While taking on the role of any iconic comic book character comes with a lot of expectations and pressure, no character is as daunting to an actor as the Joker. The legendary DC villain has been portrayed by Hollywood heavyweights such as Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill, but the bar was officially set when the late Heath Ledger took on the part for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008), and earned a posthumous Academy Award for his portrayal. Actors have tried to do the role justice since, most notably Jared Leto, but have failed in the eyes of critics.
Though Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the character in Todd Phillips’s upcoming standalone Joker film looks promising, it's hard to imagine anyone capturing the character in the same slightly-charming-but-definitely-psychotic way that Ledger did. Still, a variety of actors have come close to landing the ultimate villain role over the years. Here are just a few of them.
1. Ray Liotta
For Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Ray Liotta was eyed to play either the Joker—a role that ultimately went to Nicholson—or the Caped Crusader himself, which Michael Keaton ended up playing. The Goodfellas actor reportedly turned down the opportunity to join the cast, but seemed to later regret the decision.
"I remember right after a movie I did, Something Wild, Tim Burton wanted to meet me for Batman,” Liotta told The Playlist in 2011. “And at that time, I said, ‘What are you kidding me? I’m an actor.’ But now it’s changed; now it’s good because if you do that you get other movies.”
2. Adrien Brody
For The Dark Knight (2008), Academy Award-winning actor Adriene Brody was reportedly passed on in favor of Heath Ledger. And when 2017’s Justice League was announced, the actor expressed interest in the role again. When asked about the possibility of finally wearing that menacing grin, Brody told Metro:
“I would do it if I feel I can contribute something valuable and that the role would be interesting to me. To me, the villains are way fun! But [studios] don’t offer me those roles. If there is an opportunity to do something like that and play a comic book hero or villain, that’s not something I’m fundamentally opposed to.”
Ultimately, Justice League did not include the Joker.
3. Tim Curry
Batman: The Animated Series famously featured Star Wars hero Mark Hamill as the Joker, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show star Tim Curry was originally cast as the villain. While there have been a number of rumors over the years as to why Curry abandoned the role, the actor set the record straight in 2017. “I did play Joker for a while, but I had bronchitis and they fired me—and hired Mark Hamill. That’s life,” Curry told ScreenGeek.
4. Willem Dafoe
Fans have rallied for Academy Award-nominated actor Willem Dafoe—who went on to play the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man—to play the Joker for years. And in fact, he was considered for the role in Burton’s Batman, however was never officially offered the part. While talking to The Hollywood Reporter in 2017, Dafoe stated, “[Screenwriter Sam] Hamm said something about how physically I would be perfect for the part, but they never offered it to me."
5. Ryan Gosling
Though Ryan Gosling never addressed the reports, it’s believed he was offered the role of the Joker for David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016). The Wrap claimed in 2014 that Jared Leto—who eventually won the role—was being eyed for the part only after Gosling turned it down due to not wanting to sign a multi-film contract. Considering how poorly the film did with critics, Gosling was smart to say no.