Many of our favorite actors become forever linked to an iconic role ― especially when it’s a television show, and we see them as that character for years on end. How could there be a Tony Soprano without James Gandolfini, or a Buffy The Vampire Slayer without Sarah Michelle Gellar? (We’re still pretending the Kristy Swanson movie never happened.)
But of course, few TV characters are created with the actor who ends up playing them in mind. Many shows go through an exhaustive casting process to find just the right fit ― and some of the actors who almost get cast are pretty famous in their own right. A recently-leaked sign-in sheet for The Office revealed that familiar faces like Hamish Linklater and Adam Scott were considered for the role of Jim (ultimately going to John Krasinski, of course, making him a star), while Paul Giamatti was the first choice for the role that went to Steve Carell.
From big stars who turned down TV projects that ended up being a huge deal to then-unknowns who went on to find fame in future shows, here are TV's most alarming casting near-misses from some of our favorite shows to ever grace the small screen!
1. Matthew Broderick as Walter White on Breaking Bad
Nothing against Matthew, but how many different ways can we say “no” to this? His nice guy appeal would have made Breaking Bad an entirely different show. In early scenes, it might have been okay, but Ferris Bueller becoming the reckless badass Heisenberg? Impossible. (Ditto for John Cusack, who was also considered.)
2. Sandra Bernhard as Miranda and Dana Delaney as Carrie on Sex & The City
Matthew’s wife Sarah Jessica Parker was almost passed over as an iconic TV character as well. Dana Delaney turned down Sex & The City before it was offered to the woman we’ve come to identify as Carrie Bradshaw, and in an even more upsetting near-miss, Sandra Bernhard was an early choice for Miranda. We can see where they were going with the dry wit and cynicism, but just try imagining that on the poster... or in any of Miranda's numerous sex scenes on the show. We've never been so grateful for Cynthia Nixon in our lives!
3. Rachel Dratch as Jenna on 30 Rock
As the vain and ditzy D-list actress Jenna, Jane Krakowski delivered some of 30 Rock’s most memorable (and mockable) lines. But Tina Fey’s SNL buddy Rachel was originally cast in the pilot, forcing her to make the tough call of firing her friend when the character started going in a different direction. (Hence why Rachel played a handful of one-off throwaway characters early in the series before moving on.) Can we imagine 30 Rock being nearly as funny with Rachel as Jenna? Sorry, but no way!
4. Jane Krakowski as Phoebe and Tea Leoni as Rachel on Friends
The Friends gang had many, many possibilities in Bizarro World Casting, such as Jon Cryer as Chandler (blah), Janeane Garofalo as Monica (wha?), Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack as Ross (hmm…), and Tea Leoni as Rachel (noooo!). It’s essentially impossible to imagine the gang’s chemistry coming of as well with even one casting switch, though of all these, we can kind of see Jane meshing in okay as Phoebe. Still, we’re much happier things panned out as they did, with Jane making a name for herself as slutty secretary Elaine on Ally McBeal a short time later.
5. Bridget Fonda as Ally McBeal
Speaking of Ally McBeal, how would you feel with Bridget Fonda as the short-skirt wearing CGI baby-hallucinator? Not too good? Us either. Sure, Bridget was pretty good at playing a certain other Single White Female, but Calista Flockhart’s only true claim to fame couldn’t possibly have caught on without her signature quirkiness… could it?
6. Taylor Momsen as Hannah Montana
Before she looked like a pissed-off raccoon, Taylor was a fresh-faced child star just like Miley Cyrus. Both are singer-actresses, and both have strayed some from their family-friendly roots with edgier looks and sounds. But would Miley even be famous right now if Taylor had won the role of Hannah Montana?
7. Katie Holmes as Buffy and Ryan Reynolds as Xander on Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Katie Holmes was perfectly charming as tomboy Joey on Dawson’s Creek, which was clearly the right WB show for her. But kicking ass and slaying the undead? That’s a little hard to fathom. Katie turned down the role of Buffy so she could finish high school, while lots of future Buffy co-stars also auditioned for the role (including those that wound up playing Cordelia, Darla, Amy, and Harmony). Sarah Michelle Gellar was cast as Cordelia before nabbing the star role, and Willow in the pilot was played by a very different actress than Alyson Hannigan. Perhaps oddest of all, though, is Ryan Reynolds auditioning as Xander… though now that you mention it, we can totally see this working with Ryan’s comedic stylings (although he might have been too dreamy to convincingly play a dorky guy that Buffy isn’t into, and upstage Angel).
8. Rosie O’Donnell as Elaine on Seinfeld
Rosie has a habit of being a little… overbearing… and it’s hard to imagine her as a member of a comedy ensemble who wouldn’t dominate the series. So many of Elaine’s funniest moments just wouldn’t work with Rosie’s abrasive delivery. Seinfeld came close to cancellation in its first season… without Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine, we have a feeling it would be long forgotten by now instead of heralded as one of the best sitcoms ever.
9. Michael Keaton as Jack on Lost
Strangely enough, Jack was originally supposed to die in the Lost pilot… but when the show’s writers changed their minds and wanted him as the lead, the former Batman wasn’t interested in staying on. Enter Party of Five alum Matthew Fox, who became the main star of the show. Not bad, for a guy they almost killed off…
10. Whitney Houston as Sondra Huxtable on The Cosby Show
Before she was a legendary singer, Whitney could have gotten her start as a TV star playing Bill Cosby’s daughter Sondra on The Cosby Show. But since she didn’t want to commit to being in every episode in case she had to tour, she chose music over comedy... and that seems to have worked out okay for her in the end.
11. Thomas Jane as Don Draper on Mad Men
His HBO series Hung never really took off, so there’s no reason to think Thomas playing a slightly different ladies’ man in Don Draper would have fared any better. As with most of these characters, it’s just unthinkable that anyone but Jon Hamm could be master advertiser Don Draper (or even Dick Whitman). We’re just grateful the casting went the right way on this!
Which TV casting are you most grateful went the way it did?
Or do you think any of these casting choices might have been better?