The Lost Roles of Woody Allen

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. 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.

Woody Allen is easily one of the most prolific comedy writers of the past fifty years, having had an indelible impact upon every generation of humorists that’s followed. While Allen’s best years are behind him, it’s not a stretch to trace his influence in the work of current comedy luminaries Louis C.K., Judd Apatow, and Larry David. Writing has been the field in which Woody Allen is the most accomplished, but he’s also a talented director, musician, and actor. Even though he mainly acts in his own writer/directorial efforts, he has had several big parts written for him or offered to him over the years. Let’s take a look at some of the lost roles of Woody Allen.

Oh, God! (1977)

The role: Jerry Landers

Who got it: John Denver

Larry Gelbart wrote Oh, God! with the intention of directing it with Woody Allen and Mel Brooks as the leads. Gelbart wanted Allen in the grocery store manager role that went to folk singer John Denver and Mel Brooks as God. Gelbart recalls that Brooks was willing to play God, but Woody Allen didn’t want to take part in the project because he was making a movie of his own that dealt with god, Stardust Memories. Oh, God! became a highly-successful comedy, and Bruce Almighty owes a great deal to this one.

Woody Allen worked with Brooks, Gelbart, and the film’s eventual director Carl Reiner as part of the murderer’s row writing staff for Sid Caesar at the start of their careers, and putting Brooks and Allen in these roles would have been a nice chance for all of them to reunite. Brooks and Allen never worked together again after writing for Sid Caesar, but a collaboration between the two — even if it’s only as actors — could have made for a classic comedy. Brooks and Allen were the two big comedy filmmakers of the ‘70s, each pioneering their own vastly-different styles of humor. A meeting of the minds would have been a good thing and might have warranted pushing Oh, God! into new territory. It would have at least been better than the tame version of the movie we eventually got.

There’s no reason to believe Oh, God! would have been any less profitable with Woody Allen in Mel Brooks in the lead roles. It may have ended up an even bigger hit, and a success here would have proved Woody Allen was a viable leading man, guaranteeing him more offers in big Hollywood movies and helping him to get his own projects made easier. However, it doesn’t seem like Woody Allen ever wanted to star in big budget, broad studio comedies, so it was probably better for him that things worked out the way they did.

Willie & Phil (1980)

The role: Willie Kaufman

Who got it: Michael Ontkean

Writer/director Paul Mazursky wanted Woody Allen and Al Pacino for the lead parts in this one but wasn’t able to lock either actor down. Mazursky was finally able to cast Allen over a decade later in the 1991 movie Scenes from a Mall. But then again, that one, which has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 30%, paired Woody Allen with Bette Midler, Allen’s character was a Southern California surfer with a mullet, and as you may have guessed, the film takes place entirely in a mall; so, maybe it’s for the best that Paul Mazursky and Woody Allen stay the hell away from each other.

It would have been interesting to see Woody Allen and Al Pacino share the screen, but Willie & Phil wasn’t a hit at the time of its release. Even though Allen and Pacino would have generated more audience interest than the film’s actual leads, it wouldn’t have done much for Woody Allen’s career to appear in this one.

What About Bob? (1991)

The role: Dr. Leo Marvin

Who got it: Richard Dreyfuss

When What About Bob? was in the early stages of development, studio execs were discussing pairing Bill Murray with Woody Allen, in what the LA Times called “the comedy team of the ‘90s.” Little did they know at the time that the ‘90s would suck a little bit of momentum out of the careers of both actors. The LA Times reported that the studio was going to offer Allen a special deal to co-write, direct, and star in the movie. Woody Allen has always generated his own projects, so it’s odd to hear about a studio trying to hand him an existing property to make his own.

I like What About Bob?, but I always felt it could have been a little darker and bolder. In Allen’s hands, this could have been one of his most mainstream writing/directing projects and a more ambitious comedy. Allen and Murray are an interesting pair, and it would have interesting to see Allen switch from patient to psychiatrist.

Richard Dreyfuss was the weaker of the two stars in this one, and he just kind of comes across as a big jerk and it makes it hard to sympathize with his decisions. Maybe it’s ‘cause Bill Murray’s so likeable as the character that’s supposed to be the annoying guy that I sided with him, but switching out Dreyfuss for Allen sounds like it could have improved this movie. Steven Spielberg, of all people, was so impressed with Murray’s performance that he spent $250,000 to try to win Murray an Oscar nomination. With an Oscar-winning writer/director like Woody Allen working on the project, maybe Bill Murray would have pulled it off.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

The role: Victor Ziegler

Who got it: Sydney Pollack

Stanley Kubrick considered Woody Allen to play a supporting role in his final long-gestating project, but for whatever reason, Sydney Pollack ended up taking the part. Kubrick may have intended to cast Allen before the whole Soon-Yi fiasco, and the 1990s weren’t exactly the best time to cast Allen in a project about sexual obsession. Starring in a psychological drama from another acclaimed director would have been a smart move for Allen, but he claims he was never offered the part.

IMDb and WENN have reported that Stanley Kubrick wanted Woody Allen for Tom Cruise’s role in the movie. This hasn’t been confirmed from outside sources, but given how long Kubrick was working on this one, it’s possible he envisioned Allen in the role during Eyes Wide Shut’s early goings in the ‘80s. Allen denies ever being approached, saying about Kubrick, “He never called me. Maybe in conversation he thought it was a good idea, but came to his senses somewhere along the line.”

Stuck on You (2003)

The role: Walt Tenor

Who got it: Greg Kinnear

In what is absolutely the strangest and most frightening prospective role I’ve come across since I began writing this Lost Roles column three months ago, the Farrelly Brothers originally intended for Woody Allen and Jim Carrey to play the conjoined twins in Stuck on You. Entertainment Weekly reported that both actors were in talks, but Woody Allen denies even being offered the film. He said, during a 2008 interview with MTV, “It’s the first I’m hearing of it. I’ve never had a single offer in my long career approaching that.”

Whether or not Woody Allen was offered the part is up for debate, as there are two different stories being reported; but it’s still alarming that the Farrelly’s even intended for this pairing to happen. Forget about the logical problems in Woody Allen and Jim Carrey being twin brothers (they’re about 30 years apart in real life). Even more disparate than their ages is their comedy styles. Woody Allen is all-verbal, while Jim Carrey is all-physical. Maybe they would have balanced each other out somehow, but it’s likely the film would have been a greater disaster with these two as the leads. This wouldn’t have been like pairing Jack Nicholson with Adam Sandler in Anger Management, which was a huge hit despite its shortcomings. Jim Carrey and Woody Allen as Siamese twins would have been a much more schizophrenic and incoherent effort.

Cold Souls (2009)

The role: Paul

Who got it: Paul Giamatti

I’m presuming they changed the character’s name to Paul once Paul Giamatti was cast, so Woody’s character would have had a different name if writer/director Sophie Barthes had tracked him down for the part as she originally intended. Barthes wrote the part for Allen before deciding it “wasn’t realistic.” Woody Allen probably couldn’t have pulled off a performance on the level of Giamatti’s, and switching out the leads could have damaged the film’s positive critical reception.

The Woody Allen Surrogates

Back in the 80s and 90s, Woody Allen-directed movies that didn’t star him were a rarity, but he’s cast himself in fewer and fewer of his own films over the past decade as he’s gotten older. Just because Woody Allen doesn’t appear in one of his movies doesn’t mean that he didn’t write a part in his own voice. Allen’s been criticized for writing characters that speak, act, and think like him in his movies that don’t feature his acting, forcing a surrogate to basically play a riff on his comic persona. Some actors are more effective in this Woody Allen role than others, but all of these are parts that Allen himself could have easily played if the actor in question dropped out at the last minute. The most obvious examples of Woody Allen writing a “Woody Allen character” for another actor are John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda, and Larry David as an angrier Woody Allen in Whatever Works. Allen would have been right at home in any of these parts, and he most recently cast Owen Wilson in a part he likely would have played if he were younger in this weekend’s release Midnight in Paris.

The Jazz Baby (never filmed, written by Allen circa 1969)

In Stig Björkman’s fascinating interview collection Woody Allen on Woody Allen, the director discusses an early script he wrote that never got off the ground. Following Take the Money and Run, Woody Allen signed a contract with United Artists, allowing him to write whatever kind of project he wanted. He wrote The Jazz Baby, a period jazz story that Allen says, in retrospect, was “probably too ambitious.” The studio executives didn’t care for it (they were expecting a comedy from him), and Allen quickly wrote Bananas as his next project. Allen rewrote The Jazz Baby three decades later as Sweet and Lowdown and cast Sean Penn in the lead role he was initially planning to play himself.

Untitled Paris Project (never filmed, written by Allen circa 2006)

David Krumholtz and Michelle Williams were set to star in a Woody Allen movie back in 2006. Not much is known about the project, but it was supposed to focus on three young Americans in Paris. Soon after the film was announced, its budget began to escalate and the project was called off. Woody Allen chose to make a movie in London instead, filming the underrated Cassandra’s Dream that year. Krumholtz was the real victim here, as he dropped out of a role in Knocked Up, as one of Seth Rogen’s housemates, to sign on to this untitled project.

Other projects

Woody Allen was offered a supporting role in The Bedford Incident, a 1965 film that was set on a Navy destroyer, but he turned it down to work on writing instead. Allen signed on for What’s New Pussycat? at this time, which was his first movie writing job. If he’d taken The Bedford Incident instead, Woody Allen might have been stuck an actor and had a difficult time to transition to writing and directing.

The lead role in the suicide-laden 1978 Burt Reynolds dark comedy The End was written for Woody Allen. This was the first film to feature Reynolds and Dom DeLuise as a pair, so if Woody Allen had accepted the part, he could have prevented the Reynolds-DeLuise comedy team. Finally, a direct-to-video sequel to the computer-animated film Antz was in development in 1998. Antz 2 fell apart, but Woody Allen could have used this project to keep his voice acting career going.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of Woody Allen