The Lost Roles of Danny DeVito

35 years in and Danny DeVito’s career is still going strong. After establishing himself as a scene stealer with his portrayal of endearing dirtbag Louie DePalma in the 1978 sitcom Taxi, DeVito made a smooth transition to movie stardom. Appearing in blockbusters like Romancing the StoneTwins, and Batman Returns, DeVito is often typecast as a conniving but charismatic villain. He’s given plenty of performances outside of this niche, though, with Throw Momma from the Train and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest being notable examples. In addition to his impressive acting resume, DeVito is also an accomplished director and producer, with his production company responsible for projects as diverse as GattacaWag the Dog, and Reno911!.

Danny DeVito’s sixth season playing devious slob Frank Reynolds on the FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia begins tonight. In light of this, let’s take a look back at the various movie and TV roles he almost had and how winning these parts would have affected the trajectory of his career.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The role: Sallah

Who got it: John Rhys-Davies

Danny DeVito was Steven Spielberg’s first pick to play Indiana Jones’s Egyptian pal Sallah in the franchise’s first installment, but his agent asked for too much money. Spielberg instead went another direction with the character, choosing Welsh actor John Rhys-Davies to fill the role. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a massive success, and it would have added some momentum to Danny DeVito’s career and led him to some bigger parts in the years that followed, not that he was exactly struggling to land roles in the 80’s. Rhys-Davies was able to reprise the role in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third movie in the series. If DeVito had played Sallah, he would have bookended the decade with these two major hits, but his career was fine without the role.

2. Uncle Buck (1989)

The role: Buck Russell

Who got it: John Candy

When casting the lead role in Uncle Buck, writer/director John Hughes considered Danny DeVito. Uncle Buck is John Candy’s movie through and through, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Candy and DeVito are both heavy guys with outsized personalities, but the similarities end there. The two actors give off such drastically different energies when they’re on screen that it’s hard to imagine any one role that both of them could have played. While Candy’s usually cast as loveable oafs, DeVito’s at his best playing despicable schemers, which isn’t what Uncle Buck calls for at all. Maybe Uncle Buck would have brought out a different side of Danny DeVito, but it’s more likely that it would have been a disaster with him so wildly miscast in the lead role. Supporting actor Macaulay Culkin’s performance in Uncle Buck is what inspired John Hughes to write Home Alone. If DeVito had won the role and Uncle Buck had been a dud, then the Home Alone franchise might have never existed, also preventing Culkin’s meteoric rise to fame in the early 90’s.

3. Triplets (in development 1989, never produced)The role: Vincent Benedict

Twins was such a monstrous box office hit that director Ivan Reitman briefly considered making a sequel. The plan was for Triplets to also star Roseanne Barr, whose sitcom was peaking in popularity at the time, as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito’s other sibling. The project was cancelled before a script was written, and Reitman, Schwarzenegger, Barr, and DeVito moved on. Twins doesn’t exactly seem like a movie that begs for a sequel, but, considering how hugely popular it was, you can’t blame them for tossing the idea around. While some movie sequels eclipse their predecessors, it’s also quite common for studios to misjudge the demand for a sequel, releasing an expensive second installment on a disinterested public. I have a feeling that the latter would have happened with Triplets.

It was reported earlier this year that Schwarzenegger, DeVito, and Reitman still stay in touch and are interested in doing a sequel, now that Schwarzenegger is out of office. No word has come in on Twins 2 since May, but I’m betting Roseanne Barr won’t be getting a call this time around.

3. Seinfeld (1989, TV)

The role: George Costanza

Who got it: Jason Alexander

It took Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld a long time to find the right man to play Larry David’s surrogate, George Costanza. Danny DeVito was considered for the part, along with fellow actors Larry Miller, David Alan Grier, Steve Buscemi, Nathan Lane, and Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer. Jason Alexander was a wise pick, though. He perfectly embodies the character of George, but it’s interesting to hear DeVito’s name in connection with such an iconic role. Frankly, I’m a little surprised that Danny DeVito would have even been up for taking a supporting part on a TV sitcom at this point. In 1989, DeVito’s movie career was soaring, with Twins having been one of the biggest moneymakers of the previous year.

DeVito got his big break on the sitcom Taxi and proved there he excels in this format, but George Costanza doesn’t seem like the right part for him. DeVito’s performances have a mean-spirited edge that George Costanza lacks. Costanza is plenty pitiful and selfish, but he’s not as outwardly nasty as some of the jerks DeVito has played over the years. Given Danny DeVito’s movie star status, his presence might have overshadowed the rest of the cast, making Seinfeld seem like The Danny DeVito Show to viewers. It was probably in the best interest of Seinfeld that Jason Alexander got the part, which allowed Danny DeVito to pursue his movie career full-time.

4. Kindergarten Cop (1990)

The role: Detective John Kimble

Who got it: Arnold Schwarzenegger

Director Ivan Reitman originally considered Danny DeVito to star in Kindergarten Cop, but nixed the idea due to the actor’s height and cast DeVito’s Twins co-star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the role instead. Danny DeVito does seem like an odd choice for this part, as the line “It’s not a tumor” sounds so much funnier in an Austrian accent.

5. Surburban Commando (1991)

The role: Charlie Wilcox

Who got it: Christopher Lloyd

Back in 1987, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito were hunting for a project to star in together, and the choice came down to either making Twins or Suburban Commando (then titled Urban Commando). Schwarzenegger and DeVito wisely chose Twins, which became a box office smash, while Suburban Commando was quickly forgotten. This film would have starred DeVito as a repressed suburban father whose world is rocked when a super-tough alien crash-lands in his town and hides out in his home. When Schwarzenegger and DeVito passed, the studio went with Hulk Hogan and DeVito’s Taxi co-star Christopher Lloyd to take their places.

7. Super Mario Bros. (1993)

The role: Mario

Who got it: Bob Hoskins

Danny DeVito was being pursued to play the iconic video game character in this ill-fated big screen adaptation, and he was circling the project in 1991. DeVito has the right build and ethnicity to pull off the part, but given the way this disastrous project turned out, it was in his best interest to turn it down. Starring in Super Mario Bros. would have hurt Danny DeVito’s career, but his star stature probably would have helped the movie to succeed more than it did with the less-famous Bob Hoskins playing the part.

8. The Flintstones (1994)

The role: Fred Flintstone

Who got it: John Goodman

DeVito was considering taking part in another feature film adaptation of a beloved character, the 1960’s Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Flintstones being a much more logical franchise to turn into a movie than a video game like Super Mario. DeVito’s name was mentioned in connection with the role of Fred Flintstone in 1989, with John Goodman then set to play Barney Rubble, but the project languished in development hell for another half-a-decade with a whopping 32 writers laboring over it before production finally began. Danny DeVito said no, and John Candy briefly signed on before jumping ship and leaving the role wide open for John Goodman. DeVito is an interesting choice for Fred Flintstone. He certainly has the gruff, brutish voice down, but, as with most parts, DeVito is a little too short and his screen persona is too evil for the part. The Flintstones movie became a major hit with John Goodman, who wasn’t widely known at the time outside of his role on the sitcom Roseanne. Danny DeVito was a much bigger star than Goodman, and the movie could have been an even larger hit with him as Fred Flintstone.

9. Get Shorty (1995)

The role: Chili Palmer

Who got it: John Travolta

After John Travolta turned the part down twice, Danny DeVito was set to star in Get Shorty, Barry Sonnenfeld’s adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel. Travolta - then hot off the success of Pulp Fiction – changed his mind after Quentin Tarantino convinced him to read the book. DeVito vacated the role and ended up playing the smaller part of actor Martin Weir in the final film. Just because he missed out on the lead role doesn’t mean DeVito wasn’t able to reap profits from this one. Get Shorty was made through his production company, Jersey Films, so he was very involved with the project and his career benefitted by the movie’s success.

10. Into the Woods (in development mid-90’s, never produced)

The role: The Giant

Danny DeVito participated in an all-star table read for the feature film version of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, with the intention that director Rob Reiner would helm the movie. Reading alongside DeVito were a slew of A-listers that included Steve Martin, Cher, Goldie Hawn, and Robin Williams. For whatever reason, the movie never got off the ground, possibly due to how tough it would have been to sync up the schedules of all of those busy Hollywood movers and shakers.

11. The English Patient (1996)

The role: David Caravaggio

Who got it: Willem Dafoe

When 20th Century Fox was considering financing The English Patient, studio executives tried to persuade the producers to cast a better-known actor than Willem Dafoe. The Fox execs’ suggestions for the part were Danny DeVito, John Goodman, and Richard Dreyfuss. Fox dropped out of the project over this and other casting disputes, and The English Patient went on to win Best Picture with more conventional actor choices for a romantic drama. If he’d won the part, The English Patient would have been the third Best Picture winner in which DeVito appeared after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment.

12. Mystery Men (1999)

The role: The Shoveler

Who got it: William H. Macy

Dany DeVito was in negotiations to direct and star in this comedy about an incompetent league of superheroes in 1997. DeVito was to play The Shoveler, a superhero whose special ability is the many impressive ways in which he can use a shovel. The deal never went through, however, and director Kinka Usher and actor William H. Macy stepped in to fill the two positions vacated by Danny DeVito. Mystery Men became a financial flop, but under DeVito’s direction, things may have turned out a little better.

13. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000)

The role: Boris Badenov

Who got it: Jason Alexander

A live-action Rocky and Bullwinkle movie had been in the works for years before the 2000 version finally made it into production. In the early 90’s, Rocky and Bullwinkle was set up to star Danny DeVito and Meryl Streep as Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, but copyright issues tied the movie up for a full decade. The finished product was panned by critics and didn’t perform well at the box office, but DeVito and Streep would have been better for these roles than Jason Alexander and Rene Russo. This is the second known role that Jason Alexander won over Danny DeVito, but unlike with Seinfeld, DeVito is probably glad he didn’t take part in this one.

Other unproduced projects:

  • The Little Things (in development 1997) – a crime drama about the hunt for a serial killer that Danny DeVito was in talks to direct with Robert De Niro starring.
  • Barthe (in development 1998) – a sci-fi drama about an alien who comes to Earth to track down his true love. DeVito was to direct and star as a journalist specializing in the paranormal.
  • Sugar’s Sweet Science of Bruising (in development 1999) – DeVito was attached to star, direct, and produce this story about “an older boxing trainer and fight fixer who befriends a young boxer and takes him on the road, pursued by Vegas mobsters.”
  • Trump vs. Wynn (in development 2003) – Danny DeVito was prepping this film for HBO, about business tycoons Donald Trump and Steve Wynn’s competition over a piece of land in Atlantic City they each wanted to build a casino on. DeVito was expected to direct, produce, and star in an unspecified role, but he dropped out of the project after meeting with both Trump and Wynn and finding that neither of them wanted the film to be made.
  • Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

    The Lost Roles of Danny DeVito