16 Movies That Almost Starred Al Pacino

Steve Wood/Getty Images
Steve Wood/Getty Images

Though he’s often been called one of the greatest actors of his generation, Al Pacino—who turns 79 today—will no doubt be remembered as one of the greatest actors of all time. After making his movie debut opposite Patty Duke in 1969’s Me, Natalie, Pacino would go on to become one of the most seminal figures in the “New Hollywood” movement of the 1970s (the pre-blockbuster era in which the counterculture became the mainstream) with starring roles in The Godfather trilogy, Scarecrow, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Bobby Deerfield, and …And Justice for All.

Though he’s racked up more than 50 credits in his 50-year career, Pacino has also turned down plenty of roles (including several in truly great movies). When asked about his track record for saying no in 2013, Pacino explained, “I’m not a very good judge of what’s good.” Here are 16 roles that could have been.

1. The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (1971)

Super-producer Robert Evans needed to call in a lot of favors to get Pacino out of the commitment he had made to playing Mario in James Goldstone’s Mafia comedy. The reason for the change of heart? Two days after agreeing to the part, he was offered the role of Michael Corleone. Eventually, Robert De Niro played the part that was meant for Pacino.

2. Lenny (1974)

In 2010, Pacino told Larry King that turning down the title role in Bob Fosse’s Lenny Bruce biopic is one of his biggest regrets. Though he didn’t originally think it was for him, after seeing a comic perform live, “I suddenly saw what I would want to do with this part.” At that point, it was too late—though Pacino calls Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-nominated performance in the part “amazing.”

3. Star Wars (1977)

For years, rumors have swirled about the many actors who turned down the role of Han Solo, opening the path for Harrison Ford to make it his own. In 2013, Pacino spoke out on why he passed on the part, telling a crowd during a Q&A, “Star Wars was mine for the taking but I didn’t understand the script.”

4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Speaking of classic sci-fi flicks that Pacino declined, Steven Spielberg had a host of actors on his wish list before offering the role to Richard Dreyfuss—Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, James Caan, and Pacino among them.

5. Slap Shot (1977)

In Al Pacino, journalist Lawrence Grobel’s extended interview-turned-semi-autobiography of the actor, Pacino cites Slap Shot as a movie he still wishes he had been able to make. “But because George Roy Hill was doing it, I couldn’t do it,” he explained.

“I should have made that movie. That was my kind of character—the hockey player. Paul Newman is a great actor, it’s not a matter of that. I read that script and passed it on to George Roy Hill that I wanted to talk to him about it, and all he said was, ‘Can he ice skate?’ That’s all he was interested in, whether I could ice skate or not. That was a certain kind of comment. He didn’t want to talk about anything else. It was like he was saying, 'What the hell, it could work with anybody.’ The way in which he responded said to me he wasn’t interested.”

6. Days of Heaven (1978)

In Grobel’s book, Pacino cites Days of Heaven as one of the roles that he was truly conflicted over, saying, “I love Terrence Malick, and I love the picture.” According to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Dustin Hoffman also turned down the lead, which eventually became a breakthrough role for Richard Gere.

7. Coming Home (1978)

Alongside Days of Heaven, Pacino also told Grobel that saying no to the lead role in Coming Home (the role that won Jon Voight an Oscar) was a tough call. But he had his reasons. “I was hoping to make Born on the Fourth of July at that time,” he said. “It was too close.”

8. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Do the math and it’s pretty obvious that the version of Born on the Fourth of July that Pacino was hoping to make back in the late 1970s was a bit different from the late 1980s film that earned Tom Cruise his first Oscar nomination. Yes, Oliver Stone was still involved, but only as the screenwriter. William Friedkin was set to direct, but when he dropped out, Pacino wanted out, too. “I had an interest in making it with Billy,” Pacino says in Al Pacino. “So, suddenly, Friedkin is out of the picture—now what? I wasn’t going to make that movie.”

9. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Pacino didn’t even have to read the script for Robert Benton’s Oscar-winning divorce drama to know it wasn’t right for him. “There were times in my life when I didn’t even read what was being offered me,” he told Grobel. “Sometimes I can smell something that’s not right for me … I had a feeling it was not for me … I didn’t feel, at this point, it would be useful.” (Dustin Hoffman won his first Oscar playing the role of Ted Kramer.)

10. Apocalypse Now (1979)

After two successful Godfather go-arounds with Francis Ford Coppola, Pacino knew enough about the director’s work habits to know that he would not be a good fit to play Willard (Martin Sheen’s part) in Apocalypse Now. “I know what this is going to be like,” Pacino told Coppola. “You're going to be up there in a helicopter telling me what to do, and I'm gonna be down there in a swamp for five months.” Pacino balked at the idea of five months of shooting, but the film actually took 16 months to be completed.

11. First Blood (1982)

Based on David Morrell’s 1972 book, and optioned quickly, First Blood is one of those movies that had a number of director-star configurations attached before finally making it into production. Martin Ritt wanted Paul Newman to do it, Sydney Pollack wanted Steve McQueen, and by 1975, Martin Bregman was attached with Pacino to star as John Rambo, when it was a much different movie. “People would have understood the character, but they wouldn’t have had empathy,” original screenwriter David Rabe explained in Douglas Robinson’s book, No Less a Man: Masculist Art in a Feminist Age. “There is a kind of violence that excites an audience and makes them feel that it’s a lot of fun. Mine was not.” Many sources say that Pacino eventually opted out because he wanted Rambo to be more of a "madman."

12. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Before it became a showcase for the comedic stylings of Eddie Murphy, Beverly Hills Cop was a much edgier crime thriller that at different times was offered to Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg to direct. Plenty of big-name actors besides Pacino turned down the role of Axel Foley, too (Mickey Rourke, Sylvester Stallone, and James Caan apparently among them).

13. Die Hard (1988)

During a freewheeling crowd Q&A in 2013, when confronted with the list of major movies that he turned down, Pacino had only this to say about Bruce Willis’ iconic role in Die Hard: “I gave that boy a career.”

14. Johnny Handsome (1989)

Though Pacino would later go on to work with director Harold Becker in Sea of Love and City Hall, in Grobel’s book, the actor explains that he first met Becker while they were developing Johnny Handsome:

“Harold and I were trying to find a third act, and we couldn’t. The first half of that movie is great. That was my favorite role ever in movies. I loved the whole idea of someone who’s been grotesque-looking and has made a life having to cope with that kind of deformity, to then have it lifted from him, and to have to cope with the world now … I loved the role. Loved it. But once again, one of those roles that just go down the drain if they couldn’t fix the last act. Mickey Rourke did a great job on it, but that didn’t matter; the movie didn’t have the finish.”

15. Snake Eyes (1998)

In 1997, Pacino was set to re-team yet again with his Scarface and Carlito’s Way director Brian De Palma on the Nicolas Cage film Snake Eyes. Until he wasn't. On July 11, 1997, Variety reported that, “After months of talks between filmmaker Brian De Palma, Paramount execs, and Al Pacino about starring opposite Nicolas Cage in Snake Eyes, Pacino officially has passed. The studio now is eyeing a handful of other actors, including Gary Sinise, to star the action thriller written by David Koepp.” (Sinise did take the part.)

16. Pretty Woman (1990)

Before you try and picture Pacino in the role made famous by Richard Gere, it’s key to remember that Pretty Woman was originally a much darker tale. Still, in 2010, Pacino explained to Larry King that, “Sometimes it's just not the right role for you and you don't feel you belong in that part.”

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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