Why Hollywood won't cast Chris O'Donnell anymore

There was once a time — say, 1995 or so — when it felt like clean-cut, traditionally handsome, All-American Hollywood dreamboat Chris O'Donnell was everywhere. Early in his career, he made a name for himself in a string of critically acclaimed hit movies like Fried Green Tomatoes, School Ties, and Scent of a Woman. By the mid-'90s, he'd graduated to certified heartthrob status, starring opposite Drew Barrymore in the steamy drama Mad Love, and with Minnie Driver in the melancholy romance Circle of Friends. O'Donnell is probably still best known for his relatively brief stint as a blockbuster guy, co-starring as an edgy and athletic Robin in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

He re-emerged to great success in 2009 on the small screen, starring as Lead Senior Special Agent G. Callen in the hit CBS drama NCIS: Los Angeles. But as of late, big-budget blockbuster roles appear to be in short supply. Just what happened to Chris O'Donnell's film career?

Holy stinker! Batman & Robin was a bomb...

For most actors, landing a role in a big-budget, high-profile superhero movie is a major career boost — just ask Henry "Superman" Cavill or Chadwick "Black Panther" Boseman. This appeared to be the case when O'Donnell took his first turn as Robin, the Caped Crusader's sidekick in 1995's Batman Forever, opposite Val Kilmer.

That movie was a smash hit, earning $185 million at the box office and leading to a sequel, 1997's Batman & Robin. But that film was an infamous dud that left the Batman franchise dead in the water. It would be George Clooney's first and last time in the black cowl, and it's most remembered for things like nipples on the Batsuit, Mr. Freeze's terrible ice puns, and a lackluster $107 million haul. O'Donnell gave a performance to the best of his abilities, but guilt by association with the garish bomb hurt his career. O'Donnell was long gone when the franchise was revived nearly a decade later with the 2005 release of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.

...Which killed the chances of him having his own sequel

With the critical and popular disappointment with the fourth Batman movie, Batman & Robin, came the studio's decision to cancel any and all immediate franchise extensions. Plans had been in the works for a fifth Dark Knight adventure that would have elevated O'Donnell's Robin/Dick Grayson from supporting player to co-headliner with a story more heavily involving the Boy Wonder.

That fifth Batman outing could have been a major career breakthrough for O'Donnell, who would have had a chance to assert himself as enough of a heavy hitter to carry a superhero movie on his own, and proving to Hollywood that he could be an action star, not just a sidekick or romantic lead. Batman & Robin was such a failure, however, that plans for a more Robin-centric Batman movie were scrapped. Without that film to establish him as a box office powerhouse, O'Donnell's career went in the opposite direction. 

Turning down Men In Black

The year 1997 was evidently a make-it-or-break-it year as far as Chris O'Donnell's big movie-headlining prospects were concerned. Not only did Batman & Robin tank so hard that the next Batman movie was called off, but he could have also starred in one of that year's most engaging and commercially successful movies. O'Donnell said "no thanks" to the plum role of rookie Agent J in Men in Black. But in his defense, he was tricked into doing so — by the film's director, Barry Sonnenfeld.

Producer Steven Spielberg pushed for O'Donnell's casting, but Sonnenfeld was against it. Spielberg "told me I had to go to dinner with Chris and convince Chris to be in the movie," Sonnenfeld told the Huffington Post in 2017. "But I knew I wanted Will Smith, so I told Chris that I wasn't a very good director and I didn't think the script was very good and if he had any other options he shouldn't do Men in Black." A day later, Sonnenfeld said, O'Donnell bowed out of contention. Smith got the part and became a megastar while O'Donnell's star dimmed a bit. Perhaps he left Hollywood in search of a neuralyzer to erase his memories of passing on the role.

He lost to Leo

O'Donnell experienced another near miss of a movie that would certainly have propelled him to even bigger fame. He's roughly the same age — and "type" — as Leonardo DiCaprio, and back when they were young stars on the rise in the early to mid-1990s, the two were often in consideration for the same roles. Sometimes O'Donnell would win, and sometimes DiCaprio would get the part — Hollywood is a big town and there are plenty of roles to go around. For example, both actors were up for the role of Robin in the Batman movies. DiCaprio told ShortList that he "never screen-tested," but that he "had a meeting with Joel Schumacher," after which he decided not to take the role, which he actually "didn't want." O'Donnell got it, of course, but DiCaprio did take another part for which producers considered O'Donnell: Jack Dawson in Titanic, which upon its release in 1997 became the highest-grossing movie of all time and made DiCaprio a household name.

Thank goodness for NCIS

Following a couple of years away from the moviemaking industry — where "out of sight" means "out of mind" — O'Donnell returned to action in the late '90s and early 2000s with a slew of movies of different genres. Among O'Donnell's films that didn't exactly set the box office on fire: Robert Altman's Cookie's Fortune, the rom-com The Bachelor, the action flick Vertical Limit, and the crime thriller 29 Palms. While that tactic may have showed off his range, none of those movies made much of a splash. It's possible Hollywood executives viewed the middling-to-poor results of those films as an indication that O'Donnell's post-Batman & Robin commercial appeal was damaged beyond repair.

With feature opportunities drying up around 2003, O'Donnell took his act to television more often. He had guest-star roles and small arcs on then-popular shows like The Practice, Two and a Half Men, and Grey's Anatomy, along with a starring role on the Fox comedy Head Cases… which was canceled after just two episodes.

In 2009, O'Donnell landed his most successful project to date, not to mention a very steady job: a starring role on CBS's hit action drama NCIS: Los Angeles.

He's a family guy

While his career has had some ups and downs, O'Donnell's personal life is rock solid. In April 1997, he married his wife, the former Caroline Fentress. Two years after that, they had their first child, a daughter named Lily. They're now up to five kids in all, and being a family man is a lifestyle O'Donnell can appreciate. "I knew when I got into this business I couldn't have it both ways: I could live the playboy lifestyle, which is not a bad thing to do, or have a traditional family life, which is how I grew up," O'Donnell told Redbook. "And that was more important to me."

A regular gig on a CBS procedural keeps O'Donnell at home in California, close to his family. "I wouldn't trade my current job for anything. It affords me the ability to be in Los Angeles, to see my kids every day and have a steady job," O'Donnell told Variety. "I've been doing this for almost 30 years and it's just crazy. To still be providing for my family like this is so great."

He spends his time away from the show doing charity work

O'Donnell is plenty busy with extracurricular activities, primarily charity endeavors. He spends a lot of time working for a cause he's believed in since childhood: helping the disenfranchised find gainful employment. In a 2017 interview with Parade, he spoke about his association with the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund, or REDF, which "invests in social enterprise businesses that help people who are are traditionally shut out of the workforce," such as paroled convicts and the differently abled.

REDF's mission is not only something O'Donnell feels strongly about, because it "gives somebody a sense of self-worth and pride knowing that they're a contributing member of society and being a role model for their family," but it's also a sort of homage to his father. He also told Parade that he learned the importance of giving people second chances when he observed his dad working with the Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that "was helping ex-cons get work."

He's got a job at a pizza parlor

There are few things more work-intensive and time-sucking than owning a restaurant, and Chris O'Donnell understands that very well. How could he get a chance to pursue a movie career outside of his TV job when he's also trying to keep a high-end pizza place afloat? 

O'Donnell really loves pizza. But unlike most of the rest of us, he and his wife also had the money and wherewithal to install a pizza oven in his Pacific Palisades backyard. However, "We had no idea what we were doing," he told Wine Spectator, so they hired private chef Daniele Uditi, who started hitting the O'Donnell residence every couple of weeks to make fancy pizzas for the family and their friends. Among those friends: Charles and Candace Nelson, creators of Sprinkles, the "cupcake ATMs" that jumpstarted the recent gourmet cupcake craze. And so the Nelsons, Uditi, O'Donnell and his wife joined forces in 2017 to open an upscale Brentwood Italian restaurant and pizzeria called Pizzana.

He does want to return to films (someday)

Though he's content with his 9-5ish TV schedule and returning home every night to be a family man, O'Donnell still longs to see his name in lights and fill seats at every multiplex in the country. (Who could blame him? He gave probably the most famous portrayal of one of comic-dom's most famous characters.) In 2015, he told Variety, "I want to do film again at some point. And I will. I'm actually excited, when the show ends someday, to take some time off for a while. I'll be a 50-year-old guy. I'll be a different person than people remember. And there will be exciting new roles to take on, but this is where I'm supposed to be right now."

That may take a while, but it's not a bad problem to have — in 2018, CBS renewed his reliably popular NCIS: Los Angeles for a tenth season. Here's hoping O'Donnell can pull off another pivot back to the big screen once the last of his kiddos gets shipped off to college.