The Actors Who Turned Down Controversial Movie Roles


Earlier this week, Saturday Night Live vet Norm Macdonald took to Twitter to pen an account of the events leading up to SNL‘s recently aired 40th Anniversary Special. The comedian and writer hoped to get Eddie Murphy to star in a “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch as fallen comedian and accused serial rapist Bill Cosby (a role left to Kenan Thompson), but Murphy refused. Macdonald applauded Murphy’s decision, and the Internet was ablaze with opinions on the matter — especially after learning that Cosby was “very appreciative” of Murphy’s decision. Of course, Murphy is hardly the only actor in pop culture to turn down a controversial part in a project. Cinema is filled with them. The recent events inspired us to revisit a few controversial films and the roles that saw Hollywood talent turning away from them.

The Exorcist

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than apple-cheeked Linda Blair in the part of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. The child actress was unknown at the time. Her agency promoted 30 other clients before suggesting Blair for the role of the possessed 12-year-old who accidentally summons a demon with a Ouija board (director William Friedkin also considered casting Regan with an adult little person). Several of the young girls vying for the role in Friedkin’s film were bigger names — including sci-fi actress Pamelyn Ferdin (Star Trek, Space Academy) and Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato. There was one actress up for the role of Regan whose parents got spooked by the material and pulled her out of the running. Denise Nickerson, best known for playing the spoiled and bratty Violet Beauregarde in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, was almost cast. From blowing up into a giant blueberry to spewing green pea soup, Nickerson would have nailed it — but it was not meant to be.

Basic Instinct

Over 50 actresses were considered for the role of sadistic femme fatale Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct, including Nicole Kidman and Demi Moore, but star Michael Douglas was pushing for one actress: Kim Basinger. After being the blonde bombshell in films that prized her for her looks over her talent, such as 9½ Weeks, Basinger turned down the role for fear of being typecast. While crossing and uncrossing your legs with no underwear on seems like a fairly tame thing to do in a movie today, the number of actresses doing full-frontal nudity in American movies during the ’90s was still few.

A Clockwork Orange

He played a killer clown in the 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, but Tim Curry almost played another kind of menace to society back in 1971. Legend has it that Curry, along with fellow sonorous-voiced star Jeremy Irons, was offered the part of the sociopathic Alex in A Clockwork Orange. During that time, Curry was busy with bit TV parts and a bright theater career (cast in the musical Hair in 1968), leading to his most famous role as Dr Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We suspect that Curry felt playing a character who rapes and pillages his way across futuristic London wold have jeopardized the good things he had going for him.

The Last Temptation of Christ

The original cast of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ — which saw widespread protests due to the director’s controversial depiction of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) as a mortal man with mortal weaknesses (portrayed in a sex scene with Barbara Hershey’s Mary Magdalene) — dispersed after the film was canceled by a very panicked production studio. In a 2010 interview, former cast member Aidan Quinn, who was set to play Jesus (alongside Sting as Pontius Pilate and Vanity as Mary Magdalene), mentions his early part in the movie:

Bullz-Eye: Speaking of religious controversy, is it true that you actually got the role of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ but passed on it?

Aidan Quinn: Mm-hmm.

BE: In retrospect, given the controversy over that film, did you feel like you’d dodged a bullet? Or do you feel like it was a missed opportunity for you?

AQ: You know what? I honestly don’t. I honestly think…and maybe it’s a naïve, convenient belief that things happen for some kind of reason, and it certainly would’ve helped my career tremendously, without a doubt. I mean, there’s no doubt about that. My road is a much harder road. The path I took is…it’s not that limelight path.

Last Tango in Paris

Celebrated French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, who started his career in Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman (opposite Brigitte Bardot) and starred in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s last film, Three Colors: Red, was offered the part of American widower Paul in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris. However, the actor was uncomfortable with the nudity involved and turned it down. French actress and model Dominique Sanda had collaborated with Bertolucci before in The Conformist and Novecento, but she walked away from the part of Jeanne, the mysterious woman who has a torrid affair with the forlorn Paul at a Paris apartment, after she became pregnant. Last Tango star Maria Schneider’s account of the making of the movie has left a dark cloud over the production since then: ”I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”


And speaking of Maria Schneider, the French actress turned down the role of Caligula’s lover and sister Drusilla in Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione porno-chic biopic about the Roman emperor following her troubling experience shooting Last Tango in Paris. Teresa Ann Savoy took the part after Schneider refused due to copious nudity and uncomfortable sex scenes.


Child star Hayley Mills was wanted for the part of flirty teen Lolita who becomes the object of a middle-aged man’s obsession in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel. Mills was known as a child star and Disney darling up to that point, appearing in six movies for the Mouse House king (including The Parent Trap). John Mills, Hayley’s father, was blamed for Mills turning down the part, although many believe it was Walt Disney himself. Disney strongly encouraged the actress to only accept roles that would adhere to her innocent image. In 1966, Mills accepted a role as the rebellious teen Mary in Ida Lupino’s The Trouble with Angels as soon as her Disney contract expired in order to shed her youthful screen persona.

Taxi Driver

Jodie Foster was 13 years old when she was cast as a teenage prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. In the film, troubled cabbie Travis Bickle attempts to save Foster’s character Iris from a terrible life on the streets. Causing waves for its portrayal of violence, it’s no wonder that child star Mariel Hemingway’s family pressured her to turn down the part when it was originally offered to her. Foster was not the director’s first choice. Melanie Griffith, Linda Blair, Bo Derek, and Carrie Fisher were also considered for the role.

American Psycho

Hollywood said Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, about a psychopathic serial killer in New York City during the 1980s, couldn’t be adapted for the big screen. Director Mary Harron and star Christian Bale proved everyone wrong. Bale seems tailor-made for the role of a greedy investment banker who slaughters those who cross him. But Leonardo DiCaprio was ready for the role after studio Lionsgate sent the actor a copy of the script and a $20 million offer to play Bateman. This was done after Harron had already accepted to direct and she had offered the part of Bateman to Bale. “When I offered him the part, he said he had all these messages on his answering machine telling him this was career suicide. And that just made him more excited. That’s sort of how I reacted, too,” Harron told The Guardian. “Leonardo wasn’t remotely right [for the part]. There’s something very boyish about him. He’s not credible as one of these tough Wall Street guys,” Harron continued. “He brought way too much baggage with him — I did not want to deal with someone who had a 13-year-old fan base. They shouldn’t see the movie. It could’ve gotten us in a lot of trouble.” Even though DiCaprio wanted Oliver Stone to direct him in the picture, he eventually took himself out of the running after a push from feminist icon Gloria Steinem (who was concerned with promoting a violent image to his teenage fans) and other pressures.

Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick’s long-gestating adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, retitled Eyes Wide Shut, was controversial for its sex scenes. But part of what contributed to the film’s sordid reputation was a closed set and record film shoot, which lasted 400 days. Rumors around the project swirled, especially when it came to casting. Tom Cruise and then wife Nicole Kidman were eventually cast in the parts of Dr. Bill Harford and Alice Harford, but Kubrick originally chose Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh for the roles of the troubled spouses (and even filmed scenes with them). Both stars technically left due to obligations with other projects (Finding Graceland and eXistenZ, respectively), but the gossip mill speculated it was due to the film’s sexual subject matter.