For all the great work Bruce Willis did throughout his illustrious career, one role stands out among the rest: John McClane in Die Hard. The role transformed not just Willis’ career but the very idea of what an action hero could be. With how iconic the role became, one might expect that Willis was the top choice. In reality, he was (at least) the eleventh. Here are ten folks who declined the role of a lifetime.
You read that right, the “Chairman of the Board” Frank Sinatra was offered the role of John McClaine. Don’t worry, there is an explanation. Die Hard is based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. This novel was actually a sequel to the 1966 novel The Detective. This novel was turned into a feature film in 1968 starring, you guessed it, Sinatra.
Flash forward to 1987 and 20th Century Fox begins work on a sequel. Because of The Detective, the studio was contractually obligated to call up a 70-year-old Sinatra and offer him the role. He declined, but think about what could have been. If Sinatra’s ego had been just a bit larger, it might have been him saying “yippee-ki-yay.”
If one man owned the eighties action scene, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was on an incredible hot streak by the time Die Hard began production, with starring roles in The Terminator, Commando, and Predator to name a few. He declined Die Hard because he wanted to branch out into comedies. Instead, he starred in Twins and Kindergarten Cop.
Die Hard would be unrecognizable with Schwarzenegger. The appeal of John McClane is that he’s not an enormous, invincible action star. In the hands of Schwarzenegger, the film would lack vulnerability, and would probably have entered history alongside Raw Deal and Total Recall. Instead, Willis changed the game.
The mid-eighties were owned by a few true leading men: John Travolta, Tom Hanks, and Richard Gere. Travolta once told Kevin Hart that the trio was up for tons of movies, and often jockeyed amongst each other for lead roles. This anecdote proves that Gere was as in demand as anyone else of note. He too was offered Die Hard but turned it down. Everything turned out alright for him, however, because Pretty Woman was just a few years away.
This is an interesting one. Reynolds was a titan of the 1970s, with Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit cementing him as one of Hollywood’s great stars. By the time Die Hard enters production, however, Reynolds’ career had cooled immensely. He was working on Cannonball Run II and Heat (not that one). Reynolds turned Die Hard down, and that would be a mistake. Reynolds experienced his renaissance years later with Boogie Nights almost ten years later.
Why not ask Harrison Ford? Already super established between Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back, Ford would have been an obvious choice to star in a gritty action movie. He turned it down, but Ford couldn’t fail at this time. In 1993, he starred in the Fugitive, a film about an everyman thrust into impossible circumstances which may not have existed without Die Hard.
This is yet another interesting thought experiment. Like Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone was an invincible action star. Cobra, Over the Top, and Rocky IV are not exactly films with a terrible amount of vulnerability or struggle. A Stallone-helmed Die Hard would have been unrecognizable. Thankfully, Stallone declined.
Here’s a man who really should have taken Die Hard. By the late eighties, Nolte was starring in a series of box office flops. Extreme Prejudice and Weeds in 1987 both failed, so Nolte really could have used a big hit. Unfortunately for him, he did Another 48 Hrs. instead of Die Hard.
By the late eighties, Don Johnson was already a legend thanks to Miami Vice. The series, which helped transform what television could be, was still running when Die Hard entered production. One may think Johnson couldn’t have done Die Hard because of this, but Willis was still starring in Moonlighting when the role of McClane fell in his lap. Johnson never quite found the film success Willis did, but he got to do Knives Out so it all evens out.
Prior to sullying his reputation with antisemitism, Mel Gibson was a movie star. Before Braveheart in 1995, he was primarily an action star. He’d already starred in three Mad Max films and Lethal Weapon. Instead of Die Hard, Gibson starred in Lethal Weapon 2, which grossed almost twice what Die Hard did with 227.9 million.
Richard Dean Anderson
If you had to pick one eighties television to make the leap with Die Hard, Macguyver star Richard Dean Anderson would have been an easy choice. The series was still on the air, but Anderson wanted to branch out. Through the next decade, he would star in loads of TV movies, but he never quite made the theatrical splash that Die Hard proved to be.
There are many multiverses with very different versions of Die Hard, but you have to think we got the best one. Willis had a true A Star Is Born moment and transformed the action genre forever.
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