Michael Clayton
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Casting coulda-beens

By John Horn and Patrick Day, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Fishermen love to tell stories about the big ones that got away.

Actors are less willing to talk about the life-changing roles they lost.

Yet Hollywood is filled with tales of career-making parts that somehow slipped through another performer’s fingers. Some couldn’t make the movies because of schedules. Others grew nervous about the material or the director. And some were canned on the eve of -- or, in a few cases, days into -- production.

Matt Damon fell out of “The Fighter,” a movie about Boston boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward. But Paramount isn’t exactly slumming in recasting the part -- Brad Pitt is set to fill Damon’s gym trunks.

Here’s a look at some defining performances, and the actors who had a chance to play them first.

George Clooney’s “Michael Clayton,” opening Oct. 5, could bring another Oscar nomination Clooney’s way. But the titular role of a troubled corporate lawyer was previously offered to... (Myles Aronowitz / Warner Bros. Pictures)
Denzel Washington

 (Times photo illustration: Warner Bros. Pictures / Getty Images)
Michael J. Fox rode the “Back to the Future” movies to great fame, and the series transformed him from TV sitcom star to major movie star. But Fox wasn’t playing Marty McFly when production geared up. That would have been . . . (Universal Studios)
Eric Stoltz

 (Times photo illustration: Universal Studios / AP)
Harrison Ford has played any number of prominent parts, but next to Han Solo he’s more closely associated with Indiana Jones than anything else — and and new Indy movie is due next summer. But Ford wasn’t the first choice. That would be... (Lucasfilm Ltd.)
Tom Selleck

 (Times photo illustration: Lucasfilm Ltd. / Getty Images)
Hugh Jackman went from zero to hero as Wolverine in the “X-Men” movies and is now one of Hollywood’s top male stars. But the lead role of the mutant warrior was originally going to be played by... (Kerry Hayes / Twentieth Century Fox)
Dougray Scott

 (Times photo illustration: Twentieth Century Fox / Getty Images)
Viggo Mortensen, the star of the critically lauded “Eastern Promises,” was a little-known character actor when the makers of “The Lord of the Rings” films decided they needed a new actor to play Aragorn. So Mortensen replaced... (New Line Productions)
Stuart Townsend

 (Times photo illustration: New Line Productions / Getty Images)
Eddie Murphy’s turn as Det. Axel Foley in “Beverly Hills Cop” may have come on the heels of his hit “Trading Places.” But there’s no denying it made him a box-office superstar -- and yet another “Cop” sequel is now in the works. But the cop comedy originally was going to be headlined by... (Paramount Pictures)
Sylvester Stallone

 (Times photo illustration: Paramount Pictures / Anacleto Rapping / LAT)
Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of a middle-aged corporate drone in the midst of a breakdown in suburbia won the actor a best actor Oscar, but he wasn’t the first choice for the role. One actor who was offered the role, but turned it down was... (Lorey Sebastian / DreamWorks)
Bill Murray’s improvised lines and fippant attitude helped make “Ghostbusters” a comedy smash. But the main trio of Ghostbusters was originally planned to be Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and... (Columbia Pictures)
John Belushi

 (Times photo illustration: Universal Pictures / Columbia Pictures)
The bumbling Inspector Clouseau was a character Peter Sellers seemed born to play. But he was only given the role days before shooting began after the original actor dropped out. That actor was... ()
Peter Ustinov

 (Times photo illustration: Leslie Sepuka / PBS)
Keanu Reeves already had shot to stardom thanks to “Speed.” But he became a cultural fixture following his lead role as Neo in “The Matrix” movies. But the part was previously offered to and turned down by . . . (Jasin Boland / AP)
Will Smith

 (Times photo illustration: AP / Getty Images)