With a career that spans more than 40 years, 100 on-screen credits, and two Oscar wins (plus an additional three nominations), Gene Hackman has earned the right to be picky. Though he officially announced his retirement from Hollywood in 2004, movie fans around the world have long hoped to see him make a comeback. In the meantime, and in honor of his 90th birthday, we’re looking back at 10 famous movies—and one beloved sitcom—he almost starred in.
1. THE GRADUATE (1967)
In 1967, longtime friends and one-time roommates Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman found themselves as co-stars in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate, with Hoffman cast as floundering recent college grad Ben Braddock and Hackman as Mr. Robinson, the husband of Hoffman’s much older lover. Though Hackman was older than Hoffman, it was by just seven years—which didn’t seem old enough, and led Nichols to get rid of Hackman and recast the role just a few weeks into filming. Nearly 20 years after the film’s release, in 1985, Hackman admitted to the Chicago Tribune that, “It still hurts. I was going to play Mr. Robinson, Anne Bancroft’s husband. But Mike Nichols didn’t think I was doing it well and so—one, two, three, I was fired. Mike’s a nice guy, but he’ll fire you without blinking an eye.”
Though Hackman admitted that getting the axe didn't do much to hurt his career—Bonnie and Clyde came out the same year and really helped to raise his profile—he said it was still “painful. Every time I look at the television schedule and see The Graduate coming on, or sometimes when I see Dusty [Hoffman], I think about it. And, you know, getting fired from The Graduate can stick with you."
2. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
If Kirk Douglas had his way, he would have played the role of R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—just as he had on stage, when the book was adapted as a play in 1963. But by the time the film finally got off the ground with Miloš Forman as director more than a decade later, Douglas knew he was too old for the role, but had two specific actors in mind: Hackman and Burt Reynolds. Ultimately, the role went to Jack Nicholson, who won his first of three (and counting) Oscars for the film.
3. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
Though it’s hard to imagine Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind without Richard Dreyfuss in the starring role of Roy Neary, he was far from Spielberg’s first choice. Spielberg had his eye on Steve McQueen, who reportedly said no because he couldn’t cry on cue. Spielberg then offered the part to a host of the biggest actors of the time—Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, and James Caan among them. They all passed, leaving the door open for Dreyfuss.
4. APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
Five years after starring in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Hackman was the director’s first choice to play Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now ... but there was a catch. “The Apocalypse Now situation was touchier because I have such regard for Francis Ford Coppola as a director,” Hackman told the Chicago Tribune. “But he wanted me to work for points (a percentage of the gross, rather than for a salary), which I don’t think I should do.” Instead, it was Robert Duvall who got to famously declare: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
5. ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
In 1980, Robert Redford made his directorial debut with the emotionally charged story of a family dealing with the death of their eldest son; Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore played the parents, and Timothy Hutton played the younger son (and won an Oscar for his efforts). But Sutherland’s role was originally going to be Hackman’s—until money got in the way. “I liked the script but couldn’t come to an agreement regarding the—how can I phrase it?—the compensation,” Hackman told the Chicago Tribune. "If I thought about it, I suppose I would have to have some regrets. So the thing to do is not think about it, don’t you think?”
6. BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)
We’re not sure exactly how close Hackman got to landing the role of Doc Brown in Back to the Future, but in 2015, we learned that he was on the list of contenders to play the lovably mad scientist. Michael Klastorin and Randal Atamaniuk’s book, Back to the Future: The Ultimate Visual History, included a memo—dated August 21, 1984—that included more than 40 possible names to fill the role. Some of them are crossed out, some of them are bracketed, and some of them—like Christopher Lloyd and Gene Hackman—have a checkmark next to them, which seems like a good sign. (See a copy of the memo here.)
7. MISERY (1990)
Though the role of novelist-turned-captive Paul Sheldon in Misery might seem like the kind of part any actor would kill for (no pun intended), a long line of well-known actors said no to the film. In his book, Which Lie Did I Tell?, legendary screenwriter William Goldman recounted some of the names on that list, including Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Harrison Ford, and William Hurt (who apparently told them no twice).
8. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Though Hackman has stayed mostly in front of the camera, in the 1980s he decided he wanted to see what it felt like to sit in the director’s chair and, along with Orion Pictures, purchased the movie rights to Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs for Hackman to both direct and star in. “It's one of the most cinematic books I've ever read,” Hackman said. “As I read it, the movie was clicking in my mind.”
Hackman planned to take the role of Jack Crawford, with John Hurt as Hannibal Lecter. But in 1989, on Oscar night, Hackman had a revelation: Sitting in the audience, where he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for Mississippi Burning, Hackman realized that he didn’t want to follow up one unlikable character with another. So he sold his part of the rights to Orion, and still has yet to direct a film.
9. THE FUGITIVE (1993)
In 1989, Hackman and director Andrew Davis clicked while making The Package, in which Hackman played a Green Beret tasked with transporting a prisoner, played by Tommy Lee Jones, back to America. When the time came for Davis to begin casting for the role of Chief Deputy Marshal Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, he considered Hackman—and John Voight, too—but eventually opted to re-team with Tommy Lee Jones who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film.
10. JACKIE BROWN (1997)
Jackie Brown may be the headliner in Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, but bail bondsman Max Cherry is integral to the twisty plot. And Tarantino had a pretty short list of possible contenders: Hackman, John Saxon, and Robert Forster. He went with Forster, which turned out to be a smart move, as the actor received the movie’s only Oscar nod.
11. THE BRADY BUNCH (1969 – 1974)
Remember that “beloved sitcom” we mentioned? Well, it’s none other than The Brady Bunch. Yes, you read that right. In his 2010 book, Brady Brady Brady, The Brady Bunch creator Sherwood Schwartz wrote that, “there were a number of men I wanted to interview [for the role of Mike Brady], including Gene Hackman. Paramount wouldn’t even okay Gene Hackman for an interview because he had a very low TVQ. (TVQ is a survey that executives use to determine the audience’s familiarity with performances. TV executives don’t admit to the existence of TVQs, but it is commonly employed in casting.)” Maybe it was all for the best—at least for Hackman. “The year after The Brady Bunch debuted, unknown Gene Hackman with no TVQ starred in The French Connection and won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and has been a major star ever since,” Schwartz added.