Cast Against Type

Seeing one’s favorite actor performing in a way you’ve never expected is a treat for viewers, and undoubtedly a welcome departure for the artist himself. Whether it’s a normally affable star in a twisted turn or a glamorous performer reduced to pathetic or hideous creature, here are some of our favorite role reversals.

Michael Keaton – Batman

Let’s face it, when thinking of tall, dark, handsome, brooding millionaire/superhero Bruce Wayne the image of Michael Keaton does not immediately come to mind. Back in the early ‘80s, the fact that Mr. Mom would take the lead as the Caped Crusader was truly appalling to fans of the comic, and they voiced their displeasure by sending tons of hate mail (reportedly 50,000 letters) to Warner Bros. But having just worked with him on Beetlejuice, director Tim Burton agreed with producer Jon Peters’ assessment that Keaton had an “edgy, tormented quality” that was right for the role.


Henry Fonda – Once Upon A Time In The West

Pillar of the community, paragon of humanity, and dignified father figure is how the general public viewed Henry Fonda for all his righteous film portrayals pre-Once. Fonda was adored by Sergio Leone, too, and the director desperately wanted to cast him. But he wanted to show another side of Fonda…a persona the public had never experienced before. Imagine their horror when, in the very first scene, Fonda mercilessly guns down an unarmed terrified little boy! Here’s Fonda, himself, explaining his involvement:



Charlize Theron – Monster

It’s become almost de rigueur for any good looking actor to portray a wallflower, but Charlize Theron transformed herself completely for her biopic performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Those who remembered the “Sexiest Woman Alive” as an alluring sex kitten in 2 Days in the Valley were shocked to see a face haggard by her rough & tumble life of street prostitution, accompanied by a guttural shot-and-a-beer & cigarettes voice. Charlize easily scampered home with a Best Actress Oscar that year.


Fred MacMurray – Double Indemnity

MacMurray is often remembered as the kindly, understanding father in the long-running TV program “My Three Sons” or as the zany absent-minded professor in Walt Disney’s “flubber” comedies. Though those roles were not created until the ‘60s audiences in the early ‘40s had similarly regarded Fred as a genial character for the frivolous “nice guy” roles he played ‘til then. He shattered that façade with the film noir classic Double Indemnity where he played a callous, coldly calculating salesman involved in adultery, insurance fraud, and murder.


Robin Williams – One Hour Photo

Appearances can be deceiving. Though no stranger to dramatic parts (Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting) Williams nevertheless is most strongly associated with his hysterically manic comedic roles. In 2002, moviegoers’ mental picture of him was upset when a much older, timid Williams character (retail photo clerk, Sy) appeared in One Hour Photo. Overtly shy & seemingly unremarkable, slowly Sy is revealed to be mentally unhinged, whose outer calm is belied by inner turmoil. Check out the trailer:

Terrence Stamp – Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert

Both in reel life and real life Terrence Stamp was quite the man’s man. On screen, he effortlessly played tough guys as well as Shakespearian characters; off, he was a fixture of Mod London, photographed arm-in-arm with Julie Christie, Brigitte Bardot, and supermodel Jean Shrimpton. So hardly anyone could have expected the role he accepted in 1994. Terrence Stamp, on playing transsexual drag queen Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: “When the script came in for Priscilla, I was so fearful about the whole project. I thought it was a conspiracy to get me to make a fool of myself. We were doing a sequence called “Shake Your Groove Thing,” and I thought ‘what am I doing here? I [was voted] the best dressed man in Britain. I’m a middle-aged guy. I’m a scholar, a philosopher. I was the great Iago at my drama school. And here I am in fishnet tights!’”

Kurt Russell – Escape From New York

Disney signed a young, pinchably-cute Kurt Russell to a ten year contract in the mid-‘60s, and Kurt soon became a big star for the Mouse House, most notably in the fanciful fun of the “Dexter Riley” trilogy of films. Despite that success, Kurt began searching for something that would let him grow up from those fresh-faced youth-oriented roles and rote comedic movies that he felt he was getting typecast into. Luckily, director John Carpenter was able to look past Kurt’s “lightweight” status when casting for his gritty actioner Escape from New York. While the studio honchos preferred either Tommy Lee Jones or Charles Bronson to play its scruffy anti-hero Snake Plissken, Carpenter insisted on Russell. Perfect choice.

Jack Nicholson – About Schmidt

Akin to Robin Williams, usually the Jack Nicholson character—you know the one: arched eyebrows and iconic Jack grin—is frenzied, rebelling against all things normal. The tables are turned in About Schmidt, where Nicholson’s newly-retired Schmidt has led an ordinary, drab, non-eventful existence. Confronted with his apparently meaningless life Schmidt asks “…what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?” The befuddled & beaten-down Schmidt duly recounts his newly realized vision of a world lacking sense in letters to his African foster child, Ndugu. But what good will that do?


Deborah Kerr – From Here To Eternity

In 1994 Deborah Kerr was bestowed an Honorary Academy Award which lauded her as “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance.” This reflected how Kerr was often praised early on in her career—not exactly a good thing since for the first decade of her career she was typecast as either devout women or very proper English ladies. That would change in 1953 with From Here to Eternity. In perhaps one of the most famous scenes ever, she rolls in the surf entwined with Burt Lancaster, with whom her character is having an adulterous affair. Her new sensual image was an eye opener for many, which was a good thing as the roles offered to her from then on were much more diverse than the ones previously offered to “the English Rose.”


Keanu Reeves – The Gift

Reeves had some dramatic efforts under his belt, but was better known for his goofy teen roles or as the good guy in sci-fi thrillers. And, truth be told, despite a couple of meaty roles (My Own Private Idaho, Speed) nobody really was that enamored of Keanu’s acting abilities. That changed in 2000 with The Gift. In the supernatural murder mystery he played a wholly unsympathetic character, an abusive husband and violent town thug. Silencing his many critics, Keanu pulled off the menacing performance superbly.


Charlie Chaplin – Monsieur Verdoux

In 1947 Charlie Chaplin starred in the black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, a story of a man who marries, then kills, wealthy widows in order to support his wife and child. In the wake of WWII and with personal scandals tainting Chaplin’s reputation at that time, the public was in no mood to see a film about such a distasteful topic, especially one starring the Little Tramp as a murderer. Not only were there were boycotts of the movie, critics were unkind as well, so much so that Chaplin famously opened one press conference with the words “proceed with the butchering.” Subsequent screenings in later years have bolstered Chaplin’s own contention that it was “the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career.”

  • Stacy Borans

    Great and interesting article. It really allows one to see the breadth of these actors/actresses.

  • George D. Allen

    I sure was one of the young geeks who (quite wrongly) fulminated over Keaton’s Batman casting back in the day. On the ever-rad Keanu, I’d add he was first truly cast against type in ’92 when he made a game (if sadly unsuccessful) try at the role of British solicitor Jonathan Harker in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and went even farther out of his wheelhouse the next year when he came to the screen as Shakespearean villain Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing” (also featuring Keaton). He surely isn’t as awful as some iambic pentameter devotees claimed, but I distinctly remember the howl of unintentional laughs when he offered the Bard’s line, “I am not of many words.” It’s really too bad most people probably know more about Reeves as Neo than Reeves in “River’s Edge.”

  • lenny

    Good stuff. A recent albeit minor bit of miscasting came in the film “Big Fan” which Michael Rapaport, usually the quintessitial Type-A New York creep, plays a rabid Philadlephia Eagles fan from South Philly, New Yark accent and all. This bit of miscasting threw a really interesting film off-course, espeically to people from Philly.

  • Dennis Cantwell

    Hey Jason,

    I was just reading your blog while listening to WXPN in the background. “I will survive was playing while I was reading your paragraph about Terrance Stamp in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”. How funny was that????

  • Marius

    Perhaps Marilyn Monroe in “Don’t Bother to Knock” from 1952.

  • Vickie

    Marilyn Monroe in Niagara.

  • Kai Ferano

    Shirley Jones in that movie in which she plays a tough-talking prostitute. I can’t remember the name of the movie! I think Burt Lancaster was also in it.

  • Curt

    Kai, the Shirley Jones movie with Lancaster was Elmer Gantry and Shirley was great in it. Another actress that played against type in that one was Jean Simmons. I just saw that again recently after many years and it’s still worth a watch.

  • Classic Movie Lover

    I remember the first time that I saw Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West. I was absolutely awe stricken to see sweet Henry Fonda as a cold blooded killer.

    I also remember seeing Fred MacMurray in The Apartment. He was a self centered manipulating SOB.

    Now if you really want to see a cast against type get a hold of “Freeway” with Reese Witherspoon. It is loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood.

  • Bill C.

    Fred MacMurray actually made quite a good heel and played that part often enough (add THE CAINE MUTINY to this list), that I don’t know if it really qualifies as casting against type – especially as he really didn’t get typed as “the average American Dad” until the Disney films and MY THREE SONS – all of which came after his roles as a bad guy.

  • Jeff Schneider

    Myrna Loy in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” 1932 might be considered out of type even though previous to that she did mostly those roles. After that, she almost always did the opposite in the roles she is known for today.

    She was very good as the evil daughter of Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff).

  • Mr. Ed

    How about-
    Lee Marvin in “Cat Balluo'”,
    Jack Lemmon in “The Great Race”,
    Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in “Mars Attacks.”

  • Kevin Reilly

    How about Steve McQueen in “Soldier in the Rain”?

  • Chester

    I’ve seen most of these films and can attest, the casting choices were more than successful, they were superb. Once Upon a Time in the West is one of the top 5 westerns ever made. Keaton as Batman put an edge on the series and made Batman seem more human, more disturbed. Theron, MacMurray, Nicholson, all of these actors did a fine, convincing job of it.

  • Paul

    I always thought Fred MacMurray was mis-cast in Double Idemnity. Much to its credit, the film is well done, that it is watchable, except, IMHO, not when Fred’s on the screen.

  • version

    As well as Stamp in Priscilla – you have to count Swayze and Snipes in To Wong Foo Fu… they really embraced those roles.

  • John

    Don’t forget how Hitchcock used Anthony Perkins’wholesome image to depraved effect as Norman Bates in “Psycho”.

  • John George

    How about Angela Lansbury in “The Manchurian Candidate”? She was also rather nasty in “Gaslight”. Was the latter her first major film role? Anyone know?

  • Alfie

    The best lips under that Batman mask? Michael Keaton, hands down.

  • Alex

    John George: I always understood that Gaslight was Angela Lansbury’s film debut (at least the first one where she appears in the credits). What a long and bright future she would have before her.

  • maxfabien

    In retrospect, with such great dramatic roles in “Dead Man Walking”, “Mystic River”, “Milk”, “Fair Game”, and “The Tree of Life”, who would’ve ever thought these outstanding performances would ever come from Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”??

  • maxfabien

    I mean Sean Penn as “Jeff Spicoli” of course.

  • Alice Lund

    I loved Deborah Kerr in From Here To Eternity but always pictured Rita Hayworth in the part. I recently read she was offered the part but wanted to vacation first . Kerr got the part.

  • Barry

    Carol Burnett in “The Front Page”…whew!

  • maxfabien

    Macauley Culkin in “Party Monster”
    Peter O’Toole, Sir John Guilgud, and Helen Mirren in “Caligula”
    Tom Hulce (from ‘Animal House’) in “Amedeus”
    Dustin Hoffman in “Outbreak”

  • Luigi From NYC

    Excellent Article !

    A super-magnificent performance of Henry Fonda in the MASTERPIECE-FLICK —

    ” Once upon A Time In The West ” —

    A fantastic CAST —

    And OH! — that superb musical score by E. Moricone —

    specifically — The Choral Instrumental —

  • Chris

    Johnny Depp in “Don Juan DeMarco” I heard a lot of complaints about him being completely unsuitable to play Don Juan, but he was really good in the role.

  • Butch Knouse

    When I first heard of the first Batman movie, they said it would star Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton. I thought that meant they would be playing Batman and Robin. Everytime I thought of Jack Nicholson as Batman, I couldn’t stop laughing.

  • Peter Scott

    How about Randolph Scott in “The Spoilers”? He always played the good guy in scores of western movies righting wrongs and bringing the bad guys to justice. However, in “The Spoilers” he was an out of screen character as a thorough heel for a change.

    Incidentally, the film which is among my favourites, has one of the classic fist fights of all time between Randolph Scott and John Wayne over the honour of a woman (of course!!). Naturally, given the time when the Hay Office code was in force, the good guy won and for the first time in cinema history Randolph Scott bit the dust.

  • Bill C.

    How about Ronald Reagan in his last role in THE KILLERS were he plays the criminal mastermind?

  • John George

    Thanks, Alex!


    I think the best example would have to be Henry Fonda in “Once Upon A Time in the West”. But an equally surprising casting would have to be Charlton Heston in “The Secret of the Incas”. He is Indiana Jones way before Harrison Ford with none of the scruples. An amazing part, in my opinion.

  • Mark B

    How about Margaret Hamilton in “The Wizard of Oz”. She was a former kindergarten teacher who tried for the role of Auntie Em and was upset when given the role of the Wicked Witch of the West.

  • Movie Hauser

    What about Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddiger in RoboCop!!?!?