There are lots of casting possibilities out there that didn’t happen for one reason or another (for instance, Tom Cruise was supposed to play Iron Man before the role went to Robert Downey, Jr.), but there are few more bizarre than these. Try and picture this: Michael Jackson as James Bond! Or how about Muhammad Ali as Superman? Maybe not as quite as bizarre, but certainly odd, was also the idea of Burt Reynolds (who actually turned down the role of James Bond, believing that 007 had to be British) donning the blue and red outfit of the Man of Steel. Each of them are actually much more than just rumors.
The late Michael definitely saw himself as a sort of badass character, which you can see based on his music video for “Bad” and his adventures as Captain Eo. That short film of the same name, written by Star Wars creator George Lucas and directed by The Godfather‘s Francis Ford Coppola, was shown at Disney theme parks for a decade beginning in 1986. But this was nothing compared to the singer’s ambition to be cast as James Bond, presumably in the late 1980s when Roger Moore was stepping down from playing the role.
Veteran Hollywood agent Mike Ovitz, writing in his new autobiography Who is Michael Ovitz?, remembers Michael bringing up the topic: “As he talked, his hat fell into the guacamole in front of him, and he picked it out and put it back on — unfortunately, with a blob of guacamole attached, which began to slide down the brim. [Fellow agent] Ron Meyer tapped my leg to draw my attention to it, and we all watched in horrified fascination as it slid lower and lower while Michael was pitching us hard on how he was America’s next action hero. Then the blob fell off, and Ron totally lost it. I cracked up, too, and Michael stalked out.”
Eventually, Ovitz caught up with him and explained, “for fifteen minutes that we hadn’t been laughing at him, but at the incident… Finally, Michael’s face cleared. ‘Okay, Ovitz. Okay,’ he said. ‘But I want to play James Bond.’ I am proud to report I didn’t laugh, this time,” though he did add, “You’re thinly built, you’re too sensitive, you won’t be credible as a block of stone. You’d be great at it, of course, but it’d be bad for you.” The subject was dropped.
About a decade earlier, director Richard Donner was losing his mind trying to find an actor who could play the Man of Steel in 1978’s Superman: The Movie prior to Christopher Reeve being cast in the role. There were definitely some odd choices, though none more bizarre (well, looking at the producers’ dentist actually wins in that category) than Burt and Muhammad.
David Newman reveals that when writing the script for Superman with wife Leslie, they had Burt in mind for the title role. “We did not want to be camp,” he emphasizes. “We had to present this character who was truth, justice and the American way, but not someone who was going to be a Boy Scout. We needed someone who you would see seriously as an action figure, but there had to be a little bit of playfulness, a wink. The take we had then was Burt Reynolds; the Burt Reynolds then, who was at the peak of his career. He had this thing where he would wink at you and say, ‘I’m having fun here, folks,’ but then you’d like it anyway when he punched somebody out. We’re talking about the Burt Reynolds of The Longest Yard. So we wrote Superman with Burt Reynolds in mind.”
Although Burt was indeed considered for the role, certainly the strangest possibility — ever so briefly — was heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad! As David explains it, when the production team was pursuing Dustin Hoffman for the role of Lex Luthor (the part went to Gene Hackman), they dealt with his European agent, Sir Jarvis Astaire, who was reportedly knighted due to his success with “enormous betting shops.”
“He was also one of the guys who started close-circuit boxing matches in movie theaters in the UK and all over Europe,” explains David. “In 1975, Muhammad Ali, when he was making his comeback, fought a professional wrestler, a Japanese wrestler, and it was a ridiculous fight. But it was a big deal, a big publicity stunt. Sir Jarvis Astaire had the close-circuit rights, showed it all over Europe and made a fortune. When we wanted Hoffman, the producers said, ‘Let’s go see Sir Jarvis Astaire’ and we all flew down to Cannes. We’re sitting in the bar and Sir Jarvis comes in. [Producer] Ilya Salkind is the dreamer and the one who thought of the idea of Superman and Santa Claus [which became another Salkind feature film]. Alex, who is Ilya’s father, doesn’t know anything about any of these characters. He always calls them ‘Mr. Superman’ and ‘Mrs. Lois Lane.’ Santa Claus he called ‘Mr. Christmas Man.’ He’s wonderfully brilliant in some ways, but he doesn’t keep up with things in other ways. So Ilya has to keep him filled in.
“We’re sitting in this bar and before we get down to business, we’re having small talk and someone says, ‘What’s new, Sir Jarvis?’ And he said, ‘Well, I made a bloody fortune with this Ali/Wrestler fight. We made millions and millions of pounds.’ Alex hears this and says, ‘Who is this Mr. Ali?’ And Ilya says, ‘He’s the heavyweight champion of the world. He’s on the cover of every magazine in the world.’ Alex says, ‘Why he couldn’t play Superman?’ And there was just silence. Nobody dared speak. Part of the deal was that DC Comics had general approval over the image of Superman. DC never really interfered, but they had some approval rights so their character wouldn’t be screwed up. So there was this long silence. Sir Jarvis doesn’t give a s–t, because it’s another opportunity to make some money. He said, ‘I’ll get Muhammad on the phone. It’s a great idea.’ And finally — finally — Jarvis is halfway to the phone to call Muhammad Ali, who I’m sure would have loved to play Superman, and all of a sudden Ilya says, ‘Maybe it’s not such a good idea, Dad. Before he was Muhammad Ali, he used to be Cassius Clay.’… I swear to you, there was five minutes there where we saw this whole project blowing up sky high with Muhammad Ali as Superman.”