The Lost Roles of Steve Carell

Casting is one of the most important processes in television and movie making. Placing the right actor in the right role can determine whether or not an entire film rings true. Lost Roles is a weekly series that examines the missed opportunities — the roles that could have been — and explores how some casting choices that almost happened could have changed the film industry and the comedy world, at large.

One of the few actors who can balance a successful television show and a booming film career at the same time, Steve Carell is a comedy professional with a knack for choosing his projects carefully. After spending the 90s and early 2000s in supporting roles, most notably as quirky reporters in The Daily Show, Bruce Almighty, and Anchorman, Carell’s promotion to leading man status in both TV and film came at the same time in 2005, when he was cast in The Office and The 40 Year Old Virgin. Both ventures were huge successes and cemented Carell’s place as a major force in the entertainment industry. Since then, Carell has made a habit of selecting the right movies to make during his summer hiatuses from The Office, scoring several commercial and critical hits. Carell has also had an increased involvement behind the scenes, working as a producer and occasional writer on The Office and sharing screenwriting duties with Judd Apatow on The 40 Year Old Virgin. He’s even founded his own production company, Carousel Productions. Steve Carell’s had fewer career missteps than most of his peers, boasting three hits last year alone in Despicable Me, Date Night, and Dinner for Schmucks. Considering his film career’s going so well, it’s no wonder he’s leaving The Office after seven great years.

With Steve Carell’s super-sized goodbye episode of The Office airing tonight, it’s an opportune time to look at some directions his career might have taken, as we examine the parts he was up for, passed on, wanted, or dropped out of altogether.

1. Whose Line is It Anyway? (UK) (early ‘90s)

The role: Panel performer

Who got it: Unknown

Long before he was a big name actor, Steve Carell auditioned for the British version of Whose Line, only to be turned down. Mike Myers also tried out for the series and was met with the same fate. Carell seems like a fine fit for the program, and nabbing the role would have made him a star in England. If Carell had been asked to join the cast, he might have followed the series to America for the Drew Carey-hosted version, along with fellow UK Whose Liners Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie. Appearing on the ABC version would have brought Carell and his comedy to a large national audience a decade ahead of his breakthrough role on The Office, but he’s managed to find much greater fame and success than the Whose Line cast on his own. Judging by what Drew Carey and Wayne Brady are up to now, it’s probably for the best that Carell took the long road to fame.

2. Saturday Night Live (1995)

The role: Cast member

Who got it: Will Ferrell

Steve Carell was amongst dozens of actors brought in to audition for SNL in 1995 when Lorne Michaels was cleaning house after the Farley-Sandler era and filling out the cast for what became the Will Ferrell Years. Steve Carell’s wife Nancy Walls made the cut, along with his future frequent co-stars David Koechner and Will Ferrell, but Carell lost the spot in the cast he was up for to Ferrell. Steve Carell did become a part of the show a little later, albeit in a much smaller capacity, providing the voice for Gary in Robert Smigel’s regular animated short The Ambiguously Gay Duo. And of course, Steve Carell has hosted the show twice.

Casting Carell would have been a boon for SNL and it seems odd that they couldn’t make room for both him and Will Ferrell. Couldn’t they just have picked him over Jim Breuer or Chris Kattan? This was a fertile period in SNL’s history and Carell could have had a memorable stint on the show, especially considering the excellent cast he had to work with. He’s played off Ferrell and Koechner well in numerous projects and with Tina Fey in Date Night. Joining Saturday Night Live would have been great for Carell and could have helped him to kick off his movie career several years early.

Update: It turns out there’s some contention about whether or not Carell ever actually auditioned for SNL. It’s been reported in multiple places that he did, but he also claimed to never have auditioned for the show in at least one interview. So who knows! In any case, he would have been a pretty interesting addition to the cast if it had happened somehow.

3. Talladega Nights (2006)

The role: Unknown

Who got it: Unknown

After having such a good experience working with him on Anchorman, Will Ferrell offered Steve Carell a part in Talladega Nights. It isn’t known which role this is or if that particular character even made it into the final cut of the movie, but it would have been nice to see Carell take part in this one. Steve Carell had bigger fish to fry when Talladega went into production in 2005, as The Office was just starting to take off and he was filming Little Miss Sunshine, which had a bigger part for him than what was presumably a minor role in Talladega.

4. The Mayor of Castro Street (unfilmed)

The role: Harvey Milk

Who got it: Sean Penn (in Milk)

When Milk went into production, there was another movie about politician and gay activist Harvey Milk being prepped, with Steve Carell interested in starring. X-Men and Superman Returns helmer Bryan Singer was set to direct the project and wanted to cast Carell, but things fell apart when Gus Van Sant’s Milk beat them into production. The team behind The Mayor of Castro Street wanted to avoid what had happened just a few years earlier when two Truman Capote biopics were produced and one overshadowed the other.

This could have been a major turning point in Steve Carell’s career, allowing him to make the transition to drama that so few comedic actors have been able to completely pull off. Sean Penn won an Oscar for playing Milk, and it’s likely that Carell’s performance would have received some awards and accolades too, but maybe not on as grand a scale. Success here could have made Carell a contender for dramatic roles to come and a first choice for future awards bait.

5. The Dark Knight (2008)

The role: The Joker

Who got it: Heath Ledger

Steve Carell was amongst those rumored to play The Joker in the second installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. Carell publicly expressed interest in the role, saying he would love to play the Joker. Oddly enough, this was the second part to win an Oscar in 2009 that Carell was interested in playing, as both Sean Penn and Heath Ledger won the big two male acting prizes for Milk and The Dark Knight, respectively. Steve Carell probably wouldn’t have been able to reach the level of darkness and intensity Heath Ledger did, but he still would have had an interesting take on The Joker.

6. Party Down (2009)

The role: Ron Donald

Who got it: Ken Marino

Rob Thomas and his creative team sold Party Down to HBO in 2003 with Paul Rudd attached to the lead role that eventually went to Adam Scott. HBO dropped the project before filming began, but Rudd was talking with Steve Carell about playing Ron Donald. Ken Marino gives an amazing performance here and makes it his own, but it’s interesting to think about what Party Down might have looked like with Paul Rudd and Steve Carell as the leads. Putting the show on HBO certainly would have helped it to gain a wider audience and may have allowed for Party Down to have lasted a few years longer. Starz’s viewership is much lower than HBO’s, and the network doesn’t have a strong track record when it comes to original comedies.

Contractual obligations to Party Down would have kept Carell from joining the cast of The Office, though, which could have led to that project’s failure. The Office was on the verge of cancellation for its first season, and with another actor in the lead role, it very easily could have failed, setting off a chain reaction that would have prevented sitcoms that took after it, like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, from existing. Yikes. As intriguing as a Rudd-Carell Party Down sounds, the version we got was pretty damned fantastic, and it’s not worth the collateral damage to The Office and comedy in general that would have taken place.

7. Furry Vengeance (2010)

The role: Dan Sanders

Who got it: Brendan Fraser

Steve Carell was originally attached to star in this family comedy, although the project was untitled at the time. After Carell left the movie, Jeremy Piven stepped in before he dropped out and the producers went to Brendan Fraser. Skipping out on this one was definitely in Carell’s best interest. Although his presence would have boosted ticket sales for Furry Vengeance, I doubt it would have saved the movie from critical and commercial disaster. Carell had just come off of a similar project, Evan Almighty, which has been one of the few of his movies to underperform. Starring in another family comedy alongside a bunch of CGI animals would have been an odd choice after Almighty’s disappointing turn at the box office.

8. The Beaver (2011)

The role: Walter Black

Who got it: Mel Gibson

Steve Carell was originally attached to this comedy-drama, about a man who finds solace by communicating through a beaver hand puppet after his life starts to fall apart. Carell left the project, to be replaced by Jim Carrey, who also departed before Mel Gibson was cast. The Beaver premiered at South by Southwest last month, and both Mel Gibson’s performance and the movie itself drew rave reviews. Gibson’s personal problems and public image issues caused the release date to be pushed back two times from last December, where it was positioned to be an awards contender. Even though the premise sounds a little absurd, the advance word on this one has been good, and the script has topped major industry lists. In Steve Carell’s hands, The Beaver would have been released last year and could have netted him his first Oscar nom, allowing him to take his career in the dramatic direction.

9. The Big Year (2011)

The role: Kenny Bostick

Who got it: Owen Wilson

Along with Dustin Hoffman, Steve Carell was originally attached to star in this soon-to-be-released comedy about a group of birdwatchers, produced by Ben Stiller’s company Red Hour Productions. Hoffman and Carell dropped out and were replaced by Steve Martin and Owen Wilson, respectively. Ben Stiller found success in putting a bunch of big names together with Tropic Thunder, and the formula should work out here too. Carell would do great in a broad comedy alongside big actors like these ones, but it’s likely that he passed on this project because of scheduling conflicts with his next film, Crazy, Stupid, Love, which also comes out this year. Crazy, Stupid, Love — not a sequel to Eat, Pray, Love — is the first movie to be produced through Carell’s company Carousel Productions, and it seems like a project that’s more meaningful to him. He’s found quite an impressive supporting cast to surround himself with: the other big parts are played by Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, and Emma Stone. Carell would have been great in The Big Year, but it’s more in his interest to produce this passion project, which looks tonally different from a lot of the movies he’s done in the past, while The Big Year is exactly the style of comedy he’s done many times before.

10. Rock of Ages (2012)

The role: Dennis Dupree

Who got it: Alec Baldwin

Steve Carell and Will Ferrell both passed on the role of Dennis Dupree, an ex-rocker who runs a nightclub, in this high-profile bigscreen adaptation of the popular ‘80s rock jukebox musical. Alec Baldwin has been brought in to fill out the cast, which also includes Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Time will tell if missing out on this one was a wise move, but expectations are high for Rock of Ages, as it’s currently scheduled for release during next year’s high-stakes summer movie season.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of Steve Carell