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Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The Lost Roles of Ghostbusters

When it was released in 1984, Ghostbusters quickly captured the public imagination and became the highest grossing comedy of all-time. Although the film was displaced from the top spot by Beverly Hills Cop just a few months later, both of these comedies ended 1984 as the year’s two highest grossing movies. I can’t stress enough how rare that is and what it says about the wide appeal and accessibility of big studio comedies like Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop, and how they became cultural phenomena. It really shows how comedies today tend to cater to a niche audience, rather than attempted to satiate the masses. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a comedy that can outgross the fantasy, action, and sci-fi films that dominate the box office, but Ghostbusters did it, besting several big 1984 films, including Gremlins, The Karate Kid, and that year’s installments of Indiana Jones and Star Trek. To this day, Ghostbusters remains an iconic piece of cinema that’s spawned a mediocre sequel, two animated series, video games, toys, a couple of knock-off movies, and plans for another mediocre sequel.

Dan Aykroyd, who wrote the original draft of the screenplay, had been working on Ghostbusters for years before production began. His original idea for the film was deemed too inexpensive, but it involved the Ghostbusters — who wore S.W.A.T outfits and used wands instead of Proton Packs in this incarnation — traveling through time and other dimensions to battle ghosts and spirits. Throughout the project’s long journey to screen, many well-known actors and actresses were offered or considered for prominent roles. Let’s take a look at some of the comedy greats who almost ended up starring in Ghostbusters.

Paul Reubens
The role: Gozer
Who got it: Yugoslav model Slavitza Jovan
Dan Aykroyd originally intended for the human form of Gozer to be a calm architect in a business suit. Paul Reubens, better known as Pee Wee Herman, was offered the part. Reubens passed on the project, and the character was changed to a frightening punk rock-esque woman.

At the time of Ghostbusters' release, Paul Reubens wasn't yet a big name. Reubens was still building his momentum at this point, his most significant credits being supporting roles in a couple of Cheech & Chong movies, starring in his popular live stage show based on the Pee Wee Herman character, and the subsequent HBO special. Reubens hadn't taken on a big role in a Ghostbusters-sized hit yet. The two projects for which Reubens is still best known, the Tim Burton-directed feature Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and the follow-up Saturday morning series Pee-Wee's Playhouse, were just around the corner. The idea of Paul Reubens playing Gozer as a mundane businessman sounds promising and it could have been a lot of fun, but the much-scarier female version of Gozer was a memorable character in a movie full of them. Appearing in Ghostbusters would have brought Paul Reubens to the national spotlight, but shooting the part might have taken away from the time he could devote to prepping Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

John Candy
The role: Louis Tully
Who got it: Rick Moranis
John Candy was the first choice for the part of Sigourney Weaver's dweeby neighbor Louis. Candy was interested, but he wanted his character to speak with a German accent and own several large dogs. The producers nixed this idea and went with Rick Moranis instead.

I'm sure John Candy had good intentions, but turning Louis into a wacky immigrant may have been too much and a broad character like this would have clashed with the film’s tone. What made Ghostbusters work so well is that the supernatural elements were over-the-top and fantastical, but all of the humans played it straight and the settings were pretty ordinary. Candy's character would have thrown this delicate balance out of whack. Also, Louis Tully owning dogs would have muddled up the plot, as it would have been unclear if these dogs had anything to do with the hell-hounds that chase the character towards the end of the film.

Appearing in Ghostbusters would have been a boon to John Candy's career, especially if he had played the part as written. We saw what happened with an heavy-accented character in Ghostbusters II. Blecch. Candy starred in another hit comedy that year, playing a supporting role as Tom Hanks's brother in Splash, so it's not like he was hurting at the time. Splash was a big hit, but it wasn’t a cultural phenomenon on the level of Ghostbusters.

Rick Moranis plays Louis Tully with aplomb, and he used the role as a springboard to achieving leading man status in several major Hollywood films. If Candy had taken the Ghostbusters part, Moranis probably wouldn't have been considered to play Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors or Wayne Szalinski in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The actor would have instead languished in supporting parts, waiting for a breakthrough role like he had in Ghostbusters. Moranis used the money he made from his starring roles in the '80s and '90s to retire from the industry early in 1997. Without the Louis Tully part, it's likely he wouldn't have the financial prosperity to stave off work. Moranis still might have been acting in supporting roles in movies and TV today, which could have made for some great comedy.

Rick Moranis got pigeonholed into playing this kind of nerdy, glasses-wearing loser, but he displayed a much greater range during his stint on SCTV. On that show, he moved from one character to another — sometimes even playing two or three vastly-different guys in one sketch. From deep-throated video DJ Gerry Todd to caustic Hollywood producer Larry Siegel to dim-witted Canadian stereotype Bob McKenzie, Moranis gave some impressive performances and showed he could tackle a wide range of personalities. Ghostbusters was the first step towards him getting typecast as dweebs like Seymour Krelborn. Without it, he would have missed out on a lucrative stint as a leading man that brought him early retirement; but he could have had a longer career as a character actor, giving him the chance to showcase his diverse abilities.

Sandra Bernhard
The role: Janine Melnitz
Who got it: Annie Potts
Sandra Bernhard was offered the opportunity to play the Ghostbusters' sarcastic secretary Janine Melnitz, but the actress turned it down. Bernhard's shown she’s capable of a terrific film performance in King of Comedy. That project was admittedly tonally adjunct to Ghostbusters, but Bernhard is a gifted comedian and she could have been very funny here. However, Annie Potts gives a game and hilarious performance as Janine that would be hard to top.

John Belushi
The role: Peter Venkman
Who got it: Bill Murray
Dan Aykroyd originally wanted Ghostbusters to be a buddy picture for him and John Belushi. These two were well on their way to forming a long-lasting onscreen pairing a la Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, having already worked together on SNL, 1941, Blues Brothers, and Neighbors. Their partnership would have continued if it weren't for Belushi's untimely death in 1982, as this was just one of many projects they were considering doing together. After Belushi's passing, the Peter Venkman role was rewritten for Bill Murray, presumably changing the character from a loveable slob to a sarcastic showboat.

John Belushi's career was waning just prior to his death, as recent films Continental Divide and Neighbors had failed to recapture Animal House's level of success. Ghostbusters was a major hit and would have turned Belushi's career around, guaranteeing him more high-profile roles in the future. The film probably wouldn't have worked as well with Belushi in Bill Murray's place, but Aykroyd and Belushi had a nice on-screen rapport, especially when they had worthwhile material to work with as they did here.

Missing out on this one would have definitely hurt Bill Murray's career. After he became the lead actor in the most popular comedy film of all-time, Murray took a four year vacation from the movie industry — save for a cameo in Little Shop of Horrors — spending some time in France. Without a certified hit like this one, Murray probably would have needed to work during that stint in an attempt to both pay the bills and keep his career's momentum going. Murray was able to talk Columbia Pictures into financing the adaptation of the novel The Razor's Edge — his first major foray into drama, which he wrote and starred in — in exchange for agreeing to play the lead in Ghostbusters, so that film wouldn't have come to be if he didn't nab this role.

For more info on parts John Belushi almost played, check out The Lost Roles of John Belushi.

Eddie Murphy
The role: Winston Zeddemore
Who got it: Ernie Hudson
Eddie Murphy was offered the part of Winston Zeddemore, which was intended to be a much larger character at the time. The plan was for Zeddemore to have been hired as a Ghostbuster much earlier in the movie, and in the scene at the hotel, he would have been the one covered in green slime by the ghost Slimer, instead of Bill Murray. Eddie Murphy turned the part down, instead choosing to star in Beverly Hills Cop, which edged Ghostbusters out of the top slot that year by a few million dollars. When Murphy said no, the role was reduced and lesser-known actor Ernie Hudson was hired.

Appearing in Ghostbusters would have helped Eddie Murphy's career, but missing out on Beverly Hills Cop would have been a bad thing for the actor. He definitely made the right choice, as Beverly Hills Cop became a slightly-bigger hit, and he was the film's sole lead, giving him more screentime than if he had been part of the Ghostbusters ensemble.

The addition of Eddie Murphy to the Ghostbusters team might have felt a little redundant with Murphy likely to have given a high-energy performance that would have come too close to Bill Murray's. One of the reasons Bill Murray stands out so much in Ghostbusters is that most of the characters surrounding him — Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, etc. — are calm and low-key, making his flamboyance seem that much more outrageous. With Murphy as Zeddemore, there would have been two loud crazy guys where only one was necessary; however, Murphy's presence would have drawn his audience to the theaters in addition to the already-massive crowds that were going to see Ghostbusters. Who knows? It may have made enough money to the point that it would still be the highest-grossing comedy today.

For more info on parts Eddie Murphy almost played, check out The Lost Roles of Eddie Murphy.

The Lost Theme Songs

Huey Lewis and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham were both approached, separately, to pen the theme song to Ghostbusters before Ray Parker Jr. landed the job. Huey Lewis was busy working on his Back to the Future theme and passed, while Lindsey Buckingham didn’t want to be thought of as a soundtrack musician after having recently penned and recorded the song “Holiday Road” for Harold Ramis’s prior big-screen effort, National Lampoon’s Vacation. The studio settled on Ray Parker Jr., and his theme song for Ghostbusters became arguably more successful than the film itself, earning Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, a Grammy win, hitting number one on the Billboard 100, and the single went gold in the US and platinum in multiple countries abroad. Huey Lewis passing on this songwriting gig wasn’t the end of his involvement in the Ghostbusters theme though, as the Ghostbusters song bore a striking similarity to his 1983 song “I Want a New Drug.” Lewis sued Parker and the two settled out of court.

Ghostbusters III: Hellbent (in development during the 1990s)

Dan Aykroyd completed a draft of Ghostbusters III in the late ’90s, long before Sony Pictures began its most-recent attempts to resurrect the franchise in response to an irritating wave of ’80s movie nostalgia. Aykroyd planned for the Ghostbusters get transported into a version of hell that resembles Manhattan. Many of the ideas for this project were incorporated into the 2009 multi-platform Ghostbusters video game, which may just be the closest we ever get to a Ghostbusters sequel. When Ghostbusters: Hellbent was in development in the ‘90s, Ben Stiller, Chris Farley, and Chris Rock were widely-rumored additions to the cast as a new generation of Ghostbusters. The idea of casting Ben Stiller seems to have more weight than some of these other rumors, as Harold Ramis said he wanted to cast Stiller as a new Ghostbuster when he was talking up the film back in 2005. This seems to have fallen through, as Ben Stiller’s name hasn’t been mentioned in association with the project recently.

For more info on what Hellbent might have looked like, here’s a link to a script review of a 1999 draft of the script over at IGN. Dan Aykroyd spoke of attempts to resurrect the script as an entirely-CGI animated project in 2007, but there’s been no news on that front since and Sony Pictures is definitely moving in the live action direction with Ghostbusters III.

Latest sequel plans

As you’ve probably read elsewhere if you’re a fan of the series, The Office and Year One writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg have completed a draft for Ghostbusters III. The studio's on board, as are key players Dan Aykroyd, director Ivan Reitman, and actor/co-writer Harold Ramis. But the project can’t move forward without Bill Murray giving the go-ahead, and the latest is that the script has been delivered to him, but he hasn’t gotten around to reading it.

The plan for the third installment is to feature the original Ghostbusters and to have them pass the torch to a new younger set of spook-hunters. Right, because that always works. Hey, what if Shia LaBeouf played one of the Ghostbusters and he’s constantly looking in the mirror and combing his hair throughout the whole movie? Wouldn’t that be something? Just a thought.

No official plans to cast this newer generation of Ghostbusters have been publicized, and this entire project could fall through without Bill Murray’s approval. Nevertheless, several names have been bandied and rumored throughout the two-plus years the sequel has been in development, during which time very little progress has been made. Bill Hader, Eliza Dushku, and Anna Faris are rumors that Dan Aykroyd has referred to as “strong possibilities,” and Ivan Reitman has angered fans and lovers of all that is good in the world by acknowledging the possibility of casting Ashton Kutcher. Other completely-unfounded rumors that have been reported by legitimate media outlets include Will Forte, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen (who called it “a terrible idea”), Jack Black, and Michael Cera.

A lot of these rumors just get started whenever Harold Ramis or Ivan Reitman does a new film and a desperate reporter suggests the movie’s star for Ghostbusters III. That’s how names like Michael Cera, Jack Black, and Ashton Kutcher first came up, so it’s not like any of those particular casting ideas have any weight to them. Nonetheless, a lot of these rumored stars have weighed in on the issue, saying whether they would be interested in putting on a Proton Pack or not. Here’s a breakdown of who wants to be a Ghostbuster and who doesn’t:

Interested Uninterested No comment yet Source
Bill Hader X Zap2it
Jack Black X /Film
Paul Rudd X MTV
Anna Faris X NextMovie
Eliza Dushku X MTV
Michael Cera X /Film
Seth Rogen X /Film
Will Forte X
Ashton Kutcher X
Steve Carell X
Behind the scenes:
Jason Reitman X MTV
Judd Apatow X


Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles and a life-long Ghostbusters fan who really doesn’t want Bill Murray to ever read or consider that Ghostbusters III script.

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  • JoshUng

    In 1989, Bobby Brown's "On Our Own" was my favorite song, totally worth the movie.

  • grovberg

    My understanding of the Huey Lewis situation is that they asked him to write the theme, he said no, and then they asked Ray Parker Jr. to write as song that sounded like a Huey Lewis song. And that the experience with Ghostbusters is what convinced him to go ahead and get involved with Back to the Future. I can't imagine where I got that impression from though, so my version could be completely fictional.

    Also are you seriously arguing that Rick Moranis' Louis is a restrained character? Don't get me wrong, I actually like Moranis very much (in Ghostbusters and in general), but the only way they could have made his character any more stereotypical nerd is to put tape on his glasses.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @grovberg I hadn't heard that version of the Huey Lewis story. I've read he was working on the Back to the Future song when they asked him to do the Ghostbusters one, but it's possible the Ghostbusters experience inspired him to not turn down the Back to the Future offer.

      Rick Moranis's character definitely isn't restrained. He, along with Murray, was one of the movie's broader characters. Moranis is good as this kind of cliched nerd, but I would have liked to see him play some different parts in all those big movies he was in.

    • JoshUng

      @grovberg I think I remember in the Huey Lewis "Behind the Music" was that he didn't want to do a soundtrack, but after Ghostbusters, he was asked about Back to the Future, and he thought "well, if I don't do it, they'll just take it anyway, so I might as well go for it." Though, this was Huey Lewis being interviewed 15 years after the fact, so its still rhetorical I guess.

    • Jason Farr@facebook

      @grovberg It was the "Behind the Music" that he said that. I remembered him saying the same thing.

  • hulabaloo

    Uhhh, Rick Moranis didn't go into early retirement because of the roles he was getting – his wife was diagnosed with cancer and he retired to take care of her and his kids. She sadly passed away and he became a full-time dad. That's what happened. That until he released that country album awhile back.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @hulabaloo I didn't say he went into retirement because of the roles he was getting, I just said that he retired.

    • hulabaloo

      @Bradford Evans This is true – My original reading of the article meant that I interpreted your wording not as you had intended, I apologize. :)

  • Robin Harbron@facebook

    Good article, but I think this needs to be fixed: "For more info on parts John Belushi almost played, check out The Lost Roles of Eddie Murphy."

  • Hadael

    Wow, just think; in some alternate reality there's a crappy version of Ghostbusters.

    • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

      @Hadael There's one in our reality. It's called Ghostbusters II. Ba-zing!

  • Ulysess

    A buddy comedy with a tall caring smart one an a lovably goofy short fat slob where they travel through time an other dimensions battling ghosts an spirits blasting them with wand like weapons. Isn't that the description of the horrible Ghostbusters cartoon? Not the wonderful for the time Real Ghostbusters but the horrible one that is the reason it had to be called The Real Ghostbusters. Change the SWAT out fits too World War One aviator uniforms add in the tech building, but mute, gorilla and the purple girl from a thousand years in the future an it is the same idea.

    • Corey Kline@facebook

      @Ulysess The Ghostbusters cartoon from Filmation was based off of a children's show from 1975 called The Ghost Busters. Rumor has it that Aykroyd used that show as inspiration for the movie.

  • Stephen Vincent@facebook

    My casting:

    Venkman = Vince Vaughn
    Stanz = Mike Myers
    Spengler = John Cusack
    Zedmore = Will Smith

  • http://www.clifhaley.com/ Clif Haley

    I really hope a new Ghostbusters movie does not involve Seth Rogan or Judd Apatow. I like their humor…I guess…but it's overdone and passe at this point. And THANK GOD Michael Cera is uninterested.