After bursting onto the American comedy scene in Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen has arguably had the most success in the US out of a recent pack of British comic actors that have sought stardom in Hollywood, besting the likes of Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan, Simon Pegg, and Russell Brand with appearances in wildly-popular films like Borat, Talladega Nights, and Brüno.
Baron Cohen isn’t afraid to shy away from the spotlight, taking long breaks between his projects - partly because he’s very selective and partly because a lot of stuff he’s signed on for has fallen apart. He’s starred in a diverse array of films outside of his own comedies, with his four biggest non-Brüno/non-Borat roles being in Madagascar, Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd, and most recently, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo - four movies that couldn’t be more different from one another. Baron Cohen’s resume is about as eclectic as one can get, but the projects he’s almost taken on throughout his career are even more diverse.
Here’s a glimpse at some of the parts Sacha Baron Cohen almost played but didn’t for one reason or another, including iconic literary characters like Sherlock Holmes and Walter Mitty, real-life icons Peter Sellers and Abbie Hoffman, and, um, a role in the un-iconic Dinner for Schmucks.
1. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)
The role: Peter Sellers
Who got it: Geoffrey Rush
Sacha Baron Cohen has said Peter Sellers is “the most seminal force in shaping his early ideas on comedy,” and he was up for the role of his idol in the HBO biopic based on Sellers’s life when casting was taking place in 2001. Cohen, then just a TV star off the still-new Da Ali G Show, was considered for the part, along with Kevin Spacey and fellow Brit Steve Coogan. (Spacey, another big Sellers fan, was offered the part of Inspector Clousseau in the dreaded 2006 Pink Panther remake but turned it down.) Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen) was onboard to direct with Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) writing the script, but these two soon dropped out and no one on their casting list scored the part. After the film spent a few more years in development, Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush landed the Peter Sellers role and the resulting TV movie drew critical acclaim for both Rush and the film itself.
2. The Mortdecai Moustache Mystery (unproduced, in development circa 2004)
The role: Charlie Mortdecai
Based on a series of comic thriller novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli and Craig Brown, the film adaptation of The Mortdecai Moustache Mystery would have seen Sacha Baron Cohen playing an art dealer by day, thief by night. Baron Cohen was attached to the project in 2004, which was viewed by the studio as a potential franchise. Mortdecai would have been Sacha Baron Cohen’s first lead movie role to be released theatrically in the US, but he ended up making Borat instead.
3. Curly Oxide and Vic Thrill (unproduced, in development circa 2005)
The role: Curly Oxide
Sacha Baron Cohen signed on to star in this based-on-a-true-story comedy, in which he would have played a Hasidic Jew who teams up with a hard-living rocker to form a band. Tina Fey wrote the script, with her SNL mentor Lorne Michaels producing, but no updates on the project have come in since it was first announced six years ago.
4. Oscar presenter/host (2007, 2010)
In 2007, Sacha Baron Cohen was offered the opportunity to appear as a presenter at the Academy Awards. When he was told by the Academy he couldn’t present as his character Borat, he turned the offer down. Baron Cohen’s acceptance speech, as Borat, for an acting award at that year’s Golden Globes was a highlight of that ceremony, and allowing him to present at the Oscars as Borat could have spiced things up a little bit. Baron Cohen was nominated for a screenplay Oscar that year for the movie Borat.
In 2010, Oscars producer Adam Shankman revealed that Sacha Baron Cohen was his first choice to host that year’s ceremony. Shankman explains that, “The Academy swatted it down… they thought it was too big of a wild card.” Baron Cohen still agreed to present an award, writing an Avatar bit to perform with Ben Stiller. Here’s how the nixed segment was described in the press:
Baron Cohen planned to appear onstage as a blue-skinned, female Na’vi, with [Ben] Stiller translating “her” interplanetary speech. As the skit went on, though, it would become clear that Stiller wasn’t translating properly, because Cohen would grow ever more upset. At its climax, an infuriated Baron Cohen would pull open “her” evening gown to reveal that s/he was pregnant, knocked up with [James] Cameron’s love child, and would go on to confront her baby daddy as if s/he were on Jerry Springer.
The show’s producers cut the sketch, fearing that James Cameron would be so angry that he would walk out on the ceremony, leaving Sacha Baron Cohen out of the Oscars once again.
5. The Party remake (unproduced, in development circa 2007)
The role: Hrundi V. Bakshi
In 2007, The New York Post reported that Sacha Baron Cohen was interested in remaking the cult classic 1968 Peter Sellers comedy The Party. Baron Cohen met with Blake Edwards, the director of the original film, at a screening of The Party and the two had a long talk, but no remake of the film was ever announced. The original film starred Peter Sellers as a blundering movie extra who gets invited to a snazzy Hollywood soiree by mistake and proceeds to unintentionally destroy the social function. Say what you will about the prospect of Baron Cohen stepping into Sellers’s shoes, but his take on The Party would at least be more fitting and respectful than Steve Martin’s recent bastardization of a much more beloved Sellers character in the Pink Panther films.
6. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (unproduced, in development circa 2007-08)
The role: Abbie Hoffman
Working from a script by Aaron Sorkin, Steven Spielberg began developing a movie based on the high-profile conspiracy trial of several Vietnam War protesters following the eventful 1968 Democratic National Convention. Spielberg recruited Sacha Baron Cohen to play the Chicago 7’s frontman, counterculture icon Abbie Hoffman, and was reportedly eyeing a diverse group of actors that included Will Smith, Heath Ledger, Colin Hanks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Kevin Spacey to co-star. After the 2007-08 Writers Guild strike held things up, Steven Spielberg put the project on hold. Directors Paul Greengrass and Ben Stiller were each in talks to replace Spielberg as director in 2008, but the project stalled and there are no plans for production right now. If this Chicago 7 project is ever resurrected, holding onto the lead role would be a great move on Baron Cohen’s part, as a strong performance here would likely net him an Oscar nomination and respect as a dramatic actor.
7. Untitled Sherlock Holmes comedy (unproduced, announced 2008)
The role: Sherlock Holmes
While Robert Downey Jr. and Guy Ritchie’s serious take on Sherlock Holmes was ramping up for production in the summer of 2008, Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell, and Sacha Baron Cohen joined forces and sold a comedic take on the Arthur Conan Doyle character to Columbia Pictures, with Ferrell playing the Dr. Watson to Baron Cohen’s Holmes. According to Will Ferrell, Etan Coen’s (Idiocracy, Tropic Thunder) script to the comedic version of Sherlock Holmes was written before the Guy Ritchie movie but wasn’t able to beat it into production. The film was put on hold, assuming that the Robert Downey Jr./Guy Ritchie movie would be a big hit, therefore being hard to compete with and confusing for audiences (specifically, dumb audiences). Apatow, Ferrell, and Baron Cohen worked well together and found great success with Talladega Nights, and the idea of them making a Sherlock Holmes movie together still sounds promising. Maybe they’ll be able to revisit it when the Robert Downey Jr. series concludes and audiences are ready for another take on the character.
8. Iron Jack (unproduced, in development circa 2008)
Four big studios competed in a heated bidding war for Iron Jack, an adventure/comedy script set in the 1930’s about a novelist searching for a mythical jewel. Sacha Baron Cohen was reported to be a possible lead at the time, but the project has been in “Development Hell” for years.
9. Agora (2009)
The role: Orestes
Who got it: Oscar Isaac
Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar offered Sacha Baron a role in Agora, a historical drama starring Rachel Weisz as a controversial thinker in Roman Egypt. Baron Cohen turned the part down, fearing the story was “too prickly, and it would lift sores.” Despite him steering clear of this one, Baron Cohen is certainly not someone who’s afraid to take risks with his career choices.
10. Eurovision: The Movie (unproduced, in development 2009-10)
Sacha Baron Cohen’s longtime writing partner Dan Mazer came up with the idea for a movie about a self-deluded popstar who enters Europe’s annual Eurovision Song Contest in 2007. Eurovision has been a highly-watched TV event in England since its inception in 1956 and frequently showcases talented artists as well as eccentric wannabes. Baron Cohen boarded the project in 2009, originally planning to play his character Brüno as the film’s lead before he and Mazer wisely opted to create a completely new role for him. Baron Cohen and Mazer bailed on Eurovision in 2010, despite having done a lot of prep work and having assembled a team, feeling that the idea wasn’t working.
11. Dinner for Schmucks (2010)
The role: Barry
Who got it: Steve Carell
A long-gestating project for Sacha Baron Cohen, Dinner for Schmucks, a remake of the French film Le Dîner de Cons, was a film he was attached to from 2004 to 2008, when he quietly slipped out of the role over creative differences with the film’s producers. Starring in Schmucks would have reunited Sacha Baron Cohen with director Jay Roach, who produced both of Baron Cohen’s major big screen efforts, Borat and Brüno. Clearly, Dinner for Schmucks would have been a very different comedy had Baron Cohen stayed onboard, as the character would have been tweaked significantly to cater to his comic persona (i.e. adding a funny accent). Given Baron Cohen’s perfectionism, his version of Dinner for Schmucks might have ended up a better-crafted movie.
12. Men in Black III (2012)
The role: Boris
Who got it: Jemaine Clement
Sacha Baron Cohen and Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement were both up for the part of the lead villain in the long-awaited third installment in the Men in Black series. Baron Cohen passed on the part because the production schedule conflicted with that of The Dictator, an upcoming film that he’s writing, producing and starring in. It’s probably in Sacha Baron Cohen’s best interest to stick to his passion project over a potential blockbuster like this, especially considering Men in Black III’s frequent production and script problems.
13. Burt Wonderstone (2013)
The role: Steve Haines
Who got it: Jim Carrey
Sacha Baron Cohen was circling a supporting role in this magician comedy starring Steve Carell, in which he would have played the David Blaine-esque street magician rival to Carell’s traditional Vegas showman. Jim Carrey swooped in and took the part, joining an impressive cast that also includes Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, and James Gandolfini.
14. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (in development)
The role: Walter Mitty
Who got it: Ben Stiller (for now)
One of the longest-gestating projects in Hollywood history, Walter Mitty, based on the classic James Thurber story about a man who has elaborate daydreams, has been passed back and forth by just about every major comedic actor in Hollywood since the mid-90s. Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell, and Sacha Baron Cohen have all circled the project at one point or another, with directors like Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Chuck Russell, Gore Verbinski, and Mark Waters stepping in and quickly, back out. Ben Stiller is the latest actor to book the lead role, intending to also direct the film. Judging by the pattern this project has going, though, Stiller will probably drop out in two months and hand things over to Adam Sandler, who’ll insist on playing Walter Mitty as fraternal twins in Walter and Waltina before clearing the way for Jason Segel’s all-puppet version, which will fall apart, only for Vince Vaughn, who, spurned by years of being the only comic actor in Hollywood not offered this project, will use his anger as fuel to finally get the thing made and put this whole mess behind us.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.