The Lost Roles of Will Ferrell

It’s hard to imagine SNL ever being canceled, but a few times throughout the long-running sketch show’s history, it’s come close to demise. There have been several points in Saturday Night Live’s history where it’s been on the chopping block (1980, 1981, 1985), but the most recent time the iconic comedies series stared down the specter of cancellation was 1995, the biggest transitional moment the show has faced in over 20 years. At the end of the 1994-95 season, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler – both well-regarded and talented performers – had led the show into a creative doldrums, resulting in a scathing New York magazine piece.

Luckily for comedy fans, Saturday Night Live was pulled out of this low point – and the biggest contributor to saving the show was SNL’s late 90s/early 2000s golden boy Will Ferrell, who has gone on to have a long-lasting film career that’s allowed him to conquer a diverse selection of projects and genres. As with any actor, Ferrell has had his share of parts he tried out for, turned down, and movies he’s wanted but didn’t get, so let’s take this time to look at his various unrealized movie projects, including two films for Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, sequels to Old School and Elf, and a trucker comedy he was at some point supposed to make for Mel Gibson.

The Whistleblower (1998)

Will Ferrell’s first starring role in a film was 1998’s A Night at the Roxbury, spun off from his and Chris Kattan’s popular sketch, but after filming that movie, he signed on to star in another one called The Whistleblower. The story would have followed Ferrell as a loyal company man who finds out that the product his company is putting out is unsafe. He’s then chased down by company hitmen after complaining about the product. Judd Apatow, who hadn’t yet produced Freaks and Geeks or Undeclared (or ascended to the top of Hollywood’s comedy pyramid), signed on to produced from a script by Hugh Fink and Tom Martin, two writers for SNL at the time. The Whistleblower didn’t make it through Hollywood’s rigorous development process and was never filmed.

August Blowout (2000)

The role: Jeff Tanner

Will Ferrell wrote some of his best known movies with his Gary Sanchez/Funny or Die partner Adam McKay, and the first script the duo ever wrote together was for a comedy called August Blowout, which would have starred Ferrell as a car salesman named Jeff Tanner. The movie followed Tanner, who was desperate to make his sales quote during a late-summer clearance sale at his Orange County dealership. Here’s Ferrell describing the movie:

“The first script out of the can that I ever wrote — called August Blowout, which was kind of like Glengarry Glen Ross meets a car dealership — my character Jeff Tanner loved Top Gun. He loved watching Top Gun and he’d watch it ten times a day.”

The script fell into the hands of both Ben Stiller and Paul Thomas Anderson, who loved it and championed it. August Blowout was pretty similar to Anchorman in terms of tone, and PT Anderson encouraged Ferrell and McKay to write another movie after being wowed by their first script. Ferrell and McKay sold August Blowout to Paramount but the project stalled at the studio, but they were soon able to get their own movie, Anchorman, greenlit elsewhere.

Some of the ideas from August Blowout seem to have been repurposed for the Jeremy Piven vehicle The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, which Ferrell and McKay produced (and Ferrell cameos in), but that movie seems pretty drastically different from August Blowout, even though they both contain similar subject matter.

Here’s a detailed review of the script Ain’t It Cool News posted back in 2003, which features this Anchorman-eseque excerpt of Ferrell’s character’s opening speech:

“Hi, I’m Jeff Tanner and I sell cars. The only thing I love more than a finely crafted American automobile is the hot rush of adrenaline I get from selling one… Meet my car: the Ford Explorer. It’s rugged, sexy and American… like me… And just like this bad boy, Jeff Tanner is fully tricked out with all the features… I come with a confident handshake, an outstanding ass, a saddle in my bedroom, and except for some screw up by JC Penny’s, a near spotless credit report. And guess what? That’s all standard… For Jeff Tanner life is all about three things; speed, steel and gas. You think cheetahs are fast? Fuck cheetahs. My speed is American made. I’ll be honest. I’m hard right now.”

Dieter (2000)

The role: Bob Sheeder

Mike Myers made the greatest SNL spinoff movie of all-time with Wayne’s World (he didn’t have much competition), and he attempted to turn another one of his characters from the late night sketch show into a movie hero with Dieter, a Ron Howard-produced project based around his turtleneck-wearing German TV host of the same name. In the movie, Will Ferrell, still an SNL star at the time, was supposed to play Dieter’s American cousin Bob, with Jack Black and David Hasselhoff also starring, but the project was derailed after Mike Myers jumped ship, expressing disinterest in his own script. The studio and production company sued Myers over backing out on his contract, and Myers was also sued by a former collaborator who claims to have helped create the Dieter character. The Dieter movie didn’t end up happening, and Mike Myers had to appear in The Cat in the Hat as part of the settlement for the lawsuit with the movie studio.

Don Wayne Wyoming - a Mel Gibson-produced trucker comedy (2001)

Will Ferrell was still an SNL cast member at the time, but Mel Gibson’s company Icon Productions bought the rights to the script Don Wayne Wyoming as a starring vehicle for Ferrell back in 2001. The story followed two guys who follow their dream of driving an 18-wheel-truck.

The Salesman (2003)

Beloved standup and Simpsons writer Dana Gould wrote this movie as a starring vehicle for Will Ferrell. The Salesman would have starred Ferrelll as a salesman whose “compulsive lying leaving him living with his parents and engaged with two women because he can’t bear to disappoint either one. As the lies catch up to him, the salesman meets a no-nonsense girl who gets him to change his ways.” The movie didn’t get off the ground and was never filmed.

Untitled Will Ferrell/Jack Black/Judd Apatow Motorcycle Cop Comedy (2004)

The 40 Year Old Virgin was Judd Apatow’s directorial debut, but the comedy mogul was planning to make his first outing as film director a little earlier with this untitled project, which would have starred Will Ferrell and Jack Black as a pair of motorcycle cops. The story involved Ferrell leaving Irvine, California (Ferrell’s Orange County hometown and consistently one of the safest cities in the nation) for L.A., where his is partnered with Jack Black’s character, who comes from a long line of cops but doesn’t quite fit in with his law enforcement compatriots. The project stalled and Apatow, Ferrell, and Black all moved on.

A Confederacy of Dunces (2005)

The role: Ignatius J. Reilly

A big-screen adaptation of the novel Confederacy of Dunces has been in development for over 30 years and is one of the most infamous projects ever caught in Hollywood’s “development hell.” While multiple stars signed on to play title character Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy have tragically passed away (John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley), Will Ferrell signed onto the project in 2005 and didn’t meet the same fate. Director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express, Eastbound & Down) was onboard to direct a script from Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer, with Ferrell (in a fat suit) starring alongside supporting castmembers Lily Tomlin, Paul Rudd, Drew Barrymore, and Mos Def. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel didn’t end up being made with Will Ferrell as the lead, but just last year, Zach Galifianakis was announced to star in the movie, which is still in development 32 years after entering into production.

Elf 2 and Old School Dos (2006)

The roles: Buddy the Elf/Frank “The Tank” Ricard

Comedy sequels are rarely worth making and more often than not result in a bastardization of the beloved movie that preceded them, but every time a comedy becomes a big hit, studio execs and agents start knocking at the door of the writers and actors responsible, trying to coax them into a lucrative second outing. Will Ferrell made headlines back in 2006, when he put the kibosh on rumors of sequels to his hits Elf and Old School, turning down a $29 million paycheck to make Elf 2. Here’s Ferrell talking about his feelings on an Elf sequel:

“I killed the idea of a sequel. I never liked it - $29m does seem a lot of money for a guy to wear tights, but it’s what the marketplace will bear. It’s insane, but it’s not my call. The studios perpetuate it and they make it hard to say no… It wasn’t difficult at all… I remember asking myself: could I withstand the criticism when it’s bad and they say, ‘He did the sequel for the money?’ I decided I wouldn’t be able to. I didn’t want to wander into an area that could erase all the good work I’ve done - but you watch, I’ll do some sequel in the future that’s crap.”

While Ferrell’s refusal to sequelize and bastardize his best-received movies is admirable, sequels to Step Brothers and Anchorman are currently in the works.

Two movies for Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan (2006-08)

Writer Vince Gilligan has had a lot of success these past few years with his show Breaking Bad, but prior to that, he was working on a couple of comedy scripts that Will Ferrell had signed on to star in. The first, Fly in the Wall, which Ferrell was circling in 2006, would have starred the comedic actor as an antisocial guy who gets his life back on track after befriending a talking fly. Will Ferrell signed onto another Vince Gilligan project, Two Face, in 2008. The movie has been described as “a split-personality dramedy in which he’ll play one-part boisterous liberal and one-part racist. “ While Ferrell is no longer a part of Two Face, the movie is still in development.

Hot Rod (2007)

The role: Rod Kimble

Who got it: Andy Samberg

Even though the eventual film starred Andy Samberg, South Park writer Pam Brady originally wrote Hot Rod as a starring vehicle for Will Ferrell. When Ferrell was unable to make the movie, his SNL successor signed on, and the story was rewritten heavily by Samberg and his Lonely Island cohorts to tailor it to his needs. Ferrell and his manager Jimmy Miller retained producers credits on the film.

Get Smart (2008)

The role: Maxwell Smart

Who got it: Steve Carell

A big-screen adaptation of the classic 60s series Get Smart had been in development since the late 90s. While Jim Carrey was originally onboard to star, Will Ferrell soon took his place in 2005. The Ferrell version of the movie didn’t last long, as he the busy actor quickly moved on and his Anchorman costar Steve Carell was brought on to fill his place.

Untitled Sacha Baron Cohen/Will Ferrell/Judd Apatow Sherlock Holmes Comedy (2008)

The role: Dr. Watson

Back in 2008, two movies about Sherlock Holmes were in development – a dramatic one and a comedic one. The dramatic one, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law and directed by Guy Ritchie, beat the comedy version to the screen, and the comedy one seems to have fallen by the wayside. With Judd Apatow onboard as producer, Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder, Idiocracy), writing, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell starring as Sherlock Holmes and sidekick Dr. Watson, respectively, the comedy Sherlock Holmes had a lot going for it. Here’s Will Ferrell explaining the war between the two Sherlock Holmes movie back in 2009:

“We’re trying to develop [Sherlock Holmes]. We’ve got a script written by Etan Cohen. I just met with Sacha three weeks ago, we’re kinda talking about it some more. It’s just a question of the Robert Downey Jr. one that they just shot, which I think comes out during Christmas. I think everyone just wants to see … well, that one’s probably going to be, you know, a hit kind of franchise, and whether that is something you want to go up against or would it inform the audience to allow for us to do a comedy version or would it just feel like, “Oh we’re just trying to copy them.” Even though, I think, we wrote our script before they did. But yeah, we’re thinking about it.”

Daddy’s Home (2010)

Etan Cohen was set to make his directorial debut back in 2010 with a comedy called Daddy’s Home that would have starred Will Ferrell and Ed Helms. The film, which was written by Brian Burns and polished by Chris Henchy and Adam McKay, would have followed a woman who marries a wild man (Ferrell) but then dumps him after having kids and marries a bland, safe guy (Helms), with the action revolving around Ferrell’s character returning to bond with his kids. Daddy’s Home was announced in 2010, and while it still may be in some stage of development, there’s been no update on the movie’s progress in two years.

Rock of Ages (2012)

The role: Dennis Dupree

Who got it: Alec Baldwin

This summer’s only hair metal musical featured a large cast of well-known actors, but Alec Baldwin wasn’t the first choice for the part he played. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Will Ferrell and Steve Carell each turned down the part before Baldwin accepted.

The Watch (2012)

The role: Evan Trautwig

Who got it: Ben Stiller

Will Ferrell originally signed on to star in The Watch, the neighborhood watch vs. aliens comedy that just released this past weekend, with director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) signed on to helm. Back when Ferrell was onboard, the movie was to be called Neighborhood Watch (the title was changed in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin tragedy). Ferrell and Dobkin jumped off the project in 2009 after working on it for a few months and Ben Stiller and director Akiva Schaffer (Hot Rod, Lonely Island) slid into their places.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

The role: Walter Mitty

Who got it: Ben Stiller

While A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the longest-gestating projects in Hollywood history, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (based on the 1947 film that was based on the short story by James Thurber) has also been in development for a very, very long time. Originally, Jim Carrey signed on for the part in the 1994, only to be replaced by Owen Wilson in 2005, who was replaced by Mike Myers in 2007, Will Ferrell in 2009, and Sacha Baron Cohen in 2010, who was then replaced by Ben Stiller in 2011, who actually got the movie made and just finished starring in and directing it. Folks like Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski, Ron Howard, Chuck Russell, and Mark Waters were all at one point signed on to direct the movie, while the likes of Zach Helm, Jay Kogen, Peter Tolan, Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, and Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant each wrote a draft of the script. Stiller’s version of the movie is due out next Christmas.

Zoolander 2 (currently in development)

The role: Jacobim Mugatu

The original Zoolander is one of Ben Stiller’s best-regarded movies, but the film didn’t fare too well originally when it was released just after the tragic events of 9/11 in 2001. While the movie wasn’t a blockbuster success in theaters, it garnered a devoted following on home video and in cable reruns, and Ben Stiller has been working on a sequel for years now. Stiller has said he plans to include Ferrell’s character Mugatu from the original, but Jonah Hill has also been mentioned as a potential villain for the sequel, which is still nowhere close to being filmed.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The Lost Roles of Will Ferrell