Ten Miscastings That Worked – or Nearly Worked!
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Mark Iveson looks at ten potentially calamitous castings that worked out well...
Miscasting in films has always been a problem. A producer hires an actor thinking that he or she is perfect for a movie role only to find the opposite is true. Other times a star is hired for his box office draw but ruins an otherwise good movie because he looks completely out of place.
There have been many humdinger miscastings. You only have to laugh at John Wayne’s Genghis Khan (with Mongol moustache and gun-belt) in The Conqueror (1956), giggle at Marlon Brando’s woeful upper class twang as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and cringe at Dick Van Dyke’s misbegotten cockney accent in Mary Poppins (1964). But as hilarious as these miscastings are, producers at the time didn’t think the same way, until after the event. At least they add a bit of camp value to a mediocre or downright awful movie.
In rare cases, a miscast actor defies the odds by giving a memorable film performance. Perhaps it was the daunting acting challenge that prompted them to work twice as hard or maybe it was their first starring role and they had to prove themselves worthy of their new found status. Sean Connery was not Ian Fleming’s choice for James Bond and Peter Cushing could not be further from the literary versions of Professor Van Helsing and Baron Frankenstein, but yet they made the roles their own.
So here is a list of ten miscast actors who should have been terrible but manage to give Oscar worthy performances, or at least earn a few brownie points for trying.
W C Field (David Copperfield – 1935):
Many actors give excellent performances, some give definitive performances, but only a few give incomparable performances. Boris Karloff was an incomparable Frankenstein’s Monster, Errol Flynn an incomparable Robin Hood and Robert Newton, an incomparable Long John Silver. For those playing Charles Dickens characters, Alec Guinness was an incomparable Fagin, Alastair Sim, an incomparable Scrooge, and, against the odds, W C Fields an incomparable Micawber! Now how can an American vaudevillian, and an actor who has only ever been himself on screen, could be so brilliant playing a character from British literature?
One gets the feeling Dickens subconsciously wrote Micawber with Fields in mind because the comedian was born to play him. A great fan of Dickens, Fields grew up during the reign of Queen Victoria and judging by his harsh upbringing was a real life Dickensian. And being part of an ensemble cast meant he had to work hard to measure up to some first rate actors. Even his American accent doesn’t sound out of place. The fact he replaced the more versatile Charles Laughton makes his performance all the more amazing. He is the epitome of Micawber and the prototype for future actors to live up to.
Lon Chaney Junior (Son of Dracula – 1943):
Chaney’s portrayal of the legendary vampire is not likely to impress everyone, least of all Bela Lugosi, who was given the short shrift by Universal in favour of the studio’s ‘Master Character Creator.’ But in all honesty Chaney’s acting range was even more limited than Lugosi’s. Often cast as the affable everyman who turns into a monster through the wonders of modern mad science or a werewolf’s bite, Chaney was miscast in other roles. He had the physique for the monster in Ghost of Frankenstein (1943) but lacked the pathos and facial mobility that made Boris Karloff so memorable.
The Inner Sanctum series cast him as well dressed academics and intellectuals but he looked uncomfortable in double-breasted suits, slicked back hair and Clark Gable moustache. Swapping the sharp suits for the count’s familiar evening attire in this effective chiller, Chaney is too big and all American to convincingly pass himself off as a European gentleman. However you have to give him credit for trying extremely hard to overcome his miscasting, and he nearly succeeds. Unlike Lugosi, who just stood around being hypnotic, the physical imposing Chaney is an aggressively powerful count, not afraid to get into a fight. He also cuts a sadder figure because his newly acquired vampire bride wants rid of him so she can live an immortal life with her true love. Admittedly his performance does not completely work but what he lacked in subtlety he made up for with forceful presence and deserves ten out of ten for creating a different Dracula.
Ingrid Bergman (Inn of the Sixth Happiness – 1958):
This fictionalised biopic of the Chinese missionary Gladys Aylward had everything going against it. For starters Ingrid Bergman was the worst choice for the lead role, the male stars were equally unsuitable and the North Wales locations (near Pormeirion where The Prisoner was made) could not be further from the Far East although the presence of future Bond/Fu Manchu actress Tsai Chin and the always reliable Burt Kwouk provided a bit of much needed Oriental realism. To have a glamorous, sophisticated Swedish actress playing a dowdy English domestic turned resourceful missionary stretched the credibility a bit but somehow it works. Bergman’s commanding performance ranks as one of her best. The final scene were she leads 100 orphaned children to safety following Japan’s invasion of China is heart wrenching because of the emotional depth she displays on screen.
How she managed to overcome her miscasting is remarkable. It was an incredible acting challenge especially when Bergman had to carry the entire weight of the film on her shoulders. Of course she wasn’t the only one miscast. The part of Dutch-Chinese military diplomat Lin Non went to German actor Curt Jurgens, who doesn’t look the least bit Oriental if he tried, but he is actually very good. Equally miscast is British Robert Donat as the village mandarin, initially suspicious of Aylward’s presence but growing to respect her steely determination to the point of converting to Christianity. His moving performance is made all the more poignant because it was his final film. He died shortly after completing his stint. Even the Welsh locations convincingly passed for China!
Laurence Harvey (Room at the Top – 1959):
This is one miscasting that doesn’t work. However the commercial success of Jack Clayton’s vivid slice of social realism paved the way for a stream of working class ‘kitchen sink’ dramas that flooded the British cinema in the early sixties, among them Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Kind of Loving (1963) and This Sporting Life (1963). And despite his weak central performance as ambitious social climber Joe Lampton, Laurence Harvey got an Oscar nomination followed by a successful but brief and unsatisfactory Hollywood career cut short by his early death at 45. A better actor than many of his critics and colleagues gave him credit for, Harvey still had a limited range, and his star making turn isn’t convincing; the North Yorkshire accent slips at regular intervals.
His performance also suffers even more in comparison to Alan Bates, Tom Courtney, Albert Finney and Richard Harris, who were all making their names in similar films. But what makes really makes Harvey successful in the role is not the talent but the image. He became the mascot of the post war angry young man. His dark, coldly handsome looks, aloof personality, sharp suits and equally sharp teddy-boy haircut made him every inch the Northern working class hero that many teenagers and young men aspired to. Harvey went on to give better performances, but his Joe Lampton remains the cultural icon of the rebellious British youth.
Anthony Perkins (Psycho – 1960):
Might be a shock to some considering this is the role that he is always be remembered for, but Anthony Perkins is miscast as Norman Bates! At least as far as the book goes. As well as being far more subtle than Alfred Hitchcock’s classic chiller, Robert Bloch’s excellent novel, which I read many years ago, describes Norman as a fat, pasty-faced mother’s boy – the total opposite of the slim, handsome Perkins. Even the shower scene is different as Marion Cranes get beheaded instead of just being stabbed repeatedly! The one actor of the time who matched Norman’s physical resemblance is Victor Buono. Best known as King Tut on TV’s Batman, Buono starred opposite Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) where his mother dominated Edwin Flagg is a Norman Bates in the making.
He went into full Bates mode as mother dominated serial killer Leo Kroll AKA The Strangler (1964). Although the film is loosely based on the Boston Strangler, Buono’s outstanding performance is Norman in all but name. He cuts a far more chilling (and much larger) presence than Perkins, making it a shame that Hitchcock didn’t stick to the original version of Norman because Buono would have been amazing. But as it was, Perkins was a good looking star with box office appeal and a large female following. And since the actor got stuck with Norman for the rest of his life, its pointless saying anything more about it.
Margaret Rutherford (Murder She Said – 1961):
It seems a bit of a shame to include this most beloved eccentric of the British cinema, but the fans of Agatha Christie’s amateur sleuth have stated many times that Margaret Rutherford does not fit the description of Miss Marple. Even the author didn’t care much for the actress’ performance. True the film relies more on Rutherford’s dotty persona; but let’s face it, she is, as she was in every film, a delight from start to finish. She is a brilliant Marple because she maintains the character’s razor sharp intelligence and deductive reasoning throughout, dominating every scene with unquestionable authority. And while the film does not follow the original story, it’s a fun ride for all concerned.
On the strength of her performance, Rutherford played Marple in three more movies, and even Agatha Christie dedicated her novel The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side to this most popular of actresses. Rutherford made an uncredited appearance as Marple in The Alphabet Murders (1965), which was intended to be the first of a series of films to feature Christie’s other sleuth Hercule Poirot. But if you want to talk about bad miscastings, you could not do worse than Tony Randal, who is an absolutely atrocious Poirot. Apparently Christie was so horrified at the movie she refused permission for further Poirot novels to be filmed for several years.
James Coburn (The Great Escape – 1963):
Looking the improbable casting of James Coburn as Australian POW Sedgewick in John Sturges wartime classic, it got me thinking – unlike today there weren’t many Aussie actors that were big stars in the sixties. To my knowledge only Peter Finch and Rod Taylor had successful Hollywood careers. Keith Michelle also did reasonable well in films although his best work was on stage. British cinema had Vincent Ball, Ray Barratt, Bill Kerr, John Meillon, Chips Rafferty and Charles Tingwell, but they were reliable character actors not big stars. So I guess the lack of charismatic Australian actors, and the fact that James Coburn was a rising star previously used by Sturges in The Magnificent Seven (1960) may have got him the role.
True his accent isn’t convincing (he overdoes the ‘bloody’ quite a bit), but Coburn has always been a likeable actor and his thoroughly amusing performance helps balance the film’s more serious side. He’s also having a lot of fun with the role, playing well off the other actors. It’s a winning turn and like many fans of the film, I was glad he made it to safety. And if you think this miscasting was a one-off, you should see Coburn in Sam Peckinpah’s outstanding Cross of Iron (1977). Looking less like a German than he did an Australian, his performance as the intellectual but desensitised Sergeant Steiner remains the finest of his career.
Michael Caine (Zulu – 1964):
“Don’t throw that bloody spear at me!” is the famous catchphrase long associated with the film because of cockney Michael Caine’s star making turn. But Caine does not play a cockney! He originally auditioned for the role of Private Hook but lost out to James Booth. Instead he landed Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, a junior officer in charge of the tiny battalion at Roark’s Drift (Stanley Baker’s Lieutenant Chard was a Royal Engineer sent to the camp to build a bridge). Bromhead was depicted in the film as an inexperienced officer and an upper class twit. In reality Bromhead was a burly heavily bearded man and a seasoned professional soldier, so the blonde, clean shaven Caine looked nothing like him. Also his posh accent slipped when he says, “Chin! Chin!” to Baker.
But it hardly matters. It was Caine’s first big leading role and he wasn’t going to mess it up. Plus none of the actors resembled the characters they play (Booth’s slovenly Private Hook was actually an excellent soldier and Nigel Green’s Colour-Sergeant Bourne was much younger man). At the end of the day, Caine’s star quality shone through and his wonderful performance led to a very successful career that included an Oscar and a much deserved knighthood.
Steve McQueen (Papillon – 1973):
After a decade of cool, urban machismo in the The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963) and Bullet (1968), Steve McQueen surprised everyone by taking a drastic career move when he played Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere in this biopic about the safecracker’s time on Devil’s Island, an infamous penal colony in French Guyana. Perhaps a little too drastic for some of his fans! The idea of a blonde American playing a Frenchman sounds hilarious, especially when McQueen doesn’t even attempt to hide his accent. He is also much older than Cherriere during his time in prison. But he battles his miscasting with an incredible performance of raw emotion.
His time on Devil’s Island could not be far removed from his spell as a POW in The Great Excape as Charriere endures the brutal hardships of solitary confinement, appalling living conditions and mistreatment from the prison guards as he plans his escape with fellow inmate Louis Degar (Dustin Hoffman, who acts McQueen off the screen). Although the physical demands of the role are ideally suited to McQueen, there are times he struggles with the more personal aspects of Charriere’s character. But that’s merely a minor quibble because it was a difficult part for any actor to play, and McQueen does his level best to prove to everyone he could act. Through sheer hard work he achieves this with a performance of rare distinction.
Robert Shaw (Jaws – 1975):
Rather like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else other than Robert Shaw in the role of unbalanced shark hunter Captain Quint. He wasn’t even the first choice either! Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden (who was once a real life seafaring adventurer) were seriously considered before the British actor got hired by Stephen Speilberg. After his dismal attempt at an America accent in Custer of the West (1968), the decision to use Shaw seemed ill advised. But from his classic first appearance when he runs his fingers down the blackboard to his chilling tale of his time on board the USS Indianapolis, Shaw is completely convincing throughout with a magnetic performance full of raw tension.
This is heightened all the more because he did not get on with co-star Richard Dreyfus so the on screen animosity between Quint and Dreyfus’ marine biologist Matt Hooper is all too real. Shaw’s heavy drinking was also a contributing factor. For all the actor’s classical stage work, writing achievements and excellent film performances in From Russia With Love (1963), The Birthday Party (1968) and A Man for All Seasons (1970), Shaw will always be Captain Quint.
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