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Thursday, March 31st, 2011

The Lost Roles of Robin Williams

Casting is one of the most important processes in movie making. Placing the right actors in the right roles can determine whether or not an entire film rings true. Thus, casting directors and filmmakers consider a variety of possibilities before going into production. Lost Roles is a weekly series that examines the missed opportunities — the roles that could have been — and explores how some casting choices that almost happened could have changed the film industry and the comedy world, at large.

Stand-up. Sitcom star. Oscar-winner. Few find the success that Robin Williams has achieved in so many different realms of show business. With a knack for wild, off-the-cuff improvisation and a distinct and recognizable persona, Williams has been a highly sought-after actor for over thirty years, and his name has been bandied about when it comes to playing several well-known film characters. Robin Williams has been publicly vocal about roles he wants, particularly with his decades-long quest to play a villain in the Batman series, which has yet to find him satisfaction. Considering the length of his career, his massive box office clout, and the wide range of characters he can play, it's no surprise that Robin Williams has had his fair share of close calls with big projects. Here's a collection of roles Williams was considered for, wanted, or turned down, and some projects that fell apart altogether.

1. Taxi (TV series, 1978-1983)
The role: Bobby Wheeler
Who got it: Jeff Conaway
The producers of Taxi considered Robin Williams for the part of Bobby Wheeler, a struggling actor who moonlights as a cab driver, according to IMDb. Williams was already committed to another sitcom, Mork & Mindy, at this point and couldn't take the Taxi role. If Williams were cast, the character would have likely been very different than Jeff Conaway's version. Conaway serves as kind of a straight man, keeping things grounded as one of the plainer characters in a cast that included several larger-than-life comic personas. With the manic intensity that Williams would have brought to this part, the show would have run the risk of growing too absurd with him in the cast.

Taxi had one of the all-time great ensembles in TV comedy, and adding Williams to the mix could have made it even stronger. Joining fellow accomplished comedic actors Danny DeVito, Andy Kaufman, and Christopher Lloyd could have led to some great television. Taxi has held up much better than Mork & Mindy over the years and had a greater influence on the medium of the sitcom, serving as a creative predecessor to Cheers and The Simpsons in many ways. Taxi's one of the best sitcoms of its era and it elevated the form. This would have been a nice opportunity for Williams to be a part of a comedy with such a huge impact, but it in the end, Mork & Mindy was probably better for his career. While he would have been part of a seven member ensemble on Taxi, Williams was one of two stars at the center of Mork & Mindy. Playing a lead on that show allowed him to star in major Hollywood films, rather than being thought of as a supporting actor. Mork & Mindy gave Williams more screentime than Taxi would have, allowing him more opportunities to build a relationship with the audience and to introduce them to his brand of humor. Jeff Conaway, who took the Bobby Wheeler role, never became a movie star, like most of the Taxi cast. Artistically, taking Mork & Mindy rather than Taxi may seem like a missed opportunity for Robin Williams, but this ended up being the best option for his career in the long run.

2. The Shining (1980)
The role: Jack Torrance
Who got it: Jack Nicholson
Believe it or not, Stanley Kubrick considered casting Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro for the lead in The Shining. Williams has shown in recent years he can handle darker roles, in thrillers like Insomnia and One Hour Photo, but he seems like an odd choice for this part so early on in his career. At the time The Shining went into production, Williams had yet to prove himself as a leading man in movies; he was just a sitcom actor on a goofy show where he played an alien. Stephen King and the studio weren't fond of Kubrick's selections, and Jack Nicholson was soon picked for the part.

I'm not sure Robin Williams would have been up to the challenge at this point, as his transition to dramatic acting didn't occur until the late '80s; however, if he had won the part and managed to impress audiences with his acting, it could have led to him to begin working in drama years earlier. Jack Nicholson gives a great performance here and it's hard to imagine Williams could have done any better. Nicholson's famous "Here's Johnny" line was improvised by the actor, and if Robin Williams had taken the part, that snippet of dialogue wouldn't have been included in the film and wouldn't have become a part of the cultural lexicon.

3. Three Amigos (1986)
The role: Ned Nederlander
Who got it: Martin Short
When Steven Spielberg was considering directing Three Amigos in the early '80s, he wanted Bill Murray, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams in the leading roles. Spielberg decided to make E.T. instead, and only Steve Martin stayed onboard when the film finally went into production years later.

You can't blame Steven Spielberg for the choice he made, as E.T. became a huge win for him, but missing this one likely hurt Williams's career a little bit. For his first few years as a movie star, Robin Williams had yet to appear in any major hits. With Bill Murray and Steve Martin being big box office draws in the early '80s, it's likely this version of Three Amigos would have done just as well business-wise as the actual one. Appearing in this movie could have been a much-needed success for Williams during a period in which he was dealing with the disappointing box office returns of the live-action Popeye movie, The Survivors and Club Paradise. Playing Ned Nederlander in Three Amigos would have established Williams as a major film star, given him two talented actors to play off of, and helped him to secure bigger parts in the future.

4. Midnight Run (1988)
The role: Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas
Who got it: Charles Grodin
Robin Williams wanted this part and even auditioned for it, but director Martin Brest had already used Charles Grodin to screen test with Robert DeNiro and was highly pleased with their chemistry together. Paramount wanted Williams for the role too, but Brest insisted on casting Grodin and the studio dropped the project. Universal quickly picked the project up, keeping DeNiro and Grodin in the lead roles.

Although it was only a modest hit upon its release, Midnight Run has become recognized as one of the best buddy comedies ever made, and it's often used as a jumping off point for Hollywood films of a similar nature today. This would have been a great part for Williams, but Grodin and DeNiro's chemistry is perfect and largely what drives the movie. Williams would get the chance to star with DeNiro just a couple of years later in Awakenings anyway, so it's not like these two actors never got a chance to share the screen. Although Charles Grodin had been appearing in Hollywood movies for years at this point, Midnight Run was a major breakthrough for the actor and opened up a lot of big roles for him in years to come.

5. Chaplin (1992)
The role: Charlie Chaplin
Who got it: Robert Downey, Jr.
Director Richard Attenborough wanted Robert Downey Jr. for the part of Charlie Chaplin all along, but the film’s financiers were pressuring him to cast Robin Williams or Billy Crystal. Playing Chaplin legitimized Robert Downey Jr.'s film career, proving he was much more than just a teen idol. He was the right one for the part, and although Robin Williams was a more accomplished comedic actor, he doesn't bear much of a resemblance to Chaplin, physically or in terms of his comic style.

6. Philadelphia (1993)
The role: Joe Miller
Who got it: Denzel Washington
Concerned he needed a comedic actor to balance out the drama, director Jonathan Demme briefly considered casting Bill Murray or Robin Williams before Denzel Washington became available.

Tom Hanks's career parallels that of Robin Williams in many ways. They both began on rather-absurd sitcoms in the late 70s/early 80s, with Hanks cross-dressing in Bosom Buddies every week, while Williams played an alien on Mork & Mindy. Both actors started starring in films in the early '80s but didn't appear in big hits until later in the decade when Hanks made Big and Williams made Good Morning, Vietnam. These were breakthrough roles for them. Although the two movies were comedies, both actors earned their first Oscar nominations for their performances, which is made more remarkable by how rarely the Academy recognizes comedies. Following this, Hanks and Williams began to seek dramatic work. Although Robin Williams has had his share of big serious roles, Tom Hanks found greater success in this field. Philadelphia was the role that allowed Hanks to make this transition, and I can't help but think that Williams might have been able to establish himself more firmly as a dramatic actor if he had had scored this part alongside Tom Hanks.

7. Aladdin: The Return of Jafar (1994)
The role: Genie (voice)
Who got it: Dan Castellanetta
Robin Williams opted out of supplying his voice for the second installment in the Aladdin franchise (which was the very first direct-to-video sequel to a Disney movie), as he was in a dispute about his voice being used in Aladdin merchandise after the first film. Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, replaced Williams for Return of Jafar, the Aladdin animated series, and even recorded his dialogue for the third film. When Disney got a new president who issued Williams an apology, Williams returned for the third installment and recorded over all of Castellaneta’s dialogue. These direct-to-video Disney movies are usually even more of a shameless cash-grab than regular kids movies are, and it likely didn't hurt Williams’s career to miss out on this one.

8. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
The role: Rubeus Hagrid
Who got it: Robbie Coltrane
Robin Williams said he had pinpointed a few parts in the Harry Potter films he was interested in. Warner Brothers wanted him to play Hagrid, but J.K. Rowling had final approval over the cast and nixed the idea, opting to mainly hire British actors. Williams said, “There were a couple of parts I would have loved to play but there was a ban on American actors.”

I'm not sure if Hagrid the bearded half-giant is the right part for Robin Williams, but his sensibility would definitely fit somewhere within the Harry Potter universe. Taking a part in Sorcerer's Stone would have likely led to Williams appearing in each installment of the franchise, forcing him to clear most of his calendar for the next decade. He wouldn't have been able to take many of the recent parts he's played, but that might not have been a bad thing given the way Robin Williams vehicles Old Dogs and RV turned out. I consider World's Greatest Dad, though, to have been a good recent Robin Williams project and one that he gives an excellent performance in. That production could have easily coincided with the filming of a Harry Potter installment and prevented Williams from taking part (even forcing the film’s cancellation altogether). Starring in the lucrative Harry Potter series would have been a great career move if Robin Williams could have pulled it off. This role would have secured him legions of new young fans but would have taken away from the amount of time he's able to devote to his stand-up and non-Potter film work.

9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
The role: Willy Wonka
Who got it: Johnny Depp
Robin Williams was one of many actors considered to play Willy Wonka in this Tim Burton adaptation of the classic children's book. While his performance would have been vastly different from Johnny Depp's, this would have been a great opportunity for him, giving him plenty of chances to have fun with the part and improvise.

10. The Brothers Grimm (2006)
The role: Mercurio Cavaldi
Who got it: Peter Stormare
Robin Williams was actually cast in this role, but dropped out at the last minute. The Brothers Grimm would have allowed him to work in a different genre than he's accustomed to and to show off his range a little bit, but seeing as this film didn't end up being a hit, passing this one up wasn't a big loss for the actor.

11. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The role: Frank Ginsburg
Who got it: Steve Carell
The studio was doubtful about casting Steve Carell in this project, as The Office and The 40 Year Old Virgin had yet to hit and he wasn’t a well-known actor at the time. Studio execs wanted a bigger name, suggesting Bill Murray or Robin Williams, but they were satisfied by the time the movie was released, as Steve Carell had become a movie and TV star.

This would have been a nice role for Williams and could have even netted him another Oscar nomination, considering all the awards attention the cast received. Little Miss Sunshine got a much better reception than the family road trip comedy Williams made that same year: RV. Losing this part to Robin Williams would have hurt Steve Carell's career, as this was the role that solidified his movie star status after The 40 Year Old Virgin, his first major success. Williams being cast instead of Carell would have meant Carell would have had fewer opportunities to star in movies.

12. Milk (2008)
The role: Harvey Milk
Who got it: Sean Penn
Robin Williams was planning on playing Harvey Milk when Oliver Stone was attached to direct in the early '90s, drawing a little bit of criticism from those who weren't sure he could pull off the part. Williams stayed on when Gus Van Sant took over as director, but the project was shelved for many years when Van Sant didn’t feel comfortable with the way Milk and the Castro Street community were portrayed in that version of the script. Williams moved on, but Van Sant returned to the project after being highly-satisfied with the script that Dustin Lance Black wrote.

I was surprised to learn how long this project took to develop. Sixteen years is a huge amount of time to get a movie made, but other films have had development processes take much longer than this. Harvey Milk could have been great a great role for Robin Williams, assuming he chose to go a little deeper than he did when playing a gay character in The Birdcage. Sean Penn won the Oscar for his performance, and with Milk, Robin Williams would have had a strong chance of pulling off the same feat.

13. Cop Out (2010)
The role: Paul Hodges
Who got it: Tracy Morgan (presumably)
Robin Williams was cast in this action-comedy in its early stages, when it was still called A Couple of Dicks. The Cullen Brothers, who wrote the screenplay, were planning on directing, and James Gandolfini was attached to play the other part. When the project shifted production companies, Williams and Gandolfini were dropped and Kevin Smith was brought on board to direct. Williams sued the production company, but lost because his deal was never finalized.

Perhaps Cop Out would have been better with the original title, directors and stars, but the eventual end result certainly doesn’t indicate there was much potential here. It was probably in Robin Williams's best interest to have steered clear of this one.

14. Into the Woods (never filmed)
The role: The Baker
Rob Reiner was preparing to direct an adaptation of this Stephen Sondheim musical in the mid-90s, and absurdly-named City Slickers scribes Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel wrote the script. A read-through was held, with Robin Williams, Cher, Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, and Danny DeVito in various parts, but the project never came to fruition. With a diverse, all-star cast like this, the film version would have likely succeeded. This would have been a chance for Williams to stretch his chops and to work with a talented group of people.

15. Wedding Banned (never filmed)
Wedding Banned was a project set up at Disney that Walt Becker, director of Wild Hogs and Old Dogs, was making with Robin Williams, Diane Keaton, and Anna Faris. The film was ramping up for production, but Disney pulled the plug on it after the failure of a previous Becker-Williams collaboration, Old Dogs. The movie would have starred Williams and Keaton as a long-divorced couple who kidnap their daughter on her wedding day to prevent her from making the same mistake they did. Another gift the failure of Old Dogs brought us was the cancellation of the Wild Hogs sequel, which I swear was going to be titled Wild Hogs 2: Bachelor Ride. We are lucky, people.

16. Good Morning, Chicago (never filmed)
The role: Adrian Cronauer
After the through-the-roof success of Good Morning, Vietnam, Touchstone Pictures was pushing for a sequel. A script was written, titled Good Morning, Chicago, and it involved Robin Williams's character broadcasting in Chicago during the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention.  Williams and director Barry Levinson passed, and the project was shelved.

Good Morning, Vietnam was Robin Williams's breakthrough film role and the perfect vehicle for him, as it allowed him to improvise wildly in the radio scenes, basically playing a version of himself. While the 1968 DNC seems like a great setting for the follow-up, a shoddy sequel could have damaged the original's reputation as a respected comedy. If the sequel had been made and became a hit, it would have sent the studios clamoring for a third film. Although there are a few exceptions, third movies in a series are often somehow more lackluster than the second. Despite the entertaining premise for this sequel, it's probably for the best Good Morning, Vietnam didn't give birth to a franchise.

17. Mrs. Doubtfire 2 (never filmed)
The role: Daniel Hillard / Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire
In 2003, ten years after the original’s release, 20th Century Fox started putting together a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire. While Mrs. Doubtfire is one of Williams's better comedies, this is another one that I'm not sure would hold up as a franchise. During the development process, Robin Williams even went as far to hint at a third Mrs. Doubtfire, saying there were “plenty of adventures left for her.” Comedian and talk show host Bonnie Hunt wrote the script, but Williams backed out, saying, “if it’s not done right, it’s not worth doing.” In an industry dominated by shameless, unnecessary sequels that earn giant paychecks for the actors and studios involved, you’ve got to give Williams credit for showing some integrity and refusing to ruin the legacy of one of his better movies.

After everyone found out Mrs. Doubtfire's true identity in the original, it seems like a sequel wouldn't have made much sense. Plus, it’s especially strange that they tried to produce it so long after the fact. The proposed sequel would have involved Williams's character using the Mrs. Doubtfire costume to keep an eye on his daughter while she's away at college. Any reason for the character to don that dress seems like a flimsy excuse, and this one doesn't feel like an exception. I can't think of a conceivable situation that would call for Robin Williams’s character to don drag again, but I guess the original was pretty implausible, too. While the prospect of a Mrs. Doubtfire sequel doesn't interest me, I would love to see a movie starring David Cross as his Arrested Development character Tobias Fünke disguising himself as his Mrs. Doubtfire/Mary Poppins-inspired alter ego Mrs. Featherbottom. Now, that I would watch.

18. Various Batman films (1989-Present)
Robin Williams has long sought after a villainous part in the Batman movies, often remarking to the press that he would love to play the Joker or the Riddler… or whoever at this point. His quest to play Batman’s adversary has lasted over two decades now and has been unfruitful thus far. There are a lot of characters in the Batman universe who would be a good fit for Williams to play since a number of Batman's enemies are basically demented comedians.

Williams was considered to play the Joker in the 1989 Tim Burton version and claims he was even offered the part before Jack Nicholson was cast. In the '90s, he was offered the part of the Riddler in Batman Forever, but the producers went with Jim Carrey after director Joel Schumacher claims Robin Williams was taking too long to sign on.

When Christopher Nolan took the reins of the franchise in 2005, Robin Williams again expressed interest in playing the Joker. While Heath Ledger was the perfect fit for the role, Williams playing the character isn't as outlandish an idea as it seems. His animated, over-the-top humor seems a better fit for the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batmans than for Christopher Nolan's more realistic take on the series, but to be fair, Williams has shown he can handle more grounded characters. He’s even worked with Christopher Nolan before, playing the bad guy in Insomnia. He did a fine job there, so the prospect of Nolan casting him in his version of Batman isn't beyond belief. Rumors arose earlier this year that Robin Williams was going to be playing villain Hugo Strange in Nolan's third installment. These ended up being just rumors, as I've found in my research that Batman fans on the Internet tend to be less reliable than gossipy teenage girls.

Maybe someday Williams’s dream will be realized, and he’ll be cast in a Batman film, but don’t hold your breath. I’ll leave you with what Robin Williams said about his long-held interest in the franchise:

"I would do Batman in a second, playing anyone… The Batman films have screwed me twice before. Years ago they offered me The Joker and then gave it to Jack Nicholson, then they offered me The Riddler and gave it to Jim Carrey. I'd be like 'OK, is this a real offer? If it is, then the answer's yes. Don't pump me again, motherfuckers'.”

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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  • http://favstar.fm/users/wdeg Will DeG

    As per usual, awesome article. Nice work.

  • Brendan K. O'Grady

    Very cool stuff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martin-Schneider/1569671098 Martin Schneider

    You say Williams had not transitioned into dramatic acting until much later, but check out his turn in Garp, which was in the early 80s. He was very good in a demanding, subtle, and straightforwardly dramatic role. I often think that Williams's career would have been more artistically successful if he had gone in that direction.