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It’s Still a Riddle Why Keaton Didn’t Stay ‘Batman Forever’ : Movies: Disputes over money and artistic control are reportedly the reasons for the star not returning.

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Riddle me this, Bat-fans: Who really pulled the mask off Michael Keaton’s plans to don the cape a third time in “Batman Forever”? And who were among the ready to jump in his boots as the dual persona?

The second question has a shorter answer: Val Kilmer, Kurt Russell and Billy Baldwin. While Warner Bros. sources say Kilmer was always the first pick on the short list after Keaton bowed out, others close to the project say Russell was a long-shot favorite as well. Baldwin, younger brother to Alec, had become an afterthought since he wasn’t old enough to play mentor to sidekick Chris O’Donnell’s Robin.

Kilmer, whose breakthrough film was the 1986 “Top Gun” and who played Jim Morrison five years later in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” grabbed director Joel Schumacher’s attention for his recent portrayal as the tubercular Doc Holliday and sidekick to Russell’s Wyatt Earp in the box-office success “Tombstone.”

“Val was my first and only choice (after Keaton),” Schumacher said. “People always assumed Michael was doing the movie but he didn’t have a deal.”

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So thrilled with Warner Bros.’ expectations for Kilmer, the studio has already signed him to appear in future sequels as the dark knight.

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As for Keaton’s bailout, the actor and Schumacher reportedly just didn’t see eye to eye on the quality of screen time millionaire Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman were getting in this third take on the Gotham City hero.

Schumacher would only say: “Michael had contractual and financial lifestyle considerations as well as some artistic considerations that Warner Bros. and I had to consider. We also had the time to consider other possibilities. Hopefully this will be a fresh start for Michael and for ‘Batman.’ ”

Some studio and project sources said early on the actor complained he wasn’t getting enough money. He reportedly expected to receive $15 million for the role, plus a percentage of the gross box-office receipts.

The money talk started when Warners passed on Robin Williams to play the Riddler in favor of Jim Carrey, who exhibitors were pushing, extolling Carrey’s performance in the upcoming “The Mask.”

At that time, rumors surfaced that Keaton was miffed that his co-stars would not only upstage Batman on screen but on payroll as well.

But those close to the actor insist Keaton did not forgo the role for money. They say Keaton was promised and felt he deserved and had earned the right to have some say over Batman’s story the third time around. In the two previous films, the villains--Jack Nicholson’s Joker (“Batman”) and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman (“Batman Returns”)--were always the draw and, in the words of one Warners’ source, “Batman could have been anybody in a mask.”

In the words of a Keaton source, “Michael wanted to breathe more life into the Batman character. This wasn’t a matter of ego. It was a matter of making the story better and the character more interesting.”

Studio sources say Keaton complained about the amount of screen time given to his co-star villains, Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey “Two Face” Dent and Carrey as the Riddler.

But Keaton’s camp say those rumblings are ridiculous, that he was committed to do the role. He reportedly became disenchanted after a meeting with Warners executives failed to materialize. The purpose of the meeting was to allow Keaton the chance to express his ideas for Batman’s role. Later there was a meeting with Schumacher that afforded him that opportunity but proved fruitless, Keaton sources say.

Keaton’s prepared statement dodged his decision to dodge Batman for a third time, but wished Warners well on another sequel.

And one more Bat-note: Rene Russo is still Schumacher’s top choice to play the love interest in “Batman Forever,” but a schedule conflict may bump the “In the Line of Fire” co-star.

If things don’t work out with Russo, the top contenders are said to be Jeanne Tripplehorn (“The Firm”) and Linda Hamilton (“Terminator”).


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