the role more a curse than a blessing, and spent the years after its release trying to separate himself from the role. As a result, the first two sequels (1936’s Dracula’s Daughter and 1943’s Son of Dracula) didn’t include the bloodsucker at all. In 1944, with Lugosi still resistant, the studio had to find themselves a new Dracula; they went with John Carradine for the multi-monster (or “monster rally,” as they’re sometimes called) features House of Frankestein and House of Dracula, which teamed up Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolfman. Carradine is just fine as Dracula, but simply put, he’s no Lugosi, and he wasn’t helped much by the declining quality of the films. By the late ’40s, Universal decided to revive interest in their flagging horror franchises by putting their most popular comics into the mix, and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (and Dracula, and the Wolfman) was a huge hit. By the time it was produced in 1948, Lugosi had given in to his lot in life, and returned to the role that made him famous.

The Exorcist series

LOST: Lee J. Cobb GAINED: George C. Scott VERDICT: Toss-Up

The Exorcist III is one of those peculiar cases where nearly everyone from the original film is gone or replaced by the time they get to part three; only Jason Miller (playing Father Damien Karras, billed as “Patient X”) remains, while William Peter Blatty, who wrote and produced the original film, writes and directs this time around. Basing the picture on his novel Legion, a loose sequel to the original book, he focuses this supernatural detective story on William F. Kinderman, played by Lee J. Cobb in the original film and George C. Scott for part three (Cobb died in 1976). The events of the notorious Exorcist II: The Heretic , with which Blatty was not involved, are ignored, and he wanted to ignore it in the title as well, begging his distributors to keep the book title intact. It didn’t work, and while the film generated some curiosity crowds, audiences were ultimately disappointed that it wasn’t a more direct sequel, or more in the style of that classic chiller. It’s doubtful that the Cobb/Scott switch made much of a difference to audiences or critics; for what it’s worth, Scott turns in a fine performance in this underrated film.

The Halloween movies

LOST: Jamie Lee Curtis GAINED: Stacey Nelkin, Ellie Cornell, Danielle Harris VERDICT: Failed

The original 1978 Halloween started the slasher-movie craze, reaped obscene profits (it was, for a time, the most profitable independent film ever made), and made a star out of Jamie Lee Curtis, who turned her leading role as Laurie Strode into a lucrative career as a B-movie “scream queen.” Her horror follow-ups included Terror Train, Prom Night, and (of course) Halloween II, which also brought back writer/producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill and concluded with what sure looked like the death of teenager-killing boogeyman Michael Myers. But Universal, which released the film, wanted more Halloween ; Carpenter and Hill agreed, but only if they could tell a new story with no Myers. The studio agreed, and Halloween III was born, telling a basically unrelated story about a madman toymaker who plans to kill children on Halloween night with evil masks, or something. It was not a hit, though the film’s female lead, Stacey Nelkin, received some good notices. The series went slack for six years, and though Carpenter was nearly lured back for Halloween 4, he ultimately sold the rights to the series to producer Moustapha Akkad, who resurrected Myers and cranked out several more installments. Akkad tried to get Curtis back, but she’d carved out a career in “respectable” movies by then, and declined; the focus for the next two Halloween films was little Danielle Harris, as Curtis’ daughter Jamie (GET IT?), and lovely Ellie Cornell as Jamie’s foster sister Rachel. These entries were serviceable enough, but the Halloween series didn’t really get interesting again until Curtis returned in 1998, reprising the role of Laurie for Halloween: H20.