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Actors Who Turned Down Iconic Horror Movie Roles

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The right movie role can provide an actor with not only the fast track to stardom, but also lasting fame and even status as a pop culture icon. Horror films are no exception: hard-working but largely anonymous actors like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Robert Englund were boosted to worldwide attention after being cast as Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and Freddy Krueger, respectively, while major stars like Jack Nicholson and Anthony Hopkins earned some of their most beloved screen appearances in The Shining and Silence of the Lambs.

But for every big break afforded by playing the Big Bad in a fright film, there is an equal and opposite number of actors who missed the express route to fame by turning down a role in what would turn out to be a much-loved title in the horror canon. Some were actors at the height of their box office power and weathered the missed opportunities, while others, whose careers had just begun, would rebound from the loss and vault into the spotlight with a subsequent project. In either case, here's a gallery of horror icons that might have been but never were.

Possible spoilers to follow.

Tiffany Haddish stays away from Get Out

After her breakthrough turn in Girls Trip, comedian/actress Tiffany Haddish earned her choice of film and television projects, including The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Tuca & Bertie, and the series The Last O.G. But she avoided a chance to appear in Jordan Peele's acclaimed and groundbreaking Get Out. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Haddish said that she turned down an offer from Peele after reading the script. "That's a white man trying to take people's souls out their body and opening up brains," she explained. "That sounds like some demon stuff to me." As the Reporter noted, Haddish remained unconvinced even after Peele told her that the film didn't feature any demons. "I was like, 'Aw, man. Look, I don't do scary movies," she said. "I don't let that in my house." She did, however, tell him that she would watch the completed film, but only during daylight hours.

Gene Hackman: No Fava Beans, Please

Anthony Hopkins delivered what was perhaps his most enduring film role with his performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. But Hopkins wasn't the first actor to be considered for Thomas Harris' urbane psychopath. Literary agent Robert Bookman told Deadline that another Oscar winner — Gene Hackman — had optioned the rights to Harris' novel with the intention of not only playing Lecter, but also directing the film. However, Bookman said that Hackman's tenure at the helm of Lambs was not only tumultuous but short-lived: after approving Ted Tally as screenwriter, he remained undecided on whether to direct and play Lecter or FBI chief Jack Crawford (played in the finished film by Scott Glenn) before dropping out of the film altogether. According to Bookman, this was on the advice of his daughter, who apparently considered the film's violent content — and, undoubtedly, Lecter's appetite — potentially poisonous for her father's career.

Jeremy Irons: Enough with the edgy

Hannibal Lecter attracts Oscar-winning talent: Jeremy Irons, another Academy honoree, was also briefly considered for the role. But as he told the Daily Telegraph in 2010, he passed on the role after playing a maladjusted character in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers (make that two characters, since Irons was cast as identical twin gynecologists). He was also about to begin work as accused murderer Claus von Bulow in Barbet Schroder's Reversal of Fortune, which would earn him the Oscar in 1991. "I like doing edgy things," Irons told the Telegraph, but he has his limits. "I thought I just can't do it. I'm already too far down this road. And when I saw what Tony Hopkins had done, I thought, 'Thank Christ I didn't do it.'" Nothing at all against the esteemed Mr. Irons, but it seems safe to assume that millions of Lambs fans feel the same way.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing: The Halloween Hold-Outs

The late Sir Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, OBE, were nothing short of horror movie royalty, thanks to their frequent collaborations for England's Hammer Films during the 1960s, most notably as Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula. Those films made both actors go-tos for horror roles throughout their long careers, including Sam Loomis, Michael Myers' doctor turned pursuer, in John Carpenter's Halloween. The documentary Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest details that both Lee and Cushing were offered Loomis and turned it down, which led Carpenter and producer Debra Hill to approach another English actor with a talent for the sinister: Donald Pleasance. The actor — who was largely known at the time for his stage work and as a Bond villain in You Only Live Twice — would go on to reprise Loomis in five Halloween sequels before his death in 1995. Lee would later tell both Carpenter and Hill that he regretted his decision, though his late-career revival in both the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises must have made up for that choice.

Drew Barrymore and Janeane Garofalo: Reluctant Scream Queens

Wes Craven's Scream not only informed the direction of horror films in the 1990s, but boosted many of its young cast to stardom, including Neve Campbell, Matthew Lillard, and Rose McGowan. Dozens of actors auditioned to play Craven and Kevin Williamson's terrorized teens, and initially, Drew Barrymore was offered the role of franchise heroine Sidney Prescott. But Barrymore turned it down, offering instead to play the smaller but crucial character of Casey Becker, who is killed in the film's creepy opening sequence. As ABC News noted, Barrymore said that everything she loved about the script was contained in that sequence. Another almost-cast member was comedian Janeane Garofalo, who auditioned for but turned down the role of newscaster Gale Weathers; that decision opened the door for Courteney Cox, though the producers initially rejected her on the basis of her nice-girl image from Friends. Cox lobbied hard for the role and eventually won out.

Robert Duvall, Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden feel the bite

When casting Jaws, director Steven Spielberg wanted "somewhat anonymous" actors with whom audiences would identify, even in a story about a giant, man-eating shark. Despite his wishes, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown wanted name actors for the three leads, including Robert Duvall, who had then recently appeared in The Godfather. Duvall was offered the role of Chief Brody, but refused, citing his interest in playing Quint. The latter was also offered to a pair of Hollywood veterans — Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden — but both turned it down, with Hayden telling Spielberg that as a fisherman in real life, he expected to battle a real shark in the film. You can guess the response to that request. The director eventually came to his triumvirate of heroes in Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss.

Who Goes There? Not Jeff Bridges

Producer Stuart Cohen's blog The Original Fan is required reading for any devotee of John Carpenter's The Thing, as it details nearly every aspect of the picture's production and release through a wealth of first-hand information and images. Among its many revelations is the sizable list of actors who were either considered for or offered roles in its large ensemble cast. And while it's hard to consider anyone but Kurt Russell playing helicopter pilot and reluctant hero R.J. MacReady, Cohen states that Jeff Bridges and Christopher Walken were among the first actors to be approached for the role. They, along with Nick Nolte, Ed Harris, Peter Coyote, and Scott Glenn, all passed, with Cohen intimating that in some cases, their disinterest was possibly motivated by the perception that The Thing was a cheap monster movie. Russell, with whom Carpenter had worked on Escape from New York (and would later reunite with for Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.) was cast as MacReady on the same day that filming in Alaska began in 1981.

John Lithgow: Be grossed out. Very grossed out

Jeff Goldblum vaulted from eclectic character actor to leading man with his full-bodied (literally and otherwise) performance as Dr. Seth Brundle in David Cronenberg's The Fly. But in an interview with Toronto's IN Magazine, acclaimed actor John Lithgow revealed he was initially considered to play the ill-fated scientist. The Oscar nominee said that his representation wanted him to take the part, but he turned down the opportunity because he found the project "icky" after reading Charles Edward Pogue and Cronenberg's script. "I told my agent I just didn't want to play something so grotesque," he noted. Lithgow has never shied away from outrageous or dark characters, as his turns in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and even the recent Bombshell have proven. But given Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis's incredible, Oscar-winning special effects makeup required for Brundle in Fly mode, it's understandable that Lithgow might have wanted to take a pass.

Shelley Winters and Estelle Parsons: a couple of mothers

When casting the crucial role of Mrs. Voorhees in the slasher classic Friday the 13th, producer Sean Cunningham (The Last House on the Left) slotted a portion of the film's slim budget for a name actor — preferably one in something of a career decline and eager to work. According to David Grove, author of On Location in Blairstown: The Making of Friday the 13th, two Oscar winners — Shelley Winters and Estelle Parsons — were among the initial considerations in a long list compiled by Cunningham. Winters immediately passed, but as casting director Barry Moss told Grove, Parsons remained in consideration for a long time until ultimately declining. Eventually, stage and television veteran Betsey Palmer was offered the role, but was reluctant to appear in what she described years later as a "piece of s***." She recanted after her car broke down, and realized that her fee would afford her a new set of wheels.

Gary Cooper said Nope to Night

Actor Charles Laughton — no stranger to horror himself through roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Black Room with Boris Karloff, and others — made his sole directorial effort with his adaptation of Davis Grubb's Southern Gothic novel Night of the Hunter, about a psychotic preacher who terrorizes a young widow and her children in order to get her late husband's cache of stolen loot. The film — considered a masterpiece of suspense — would require a powerhouse actor to play the Reverend Harry Powell, whose moral compass is clearly laid out by the tattoos of "Love" and "Hate" on his hands. 

Laughton himself considered playing Powell before offering the role to Gary Cooper, an actor known for upstanding, heroic turns in Sergeant York and The Pride of the Yankees. Cooper passed, believing that playing such a venomous role would undo his career. Laughton then approached Robert Mitchum, who had cultivated a cool-cruel screen persona in classic noir like Out of the Past, as well as an outlaw image thanks to a 1948 arrest for marijuana possession. When told by Laughton that Powell was a "diabolical s***," Mitchum reportedly said, "Present!" And a high water mark of enduring movie malice was born.

Boris Karloff disappears from The Invisible Man

After decades of anonymous toil as a bit and supporting player, Boris Karloff found movie stardom as the Monster in Universal Pictures' Frankenstein. Karloff — or Karloff the Uncanny, as he was billed on occasion — would go on to play the Mummy and later took the boogeyman route for Universal in The Black Cat and The Invisible Ray. He also might have played the Invisible Man, had it not come down to money. 

According to Turner Classic Movies, Karloff was originally slated to reunite with Frankenstein director James Whale to play Griffin, the power-mad scientist in the studio's adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. But producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., the son of Universal founder Carl Laemmle, pressed the actor to accept a fee for his efforts that what was considerably lower laid out in his studio contracts. After one too many of such full-court presses, Karloff ankled the picture, to use the popular Variety phrase. According to TCM, this was fine with director Whale, who thought that Karloff would lend a more monstrous air to what was essentially a tragic role. British actor Claude Rains was tapped for the part, and though his face is visible onscreen for just a few moments, he went on to a long and distinguished film career that included Casablanca.

Charlton Heston and William Holden: The Devil to pay

Which qualities does one need as an actor to play the adoptive father of the Antichrist? Apparently, a granite jaw and a resonant voice were at the top of the list when casting Ambassador Richard Thorn in Richard Donner's Satanic classic The Omen. According to interviews with Donner and his future star, Oscar winner Gregory Peck (pictured here with co-star David Warner) was always the frontrunner, but other sources note that a slew of other American leading men were considered for the role. Chief among them: Oscar winner Charlton Heston, who wrote in his autobiography that he turned down an offer to play Thorn due to the subject matter, as well as his lack of interest in spending the winter of 1975 alone in Europe. Another Oscar winner, William Holden, was given a shot at playing Thorn, but he also refused, citing his reluctance to appear in a film about the Devil. But as American Movie Classics noted, Holden would make his way to the Omen franchise for the sequel, Damien: Omen II, playing the brother of Peck's character and Damien's second (and equally ill-fated) adoptive father.