If you're unfamiliar with the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sliding Doors, it's a romantic drama that presents two versions of the same life: one showing what happened if the Paltrow character catches a train she's late for, and one where the sliding doors shut in her face. This seemingly random moment proves to have a major impact on the rest of her life. Ironically, the role that Paltrow played in the film to great acclaim, which served as a stepping stone on the way to her winning the Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love, was originally offered to Minnie Driver. "What if?"
Hollywood is brimming with sliding-doors casting stories. In an alternate timeline, Eric Stoltz played Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Princess Leia was portrayed by Jodie Foster, and Will Smith would be preparing to take on the role of Neo in The Matrix for the fourth time. It's hard to imagine these career-defining roles played by anyone other than Michael J. Fox, Carrie Fisher, and Keanu Reeves, but even after scenes have been shot, changes can occur. There are numerous reasons for recasting a role, from availability, to injury, to testing badly, and television pilot season is an incredibly competitive period, with many vying for a role in the one network show that might become the next This Is Us.
Ryan Murphy projects have had their fair share of casting and scheduling switches, including the now on-hold Hurricane Katrina season of American Crime Story and the Prince Charles and Princess Diana season of Feud. Tatiana Maslany was originally slated to play Damon's (Ryan Jamaal Swain) dance teacher in Pose, but the part was later rewritten as a 50-year-old African American Debbie Allen-type, ultimately played by Charlayne Woodard. When Murphy's Netflix debut The Politician was initially announced, the first names attached were Ben Platt (a recent Tony Award-winner for Dear Evan Hansen), Gwyneth Paltrow, and Barbra Streisand. Paltrow had previously won an Emmy for her guest appearance on Glee (plus she's married to Murphy production partner and The Politician co-creator Brad Falchuk), and Ben Platt is very much in the Murphy acting wheelhouse.
Having already cast a number of legends in his various franchises, Ryan Murphy's TV universe seemed like a perfect fit for Ms. Streisand. Alas, it was not meant to be due to a conflict with recording Streisand's new album. Sreisand would have played Dusty Jackson, grandmother to Munchausen-stricken Infinity (Zoey Deutch). But as she explained to The New Yorker, "I wanted to make my album. I couldn't devote the time to that." Other than a voice appearance in a 2016 episode of Modern Family, Streisand has thus far not indulged in this period of Peak TV, and while Murphy-favorite Jessica Lange does a fantastic job as Dusty, picturing Streisand scheming and smoking while dressed in one lurid print after another is a big loss. Streisand spoke favorably about the script and cast, so perhaps she'll take Murphy up on one of the many other projects he has in the works.
In honor of this tantalizing TV "What-if?" we've recalled ten other actors who might have had entirely different career trajectories had a casting decision not gone the other way.
TV pilot season often throws up scheduling conflicts as actors don't know what will and won't go to series. In the case of Bryan Fuller's whimsical Wonderfalls, the unaired pilot features Adam Scott as Jaye's (Caroline Dhavernas) sarcastic older brother Aaron, and Kerry Washington as the voice-of-reason best friend, Mahandra. As per Fuller's DVD commentary, neither could commit to the series once it was picked up, so both roles were recast, with Lee Pace and Tracie Thoms stepping in for the pair, respectively. Aaron and Mahandra have a secret relationship behind Jaye's back, so it could have been Scott and Washington locking lips all those years ago. Wonderfalls was short-lived, but Pace's creative relationship with Fuller continued with the canceled-too-soon, Pushing Daisies.
Sookie St. James is the role that introduced audiences to the comic timing of Melissa McCarthy, but in the original Gilmore Girls pilot, another Amy Sherman-Palladino favorite played the accident-prone chef. Due to a prior commitment to MadTV, Alex Borstein couldn't take this role when the show was picked up, but you can spot her working in the Independence Inn as surly harpist Drella. Alex Borstein has since gone on to win two Emmys in another Sherman-Palladino hit as Midge Maisel's (Rachel Brosnahan's) manager Susie — a name that isn't a million miles from Sookie, now that we think of it.
External factors that have nothing to do with chemistry or other projects can also result in casting change-ups. In 2009, Maura Tierney dropped out of Parenthood after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Having already shot the pilot, production was initially postponed until Tierney ultimately left the series as the new shooting schedule conflicted with her treatment plan. Helen Hunt was originally rumored to take over the role before Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham was announced as the new Braverman sibling. After getting a clean bill of health, Tierney reprised her role on Rescue Me, in which her character faced a cancer diagnosis in the final season of the FX show.
Recasting news can lead to speculation, particularly when "it didn't test well" is given as a non-specific reason. This was the case when Rachel Dratch was replaced by Jane Krakowski for the role of Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock. Dratch has a long history with creator Tina Fey, from Second City to SNL. In her 2012 memoir, Girl Walks Into a Bar…, Dratch discusses this incident and the ensuing drama that followed. "If you have been in the acting business for any length of time, you don't take this stuff personally. Replacements in pilots happen all the time," she said. The pilot was reworked from a sketch-heavy show to a sitcom format; however, a conversation about attractiveness took over in a way Dratch did not expect, which was further underscored when she was on set. Dratch was cast in the new version of the pilot, which she describes as "some sort of fun-house mirror/showbiz anxiety dream" after seeing mock-ups of posters she used to be in that now featured Krakowski as Jenna. She goes onto say that Krakowski made the part her own, and Dratch appeared in 16 episodes in total.
Alden Ehrenreich beat a number of high profile names to the highly coveted role of Han Solo (how coveted it now feels is an entirely different question). But long before that particular battle, casting director David Rapaport revealed the first choice for Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl before Penn Badgley came onto the scene was Ehrenreich. The issue? He was too short to play Blake Lively's love interest (Lively had already been cast). And with that, he lost out on the chance to be unveiled as the future Gossip Girl himself, xoxo.
Networks always have a list of people they want for a role. In the case of the next big thing in teen TV, Rapaport noted the CW's Gossip Girl first choice for Blair was Ashley Olsen and Rumer Willis for Serena. Name recognition was the primary goal. And from a personal relationship point-of-view, casting changes can have an influence on the romantic lives of those who win the role. Instead of Blake and Penn as a real-life couple, it could have been Alden and Rumer.
25 years after it premiered, Friends is still a big part of the pop culture conversation. Lisa Kudrow is best known for her role as Phoebe Buffay, but she was originally cast in another ‘90s sitcom classic. The role of Roz in Frasier came down to Peri Gilpin and Kudrow, with NBC picking the future-Friends cast member as Frasier's (Kelsey Grammer) KACL radio show producer. Casting director Jeff Greenberg told Entertainment Weekly that the rehearsal for the pilot threw up an issue with the Roz/Frasier dynamic, "She was sort of spacey, and she was funny. But there was not going to be the conflict there." Gilpin was brought back in and the rest was history, but for Greenberg, this is the recasting that hurt the most. But we all know the story ends well for both actresses, and in her memoir, Girl Walks Into a Bar…, SNL Rachel Dratch says this is the story everyone refers to when they want to placate an actor who gets replaced during the pilot process.
Sometimes an actor instinctively knows a part is not meant for them, even when they're offered it. This is what happened to Matt LeBlanc when he was given the Modern Family pilot script to read. In an interview with USA Today, he said, "I remember reading it thinking, this is a really good script, (but) I'm not the guy for this. I'd be doing the project an injustice to take this. I know what I can do, I know what I can't do." This is another case of the network trying to wield their influence and go after a big name, but Ty Burrell was the producers' first choice. Thanks to LeBlanc turning it down, they got their man — who has received eight Emmy nominations with two wins for this character.
There are many Friends could-have-been audition and casting stories, including Courtney Cox originally getting offered the role of Rachel (but she wanted Monica). Matthew Perry almost lost out because he had been cast in a show about LAX baggage handlers set in the future — somehow LAX 2194 did not take off — and Monica was originally written as a more sardonic character with Janeane Garofalo as the inspiration. Tiffani Thiessen was best known for her role as Kelly Kapowski on Saved by the Bell, but in 1994 she auditioned to play Rachel. In an interview, Thiessen mentioned she was too young in comparison to the rest of the cast — Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston at 25 were the youngest in the cast. Friends went with Aniston, while Thiessen found her post-teen role on Beverly Hills, 90210.
Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.
TOPICS: The Politician, 30 Rock, Frasier, Friends, Gilmore Girls, Gossip Girl, Modern Family, Parenthood, Adam Scott, Alden Ehrenreich, Alex Borstein, Barbra Streisand, Kerry Washington, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Maura Tierney, Rachel Dratch, Rumer Willis, Ryan Murphy, Tiffani Thiessen