×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Actors who were almost cast as the Joker

The Joker is one of the most coveted roles in comic book movies, and for good reason: Few characters in the pop culture canon offer actors the same freedom (or opportunities for outright anarchy). 

Jack Nicholson's take on the character in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman set a high benchmark — and made him enough money to make Bruce Wayne blush. Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker was named the most iconic film moment of the past 21 years, and brought him a posthumous Oscar. The less said about Jared Leto's David Bowie-inspired performance in Suicide Squad, the better. But we can't neglect to mention Cesar Romero and Mark Hamill's performances, which reached millions on the small screen. With 2019's Joker, Joaquin Phoenix joined the list, winning the coveted Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival amidst a swarm of positive early buzz. 

As great as each of these performances have been in their own way, numerous other talented actors have come close to playing the Joker. Some claim to have been considered for the part, some say they were even offered it, while others have simply publicly pined for it. We'll never know how some of these guys would have played the greasepaint-wearing harlequin of hate, but we can dream, right? With that in mind, here's a look at some of the most noteworthy actors who almost played the Joker.

Robin Williams as the Joker would have been no laughing matter

The late Robin Williams topped many a fanboy's wish list of actors who would have made a perfect Joker, and it's easy to see why: With his chaotic, manic comedy style, the man practically was the Joker — minus the criminal activity and murderous rampages, of course. 

As it turns out, the comic book fan who most wanted to see Williams play the Joker was Williams himself. In a 2010 interview, he claimed he was offered the part in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, but was "screwed" out of it. According to Hollywood lore, Warner Bros. always wanted Jack Nicholson for the role, but used Williams' interest as a bargaining chip. Years later, Williams worked with Dark Knight trilogy director Christopher Nolan in Insomnia, and expressed his desire to play the Joker, saying "Oh God, I'd love to do that one." 

Williams never got the role and in some ways, it may have been for the best. While he was an Academy Award-winning actor, and quite chilling in One Hour Photo, watching this effortlessly lovable star play a murderous psychopath would have been tough.

Frankly, Sinatra as Joker would have been bizarre

Apparently Old Blue Eyes himself also wanted to play the green-haired, white-skinned, murderous maniac, albeit in his much tamer 1960s Batman incarnation. A well-known Hollywood rumor for years, the story was ultimately confirmed by Burt Ward, who played Robin during the campy TV series' run. The part went to Cesar Romero instead, who defined the character for generations, even though he famously refused to shave and his mustache is clearly visible behind the snow-white greasepaint. While Romero's delightfully kitschy and over-the-top portrayal is pretty much universally beloved, Sinatra may not have been a fan. As Ward put it, "From what I understand, Frank Sinatra was very upset because he couldn't play the Joker." What would a Frank Sinatra Joker have been like? In addition to his million-dollar voice, Sinatra had acting chops, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1954's From Here to Eternity. If he'd actually gotten the chance to play the Clown Prince of Crime, he undoubtedly would have done it... his way.

Bronchitis kept Tim Curry from Joking around

Before Bill Skarsgård played Pennywise in It and It: Chapter Two, the homicidal clown/ageless alien horror was portrayed by Tim Curry in the It television miniseries, which premiered on ABC in the fall of 1990. One homicidal clown Tim Curry didn't get to play, however? You guessed it: The Joker

Technically, Curry did get to play the part, it just never made it to air. Before Mark Hamill was cast as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, helping make the man best-known for playing Luke Skywalker one of the most sought-after voice actors in Hollywood, Curry voiced the part. You can even watch some footage with Curry's voice work online. So what cost him the job? According the Curry himself, his dismissal was a case of bad luck. "I did play Joker for a while," he recalled. "But I had bronchitis and they fired me — and hired Mark Hamill. That's life." That's a remarkably low-key response to losing a terrific role, but when you've been in show business since the 1960s, it helps keep things in perspective.

John Lithgow missed out on The Joker — twice

John Lithgow trained at Harvard College and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, so he's no dummy. Yet by his own admission, he was stupid to avoid what could have been his most prestigious (and profitable) part: The Joker. In fact, Lithgow avoided playing the Clown Prince of Crime not once, but twice

The first was when Gremlins director Joe Dante briefly flirted with filming a Batman movie, and wanted Lithgow for the part. According to Lithgow, he was just too busy:  "I was doing M. Butterfly on Broadway and it was an exhausting show. It would have meant leaving that show and going right into a movie, and I said, 'I just don't think I can'. How about that for stupid? Actors are not necessarily smart people." Lithgow followed up this blunder by bombing an audition for Tim Burton, on purpose. 

"My worst audition was for Tim Burton for Batman," said Lithgow. "I tried to persuade him I was not right for the part, and I succeeded. I didn't realize it was such a big deal. About a week later I heard they were going after Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson."

Before taking on Spider-Man, Willem Dafoe almost battled Batman

Jack Nicholson was apparently always Warner Bros.' number one guy to play the Joker, but the studio had some backup plans in case he didn't take the part — among them Willem Dafoe. With his elastic face, wicked grin, and seemingly effortless ability to play a maniac, Dafoe as the Joker is an obvious choice, but according to the actor himself, he was never formally offered the part. 

However, he says he did have a conversation with screenwriter Sam Hamm, who told Dafoe he was considered. At the time, Dafoe was just coming off a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in Platoon, as well as high-profile parts in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning. While Dafoe's acting chops were well respected, Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and it's hard to compete with that. But even if he didn't get to play the Joker, he did play the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, the film credited with launching the superhero movie renaissance of the 20th century, smashing box office records along the way.

Could Adrien Brody have been the Joker?

For all the attention the MCU's post-credit scenes get, has there ever been a better sequel setup than the ending of Batman Begins? Lieutenant Gordon hands Batman a playing card in a plastic evidence bag. A joker. "I'll look into it," says Batman. 

That moment launched months of speculation — and before Christopher Nolan cast Heath Ledger in the part, there were a lot of interesting alternatives. Among the most compelling was Adrien Brody, who won the Best Actor Oscar in 2003 for Roman Polanski's The Pianist. So how far did Brody get? Apparently, much further than idle internet speculation — he even met with Nolan

Brody heaped praise on the actor who did get the part, saying "Heath was tremendous in that, but yeah, I would've loved to have done that. It was an amazing role. Amazing." As talented as Adrien Brody is, the role that won Ledger his Oscar could have easily been the role that won Brody his second. Though after seeing Ledger's unforgettable take, fans have to be pretty darn pleased with the way things turned out.

Ryan Gosling worried playing Joker would be career suicide

With his matinee idol looks, Ryan Gosling seems better suited to play a superhero than a psychopathic villain, especially one of the most famous in all of pop culture. However, before Jared Leto won the role, the part of the Joker in Suicide Squad was apparently offered to two-time Oscar nominee Gosling. Why did he turn down the part that made Jack Nicholson millions and won Heath Ledger an Oscar? The changing dynamics of the superhero movie business. 

While both Nicholson and Ledger's performances were one and done, Gosling's Joker would be part of the nascent DC Extended Universe, meaning Gosling would have had to sign up for multiple movies. He apparently balked at the obligation, as it would interfere with his other cinematic pursuits. Another Batman character Gosling has been linked to in the past is the Dark Knight himself. When asked point blank by Variety if he'd consider playing Batman, Gosling said he would only do it if his La La Land and First Man director Damien Chazelle directed. "Damien Chazelle Batman," said Gosling. "That I want to see." Same here, Ryan — although maybe not if it's a musical.

Brad Dourif: from killer doll to evil clown?

Jack Nicholson was said to be Warner Bros.' first and perhaps only choice to play the Joker in 1989's Batman movie, but he was apparently not at the top of director Tim Burton's list — at least according to Brad Dourif, the actor who claims Burton wanted him for the role. 

Who is Brad Dourif, you ask? Even if you don't recognize the name, you probably recognize his face and voice — he's a well-known character actor, perhaps best known for voicing Chucky in the Child's Play series. When you see Dourif, you definitely get a villain vibe. Tim Burton apparently did. 

"Tim Burton saw me on a plane and wanted to cast me, and [Warner Bros.] said 'No,' Dourif recalled years later, quipping that "[Nicholson] takes all my roles." It sounds funny, but the two actually have a long history together: Dourif worked with Nicholson in the Academy Award-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and was even nominated for an Oscar for his role as the suicidal Billy Bibbit. While Nicholson took home Oscar gold that night for his role as R.P. McMurphy, Dourif left empty-handed.

Steve Carell: from Dunder Mifflin to Gotham City?

After Batman Begins breathed new life into the Batman franchise — and teased the Joker's imminent arrival — it seemed like everybody wanted the role. Even Steve Carell. 

In the mid-2000s, Carell was just coming off his breakthrough in The 40-Year Old Virgin, but was perhaps best known for his role as manager Michael Scott on The Office. At the time, Sean Penn was supposedly the frontrunner to play the Joker in The Dark Knight (though Penn has denied he was ever offered the part), and Carell wanted the part so badly he joked that he'd be willing to wrestle Penn for it

"I would love to play the role," Carell told Total Film magazine. "If it's either Sean Penn or me in line, I want a showdown to prove which one of us in the better actor. We'd just have to oil up and wrestle for it." Carell has since proved his considerable acting chops, but with two Academy Awards to his name, we might have to side with Penn in an actor battle (and definitely a straight up fight too... the dude's kinda terrifying).

Before he was a goodfella, Ray Liotta could have been a supervillain

He landed the lead role in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, but Ray Liotta has never reached A-list, above-the-title status. "I wish I'd handled my career differently, but, you know, highsight," Liotta mused in an interview with Buzz. One of the parts Liotta was supposedly considered for was the Joker in Tim Burton's Batman.  

"When I did my first movie, Tim Burton was getting ready to do Batman and he was interested in me because he wanted it to be edgy and real," said Liotta. "I thought, 'Batman? That's a stupid idea,' even though he'd had just done one of my favorite movies of all time, Beetlejuice. So yes, I regret not auditioning for that." 

While Liotta probably would have been better as Batman, his comments indicated he was up for the Joker. "That movie and the success of Jack Nicholson?" said Liotta. "My career could've taken off in a different kind of way!" While Liotta would be perfect for an older, Dark Knight Returns-era Batman now, we'd love to see a reversal of his famous Goodfellas scene with Joe Pesci, with Liotta as the Joker asking, "You think I'm funny?" We expect the scene would play out very differently.

Looper Newsletter
Endless Entertainment In Your Inbox
By submitting my email, I agree to the privacy policy