16 December 2023

Putting Faces to Names

If you're a writer, you already know--before, during, and after your story--what your characters look like. But do you ever wonder what they'd look like in a movie or TV adaptation? And if you're a reader who likes (and yes, knows) certain characters from a novel or a story, do you eagerly anticipate seeing how they'll wind up looking on the big screen?

Sometimes those portrayals don't turn out the way we'd imagined. I once had a writer friend who was honestly worried about what her characters might look like if one of her stories ever happened to be made into a movie. (My advice to her was to file that under Needless Stress. We should all be so lucky.)

Believe it or not, I was almost that lucky a few times. One of those projects earned some modest income from options and option renewals, and another one, an indie production, actually came within several weeks of filming; locations were selected, the script was finalized, a score was composed and recorded (I still have the CD), actors and crew were ready, I'd even been told to invite friends to the set. But then the financing fell through--or so I was told--and everything stopped. The whole production packed up and went home. I learned a lot, though, from all the things that happened before that, one of those being an open casting call during which actors and actresses tried out for the parts. It was quite a thrill for me to attend the auditions and sit there and hear real people saying lines of dialogue I had written, and to put faces to the names of those characters. (Or what would've been those characters, if the project hadn't died a sudden and undignified death.)

Anyway, I got to thinking again about all this the other night, after (re)watching the first season of an Amazon Prime series called Reacher. You're probably familiar with Lee Child's character Jack Reacher--he's a huge ex-army guy, six-five and two-fifty or so, who hitchhikes around the country with no luggage except a toothbrush and spends all of his time righting wrongs. He's been portrayed in two feature films so far starring Tom Cruise, who's a great actor but stands about five foot seven, and for me he just didn't fit the part at all. Apparently I'm not the only one who felt that way, and maybe as a result of that, this streaming series features a guy I'd never heard of before--Alan Ritchson--who does look the part. The plot was okay, too, but I think the big reason the show succeeded was the casting.

Sometimes even two or three different actors are believable for the same character. I used to watch The Adventures of Superman on TV as a kid, and to me Supe was always George Reeves. Later, I also liked Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie (so did the judges for the Oscars, that year), and much later I liked Henry Cavill as The Man of Steel in The Man of Steel. TMoS wasn't a great movie, but Cavill--like Ritchson as Reacher--looked like he belonged in the story. Same thing happened with the different actors who have played Sherlock Holmes and The Lone Ranger and Spiderman, over the years. They were all believable to me. 

Which leads to the rest of my sermon for today. The following list, in my opinion and in no particular order, include some roles I can remember that seemed either exactly right or badly wrong, for the story:

25 Good Matches:

Dunaway and Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Newman and Redford as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett (1954-1956)

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter (2001-2010)

Gal Godot as Wonder Woman (2017-2020)

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne (2002-2007)

Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone (2005-2015)

Sean Connery as James Bond (1962-1971, 1983)

Michael Keaton as Batman (1989)

Morgan Freeman as Alex Cross (1997-2001)

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone (1972-1990)

Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy (1990)

Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski (1998)

Alec Baldwin as Dave Robicheaux (Heaven's Prisoners, 1996)

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)

Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada, 2006)

Robert Duvall as Augustus McCrae (Lonesome Dove, 1989)

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men, 2007)

Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes (Misery, 1990)

Alan Rickman as Dr. Lazarus (Galaxy Quest, 1999)*

Ed Harris as Virgil Cole (Appaloosa, 2008)

Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey (The Green Mile, 1999)

Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok (Deadwood, 2004-2006)

Andre the Giant as Fezzik (The Princess Bride, 1987)

Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens (Justified, 2010-2015)

*Alan Rickman was also perfect as Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, Elliott Marston in Quigley Down Under, and many other roles. I miss him.

25 Not-So-Good Matches:

Kevin Costner as Robin of Locksley (Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, 1991)

Adrien Brody as Jack Driscoll (King Kong remake, 2005)

Mark Wahlberg as Spenser (Spenser Confidential, 2020)

Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg (The Stand, 1994)

Eriq La Salle as Lucas Davenport (Mind Prey, 1998)

Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great (Alexander, 2004)

Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau (The Pink Panther remake, 2006)

George Clooney as Batman (Batman & Robin, 1997)

Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016)

Pierce Brosnan as Sam Carmichael (Mamma Mia!, 2008)

Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett (The Alamo remake, 2004)

Tyler Perry as Alex Cross (Alex Cross, 2012)

Cameron Diaz as Jenny Everdeane (Gangs of New York, 2002)

Adam Sandler as Paul Crewe (The Longest Yard remake, 2005)

Marlon Brando as Sakini (Teahouse of the August Moon, 1956)

James Garner as Wyatt Earp (Hour of the Gun, 1967)

Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert (Les Miserables, 2012)

Johnny Depp as Tonto (The Lone Ranger, 2013)

Dean Martin as Matt Helm (1966-1968)

Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze (Ghost Rider, 2007)

Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo (Star Wars, Episode VIII--The Last Jedi, 2017)

Shia LaBeouf as Mutt Williams (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008)

Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates (Psycho remake, 1998)

Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi (Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1961)

John Wayne as Genghis Khan (The Conqueror, 1956)

Funny thing is, sometimes I think actors are miscast and then, later, they grow on me. At first I didn't think Robert Downey Jr. would be a good Iron Man, but I eventually accepted him. Same goes for Alan Ladd as Shane in the movie of that name; I remembered reading Jack Schaefer's novel in high school, and when I finally got around to seeing the movie, I just didn't think Ladd, who was even more vertically challenged than Tom Cruise, fit the deadly gunfighter picture I had in my head. After a while, though, I changed my mind. Other examples: Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, Daniel Craig as James Bondand Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby. I didn't like either of them at first--I kept seeing Leo as Gilbert Grape--but I came around. 

What do you think? Have you ever had characters firmly in your head after reading a story or novel and then been surprised by the person picked to play the role on screen? Which of those matchups were most disappointing to you? Which ones do you think were perfectly cast?

I must mention this, in closing. Since we're talking about casting choices, I think the best actor/character match in cinematic history was James Gandolfini in The Sopranos. Not only can I not imagine anyone else in that role, I later saw him in movies like True Romance and The Mexican and he just didn't seem at home there. To me he's Tony Soprano and always will be. If you agree, watch this.



  1. Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in "Tombstone" is the definitive Doc for me.
    And I think both Robert Duvall and Alan Rickman could, apparently, play anyone and everyone and become those characters perfectly. Not many have that gift.
    I miss Alan Rickman, too...

    1. Hi Eve. Me, too, on Kilmer as Holliday--but that was one of those that at first I didn't think would work. I'd heard about that casting before I saw the movie--and then when I saw it I thought the choice was just right. The one I didn't like was Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday in the movie Wyatt Earp. Different strokes . . .

  2. I agree on Dennis Quaid - he didn't do it for me, either.

  3. I love the cameo of Lee Child in the final episode of Reacher Season 1. And I completely agree that Clooney was not a believable Batman. Completely enjoyed this.

  4. I just realized I posted as Anonymous but this is Ed Ridgley.

    1. Ed, I'd know you anywhere.

      I too enjoyed Child's cameo. And I was extremely proud of myself for recognizing him right away! BTW, I'm two episodes into the second season of Reacher, and it seems pretty good. For this season he forgot his razor--probably left it in a cheap motel room, or on a bus.

      As for Clooney as Batman, the casting of superheroes has always been a little iffy. Sometimes it works, but it usually doesn't.

      Thanks as always!

  5. Alan Ritchson is also in talks to be Batman in several projects. Not just in the reboot of the Batman franchise, but also some new Superman/Batman project, and a couple of other deals. Could be cool.

    1. Kevin, you always know the newest news. Yep, that could be cool. Thanks!

      I hadn't heard of Ritchson before, but I knew he looked vaguely familiar, and I later found out he was one of the tributes in the second Hunger Games installment. I think Katniss shot him. Who says I don't watch intelligent movies?

  6. Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday was perfect. Gregory Peck in everything was perfect.

    1. You're right, Mary Jo. I saw Roman Holiday again a couple of months ago, and recently an old Spielberg movie called Always, which featured a sort of cameo by an also-old-by-then Audrey Hepburn. She was still wonderful to watch.

      As for Gregory Peck, I heard that he was cast only once as a villain in a movie called The Boys from Brazil. Like several other actors (James Stewart, Andy Griffith, James Garner, etc.), he didn't do well in villainous roles. My favorite Gregory Peck movie is either The Big Country or To Kill a Mockingbird--I thought both were fantastic.

    2. John, Audrey Hepburn never got old. She only lived to 64.

    3. That's true, Liz. Always was filmed in 1889, when she was 60. I suspect it was one of her last roles, though.

  7. Wow, John, what a list! That's some serious work you've done for matches and mismatches. I agree with a lot of them...guess I've watched more movies, tv than thinking I seldom do.
    A few to reconsider. One that is certainly controversial...the new Reacher. Preface it to say that I liked Tom Cruise as Reacher. I didn't let my mind go to his actual height...just like with many 'stars', they are not as attractive or dynamic or busty or strong or brilliant as the producers/directors want us to believe. Cruise, imhv, had the persona: the I don't give a damn style, the I can conquer the problem attitude. Worked for me. Whereas, new Reacher has the brawn..the brawn...the brawn. Watched twice, second time I imbided, swallowed, accepted more of the original book-style Reacher. But still wouldn't take him home. Mind games, I suppose.
    Yes, Justified, first time around, Timothy outstanding. To the point, can't handle him in any other part. Near awful. But the big surprise...in the second round, the comeback and he traveled with his daughter to Detroit...an awful casting mistake. She was such a misfit. Then, lo and behold, I learned she was/is indeed his real daughter. Oh my---life can throw you a loop. Even the big caster in the sky makes huge mistakes.
    What a fun project, John. I may start making a list....for next year's conversation.
    (Yes, I do cast my characters...and probably would cry over the filmmakers/money makers outcome.)

    1. Hey Ann--thanks for this!! I don't mind a bit that we disagree, because I see your points. I like Cruise in almost everything. The problem for me is that I've read all the Reacher novels (just finished the most recent) and his size is such a huge (forgive me) part of what he is and does. It comes into play in just about every scene in the books--the way he's regarded by others, the way he can do things others can't, blah blah blah. So I found I couldn't NOT think about that, in the two Cruise-cast Reacher movies. But--as I think Ritchson said on a talk show recently--if it hadn't been for Cruise and the exposure the Reacher character got in those two movies, this new series probably wouldn't have worked at all.

      I do agree with you on Olyphant. Although I did like him a lot in Deadwood, I think Justified is his best work, and I have not yet seen the Detroit-based reboot. I also loved the actor--Walt Goggins I think--who played Boyd Crowder in the Justified series.

      You're right, this stuff is fun. I hope your own characters do great on the big screen!!

  8. Alec Guinness as George Smiley was perfect, even though he didn't resemble the character physically. John LeCarre said that after seeing Guinness filming Tinker Tailor he decided to end his series of Smiley vs Karla books, because his inner image of Smiley was turning into Guinness.

    1. I like that, Rob. Yes, Guinness was great as Smiley, which was no surprise. I'd completely forgotten about that.

      I wonder who'd be chosen to play your Shanks character, on film. And I wonder if you, like LeCarre, would come to think of him that way, over time (??).

    2. Decades ago I used to say the perfect actor to play Shanks was Seattle's own JOhn Aylward, perhaps best known for ER. https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/theater/john-aylward-prominent-seattle-theater-er-and-west-wing-actor-dies-at-75/#:~:text=Obituaries-,John%20Aylward%2C%20prominent%20Seattle%20theater%2C%20'ER'%20and%20',Wing'%20actor%2C%20dies%20at%2075&text=Editor's%20note%3A%20Misha%20Berson%20was,quintessential%20Seattle%20actor%20John%20Aylward.

    3. Rob, I remember him well--I watched every minute of ER, for years. Yep, he'd have made a good Shanks.

  9. Considering mysteries and private investigator-types, the casting in John Houston's filming of Hammett's Maltese Falcon is perfect from top to bottom. Bogart, Astor, Greenstreet, Lorre ... they all own those parts. And speaking of Hammett, William Powell and Myrna Loy were also perfect in all of the Thin Man movies. Ironically, I don't buy Bogart as Marlowe, probably because when I see him in The Big Sleep I only see Sam Spade! Fun project! You see a lot of movies. When do you find the time to write your stories??

    1. I see way, way too many movies, Floyd. I've never been able to resist 'em. As for as the time I waste watching movies, it's almost like reading (which I also do a LOT): I think it helps fire up story ideas. How's that for rationalizing?

      I agree, regarding The Maltese Falcon--and yes, Bogart was so good there, I too found it hard to see anyone but Sam Spade in his later roles. Same thing has been true (to me) of Sean Connery, Roy Scheider, Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, and others.

      You're right, this kind of memory-lane stuff is great fun.

  10. Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. As far as I'm concerned, no one else comes close. (And there are a lot of them)

    1. Good one, Bob. Very honestly, though, I've found pretty much all the Holmes actors (the ones I've seen, anyway) believable. Not sure why. Maybe my mind's mostly on the mysteries.

    2. I still see Basil Rathbone as the "real" Sherlock Holmes.

    3. I confess that I do too, Liz.

  11. Funnily enough, Gal Godot as Wonderwoman did not work for me. I can see why the guys would like her (she's gorgeous for our times) but I grew up with a more full-figured, friendly-faced idea of who she is, from the 60s/70s. I once held an interesting survey in my post-grad marketing class (trying to show historical norms). Asked who thought Marilyn Monroe was the ideal. All the younger men thought she was too fat, and favoured Kate Moss. The ones over 30 thought the younger men were nuts! Hey - I should write a blog about my survey :)

    1. Melodie, the younger men WERE nuts. And even though I said I liked Gal Godot, I never said I didn't like Lynda Carter. She was Wonder Woman for a loooooong time . . .

      You *should* write a blog about that survey.

  12. Great list and enjoyable column, John! Agree with most all your comments. Here's a tough one for me--who's been the best on-screen version of Richard Stark's Parker? The easy answer is Lee Marvin, but I might actually go for Jason Statham.

    1. Joe, I do think Lee Marvin was the best Parker. I did like the Statham movie, too, though. I even liked Payback, which was (I think) another remake based on the Parker character. I think he was named Porter in that movie, and was played by Mel Gibson. Marvin was just closer to my idea of Parker.

      What a profound, world-changing discussion, right?

  13. Fun column, John! Seems like there's a future article about actors who were almost cast in a role, but weren't, and the world is (arguably) richer for it. I'm thinking Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, Will Smith as The Matrix's Neo, and Ronald Reagan as Casablanca's Rick. (I mean, I like Tom Selleck, but as Indiana Jones? At best, it would have been a very different series.)

    1. Hey Dan! Yep, this kind of thing *is* fun, if you like movies. As for actors who were considered but didn't accept the role, the one I always think of first was Frank Sinatra as Dirty Harry. And I've heard James Stewart and John Wayne were author Larry McMurtry's first choices to play Texas Rangers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove. Hard to imagine that, now. (I heard Selleck wasn't able to play Indy because he was committed to Magnum, P.I.) Crazy stuff!

  14. On my Worst list: Richard Beymer as Tony in the 1961 West Side Story. On the Best list, Lorraine Bracco, an actor I've liked in almost nothing, was perfect as Tony Soprano's shrink. For ensemble casting, everyone in Enchanted April: Alfred Molina, Jim Broadbent, Michael Kitchen, Miranda Richardson, Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, and Josie Lawrence. Ciaran Hinds as Caesar in Rome. Alastair Sims as Scrooge. Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny. Gosh, this is fun!

    1. Liz, I especially agree on Ciaran Hinds, Marisa Tomei, and Lorraine Bracco. I have liked Bracco in other things too, though, besides The Sopranos--notably Medicine Man with Sean Connery (nobody seems to know about that one, for some reason) and Goodfellas. And you're right, this is fun.

  15. I agree with the first list but oddly enough, I've seen very few on the second list, apparently a fortunate happenstance. Alan Rickman owned pretty much everything he was in. I'd add Cary Grant somewhere in my list.

    I'd heard Grace Kelly criticized as cold and unemotional. Maybe it had something to do with melting ice queens, but when I saw To Catch a Thief, my last rational thought toward critics was, "Are you ƒ-ing blind?"

    1. Leigh, what that probably proves is that you choose better movies to watch, than I do.

      As for Grace Kelly, I agree with you. And I've found I seldom agree with the critics (or, recently, the Oscar judges) about much of anything. NOTE: If you want to see a crime movie that I think was cast *perfectly*, top to bottom, watch L.A. Confidential. Just saying.

  16. I'm back, John, to recommend a Gregory Peck movie, The Scarlet and the Black. He plays an Irish Catholic priest at the Vatican who's on the run from the Nazis. He's droll. Imagine, Gregory Peck being droll.That reminds me of Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. I always thought he was tall, dark and handsome and boring. He's hilariously inept in The Lady Eve. If you ever have a favorite movie list, I'd put L. A. Confidential as Number One.

    1. WHOA! I have never seen The Scarlet and the Black--I'll try to get it somehow. In the old days, I would've just put it in my trusty Netflix queue, and in a couple days the red envelope would show up in our mailbox. Now, I have be a little more creative to find these old movies. But I'll find it! I appreciate the recommendation.

      Glad to hear you say that, about L.A. Confidential. I love love love that movie.


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