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Thursday, June 30th, 2011

The Lost Roles of Albert Brooks

Amongst comedians and comedy fans, Albert Brooks is one of the most respected men in the industry and has been for over thirty years. He began his career performing on variety and talk shows, most notably The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, in the late 60s and early 70s before transitioning to movies. He was often referred to as the West Coast Woody Allen, but while Allen makes a film every year, Brooks has shown a reluctance to flood the market with his comedies, only directing seven movies in the 32 years he’s spent as a feature filmmaker. Nevertheless, many of Albert Brooks's films, although not whopping commercial successes, have proven popular with critics and fans, even earning him an admirer in Stanley Kubrick, an equally sluggish worker.

Brooks's most successful live action role to date was not in one of his own films, but in Broadcast News, written and directed by his longtime friend and colleague James L. Brooks (no relation). Albert Brooks's turn as reporter Aaron Altman earned him an Oscar nomination and opened up a lot of doors for him. Brooks was offered a number of high-profile roles in still-renowned studio comedies, but he turned most of them down, showing the same choosiness with his acting career that he'd displayed as a writer/director. As you'll see in the collected list of major parts he's passed up, Albert Brooks had opportunities that could have turned him into one of the biggest stars in TV and film. Instead, Brooks took a great deal of care with his choices and crafted a career with very few misfires. Let's take a look at some big roles he almost had.

1. Saturday Night Live (1975-)
The role: Permanent host
Who got it: Revolving door of guest hosts
When Saturday Night Live was originally in development in 1974, Lorne Michaels was still trying to figure out what the show was. He offered Albert Brooks the opportunity to be the permanent host each week, but Brooks turned it down, saying:

“Now, as I did with everything — every time I said no to someone in my life — I always felt compelled to come up with an alternative idea so I didn’t sounds like an asshole. So I swear to God on my own life, I said to them [Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol], “You don’t want a permanent host anyway. Every show does that. Why don’t you get a different host every week?” And so I really have to tell you, when I said that, they both went, “Oh, okay!” (quoted from Live From New York, It’s Saturday Night by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller)

Brooks taking the job would have shaken up the show and the comedy industry as a whole. While he rejected the hosting gig, Brooks made a weekly short film for the first several episodes of SNL, then just called Saturday Night. When the show's ensemble of comedic actors, which included Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner, amongst many other comedy legends, became the focal point of the show, the Albert Brooks films were dropped, along with other non-cast segments like Jim Henson's Muppets.

While the Not Ready for Primetime Players became the heart of Saturday Night, if Albert Brooks were made the host, he would have been at the center of the show and it would have drastically changed its tone and feel. This would have been a great venue for Brooks to try out his brand of conceptual humor on a national audience each week, but steering the focus away from the repertory cast may have prevented the show from achieving the same level of popularity it did and capturing the zeitgeist. With Brooks as permanent host, Saturday Night would have been a completely different show and it may not have become the springboard to comedy stardom that it has been for so many years now, cutting short the careers of many a great comedic actor and actress and drastically altering the narrative of modern American comedy.

Albert Brooks is a brilliant and inventive comedian and it would have been interesting to see what he would have done with a weekly series, but Saturday Night Live is a cultural institution that works best with a revolving door of hosts and a strong emphasis on its cast.

2. Our Man in Rattan (1976) – never produced
Albert Brooks pitched a sitcom to Michael Eisner, then an executive at ABC, in 1976. The proposed series was to be called Our Man in Rattan and would have starred Brooks as a beleaguered TV reporter on assignment in an undesirable part of Africa. Eisner was enthused about the project and was ready to commit to producing Our Man in Rattan when he asked Brooks, "Where do you see the character in seven years?" Brooks's response was, "Suicide. I don't think I’m ready to do this."

Brooks's hesitance to commit to a long-term television project is understandable. American TV networks have a tendency to run shows into the ground, overextending their runs until they bottom out and lose all of the magic that drew in viewers in the first place. The premise for Our Man in Rattan, though, does sound very promising. Brooks as a put-upon, low-level reporter in Africa would be well worth watching, but committing to several years of a weekly series, for which he was to be both the star and the creator, would have forced Brooks to film his movies in the summer off-season. Given how long it takes him to put each film together, the extreme caution he shows with his work may have stopped him from devoting himself to anything but Our Man in Rattan, meaning we would have missed out on several classic comedy films. Still, an Albert Brooks sitcom produced at this point in his career would have been a highly entertaining and intelligent series.

3. Dragnet (1987)
The role: Pep Streebeck
Who got it: Tom Hanks
Albert Brooks was offered the role of Dan Aykroyd's sidekick, Pep Streebeck, in this feature film adaptation of the classic 50s crime series, but said no. Though the Dragnet film wasn't a major hit, it sure didn't hurt Tom Hanks's career any. It's probably best for Brooks's dignity that he avoided this part, as he would have been asked to appear alongside Dan Aykroyd in this Paula Abdul-choreographed late 80s rap music video that was made to promote Dragnet. Behold, Tom Hanks's mad rhymes.

4. Big (1988)
The role: Josh Baskin
Who got it: Tom Hanks
Another Tom Hanks role that Albert Brooks passed up was his seminal turn in the fantasy-comedy Big. Appearing in Big netted Tom Hanks his first Oscar nomination and was a pivotal step towards transitioning from comedy to drama. Brooks already had an Oscar nom from his part in Broadcast News the previous year; had he accepted this role, it would have given him the chance to start building a streak.  Brooks justified his decision years later, saying, “At the time I was offered Big, I wanted to dig my teeth into a grown-up character. I didn’t want to play little kids.” Tom Hanks ended up being the perfect choice for the role. Brooks's brainy, neurotic humor isn't exactly suited for playing a child in an adult’s body, and his instinct to stick to adult roles was probably right.

Albert Brooks taking the lead role from Tom Hanks could have prevented Hanks's transition from comedic to dramatic acting. Though Big was more comedy than drama, the film had more weight to it than the average Hanks outing from this era (Bachelor Party, Turner & Hooch). Also, Hanks’s first Oscar nom for Big nudged filmmakers and executives towards thinking of him as a serious actor. It would have been hard for Albert Brooks to land an Oscar nomination or major dramatic acting roles as a result of starring in Big, but it still would have been a boon to his career.

5. Midnight Run (1988)
The role: Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas
Who got it: Charles Grodin
Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin proved to be an unlikely but highly effective comedy team in Midnight Run, but Grodin wasn't the first choice for the role. Paramount was pushing hard for Cher or Robin Williams, and the part was also offered to Albert Brooks, who turned it down. Brooks and DeNiro had previously worked together in Taxi Driver, which was Midnight Run's complete tonal opposite. Putting them together in a buddy comedy was an interesting choice, but Charles Grodin ended up being well-suited and an unexpected choice for the part. While Brooks and DeNiro could have been great together, they may not have had the chemistry that DeNiro and Grodin did.

6. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
The role: Harry Burns
Who got it: Billy Crystal
Before Billy Crystal was cast as the male lead in this quintessential romantic comedy, the part was offered to Albert Brooks by director Rob Reiner, who was Brooks's childhood friend. Brooks turned it down, explaining, “It read to me like a Woody Allen movie, verbatim. And I thought that was not something I should be in.” When Harry Met Sally definitely owed a lot to the films of Woody Allen, Annie Hall in particular, and Brooks was justified in fearing the comparison to Allen. At the time, Woody Allen was one of the leading writer/directors in comedy and Brooks had been compared to him throughout his entire career, them both being neurotic, obsessive Jewish comedians-turned-auteurs who were peaking at the same era and often starred in their own semi-autobiographical movies.

When Harry Met Sally went on to become a monstrous hit and gave Billy Crystal's career a major boost. Like a lot of the hits Albert Brooks passed up, this is another one that would have allowed him more opportunities to get his directorial projects made. When Harry Met Sally ended up being an iconic film — receiving major awards nominations and placement on numerous lists by the American Film Institute. Brooks's presence here would have shot his career into the stratosphere, but such mainstream success would have jeopardized the cult hero status he’s held onto for decades now.

While Billy Crystal had been starring in films since the mid-80s, When Harry Met Sally was his biggest success yet and the project that cemented his status as a movie star. Brooks taking this role instead of him would have prevented Crystal's career from reaching the next level and kept dreck like City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold out of theaters. Despite Brooks's misgivings about playing a Woody Allen-esque part, he would have been a nice fit for Harry Burns, and this film would have been a suitable and widely-seen vehicle for his comedy.

7. Pretty Woman (1990)
The role: Edward Lewis
Who got it: Richard Gere
Another role in a highly-successful rom-com that Albert Brooks turned down was that of Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman. Brooks clarified years later, “When Garry Marshall came to me with Pretty Woman, there was no Julia Roberts. It was just this silly script about a prostitute.” Roberts was the main draw here, as audiences were enthused to see a new talent burst onto the screen. Before all of the parts are cast, it's hard to predict whether a film will turn out good or successful, and it looks like Brooks passed on this one very early in the process. What's most strange about this situation is how different Richard Gere, the actor who won the role, is from Albert Brooks. Gere's a charming pretty boy, while Brooks is a neurotic comedian, who’s excessively hairy as fans of Modern Romance know. It seems like Brooks would have almost been a better fit for the Jason Alexander role, but him playing the male lead here could have drastically affected the movie and his career.

8. Sgt. Bilko (1996)
The role: Ernest G. Bilko
Who got it: Steve Martin
Dragnet wasn't the only TV series-to-film remake that Albert Brooks passed on that would have paired him with Dan Aykroyd. He said no to Sgt. Bilko, as well. Unlike most of the other movies he'd turned down up to this point, Bilko wasn't a hit and he was better off staying as far away from the project as possible.

9. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The role: Harry Block
Who got it: Woody Allen
Woody Allen was concerned that he was too nice to pull off the nasty title role in Deconstructing Harry, so he tried to talk a string of other actors into playing the part. After Elliott Gould, Dennis Hopper, and Dustin Hoffman each said no, he went to Albert Brooks, who also passed. Brooks said, “It was insane that Allen didn’t do it himself.” Woody Allen ended up taking the part, and, while the film wasn’t a commercial success, it landed him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. This isn't the ideal project for a Woody Allen-Albert Brooks collaboration, but it really is a shame these two comedian-filmmakers, who've been compared so often, haven’t had the chance to work together. On second thought, an Allen-Brooks joint would probably turn out something like Whatever Works, Allen's film with another neurotic Jewish comedy auteur, Larry David, as the lead. Whatever Works, although sporadically amusing and worth it for hardcore fans of Allen or David, wasn't greater than the sum of its parts and serves as proof that Allen is better off writing for himself than for similar comedians.

10. Dogma (1999)
The role: Cardinal Ignatius Glick
Who got it: George Carlin
Brooks was offered the role of Cardinal Glick, the inventor of Buddy Christ, in this controversial Kevin Smith film. George Carlin ended up booking the role and this was the start of a working relationship between Smith and Carlin that lasted through Smith’s next two movies.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

  • Jason Farr@facebook

    I could totally see him in When Harry Met Sally and even more so in Midnight Run. Though, what ended up happening was movie magic, so it's hard to say Brooks should have gotten those roles instead. It'd be like saying Nicholson should've been Michael Corleone. Yeah, he'd probably be great in The Godfather…but how amazing is Pacino as Michael?

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

      @Jason Farr@facebook Yeah, I don't think Brooks would have been any better than Billy Crystal or Charles Grodin, respectively, in those roles, but it would have been interesting to see what that would have been like. Charles Grodin's performance in Midnight Run is one of my all-time favorites.