Hollywood has been trying to turn John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces into a movie for 33 years ever since it was first published in 1980. Various things have held up production of the film over the years, including the deaths of four of its potential stars, a lawsuit, and a devastating hurricane. Writers and directors like Harold Ramis, John Waters, Steven Soderbergh, and Stephen Fry have all come and gone, but let’s take a look now at eight actors who almost played the lead role of Ignatius J. Reilly at one point or another and what went wrong.
1. John Belushi
As the movie industry’s resident heavyset funny guy at the time, John Belushi was the first choice for the part by Fox assistant producer Scott Kramer, who’s been working on getting this movie made on and off since 1980 and is still trying to put the wheels in motion today. Belushi was interested in the lead role when Kramer approached him. “He loved it,” recalls Belushi’s manager Bernie Brillstein in a 1999 piece on the oft-delayed movie in The Wall Street Journal. “I’ve never known a comedian who didn’t want to be a dramatic actor.” Belushi asked frequent SNL host Buck Henry, who’s also the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Graduate, if he wanted to work on the script. “I actively voted against it,” Henry tells WSJ. “The book breaks down into two tones that don’t go together: wild social satire and Southern Gothic.” Richard Pryor and Ruth Gordon were attached to co-star in the roles of Burma Jones and Irene Reilly, respectively, with Harold Ramis directing.
John Belushi passed away of a drug overdose in March of 1982, two days before he was supposed to meet with Scott Kramer to discuss the movie. Five months later, the head of the Louisiana Film Commission, Jo Beth Bolton, was killed in a murder-suicide. She had been in talks to let Kramer film on location in New Orleans, but her death put the movie on hold.
2. John Candy
After John Belushi died, an oil heir named John Langdon bought up rights to the book and considered Belushi’s Second City Theater comrade John Candy to play Ignatius. Langdon concluded that Candy was capable of playing crazy characters but wasn’t over-the-top enough for the role. “John could act insane, but wasn’t,” he explained.
3. Jonathan Winters
Comedian Jonathan Winters was Langdon’s top choice for to star in Confederacy, but he soon decided Winters, who was 56 at the time, was too old to play 30-year-old Ignatius.
4. Josh Mostel
Another actor considered for the part of Ignatius in 1982 was Broadway and movie actor Josh Mostel, who played the TV version of John Belushi’s Animal House character “Bluto” Blutarsky in the TV spinoff Animal House: “Blotto” Blutarsky. Says Maidee Walker, who was working on the screenplay at the time, “I had lunch with every fat actor in Hollywood.”
Filmmaker John Waters attempted to adapt Confederacy in the 1980s with drag queen Divine in mind for the role of Ignatius. Here’s Waters talking to Best of New Orleans about the project:
“It’ll never happen. How can a movie ever live up to that book? So many people have tried to do it — when I tried to do it, it was when Divine was alive, and we wanted him to play the main part (Ignatius Reilly). Some of the top directors in the world have tried to make that movie, and I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. Maybe it shouldn’t.”
When development on the movie started back up again in the 1990s, Chris Farley was eyed as a potential lead. “He loved it,” said Bernie Brillstein, who also managed Farley. While some of the producers were excited about getting Farley for the part, others were less enthused and doubted that he could play the overeducated Ignatius. Farley’s name was batted around for the role until his death in 1997.
7. John Goodman
New Orleans resident John Goodman was also considered for the part in the 1990s, according to Entertainment Weekly, but few details are known about his involvement beyond that.
8. Will Ferrell
Will Ferrell was the closest actor to getting the movie made since Belushi’s passing, when in 2004, he was reported to be attached and participated in a table read at the Nantucket Film Festival with the cast of the film and director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express). The movie fell apart later that year, and David Gordon Green wrote this piece about it, as published by Roger Ebert:
“To the disappointment of many of us, ‘Dunces’ was put on hold last year. We had assembled the cast of my dreams (Will Ferrell, Lily Tomlin, Mos Def, Drew Barrymore, Olympia Dukakis, etc.) and I adopted New Orleans as my new home, but politics over the property rights – torn between Miramax, Paramount, and various camps of producers – put a weight on the project that wasn’t creatively healthy to work within.”The draft of the script by Scott Kramer and Steven Soderbergh did the novel justice, and also provided a healthy cinematic spotlight for these eccentric characters, but it didn’t cater to a lot of the clichés or conditioning of contemporary American studio sensibilities. So I suppose the difficulty was even beyond the political baggage and paperwork, and stemmed in many ways from the manner in which I wanted the film to be executed. I believe in the dramatic foundation and comedic highlights of these characters and am not interested in the cartoon version of obvious comedy that has often been pushed for. I have yet to develop a project within the studio system that has been made, for whatever stubborn resistance to compromise on my part with the machine …”The history of the book and various efforts for a filmed version make an epic of their own. (I would have loved to see the Harold Ramis-directed early ‘80s take with John Belushi, Ruth Gordon and Richard Pryor). My hope is that we get our paws on the flick, and Kramer writes his memoirs of the whole deal.”
Will Ferrell told The AV Club in a 2008 interview that Jack Black had been in talks for the part of Ignatius at one point. Black’s involvement in the movie was never announced or publicized, and Ferrell didn’t mention if it occurred before or after he was attached to the part.
10. Zach Galifianakis
Last summer, Vulture reported that Zach Galifianakis had been cast as the lead in Confederacy of Dunces, with director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords, The Muppets) in talks and writer Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids) penning the script. Bobin wound up signing on to direct the Muppets sequel, The Muppets… Again!, putting this project on hold. There hasn’t been an update on it since the announcement of Galifianakis’s involvement last May, but it seems to still be in the works with Galifianakis attached.
After a whopping 33 years in development, A Confederacy of Dunces isn’t any closer to being made than it was in 1980, but with Zach Galfianakis attached, it could still end up happening someday. I’ll leave you with some quotes from various people who have worked on the movie over the years:
“That was a heavy thing, though; I thought ‘Wow, if this happens, this is like a big one to bite off.’ The book is so talked-about that its fans are either going to be like ‘They blew it,’ or ‘Wow, great job!’” - Will Ferrell, 2008“My final analysis of it is that Confederacy violated one of the basic bylaws of movie comedy, which the producer Michael Shamberg (Ghost World and Pulp Fiction) articulated. He said, ‘Comedy works two ways. Either you have a normal person in an extraordinary situation or an extraordinary person in a normal situation.’ And Confederacy was about an extraordinary person in a series of extraordinary situations.” - Harold Ramis, 2009“I don’t know what’s happening with it. I think it’s cursed. I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.” - Steven Soderbergh, 2013