When allegations emerged in late October that Kevin Spacey had tried to initiate a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old Anthony Rapp—news that was soon followed by similar claims of sexual misconduct from others—director Ridley Scott and Columbia Pictures didn’t hesitate in figuring out what to do with their award-season release All the Money in the World, in which Spacey co-starred (in old-man make-up) as oil tycoon J. Paul Getty.
Even though the film was finished, and less than two months away from its Dec. 22 release date, Scott and producers embarked on a whirlwind reshoot with legendary leading man Christopher Plummer taking on Spacey’s role as Getty. Now set for a Dec. 25 theatrical bow, it’s an unprecedented turnaround only feasible because of today’s digital cinematic tools, and one that has put everyone in Hollywood on notice: do something ugly, and replacing you won’t just be possible, it’ll be easy.
The Plummer-Spacey switcheroo is arguably the most dramatic recasting in industry history, in large part because All in the Money in the World was already “in the can,” replete with ready-to-go promotional materials and trailers featuring Spacey. And the fact that Plummer now turns out to be the best thing about Scott’s drama—about the efforts to retrieve billionaire Getty’s kidnapped grandson, co-starring Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg—only further makes the project’s production saga the stuff of instant Hollywood legend. Nonetheless, it’s far from the first time this type of drastic change has taken place once the cameras began rolling; on the contrary, it’s the latest in a long line of such mid-movie moves, which have been necessitated by poor performances, unruly on-set behavior, and—worst of all—untimely deaths.
Arguably the first famous instance of this emergency measure took place in 1939, when The Wizard of Oz cast Buddy Ebsen as the Scarecrow and Ray Bolger as the Tin Man—only to then have the two swap roles. That was an unfortunate twist of fate for Ebsen, who soon fell so sick because of his aluminum-based makeup that he had to call it quits, thus allowing Jack Haley to step into the Tin Man’s iconic shoes. Big-screen immortality would remain elusive for Ebsen, although one need not weep for him, as he’d later land his own memorable part as the paterfamilias of TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies.
If unforeseen illness sabotaged Ebsen, it was self-ingested substances that helped spoil Judy Garland’s participation in 1967’s Valley of the Dolls. While reports still vary as to what precisely led to Garland’s departure, most make some mention of Garland showing up to work drunk, disliking being a part of a story whose main character—Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara—was partially inspired by her own life, and butting heads with director Mark Robson. Approximately a month after filming began, she was fired, and former Best Actress Oscar winner Susan Hayward took over in her stead.
Such difficulties also plagued Blazing Saddles, thanks to writer/director Mel Brooks’ decision to cast a real drunk—former Oscar winner Gig Young—as the sloshed Waco Kid. Proving that life need not perfectly align with art, Young got so sick on his first day of shooting that he had to be taken away via ambulance, thereby paving the way for Gene Wilder to assume the role. A similar fate befell James Remar on James Cameron’s Aliens, as his “terrible drug problem” prompted his retreat after only a couple of weeks of shooting; Michael Biehn would be the beneficiary of this upheaval, subbing in for Remar as heroic Corporal Hicks.
Often, however, mid-production recastings have been motivated by more straightforward disagreements between actors and directors. Robert Zemeckis cast Eric Stoltz as Back to the Future’s Marty McFly, only to memorably recast him—five weeks into production, after finding his performance lacking—with Michael J. Fox. Then-nobody Jean-Claude Van Damme quit his part as Predator’s monster after two days of filming because of his disgust with the creature’s costume—a fortuitous turn of events, since his exit compelled filmmakers to also give the alien villain a much-needed redesign. And David Fincher was forced to recruit Jodie Foster for Panic Room after original lead Nicole Kidman found herself, after more than two weeks of shooting, unable to overcome a physical injury she’d suffered while making Moulin Rouge.
Peter Jackson has twice swapped stars for high-profile pictures. First, he dismissed Stuart Townsend after less than a week of shooting The Fellowship of the Ring, exchanging him for Viggo Mortensen for the crucial role of Aragon. Then, a few years later, the Oscar-winning director canned Ryan Gosling as the lead of The Lovely Bones for (deliberately) gaining too much weight for the part, and signed Mark Wahlberg to step in for the big-budget adaptation. Natalie Portman, meanwhile, was replaced by Claire Danes on Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet because the director and producers quickly realized that the 13-year-old actress simply looked too young to be making out with 21-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio. And none other than the illustrious Harvey Keitel was canned from two monumental projects, replaced as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now by Martin Sheen, and as Victor Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut by Sydney Pollack—the latter, as silly Hollywood rumors go, because he became so aroused while performing with Nicole Kidman that he may have had an “accident” somewhere the vicinity of the actress’ hair. (The actual reason: he had scheduling conflicts due to the lengthy production.)
The list goes on and on. Richard Gere was dumped for Perry King in The Lords of Flatbush after the future American Gigolo heartthrob almost came to blows with Sylvester Stallone. Kel O’Neill was exchanged for Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. Hugo Weaving relieved James Purefoy as the masked vigilante hero of V for Vendetta. And after a spending a few days on the chaotic set of Richard Stanley’s notorious The Island of Dr. Moreau, Rob Morrow successfully got himself released from his contract, and was replaced by David Thewlis—a wise move by the Northern Exposure star, considering the disastrousness of that Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer-led dud.
Then, of course, there are the many instances in which actors have passed away before completing a given project. Be it Bruce Lee in Game of Death, his son Brandon Lee in The Crow, John Candy in Wagons East, Aaliyah in The Matrix Reloaded, Oliver Reed in Gladiator, Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, or Paul Walker in Furious 7, blockbuster films have frequently been forced by tragic circumstances to employ canny tricks of the trade—stand-ins for the Lees, CGI in the cases of Hoffman and Reed, a combo of CGI and his brothers standing-in for Walker—to make sure stars’ final performances are “finished.” And in the case of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus—which had filmed significant footage with Heath Ledger before his untimely 2008 passing—even more fantastical measures were required: namely, enlisting three different A-listers (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law) to play mutated versions of Ledger’s out-there character.
In this context, Plummer’s last-minute participation in All the Money in the World isn’t that out of the ordinary. And moreover, the 88-year-old actor delivers such a commandingly imperious turn as the villainous Getty that one wonders why Scott and company ever believed a prosthetics-laden Spacey was a superior choice for the part in the first place. The lesson being, it seems, that mid-production casting emergencies sometimes tend to work out for the best—at least, for the movie itself, not for those discarded along the way.