Before his death in 2018, Burt Reynolds admitted it himself – “I’m an idiot.”
The iconic actor, known for smash hits like Smokey and the Bandit and Boogie Nights, turned down more hugely successful roles over his storied career than most actors land in a lifetime. He passed on playing some of the most memorable characters in cinema history.
“They all would’ve changed my career, without a doubt,” Reynolds reflected on the parts he said no to. And every rejection filled him with regret. “You know, how much can you do in a ‘Smokey and the Bandit?'”
While Reynolds leaves behind a legacy playing charming rogues and lovable scoundrels, his career could have taken a far different path. Let’s look back on the legendary roles Reynolds rejected and imagine an alternate reality of a collection of Burt Reynolds movies that were never made.
Han Solo in Star Wars
When casting the motley crew of the Millennium Falcon for his quirky “space movie,” George Lucas had trouble finding the right rogue to play Han Solo. Lucas offered the role to Reynolds, who said no without even reading the script.
Throughout his career, Reynolds often played a charming bandit. Rejecting the role of Han Solo denied audiences an opportunity to see him use his charm in a galaxy far, far, away.
“Now I regret it. I wish I would have done it,” Reynolds admitted of the role that shot leading man Harrison Ford to global fame. In an alternate galaxy far, far away, perhaps it’s Reynolds’ Han gently stroking Princess Leia’s hair or being lowered into carbonite, and jumping to lightspeed with Chewie by his side.
Harrison Ford leveraged his fame from Star Wars to land the role of Indiana Jones. If Reynolds was Han Solo, would he have also gone on to also star in Raiders Of The Lost Ark?
Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman
One genre conspicuously missing from Reynolds’ filmography? The romantic comedy. Yet he passed on one of history’s most iconic rom-com. Reynolds passed on starring opposite Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman?!
Reynolds had an opportunity to play corporate raider Edward Lewis, who transforms call girl Vivian’s life over a magical week in Beverly Hills. Instead, Richard Gere ended up steaming up the screen with Roberts. If Reynolds had accepted the opportunity to smolder up the screen with America’s Sweetheart, it may have opened up Reynolds’ range and spawned multiple popular romantic team-ups through the ’90s.
Why did Reynolds turn down Pretty Woman? “Because I’m an idiot,” Reynolds later told host Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live.
Before the movie Rocky launched Sylvester Stallone‘s career, Reynolds was considered for the lead role. Stallone wrote the Italian Stallion script but the movie studio wanted an established leading man playing the underdog boxer. They approached Reynolds to put on the gloves as Rocky Balboa, but he passed.
Reynold’s rejection helped Sly hang on to the starring role, but in an alternate reality, perhaps it’s Reynolds who wins an Oscar playing the, “pride of the neighborhood” battling impossible odds inside the squared circle.
John McClane in Die Hard
What if John McClane had a mustache?
20th Century Fox had trouble finding the right fit for John McTiernan’s Die Hard script, an extremely limber everyman lone cop fighting terrorists inside Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve. Nearly every big star in Hollywood turned down the role… including Burt Reynolds.
One can easily imagine Reynolds in a bloodied tank top wisecracking into his walkie talkie while single-handedly dismantling Hans Gruber’s plans. Transferring Reynolds’ signature charm to McClane could have spawned multiple Die Hard sequels through the ’90s. But alas, he passed, making way for Willis to land his career-defining role.
Michael Corleone in The Godfather
For The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola faced his own casting issues. He offered the pivotal role of Michael Corleone, the don’s son who becomes entangled in the family’s criminal web, to Reynolds.
Several rumors floated around this near-casting. One suggested Marlon Brando threatened to walk if Reynolds joined the production as Michael. Reynolds didn’t confirm or deny the speculation, but took the whole thing as a compliment.
One thing’s for sure – Al Pacino created an indelible portrait of the Corleone heir. But Reynolds would have lent Michael more natural charm and swagger. Imagine him evolving from skeptical outsider to cold, calculating godfather by film’s end. Reynolds said he didn’t regret passing on The Godfather and Pacino clearly inhabited the darker corners of Michael’s soul perfectly. But seeing Reynolds descend into mob madness could have brought a fresh interpretation to the iconic role.
A Burt Reynolds James Bond?! Don’t laugh. It could have happened! When Sean Connery retired as the first James Bond, producer Cubby Broccoli had his work cut out for him finding a new 007. Broccoli offered Reynolds the part for 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the first Bond film without Connery.
Reynolds declined being 007, believing the British public “wouldn’t accept an American as Bond.” Instead, the role went to one-and-done Bond, George Lazenby. In a 2015 interview with USA Today, Reynolds admitted rejecting the role of James Bond was one of his biggest regrets.
Imagine an alternate reality with Reynolds’ deployed in service of Queen and country from majestic Alpine peaks to high-stakes baccarat tables. While Lazenby’s lone outing as Bond proved forgettable, Reynolds seizing the role in that pivotal moment may have changed the trajectory – and nationality – of the iconic super spy.
Guy Woodhouse In Rosemary’s Baby
Roman Polanski‘s 1968 occult classic Rosemary’s Baby centers around Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse, a young couple who move into a haunted New York apartment building. And Reynolds was offered the role of the duplicitous Guy early in his career… but turned it down.
The part of Guy instead went to John Cassavetes who co-stared with Mia Farrow. But Reynolds’ effortless charm could have brought a more seductive charm to the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing role.
Imagine Burt’s smiling face reassuring Rosemary “there’s nothing to worry about” in those final chilling scenes when her worst fears prove true. Reynolds would have delivered bone-deep betrayal masked behind his magnetic charisma. And he possessed enough dramatic range to sell Guy’s demonic turn.
After passing on Rosemary’s Baby, Reynolds wouldn’t get his breakthrough role until 1972, when he starred in Deliverance.
R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
For Reynolds, turning down Jack Nicholson’s role of R.P. McMurphy felt like losing a game of chicken. Who could out smoke and out drink who?
“You can’t out drink Jack. And you can’t out smoke him either,” Reynolds notoriously declared. So when offered McMurphy’s lead role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Reynolds folded rather than try to match Nicholson’s notorious appetite for excess.
Nicholson’s manic, rebellious energy made him the perfect McMurphy to clash against Louise Fletcher‘s Nurse Ratched. But Reynolds’ natural charisma could have lit up the mental ward just the same. And his comedic chops may have softened McMurphy’s edges even further before the character’s tragic end. For better or worse, seeing Reynolds rebel against authority in a psychiatric hospital could have delivered a fresh Cuckoo’s Nest.
Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese filled Taxi Driver‘s disturbed lead role only after being turned down by seemingly every young actor in 1970s Hollywood. Dustin Hoffman declined. So did Jack Nicholson. Eventually, Scorsese took a chance on the untested Robert De Niro playing Travis Bickle.
Among the many would-be taxi drivers who told Scorsese “thanks, but no thanks…” was none other than Burt Reynolds. While De Niro’s blank slate brought an uneasy realness to Bickle, Reynolds’ loveable appeal and 1,000 watt smile seem antithetical to Travis’ lonely, unhinged psyche. Reynolds viewed complex characters like Bickle as too off-putting for his audience. But after his darker turn in Deliverance, he had the dramatic chops to give Travis an added layer.
And just imagine if you will, Reynolds asking, “You talkin’ to me?”
Jack Horner in Boogie Nights (He almost turned the role down)
Finally, the crown jewel on this list of rejected Burt Reynolds acting roles is Paul Thomas Anderson‘s instant classic, Boogie Nights. Although Reynolds would go on to star in the film, he initially turned it down…. seven times! WTF?!
It took some relentless pestering on Anderson’s part to convince Reynolds to play Jack Horner. Reynolds finally came around and delivered a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. Reynolds later called his repeated stubborn refusals “stupid,” but the perseverance paid off with the most acclaimed film of his long career.
“I’m an idiot.” – Burt Reynolds
In the end, Burt Reynolds openly admitted regret over most of the legendary roles he turned down during his heyday. Who knows how many Oscars and sequels those alternate reality Burts starred in through the decades?
As Bandit himself summed it up, “You only regret the things you don’t do.” So here’s to the winning charm and humor Reynolds brought to the roles he said yes to over his six decade career.