Sack The Actor: Performers Who Got Punted

April 9, 2016
As a companion piece to our “Sack The Director” feature published earlier this week, here are 12 actors who got dropped from major films.


What Happened? You’d think that director Francis Ford Coppola would have had his hands full while making his Vietnam War epic, what with insurrections in the Philippines, marriage troubles, the lack of a completed script, on-set craziness from Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper, typhoons and mammoth budget over-runs. He still found time, however, to sack his lead actor, Harvey Keitel. He was replaced by Martin Sheen, who suffered a heart attack, but managed to complete the film. According to Francis Ford Coppola, there was nothing sinister or controversial behind Keitel’s sacking, which is now just a footnote in a notoriously troubled production. “Given what I felt the character had to convey, I was convinced that Harvey was wrong for what I wanted to do,” Coppola told The Times of his decision. “Harvey is a wonderful actor, but totally different in approach and style to Martin. There’d be many roles perhaps in which I would replace Martin with Harvey, as they are both wonderful actors and good people. It was a judgement call. It was difficult, but I don’t think I was wrong. Something that I’m very grateful for is that this difficult moment didn’t cost me Harvey’s friendship – which shows what a fine and generous person he is, as well as a dedicated actor. The hardest thing in movie-making is to replace an actor.”

Unfair Dismissal? Harsh but fair. Martin Sheen’s sense of stillness, reserve and coiled tension is right at the core of the vivid, caterwauling Apocalypse Now, and Harvey Keitel’s more manic performance style could have potentially thrown this already-wild masterpiece completely off balance. Also, one’s head nearly explodes with the mere contemplation of Keitel sharing screen time with Marlon Brando. Despite his undoubted brilliance, this is one role that Harvey Keitel just wasn’t right for.

Dennis Hopper


What Happened? Australian filmmaker, Peter Weir (Picnic At Hanging Rock, Witness, Fearless), is a reserved man rarely, if ever, involved in any kind of trouble or controversy. Even his wonderful seafaring epic, Master And Commander – which starred noted elemental-force-of-nature, Russell Crowe – didn’t yield much in the way of rumours or conjecture. So it’s no surprise really that not many ripples are caused even when he drops a major Hollywood star from his film. It happened on his acclaimed 1998 drama, The Truman Show. One time Hollywood wild man, Dennis Hopper, was cast in the role of Christoph, the God-like creator of a TV show in which the blissfully unaware Truman (Jim Carrey) is watched day and night by an absorbed nation. The idea of Dennis Hopper as an overseeing television guru is a great one. Was it the actor’s unpredictable behaviour that cost him the role? Did he clash with Peter Weir? Nothing quite so interesting. When the rushes came through, it became apparent that Hopper just wasn’t working out. “It was the most underwritten character in the script,” Weir told Entertainment Weekly, “and I just changed my thinking about it as we went along. Dennis was very gracious about it.” Weir recast the role with Ed Harris, who ended up scoring an Oscar nomination. Harris, however, also found himself ever-so-slightly at odds with the director. “I couldn’t really find a hook for the character,” he told Entertainment Weekly, “so I asked Peter, ‘What if he were a hunchback? What if he had some sort of deformity to show that he’d had a hard time in life?’ Peter laughed, but we did try it once.”

Unfair Dismissal? Hard to say. Hopper would likely have brought a more intense, megalomaniacal edge to the role, but Harris’ Oscar nomination confirms that he was probably the right man for the job.

 Ashton Kutcher  (1)


What Happened? Ashton Kutcher was originally cast to play the lead role of the shoe designer who hits rock bottom in Cameron Crowe’s disastrous Elizabethtown. The official reason behind Kutcher being dropped is that a rescheduling of the film meant that the actor had to fulfil his commitments to That 70s Show. The unofficial reason is that Kutcher simply didn’t click with his leading lady, Kirsten Dunst. Cameron Crowe has deflected attention from the rumours on a number of occasions. “The Ashton thing was similar to Brad Pitt, who was almost in Almost Famous, and Tom Hanks, who was almost in Jerry Maguire,” he told journalist, Fred Topel. “Ashton wasn’t the guy of destiny for the movie. There were weird, untrue things that got out. I would totally work with Ashton. He’s completely underrated as an actor. It didn’t quite work, and it was a mutual, ‘Maybe see you next time.’ None of the crazy stuff that you might have heard really happened.” Crowe eventually replaced Kutcher with British thesp, Orlando Bloom, who the director claimed – as so many do amidst these controversies – was actually his first choice. “Orlando was the first guy that I went to, and I came back to him when he was available for it.” Crowe told Movieweb: “Orlando was right with all the music, and I believed him getting enveloped with these strangers, who were also his family. I just thought that scene wanted Orlando. Destiny had it going to Orlando.”

Unfair Dismissal? Does it really matter? Though former rock journalist, Cameron Crowe, is a fine writer/director, Elizabethtown was undoubtedly his worst work until last year’s even more disastrous Aloha. The film fails on just about every level (apart from its soundtrack, of course), and it’s highly unlikely that Kutcher would have made much difference. Incidentally, Crowe and Kutcher have not worked together since…

 Michael Keaton  (1)


What Happened? Writer/director, Woody Allen, is notorious for refilming large portions of his movies. He even went so far as to shoot his 1987 drama, September, twice, with completely different casts, which was pretty much tantamount to a cinematic factory shut-down of mass sackings. Woody also wielded the axe – though to a far less extreme extent – on his superb 1985 comedy drama, The Purple Rose Of Cairo. Michael Keaton (then hot off Night Shift and Mr. Mom) was originally cast as the movie character who steps off the screen in Depression-era America to romance Mia Farrow. During filming, Allen realised that Keaton’s slightly manic persona was far too modern for the role. In a strange and drastic move, Woody then briefly considered playing the role himself. “That would have meant rewriting,” he told New York Times Magazine. “I wouldn’t be a thirties movie idol. I’d have to be a chorus boy or something.” When Allen’s long time casting director, Juliet Taylor, suggested the highly engaging Jeff Daniels (who’d been terrific in Terms Of Endearment) for the role of the movie character, the writer/director knew that he had his man, and avoided lengthy rewrites. Despite having obviously very specific ideas about characterisation, Allen never really communicates this to his actors, which is probably why he’s had to sack so many of them. “There were no discussions about characters, motivations and backgrounds,” Daniels told New York Times Magazine. “The best thing was to get my idea lined up, and try to hit it in the first two takes. Sometimes it was all right, sometimes it wasn’t. And when it wasn’t, he’d step in quietly and say, ‘That’s fine; let’s try it in this direction.’”

Unfair Dismissal? No. The Purple Rose Of Cairo is a finely cut jewel of a film, and is just perfect the way it is.

Eric Stoltz


What Happened? Eric Stoltz’ highly affecting performance as the tormented teenager in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask had made him the hottest young star in Hollywood, and he was snapped up by director, Robert Zemeckis, to play time travelling Marty McFly. Rumours have long swirled about how much footage was actually shot with Stoltz: some believe that almost the entire film was completed (Stoltz can allegedly still be seen in some long shots) before Zemeckis determined that Stoltz’ performance was too “serious”, and that he lacked chemistry with his co-star, Christopher Lloyd, who played the eccentric Doc Emmett Brown. Stoltz was replaced with Michael J. Fox, who Zemeckis had claimed was his first choice for the role, but initially had to bow out because of his commitments on the sitcom, Family Ties. “I rarely look back, if at all,” Eric Stoltz revealed to website “But in retrospect, just getting through that difficult period helped me realise how freeing it really was. I went back to acting school, I moved to Europe, I did some plays in New York, and I invested in myself in a way that was much healthier for me. If I had become a massive star, I don’t know if I wouldn’t have gone into therapy. On the other hand, I would’ve been exceedingly rich, which would’ve been wonderful! [Laughs]” There was, however, a silver lining to this dark cloud: Stoltz’ Back To The Future co-star, Lea Thompson, recommended him for the lead in Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987), and Stoltz eventually became one of Hollywood’s most respected character actors.

Unfair Dismissal? Tough call, but likely fair. Though Stoltz has been funny in many films (Pulp Fiction, Anaconda), he’s probably too edgy to play nice guy, Marty McFly, and besides, Michael J. Fox was absolutely perfect in the role.

Sean Young


What Happened? Sean Young is one of the most notoriously difficult and unusual actresses in Hollywood history, as famed for her unconventional performances as she is for her perennially unhinged behaviour. She was alleged to have harassed and stalked fellow actor, James Woods, after their relationship ended, and famously dressed up as Catwoman and attempted to confront director, Tim Burton, in a loopy effort to win the role in his film, Batman Returns. Burton had cast Young as Vicky Vale in the first Batman film, but replaced her with Kim Basinger when the actress sustained a horse riding injury. Trouble followed Ms. Young when she scored the role of the sweet, virtuous Tess Trueheart in director/star, Warren Beatty’s colourful 1990 adaptation of the comic strip, Dick Tracy. Young was officially dropped from the film for not appearing “maternal” enough in dailies; her character spends much screen time with child actor, Charlie Korsmo, and Beatty and the producers didn’t sense enough warmth in her performance. They replaced Young with the charming Glenne Headly, whose cutesy voice and sweet demeanour had been such a delight in the hit comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Young, however, later accused Warren Beatty of throwing her off the film because she turned down the famous pants-man’s advances. Beatty has always maintained that it was purely a creative decision. “I have a lot of could-have-beens,” the actress – who had to turn down Sharon Stone’s role in Casino because she was pregnant – told Entertainment Weekly. “Franklin Roosevelt had the New Deal, and I had the raw deal.”

Unfair Dismissal? Fair. Sean Young is not exactly known for her on-screen warmth (why she was cast as Tess Trueheart in the first place – apart from her obvious beauty – is anybody’s guess), and probably lacks the inherent charm and sweetness that any portrayal of Tess demands. Glenne Headly is a far, far better choice.

Easier With Practice


What Happened? Daniel Day Lewis’ towering performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s perverse epic, There Will Be Blood, is one of the most full-bodied, highly inventive and utterly uncompromising one-man acting masterclasses that you’ll ever see. The fact that Day-Lewis allegedly remains in character between takes makes it all the more staggering. His Daniel Plainview – a monomaniacal oil prospector – is a truly terrifying creation, and rumour has it that Day-Lewis actually “intimidated” young actor, Kel O’Neill (who was cast as Plainview’s nemesis, preacher Eli Sunday), to such an extent that Anderson had to replace him. The director claims that things just weren’t working out. “There was some stuff that we got that was really good,” he told The Onion of the troubled early days of the shoot. “But mixed in was some stuff that I wouldn’t show to anyone – the most embarrassing, off-the-mark kind of stuff.” Anderson moved actor, Paul Dano, into the role. There were also rumours that Leonardo DiCaprio found Daniel Day-Lewis difficult to work with on Gangs Of New York. “I’ve heard that said,” Day-Lewis told FilmInk, “and I find it appalling. I would never consciously set out to do something like that to a colleague, because it’s a partnership that I value. It’s vital that we can rely on one another and get along with one another. I would hope that there is an unspoken understanding between myself and my colleagues about the way I work. Just as I would respect the way that they have to work to arrive at a place they need to arrive at, as long as it doesn’t interfere with me, and me with them. I try to encourage and support my colleagues.”

Unfair Dismissal? It’s almost impossible to say. While strong in minor films (XX/XY, Stephanie Daley), it’s difficult to determine if Kel O’Neill would have been up to the challenges of There Will Be Blood.

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What Happened? It’s now almost impossible to believe, but the brilliant Viggo Mortensen was not director Peter Jackson’s first choice to play the regal, brooding adventurer/king Aragorn in his epic adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. Originally cast in the role was Irishman Stuart Townsend, perhaps best known for being Charlize Theron’s partner, and also as the star of Queen Of The Damned and League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. “I spent two months working on it in pre-production in New Zealand,” Townsend told The Irish Times. “Then, the day before shooting started, I was off the picture without filming a single scene. I’m glad that I’m off it. I really am. It was a very interesting experience, but I’m glad because it left me free to do another big studio movie, Queen Of The Damned, which was wonderful.” Peter Jackson later claimed that he felt 31-year-old Townsend was too young for the authoritative role of Aragorn, and slotted 45-year-old Mortensen into the part, with majestic results. Townsend remains a little bitter about the whole experience, which was reinforced when he found himself seated near Peter Jackson at the Oscars. “I actually thought that [Peter Jackson] might come up and apologise, which would have been very dignified,” the actor told People. “But forgiveness is a big part of my thing. I clapped as hard as anyone else when they won.”

Unfair Dismissal? While it’s a bit rough to support the sacking of someone who’s just trying to do their job, Peter Jackson’s punting of Stuart Townsend still stands as one of the director’s best creative decisions. Viggo Mortensen grounded the Lord Of The Rings films with his earthy charm and brooding charisma, and there’s no way that the slightly sallow Stuart Townsend could have held a candle to him. All hail the king!


What Happened? Just about every film made by reclusive auteur and notorious perfectionist, Stanley Kubrick, has come complete with controversy (he allegedly – but pretty much definitely – subjected Shelley Duvall to mental torture on the set of The Shining) and scurrilous rumours (he gave Malcolm McDowell a hard time during and after shooting A Clockwork Orange). Generating the most noise, however, was his final film, the sexy drama mystery, Eyes Wide Shut, which shot for over six months in London. The best rumour (now sadly and widely believed to have been completely fabricated) to emanate from the set, however, involved actor Harvey Keitel, who filmed a few scenes before being dropped from the film. Rumour has it that one scene involved Keitel’s character masturbating in the vicinity of leading lady, Nicole Kidman. The story went that noted Method actor Keitel went the flog for real, and ended up ejaculating in Ms. Kidman’s hair, which prompted a furious Nickers and her equally angry husband/co-star, Tom Cruise, to demand that Harvey Keitel be fired from the film. It’s a great story, but it has been denied by all and sundry. It’s more likely that Keitel had to be dropped from the film because shooting went so long over schedule. He was replaced by the late Sydney Pollack, who doesn’t do any tossing off in the film, which further supports the apocryphal (but absolutely hilarious) nature of the story. Jennifer Jason Leigh was also dropped from the film for scheduling reasons, and was ultimately replaced by Marie Richardson.

Unfair Dismissal? Totally unfair. Yes, Stanley Kubrick was a genius, but he really needed to lift his game with regards to keeping his films on budget and on schedule. Sydney Pollack and Marie Richardson both did a good job in the final film, but Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh are top-notch performers who deserved better from their superstar director.

Ryan Gosling


What Happened? When Peter Jackson (Lord Of The Rings, King Kong) announced that he would be adapting Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel, The Lovely Bones, the excitement instantly started to build, with some even making ridiculously premature predictions about another Oscar haul for the Kiwi auteur. When he cast double Oscar nominee, Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson, Lars And The Real Girl), in the lead role of Jack Salmon – the father of murdered fourteen-year-old Susie (to be played by Atonement actress Saoirse Ronan), who watches her family from heaven in the years after her death – an even greater sheen of quality was applied to the project. But before shooting had started in earnest, 26-year-old Gosling – who had grown a fulsome beard and whacked on a chunky twenty pounds to play the part – was bounced off the film. The rumour mill instantly cranked into overdrive, with claims that Gosling had been dropped because he’d been exhibiting unusual behaviour on set, and others intimating that Peter Jackson was unhappy because the actor had put on too much weight for the role. In the end, however, it looks more like a repeat of Stuart Townsend’s dropkicking from Lord Of The Rings, with Gosling ultimately seen by Jackson as being too young for the fatherly role. “The age of the character versus my real age was always a concern of mine,” Gosling told “Peter and I tried to make it work, and ultimately it just didn’t. I’m going to be the first person in line to buy tickets though.” Gosling was replaced with the more mature Mark Wahlberg.

Unfair Dismissal? Very unfair. Peter Jackson really should have known that Gosling was too young to play the father of a fourteen-year-old, especially after his experience with Stuart Townsend on Lord Of The Rings. Interestingly, Mark Wahlberg feels too young for the role too – the poorly received The Lovely Bones obviously needed an older Jack Salmon.

Vivien Leigh


What Happened? Though beautiful, rich, desired and famous, actress Vivien Leigh also rates as one of Hollywood’s saddest cases. Suffering from bipolar disorder long before there was any real sense of understanding about the condition, Leigh was subjected to electro-shock therapy, which only led to a worsening of her condition, as well as upping her dependence on alcohol. The actress’ fragile mental condition shattered almost completely during the filming of the 1954 adventure Elephant Walk. Leigh’s husband, Sir Laurence Olivier, felt that the film’s shoot in hot subtropical Sri Lanka would remind the actress of her childhood in Asia, and soothe her torrid mental state. The film, however, had quite the opposite effect. Leigh became involved in a hot affair with her equally boozy leading man Peter Finch, and started to rupture under the physically demanding nature of the shoot. Leigh became increasingly paranoid, suffered from crippling insomnia, often wept uncontrollably, and generally became more and more mentally imbalanced. She allegedly even began to hallucinate, trailing after Finch in a daze, and calling out, “Larry, Larry”, in reference to her absent husband. By the time the shoot had relocated to a Hollywood soundstage, director William Dieterle was at his wit’s end. Leigh began to throw fierce and obscene tantrums on the set, and was eventually dumped from the film. She was replaced by 21-year-old rising star Elizabeth Taylor, though Leigh can be glimpsed in long shot in many of the film’s scenes. The debacle that was Elephant Walk signalled the beginning of the end for Vivien Leigh, who sadly only scored a couple more roles before her death from chronic tuberculosis in 1967.

Unfair Dismissal? Elephant Walk is a film of such little consequence that it hardly matters. The tenuous nature of Leigh’s mental condition, however, was probably ample reason for her dismissal from the film.

FILM Reviews 2


What Happened? Sometimes an actor’s reputation can precede him. Take the case of Robert Downey Jr. Sure, he’s now back on top thanks to his pivotal place in The Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the late nineties and early part of the new millennium, Downey Jr. was close to a human car wreck. In and out of rehab and prison throughout the nineties, the talented but deeply troubled star seemed destined to destroy his career. “It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger’s on the trigger,” he admitted at a 1999 court hearing, “and I like the taste of the gunmetal.” In 2001, Downey Jr. was tapped to play the role of Eddie Thomas – a Hollywood movie star in the middle of a personal crisis – in the screwball romantic comedy, America’s Sweethearts. At the eleventh hour, however, Downey Jr. was replaced by John Cusack. The official reason for the actor’s dumping was the uncertainty of the outcome of an impending court date, following his arrest on suspicion of possession of cocaine and amphetamines. The real reason behind the sacking was even darker: trouble magnet Downey Jr. was deemed uninsurable by the film’s financial backers, and they wouldn’t go ahead with him in the role. Downey Jr.’s return to favour in Hollywood has now been well documented, but in 2001, he was hurtling around the bottom of the barrel with seemingly not much chance of getting out. In the scheme of things, being sacked from America’s Sweethearts probably had little bearing on the actor’s career. “I have a sense of destiny that you are led to the things you are supposed to do,” Downey Jr. once said.

Unfair Dismissal? Probably yes. Downey Jr. was a risk, but the film was a failure on all fronts anyway…who’s laughing now?



  1. Taylor

    I would say that Eric Stoltz’s firing was an unfair dismissal. Originally, Back to the Future was a dark PG-13 movie (as evidenced in the 1984 script that is online).

    According to him (when he was interviewed for the L.A. Times in 1994), he felt like he could have given a comedic performance had Zemeckis put him in that direction.

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