10 actors who gave up on iconic movie roles

Tom Beasley
Contributor
Jodie Foster, Val Kilmer and George Lazenby all stepped away from iconic roles. (Credit: Orion Pictures/Warner Bros/United Artists)

Everyone in Hollywood knows how important a plum franchise role can be to an actor’s career. Just look at the leading man and woman careers of those who got in on the ground floor of the superhero movie boom and found themselves at the heart of multiple billion-dollar grossers.

However, not everyone is content to be permanently wedded to a role, even if it’s one with plenty of financial fuel left in the tank. The history of cinema is littered with examples who’ve walked away from a franchise. Some have seen the series wither and die without them, whereas others have watched their replacements waltz to superstardom and huge pay packets.

Here’s a few of the most notable examples...

Val Kilmer/Michael Keaton (Batman)

Val Kilmer and Michael Keaton both played Batman on the big screen. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Val Kilmer spoke out last week about his decision not to return to the role of Batman after portraying Bruce Wayne in Batman Forever, subsequently escaping the infamous Bat-nipples inflicted upon George Clooney in Batman & Robin two years later. Kilmer said he simply lost interest after realising an actor could get lost within the suit. “It’s not about Batman,” he said. “There is no Batman.”

Read more: Robert Pattinson on how his Batman is different

Kilmer’s predecessor also walked away from the role. Keaton had played the character in Batman and Batman Returns for Tim Burton, but stepped down after Burton was replaced by Joel Schumacher and the franchise was primed to go in a more family-friendly direction. Even a financial offer reported as being in the region of $15m (£12.3m) couldn’t tempt him back. Ouch.

Katie Holmes (The Dark Knight)

Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes in 'Batman Begins'. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Sometimes there are big behind-the-scenes rows that cause these decisions from actors. Often, though, it’s just a straightforward issue of scheduling. That was the case with Katie Holmes, who opted to make Mad Money with Queen Latifah and Diane Keaton rather than return to the role of Rachel Dawes for The Dark Knight. She was replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Read more: Heath Ledger made Christian Bale punch him for real

Mad Money was something of a box office disappointment and has largely been lost to the sands of time, whereas The Dark Knight routinely ends up on lists of the best movies ever made. On the other hand, though, Rachel was blown up halfway through the film. Swings and roundabouts.

George Lazenby (Diamonds Are Forever)

George Lazenby as James Bond in 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'. (Credit: United Artists)

The switching up of the James Bond leading man role is now an established part of the series, almost 60 years after the superspy first graced cinema screens. However, it was still very much an experiment when George Lazenby replaced original 007 star Sean Connery for 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It is often assumed that his negative critical response was behind his departure before Connery returned in Diamonds Are Forever, but it was actually Lazenby’s call.

Read more: Lazenby hits back against sexism allegations

Lazenby was offered a contract for seven movies in the lead role, but his agent advised him that Bond would be out of step in the 1970s and that it was a bad part to invest in. He quit before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was even released. Some decisions age well. That one didn’t.

Jodie Foster (Hannibal)

Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in 'The Silence of the Lambs'. (Credit: Orion Pictures)

Jodie Foster won an Oscar for portraying FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, appearing alongside Anthony Hopkins as the cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins also won an Oscar, despite very little screen time. Money was spent on moving forward with a sequel, based on the new Thomas Harris novel, which was published in 1999. Lambs director Jonathan Demme declined to be involved after reading the book, but Hopkins agreed to play Lecter again.

Read more: Clarice Starling series planned by CBS

Foster, meanwhile, said no. She maintained there were “negative attributes” in the book and the script which “betrayed” the original character. Foster was also set to direct Claire Danes in passion project Flora Plum, which never ultimately happened. In 2007, she told Total Film: “Clarice meant so much to Jonathan and I, she really did, and I know it sounds kind of strange to say but there was no way that either of us could really trample on her.”

Crispin Glover/Claudia Wells (Back to the Future Part II)

Crispin Glover and Claudia Wells in 'Back to the Future'. (Credit: Universal)

The recasting of Crispin Glover as George McFly in Back to the Future Part II is one of the most notorious in Hollywood history. Glover opted not to return to the role of Marty McFly’s father after he was offered what he deemed to be a lesser salary than other returning actors. Director Robert Zemeckis used old footage and on-screen obfuscation of new actor Jeffrey Weissman — prosthetics, sunglasses, hanging him upside down — to conceal the recasting. Glover filed a lawsuit over use of his likeness that set precedent in terms of how the Screen Actors Guild protects performers.

Read more: Bob Gale fixes Back to the Future plot hole

Meanwhile, a simpler story was at play in the replacement of Claudia Wells by Elisabeth Shue in the role of Jennifer — Marty’s girlfriend. Wells’ mother had been diagnosed with cancer and the actor chose to drop out in order to care for her. She finally reprised the role of Jennifer in 2011 with a voice performance in Back to the Future: The Game.

Edward Norton (The Avengers)

Edward Norton played the title role in 'The Incredible Hulk'. (Credit: Universal)

Mark Ruffalo has now made the role of Bruce Banner — aka Hulk — his own in the MCU after taking on the role for 2012 team-up movie The Avengers. However, the first appearance of Banner in the Marvel continuity saw Edward Norton in the lead role for 2008 movie The Incredible Hulk, released within weeks of MCU opener Iron Man. Norton was replaced by Ruffalo for the team-up and there have been conflicting reports about why he left the part.

Read more: Robert Downey Jr. helped Ruffalo join the MCU

There had been numerous, lurid stories about Norton being difficult to work with and Marvel binning him as a result but, in 2014, Norton told NPR he had stepped aside of his own accord. He said: “I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times, it can become a suit that’s hard to take off, in other peoples’ eyes.”

Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone 3)

Macaulay Culkin in festive classic 'Home Alone'. (Credit: Fox)

The danger of crafting a long-running franchise around a child star is that there’s always the risk they will simply decide that acting is not for them. It almost happened with Emma Watson in the Harry Potter franchise and it did happen with Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. Culkin was, of course, in the first two movies, but he quit acting before the third one could be made.

Read more: Culkin signs up for American Horror Story

Perhaps predictably, the shift to an entirely new roster of stars hurt the franchise. It was nominated for a Razzie award and earned only a quarter of what the previous sequel managed. Home Alone 4 — also without Culkin — went straight to television.

Jim Carrey (Evan Almighty)

Jim Carrey in 'Bruce Almighty'. (Credit: Buena Vista)

The 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty is one of the most underrated movies of the Jim Carrey boom in the 1990s and 2000s. It received a sequel in 2007, with Steve Carell’s rival news broadcaster Evan Baxter promoted to leading man for Evan Almighty. Carrey was asked to reprise his role in the movie, but declined. Director Tom Shadyac told USA Today: "He's not a big fan of doing the same character twice, so eventually we just decided to move in different directions."

Read more: Carrey says he’s done with Trump artwork

That idea has mostly held true throughout Carrey’s career. Although he did appear in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls in 1995 and Dumb and Dumber To in 2014, there was a history of his films receiving sequels without his involvement, such as Dumb and Dumberer and Son of the Mask. He has recently hinted that he might be interested in returning to The Truman Show.

Keanu Reeves (Speed 2: Cruise Control)

Keanu Reeves in 'Speed'. (Credit: Fox)

Before Keanu Reeves was the internet’s favourite person, he was one of the most exciting stars of the 1990s. One of his defining roles was as LAPD cop Jack Traven in Jan de Bont’s excellent thriller Speed — or The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down, for Simpsons fans. Unsurprisingly, Fox wanted him for the sequel — especially after co-lead Sandra Bullock agreed to return.

Read more: Matrix commitments will delay John Wick 4

Reeves, however, declined the opportunity. He was offered $12m (£9.9m) but he wasn’t a fan of the script and didn’t need the money, so turned it down. Given the movie ultimately won the Razzie for Worst Remake or Sequel and disappointed at the box office, his decision panned out pretty well.

Hugh Jackman (Wolverine)

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in 'Logan'. (Credit: Fox)

Some of the actors on this list stepped away from roles on the verge of their success, or at the peak of their own star powers, leaving the role pretty much dead. That’s certainly not the case with Hugh Jackman, who played Wolverine in the X-Men franchise from X-Men in 2000 through to Logan in 2017 — and was that franchise’s most loyal servant, alongside Patrick Stewart.

Read more: Jackman turned down role in Cats

Jackman has now, however, closed the door on returning to the role again. Wolverine and the X-Men are now set to become a part of the MCU, but Jackman has said he’d much rather someone else took the job and ran with it. He said he knew Logan represented “the right time for me to leave the party”. It’s tough to disagree. He certainly went out on a high.