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What if Al Pacino had played Han Solo in 'Star Wars'?
THE BACKSTORY: Pacino in the mid-’70s is what all actors dream of. Fame from The Godfather led to three straight Best Actor nominations from 1973 to 1975. At some point a screenplay landed in his lap for a movie that at the time was still known as The Star Wars. The filmmakers wanted Pacino to play a swaggery smuggler... with a giant teddy-bear co-pilot, or something? During “An Evening With Pacino” in London in 2013, he told the audience of the role that made Harrison Ford the world’s most successful ex-carpenter, “It was mine for the taking.” There was just one problem, he added: “I didn’t understand the script.” A few months after Star Wars arrived, Pacino’s hot streak ended with the flop Bobby Deerfield. In his long career, he’s had high highs and low lows, but with Disney making a couple dozen Star Wars movies, maybe there’s a new role in the franchise in his future?
THE VERDICT: Probably for the best. This was still the age of Subtle Pacino, and it’s hard to imagine his Method line readings chewing on George Lucas’ dialogue. (A more fun counterfactual: envisioning a Scarface-era Pacino shooting Greedo with a laser machine gun.) — Darren Franich
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What if Matthew Broderick had played Walter White in Breaking Bad?
THE BACKSTORY: It’s quite understandable that AMC didn’t immediately see the potential for a terrifying villain in Bryan Cranston, known best at that point for playing a lovably doofy sitcom dad. “We all still had the image of Bryan shaving his body in Malcolm in the Middle,” one exec was quoted as saying. "We were like, 'Really? Isn’t there anybody else?'" The anybody else they reached out to was Matthew Broderick, who could have subverted his boyish charm, going from Ferris Bueller to Pablo Escobar over the course of the series. But Broderick passed, as did John Cusack, and Cranston ended up with the role of a lifetime.
THE VERDICT: Millions of fans and four Emmys agree: No one else could have fit into those tighty-whities like Cranston. — Keith Staskiewicz
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What if Tom Selleck had played Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark?
THE BACKSTORY: While many folks assume George Lucas wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark with Harrison Ford in mind, the opposite is true. Ford had already appeared in two Lucas-penned films (Star Wars and American Graffiti), and the screenwriter urged director Steven Spielberg to consider other actors — including Peter Coyote — before they decided on Tom Selleck, a relative unknown who had just shot a pilot for Magnum, P.I.
THE VERDICT: Selleck in his prime probably would have delighted as the fearless explorer, and as he told David Letterman, he absolutely wanted to play Indy — but his commitment to Magnum, P.I. got in the way. He still made out okay: When the Hawaiian-shirt-and-short-shorts-sporting detective eventually made it on air, Selleck became an instant icon, the series ran for eight seasons, and the actor won his first and only Emmy. — Bill Keith
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What if Pamela Anderson had played Dana Scully on The X-Files?
THE BACKSTORY: The truth is out there: Not all Andersons are alike. Yet when producers were casting the early-’90s sci-fi drama, it was Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson who caught their eye, according to the other Anderson. "She was someone who was more familiar to them in terms of what was on TV at the time," Gillian Anderson’s been reported as saying. "They were looking for someone bustier, taller, leggier than me."
THE VERDICT: Gillian was the one — the onscreen magic between her Scully and David Duchovny’s Mulder helped keep the show on the air for nine years, garnering a total of 62 Emmy nominations and 16 awards. Fans clamored for more than a decade for the show to return: An X-Files miniseries is set to debut in January with its original cast. — Sara Vilkomerson
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What if Sarah Michelle Gellar had played Cher in Clueless?
THE BACKSTORY: Could Buffy have pulled off an Alaïa so spectacularly? The then-little-known Sarah Michelle Gellar was reportedly offered the role of spoiled yet well-intentioned rich L.A. high schooler Cher Horowitz in Amy Heckerling’s teen classic, but scheduling conflicts with her All My Children gig meant she had to pass. The role instead went to another up-and-comer, Alicia Silverstone.
THE VERDICT: SMG was a way fabulous choice and totally could have pulled it off, but after rolling with the homies with Alicia Silverstone, can you imagine anyone else in the role? As if! Plus, SMG proceeded to star on the TV cult fave Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and wound up with the more prolific career. — Gillian Telling
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What if Bridget Fonda had played Ally McBeal on Ally McBeal?
THE BACKSTORY: The '90s were a great time to be Bridget Fonda — the actress starred in some of the era’s most rewatchable classics, like Single White Female, Singles, and It Could Happen to You. But what might have been? Fonda was offered the title role on David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal but turned it down because she didn't want to do television. Calista Flockhart scored the part instead and danced (with a CGI baby) into TV history. "I’m not kicking myself for having passed on Ally McBeal, even though it’s a huge hit," Fonda told the Calgary Sun in 1999. "I've been acting long enough to know it could have been a complete dud with me in it. It may work as well as it does because of Calista."
THE VERDICT: Fonda could have been amazing as the outspoken young lawyer, but considering her then-star power, it's not surprising she wanted to stick with film. She's worked less of late, last appearing on screen in 2002, the same year Ally McBeal went off the air. (Flockhart is back in prime time with CBS’ Supergirl.) — Christopher Rosen
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What if Molly Ringwald had played Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman?
THE BACKSTORY: The ’80s star and John Hughes muse admitted during a 2012 Reddit interview that she had read an early script for the romance, back when it was still called $3,000 and had a superdark story line — Vivian had a drug habit, and she did not end up with her wealthy John. "That script was okay, but I gotta say, Julia Roberts is what makes that movie," Ringwald said. "It was her part. Every actor hopes for a part that lets them shine like that." Don’t worry, Molly, you were perfect in plenty of iconic films. And kissing Jake Ryan? Huge.
THE VERDICT: Ringwald is right: Even though it’s rumored half of Hollywood was offered and turned down the role of Vivian, now we also can’t see anyone but the then-21-year-old Roberts playing the hooker with a heart of gold (and sporting those thigh-high pleather boots). — Gillian Telling
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What if Matt Damon and Joaquin Phoenix had played Ennis and Jack in Brokeback Mountain?
THE BACKSTORY: Before Ang Lee helmed the film that would win him his first directing Oscar, Brokeback Mountain was a Gus Van Sant project. In this iteration, Damon and Phoenix (who’d worked with Van Sant previously on Good Will Hunting and To Die For, respectively) would play long-term clandestine lovers Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist — the roles eventually taken by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Damon thought the job would have felt repetitive for him. “Gus, I did a gay movie [The Talented Mr. Ripley], then a cowboy movie [All the Pretty Horses],” Damon recalled telling the director. “I can’t follow it up with a gay-cowboy movie!”
THE VERDICT: Hard to tell. Van Sant is a top-tier director and Damon and Phoenix talented actors, so who knows if this version would have beaten Crash at the Oscars? But it’s hard to argue with the quietly heartrending film we actually got. — Keith Staskiewicz
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What if Bruce Willis had played Sam Wheat in Ghost?
THE BACKSTORY: It’s been reported that after his then-wife Demi Moore was cast as Molly in 1990’s most memorable tearjerker, Bruce Willis was approached by director Jerry Zucker to portray film history’s most famous pottery-fan-turned-poltergeist, Sam Wheat. Willis is said to have worried that playing a ghost might hurt his career; he chose to focus, presumably, on voicing Baby Mikey in the Look Who’s Talking movies.
THE VERDICT: Though Zucker was apparently reluctant to cast Swayze at first, his reading of the movie’s final scene brought the room to tears and it was a done deal. Ghost was one of the highest-grossing films of 1990, won two Oscars, and solidified Swayze’s spot as America’s most heartfelt heartthrob. He was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1991, the same year he appeared in the cult classic Point Break. Oh, and Bruce Willis? He eventually did play a ghost in The Sixth Sense, and it didn’t hurt his career one bit. —Bill Keith
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What if Will Smith had played Neo in The Matrix?
THE BACKSTORY: With Smith hot off his back-to-back blockbusters Independence Day and Men in Black, the Wachowskis dangled a role unlike anything the actor had done before: a kung-fu-fighting cyber-punk/would-be revolutionary in 1999’s opening installment of the sci-fi Matrix trilogy. But somewhat dubious about the filmmaking siblings (who were still untested as action-movie directors) and skeptical of the "bullet time" special effects (that wound up reshaping the industry), Smith passed up the part and instead went on to claim a starring role in Wild Wild West — one of the biggest flops of his career. Keanu Reeves, of course, became the one to swallow the red pill.
THE VERDICT: The stoic role was made for the stoic Keanu Reeves, and even Will Smith has to agree. In a recent interview with Wired, Smith admitted he would have "absolutely messed up The Matrix" had he accepted, saying, "I wasn’t smart enough of an actor to let the movie be, whereas Keanu was." Like, whoa. — Chris Lee