The Lost Roles of Chris Rock

Lost Roles is a weekly column exploring “what might have been” in movie and TV comedy as we take a different actor, writer, or comedian each week and examine the parts they turned down, wanted but didn’t get, and the projects that fell apart altogether. This week, we turn our attention to Chris Rock, one of the most prominent stand-ups of his generation as well as an accomplished actor and writer. Let’s take a look at the roles Chris Rock almost played over the years, including Jimmy Olsen in Tim Burton’s Superman movie, voicing KITT the Talking Car in the Knight Rider reboot, and starring in a Richard Pryor biopic.

Scent of a Woman (1992)

The role: Charlie Simms

Who got it: Chris O’Donnell

In his 1997 book Rock This!, Chris Rock  wrote about some of the movie industry’s biases that have kept him from being considered for parts he wanted. Here’s an excerpt:

“I don’t want to be the gimmicky black guy. I’m holding out for something normal. But nothing scares white audiences more than black people being normal. I once wanted to read for the Chris O’Donnell role in Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman. They wouldn’t let me.Nothing against Chris O’Donnell, but it would have still been a good movie with me in it. The kid had no parents or girlfriend, so they wouldn’t have had to cast any other blacks but me. And think of the sympathy factor: a black kid going to the private school, not having enough money and all. But they couldn’t see it. Please. Let me be a normal guy!”

It’s a shame the movie bosses wouldn’t let Rock audition for this part in the Oscar-winning drama, but at least the movie industry has made a lot of progress in this department in the two decades that have followed.

Friday (1995)

The role: Smokey

Who got it: Chris Tucker

According to The New York Times, director F. Gary Gray had to fight for unknown Chris Tucker over other actors, including Chris Rock and Tommy Davidson. Rock and Davidson were each coming off of four-year stints on popular sketch comedy shows, SNL and In Living Color, respectively, but F. Gary Gray went with Chris Tucker and the movie became a hit and launched Tucker’s movie career.

Confucius Brown (unproduced film, 1997)

A buddy movie starring Wesley Snipes and Jackie Chan, Confucius Brown was supposed to be Chan’s return to American movie stardom after a short, unsuccessful stint in the early 80s. In Confucius Brown, Snipes was to play a half-Jamaican, half-Chinese man who meets his long-lost cousin (Chan) and helps him save his sister from New York gang members. Chan dropped out of the movie, not wanting to alienate Asian audiences with the film, and made Rush Hour his return to U.S. cinema instead. Chris Rock and Bond girl Michelle Yeoh were brought in to replace Snipes and Chan in a rewritten version of the movie, but Confucius Brown never got off the ground.

Ghostbusters III: Hellbent (unproduced film, circa 1997)

Dan Aykroyd’s been trying to get a third Ghostbusters movie made on-and-off for over 15 years now. One of his earliest forays was writing the script for Ghostbusters: Hellbent in the mid-90s (IGN has a review of a 1999 draft of the script). The story concerned the Ghostbusters passing the torch to a new generation of paranormal exterminators who are transported to a version of hell that resembles Manhattan. Entertainment Weekly reports that, at the time, Aykroyd and Harold Ramis were considering Ben Stiller, Chris Farley, and Chris Rock to play a new generation of Ghostbusters, but those plans fell by the wayside and the movie has languished in a different hell – development hell – ever since.

Every few weeks, a different player in the Ghostbusters franchise will speak out to the press with a new update about the long-gestating third installment. You can check out two years worth of back-and-forth, contradicting updates on the project in our archive here.

Tim Burton’s Superman Lives (unproduced film, 1997-98)

The role: Jimmy Olsen

After the wild success of the Batman movies in the late 80s and early 90s, Warner Bros. had been interested in rebooting its Superman franchise, and what better man to hire to direct the thing than Batman director Tim Burton? Burton signed onto the project in 1997, casting Nicolas Cage as Superman and discarding a script written by Kevin Smith (Smith has discussed his involvement with the Superman movie at length in his DVD lectures and in this text interview). There were a lot of nutty casting choices going around, including Kevin Spacey as Brainiac, Chris Rock as Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olsen, with Tim Allen and Jim Carrey also considered for Brainiac.

Even though pre-production was underway, filming was scheduled and teaser posters like the one to the left were put up in movie theaters, the studio pulled the plug on Superman Lives when the budget skyrocketed to somewhere $140 and $190 million, according to some estimates (which is $196 to $267 million today with inflation). Tim Burton and Nic Cage each signed pay-or-play contracts for the movie (Hollywood speak for them getting paid whether the movie is made or not), and walked away with an estimated $5 million and $20 million, respectively. Tim Burton called it “the worst experience of his career.” Here’s Nic Cage in a screen test for the suit!:

Loud and Clear (unproduced film, 1999)

Woody Allen rarely acts in movies that aren’t his own, but in 1999, he signed on to star in Loud and Clear, a basketball comedy for Steven Spielberg’s company that would have paired him with Chris Rock. Allen was set to star as a basketball analyst whose life takes a turn for the worse when he has to work with an announcer who loves to do funny commentary. With a script by Don Rhymer (Big Momma’s House 1 and 2, Rio) Filming was supposed to begin in spring of 1999 but never happened.

Marci X (2003)

The role: Dr. S

Who got it: Damon Wayans

Chris Rock was offered a lead part in Marci X, a critically-panned comedy about a stuck-up, entitled white lady who takes over a hip-hop record label and has to get a controversial rapper under control. Rock told Entertainment Weekly, “It’s the worst script I’ve ever gotten… I’d have been happier getting an envelope full of anthrax.”

Starsky & Hutch (2004)

The role: Huggy Bear

Who got it: Snoop Dogg

According to MSNBC, Chris Rock and Don Cheadle were considered to play street-wise pimp Huggy Bear in the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson big-screen adaptation of the 70s cop series, but Todd Phillips went with Snoop Dogg (now Snoop Lion) instead.

Knight Rider (2008)

The role: KITT (voice)

Who got it: Val Kilmer

According to Chris Rock, actor/producer David Hasselhoff tried to sign him repeatedly to voice KITT the talking car in the revamped NBC version of his 80s series Knight Rider. Rock turned it down, saying, “If Matt Damon was driving the car maybe I would have done it. I’d rather be driving the car than be the voice, to be honest.” The producers then went to Will Arnett, who took the part but had to drop out over sponsorship issues (he did voiceover work for General Motors, whereas the show is sponsored by Ford). Val Kilmer then slid into the spot, voicing KITT for a TV movie and 17 episodes before it was cancelled in the middle of its first season.

Tower Heist (2011)

The role: Slide

Who got it: Eddie Murphy

The original idea for Brett Ratner’s action-comedy Tower Heist came from Eddie Murphy in 2006, who wanted to make a “black Ocean’s Eleven,” with himself as the lead and Chris Rock, Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, and Jamie Foxx playing the other parts. Murphy has also mentioned wanting Martin Lawrence, Mike Epps, and Katt Williams in the movie. After the film sat in development for years and experienced some script problems, the idea was scrapped. Ben Stiller signed on, shifting Murphy to the supporting role that Chris Rock was going to play.

Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? (unproduced film, in development 2009-)

The role: Richard Pryor

Who got it: Marlon Wayans

Chris Rock was a frontrunner for the part of legendary comedian Richard Pryor in a biopic based on the man’s life back in 2009, but according to Contact Music, he lost the part after joking around about Michael Vick’s animal cruelty on The Jay Leno Show. The comments offended Jennifer Pryor, Richard’s widow, an animal rights activist. Eddie Murphy was then cast in the part for his Dreamgirls director and Oscar winner Bill Condon. Murphy dropped out and Marlon Wayans signed on to play Pryor, then Condon dropped out to direct the last two Twilight movies, which is the latest news on the movie. In 2010, it was reported that Chris Rock and Adam Sandler are producing the biopic, entitled Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?, and Rock had a lot of nice stuff to say about Marlon Wayans’s audition, telling the press: “Marlon Wayans, he did a screen test and it was just unbelievable… It’s not just doing the comedy of Richard Pryor. He captures the vulnerability of Richard Pryor.” It’s not clear whether the movie is still in development as it has stalled following director Bill Condon’s exit.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of Chris Rock