The Lost Roles of Bill Murray

Casting is one of the most important processes in movie making. Placing the right actors in the right roles can determine whether or not an entire film rings true. Thus, casting directors and filmmakers consider a wide range of possibilities before going into production. In this column, we’ll be taking a look at the missed opportunities — the roles that could have been — and exploring how some casting choices that almost happened could have changed careers, projects, and the comedy industry, at large.

Bill Murray is possibly the most respected comic actor of his generation and one who successfully made the difficult transition to drama, receiving numerous awards and nominations along the way. His career has spanned five decades and multiple genres, so it’s no wonder he has more than his fair share of parts that other actors have beat him out for or that he flat-out turned down. In recent years, this is partly due to Murray getting rid of his agent and manager. In their place, he’s set up a toll-free line through which show business folk can leave him messages. He checks the voicemail infrequently. Although this guarantees him a level of privacy and a barrier between him and the business, it’s caused him to miss out on a few choice parts, as well.

Scheduling conflicts while working on other movies, as well as changes made in the lengthy development process also contributed to Murray missing out on a number of projects, so it’s not like Bill Murray just has some incredible inability to tell when he’s offered a great part. Every actor or actress has a history of missed roles like these, as it’s not always easy to determine from reading a script whether the finished product will be any good.

While taking some of these parts would have drastically altered Bill Murray’s career trajectory, others are landmines that he wisely sidestepped. Without further ado, here is an obsessive list of roles Bill Murray was considered for, passed on, or filmed only to have the scenes left on the cutting room floor.

1. Star Wars (1977)

The role: Han Solo

Who got it: Harrison Ford

George Lucas auditioned dozens of big actors for the original Star Wars, trying to find the right person for each part. As absurd as Murray playing Han Solo sounds, he’s not the oddest actor who auditioned. Kurt Russell, Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, as well as Murray’s frequent comedy costars Steve Martin and Chevy Chase, were all considered to play the guy behind the wheel of the Milennium Falcon, too.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

It’s arguable. While the movie would have given Murray his largest exposure yet, the part wasn’t right for him. Considering the actor’s reluctance to embrace his fame, it’s probably for the best that he didn’t become part of the worldwide Star Wars phenomenon that would have catapulted him to superstardom. He would have had the same trouble Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher faced when trying to break away from their public perceptions as these prolific characters.

Was this good for the movie?

Absolutely. While Bill Murray’s propensity for ad-libbing could have improved upon George Lucas’s spotty dialogue, it’s hard to imagine he’d make a better Han Solo than Harrison Ford.

2. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)

The role: “Boone” Schoenstein

Who got it: Peter Riegert

The original plan was to cast Chevy Chase as Otter, Bill Murray as Boon, Dan Aykroyd as D-Day, and of course, John Belushi as Bluto. Chevy Chase was interested but chose to make Foul Play instead. Scheduling conflicts with SNL allowed for only Belushi to accept his part. Lorne Michaels didn’t want three of his most popular cast members spending half the week in Hollywood filming Animal House instead of prepping for the show.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Animal House was the first blockbuster comedy, the highest grossing film in the genre up until this point, turning Belushi into a star overnight. The part would have given Murray ample opportunity to improvise and to pin down his big screen persona early.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Looking back, I can’t imagine passing this comedic dream team up. Putting Chase, Aykroyd, Murray, and Belushi together onscreen while they were all bursting with youthful energy couldn’t have failed.

3. The Jerk (1979)

Murray filmed a scene in The Jerk that was left on the cutting room floor and the footage inexplicably hasn’t surfaced yet on YouTube or as a special feature. The Jerk was released during Murray’s stint on SNL, and Murray sarcastically panned the film on Weekend Update, saying: “There’s something missing.”

Was this good for Murray’s career?

This was just a cameo, so it wasn’t make-or-break for Murray.

Was this good for the movie?

No. I’ve been aware of this scene’s existence for years but have never found an explanation for why it was cut. I can’t imagine a scene between Bill Murray and Steve Martin, at the height of their comedic powers at the time, was unfunny.

4. The Dead Zone (1983)

The role: Johnny Smith

Who got it? Christopher Walken

Bill Murray was Stephen King’s first choice, but others on the production felt differently.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. If Murray had ended up in this role, it would have established his diverse abilities early on and given him freedom to travel between genres.

Was this good for the movie?

Yes. Christopher Walken gives a frightening, memorable performance. Murray could have pulled off something similar, but it would have taken a lot of work to nail the part like Walken did.

5. Splash (1984)

The role: Allen Bauer

Who got it: Tom Hanks

Murray, along with several other actors including John Travolta and Michael Keaton, turned the part down before the producers went to Tom Hanks.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

Yes. While Splash was a hit, Murray had bigger fish to fry at the time. He was busy filming Ghostbusters, which became the highest grossing comedy of all time upon its release.

Was this good for the movie?

Hard to say. Although Tom Hanks is a more natural romantic lead, Murray could have added some much-needed edge to this warm and fuzzy film. His scenes with John Candy and Eugene Levy would definitely have been entertaining.

6. The Three Amigos (1986)

The role: Dusty Bottoms

Who got it: Chevy Chase

Three Amigos had been in development for several years before it entered production. In a 1980 interview, Steve Martin mentioned plans to star in the project with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. In 1981, Steven Spielberg became interested in directing the film. He wanted Bill Murray, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams to play the Three Amigos. After some contemplation, Spielberg chose to make E.T. instead.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

Yes and no. While this would have been a great role and a lot of talent was involved, Spielberg has never been a dependable director of comedy. Take 1941 for example, Spielberg’s first flop, which starred Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi and still managed to be unfunny. John Landis was a much better choice, but by the time he got to the project, Murray had moved on.

Was this good for the movie?

Yes. Murray’s involvement is tied in with Spielberg’s. Although Spielberg is a great director, he’s a little inept with comedy.

7. Legal Eagles (1986)

The role: N/A

Who got it? Debra Winger

Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman were originally attached to star but dropped out due to disappointment with the script. The producers changed Murray’s character to a woman and cast Robert Redford and Debra Winger instead.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

Absolutely. Skipping this one was a wise move on Murray’s part.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Murray and Hoffman showed they worked together well in Tootsie, and they would have made the movie much better, despite potentially hurting their careers.

8. Club Paradise (1986)

The role: Jack Moniker

Who got it? Robin Williams

Harold Ramis’s plan for this forgettable and muddled comedy was to cast Bill Murray as the lead, with John Cleese playing the part that later went to Peter O’Toole. Both actors were initially interested, but Murray felt the character was too similar to the one he played in Meatballs and Cleese didn’t want to spend several weeks filming in the West Indies.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

Yes. While Ramis is an incredibly talented writer and director, and he had a natural rapport with Murray, not much could save Club Paradise from itself.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Murray’s ad-libbing abilities and his habit of re-writing the scripts to his movies himself would certainly have helped, and it would have been great to see him work with John Cleese and the SCTV refugees that made up the rest of the cast. The finished film would have been better, but still lacking.

9. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

The role: Daryl Van Horne

Who got it? Jack Nicholson

Bill Murray was originally cast in the role but dropped out before filming began.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. While I’m sure missing this one was no major regret of his, the film wound up being a well-reviewed, financial success that could only have helped Bill Murray out.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Nicholson had played similar parts to this one, so it wasn’t as shocking when he popped up as a villain in this movie. For Murray, this would have been a break from the sarcastic slacker heroes he tended to play in the ‘80s, but the character was still within his wheelhouse. Murray could have given a surprising performance that added a level of unpredictability to the film.

10. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

The role: Eddie Valiant

Who got it? Bob Hoskins

Murray was director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg’s first choice, but they were forced to pick a different actor after being unable to get a hold of him. Murray was very upset when he heard this years later and says he definitely would have accepted the role.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Roger Rabbit was a big success, and it would have been good for Murray to branch out with a quality family film. It’s a very funny movie that’s edgier than most Disney fare and worthy of his talents. Sandwiched in between the massively successful Ghostbusters movies, starring in Roger Rabbit would have continued Murray’s hot streak and solidified his status as one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Although Bob Hoskins handles the role ably, Murray would have been much funnier and a marked improvement.

11. Rain Man (1988)

The role: Charlie Babbitt

Who got it? Tom Cruise

Dustin Hoffman wanted Murray to play his character’s brother.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Rain Man could have been the transition into respected dramatic fare that Bill Murray wouldn’t receive until he met Wes Anderson a decade later.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Cruise does fine here, but Murray has a great ability to play selfish jerks like this character without making them completely detestable. Murray and Hoffman have nice screen chemistry, and the film could have been even better with Murray as Charlie.

12. Batman (1989)

The role: Bruce Wayne/Batman

Who got it? Michael Keaton

Tim Burton considered Bill Murray, amongst others, for the role of the Dark Knight. If it sounds strange to you (and it should), remember that Michael Keaton got his start as a stand-up and was mainly known for comedies like Mr. Mom and Night Shift until Batman. Murray was just as odd a choice as Keaton at the time.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

Hard to say. The role definitely would have bolstered Murray’s fame, and he could have played the part straight, but I doubt audiences would have warmed to him as Batman. On the other hand, if Bill Murray’s Batman had succeeded, it would have been easier for him to branch out into dramatic roles in the ‘90s and kept him at the top of the A-list.

Was this good for the movie?

Yes. Bill Murray would have been fine in the role, but fans and audiences might have been more reluctant to embrace him as a tough crime fighter. Given Murray’s habit of refusing to do sequels (the only two he’s ever done are Ghostbusters II and Garfield 2), he may have left the series even earlier than Michael Keaton did.

13. Kindergarten Cop (1990)

The role: John Kimble

Who got it? Arnold Schwarzenegger

Director Ivan Reitman offered Murray the part before he went to Schwarzenegger.

Was the decision good for Murray’s career?

Yes. This doesn’t seem like a natural fit. If the movie had still succeeded with Murray in the driver’s seat, Murray might have been typecast in family movies, and who would want that? Schwarzenegger’s success here predates his roles in tripe like Junior and Jingle All the Way.

Was this good for the movie?

Yes. This is a vehicle that feels tailor-made for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I can’t see Bill Murray as a tough cop.

14. Philadelphia (1993)

The role: Joe Miller

Who got it? Denzel Washington

Director Jonathan Demme wanted a comedic actor as counter balance against Tom Hanks, and he considered Bill Murray and Robin Williams for the role before nixing the idea and choosing Washington.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Murray could have exceeded in this part. Like Rain Man, it’s just another example of a dramatic role he almost got years ahead of Hollywood accepting him as a serious actor.

Was this good for the movie?

Yes. Although Murray definitely would have brought a different energy to the part, it’s hard to imagine him being better suited than Denzel Washington.

15. Forrest Gump (1994)

The role: Forrest Gump

Who got it? Tom Hanks

Forrest Gump is just as strange a potential Bill Murray role as Batman. The actor turned the part down when it was offered to him early in the development process. Chevy Chase was also offered the part but said no, claiming years later that the script he was shown was an early draft drastically different from the finished product. It’s possible Murray saw this same version of the script, so it makes sense that he would turn it down.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

Absolutely. As strong an actor as Bill Murray is, I don’t know if he could have pulled off playing a mentally-challenged man. I can’t get the image of him as Carl Spackler from Caddyshack on a bench eating chocolates out of my head.

Was this good for the movie?

Yes. This is the role Tom Hanks was born to play. He manages to portray Gump with the right mix of humor and sentimentality, making sure the audience laughs with Forrest Gump more than they laugh at him.

16. Toy Story (1995)

The role: Buzz Lightyear

Who got it? Tim Allen

When Bill Murray turned down the role, the Pixar people went to Billy Crystal, who also said no before Tim Allen accepted.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Fantastic Mr. Fox proved that Murray is a natural and charming voice actor, but it’s really a shame the bulk of his voice work has been on the Garfield films.

Was this good for the movie?

Yes. Tim Allen is a natural fit as Buzz Lightyear, and Murray wouldn’t have been believable as this naive, good-natured character. The writers would have had to make Buzz more hard-edged and sardonic if Murray took the part, and these tweaks could have derailed the entire film.

17. Bottle Rocket (1995)

The role: Mr. Henry

Who got it? James Caan

Murray’s professional relationship with writer/director Wes Anderson has lasted almost as long as his similar set-up with Harold Ramis. Murray has appeared in every Anderson movie since they first worked together on Rushmore in ‘98. Anderson’s first movie, Bottle Rocket, is the only one not to include Bill Murray, but the director did try to cast him. Anderson called Murray’s agent, who, at the time, wasn’t able to get a hold of him as he was traveling around in a Winnebago.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Murray and Anderson always work well together, and although this wasn’t a huge part, it would have been great seeing them collaborate a little earlier.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Murray would have been right at home in Bottle Rocket’s loopy, offbeat universe and would have adapted to Anderson’s tone more naturally than Caan.

18. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

The role: Larry Flynt

Who got it? Woody Harrelson

Murray and Tom Hanks were considered before Harrelson was given the role. Director Milos Forman claims Murray never returned his calls.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Harrelson was mainly a comedic actor up until this point and this was a turning point for him, resulting in his first Oscar nomination. This would have been a great opportunity for Murray and a role he could handle ably.

Was this good for the movie?

Toss up. Woody Harrelson gives an impressive performance as Flynt. Murray would have been able to do just as well.

19. There’s Something About Mary (1998)

The role: Pat Healy

Who got it? Matt Dillon

Murray was considered for the part, but the Farrelly brothers decided he was too old.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. This is a great character for Murray and his own twisted take on the sleazy P.I. character would have helped keep him in hits.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Bill Murray proved he could work well with the Farrelly brothers in Kingpin, and his is one of my favorite performances in any Farrelly movie.

20. Monsters, Inc. (2001)

The role: Sulley

Who got it? John Goodman

Murray screen tested for the role and was interested, but when director Pete Docter was unable to make contact with him, he took it as a “no.”

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Monsters, Inc. is a much better fit for Bill Murray than the Garfield movies, and the success of this film would have helped him with other projects. We’ve all seen how the Shrek movies have been Eddie Murphy’s biggest hits in recent years, keeping his career afloat. Murray could have pulled off something similar.

Was this good for the movie?

John Goodman gives a memorable performance as Sulley, and it’s hard to argue that Bill Murray would have been any better or worse. Like in Toy Story, the character would probably have to be tweaked a little to fit Murray’s persona, but that could have worked here.

21. Bad Santa (2003)

The role: Willie Stokes

Who got it? Billy Bob Thornton

Bill Murray was the first choice and was in final negotiations before dropping out to make Lost in Translation.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

Yes. Although Bad Santa’s a funny movie and Murray would have been great as the lead, choosing Lost in Translation over this project was a smart move. He ended up receiving his first Oscar nomination, and Lost in Translation legitimized Murray’s status as a serious actor.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Murray could have added a little more warmth and sympathy to the role than Billy Bob Thornton, while still remaining mean and rude. It would be like an entire film revolving around Murray’s Groundhog Day character Phil Connors on one of his bad days, and that’s something I’d love to see. Don’t get me wrong, Thornton was great here, but the prospect of Bill Murray in this role is too good to pass up.

22. The Ice Harvest (2005)

The role: Bill Guerrard

Who got it? Randy Quaid

Back in 2004, the New Yorker ran a lengthy profile on Harold Ramis and the effect he’s had on film comedy. In it, Ramis mentions trying to get Bill Murray to play a small part here. At the time, the two hadn’t spoken since a spat they had while filming Groundhog Day, but it’s not clear if this silence still lasts today. Ramis had Bill’s older brother Brian Doyle-Murray offer Bill the part, but Bill declined.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

Taking this part wouldn’t have made much of a difference for Murray career-wise, but it would be nice to see him reconnect with Ramis, with whom he has made many of his memorable movies.

Was this good for the movie?

No. As evidenced by his cameos in Zombieland and Little Shop of Horrors, Murray can take a small part and use it to add a manic intensity to the project at hand. While it wouldn’t have drastically changed the quality of The Ice Harvest, Murray’s scenes could have been highlights.

23. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

The role: Willy Wonka

Who got it? Johnny Depp

Tim Burton considered Bill Murray, amongst others, before selecting Johnny Depp.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Murray would have been great as the off-kilter, fun-loving Willy Wonka, and the movie would have introduced him to a new generation of potential fans, while pleasing those who had been following him for decades. The success of the film could have kept him a bankable leading man and shown off his diversity.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Murray is a natural and worthy successor to Gene Wilder and this is a part he could get a lot out of, elevating the quality of the film as a whole.

24. The Squid and the Whale (2005)

The role: Bernard Berkman

Who got it? Jeff Daniels

Filmmaker Noah Baumbauch had Murray in mind for the lead but was unable to get a hold of him.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. This would have been a perfect project for Murray and would have kept the momentum going with another critically-acclaimed hit after Lost in Translation. He could have nailed this role and received some major accolades. Daniels obtained a Golden Globe nomination for the part, and Murray could have done the same, if not more.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Jeff Daniels handles the role well, but he doesn’t have Bill Murray’s aloofness. Even Murray’s darkest characters carry themselves with an air of humor, and it would have been great to see this ability to recognize the absurdity of his surroundings juxtaposed with the character’s snooty intellectualism and depression. Murray could have made Bernard Berkman a more complicated and endearing character.

25. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

The role: Frank Ginsberg

Who got it? Steve Carell

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Steve Carell as Frank, but he actually wasn’t the filmmakers’ first choice. The part was written for Bill Murray, and this was another one he passed on. Murray later said he regrets missing out on the role.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

No. Little Miss Sunshine was a critical and commercial success and a major awards contender. Alan Arkin won an Oscar for his performance, and Murray might have received a nomination too. Not to say that his performance would have been that much better than Carell’s, but the Academy has a habit of looking upon past nominees more kindly.

Was this good for the movie?

It’s arguable. Steve Carell and Bill Murray are both capable actors, and this just comes down to personal preference.

26. How Do You Know (2010)

The role: Charles Madison

Who got it? Jack Nicholson

Murray was James L. Brooks’s first choice to play Paul Rudd’s father, and he even started rehearsing with the cast before dropping out.

Was this good for Murray’s career?

Yes. This is another bomb that Murray wisely dodged. The film was a critical and commercial flop, but it still would have been interesting seeing Murray and Rudd’s scenes together. James L. Brooks is one of the most influential comedy writer/directors out there, and it’s a shame he’s never cast Murray in a better film.

Was this good for the movie?

No. Murray would have been a better fit as Paul Rudd’s father and could have improved the project significantly.

Bradford Evans is a writer in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of Bill Murray