The history of cinema is filled with movies not made and actors who turned down intriguing roles. Once he achieved stardom, James Cagney got typecast in tough-guy roles–but he was always looking for characters that stretched him as a performer. Ironically, many of the parts he turned down were ones made famous by other actors.
The most famous role that Cagney rejected was the one that cemented Errol Flynn’s superstar status: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). I have great difficulty imagining the 5′ 6″ Cagney as the charismatic bandit of Sherwood Forest. Warner Bros., though, considered him seriously after the success of its all-star A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), which featured Cagney as Bottom (and also Olivia de Havilland, destined to be cast as Maid Marian). Cagney as Robin Hood was a risk, but Warners was willing to gamble on a career-changing performance. The studio soon began developing a treatment for its Sherwood Forest tale, which would have co-starred Guy Kibbee as Friar Tuck.
However, Warner Bros. became concerned after learning rival studio MGM planned to make a Robin Hood operetta with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. That production never came to fruition, but it delayed the Warners version. Meanwhile, Cagney sued Warner Bros. in 1935 for breach of contract, a lengthy lawsuit eventually won by the actor. By the time Cagney returned to the studio in 1938, Flynn–who had scored big hits with Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade–was attached to The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Here’s a quick look at other films that could have starred James Cagney:
Lady for a Day (1933). The role of soft-hearted gangster Dave the Dude was originally written with Robert Montgomery in mind. When he wasn’t available, director Frank Capra considered James Cagney or William Powell. The part eventually went to Warren William.
At one time, Cagney was attached to a film called The Padre about an unconventional priest. When he nixed the idea, the film became 1944’s Going My Way and earned eventual star Bing Crosby an Academy Award for Best Actor. One year later, he was nominated again for the same role in The Bells of St. Mary’s.
Cagney retired from acting after appearing in Billy Wilder’s 1961 Cold War comedy One, Two, Three. Three years later, he was offered the part of Eliza Doolittle’s father, Alfred, in My Fair Lady. When Cagney declined, the role went to Stanley Holloway, who originated it on Broadway.
At the age of 74, Cagney turned down Harry and Tonto (1974), the story of an elderly man making a cross-country trek with his cat. Art Carney took the part and won an Oscar for Best Actor. Ironically, Cagney’s last role was in the 1984 made-for-TV movie Terrible Joe Moran, which co-starred Carney.
According to TCM host Robert Osborne, Cagney turned down the role of Vito Corleone in The Godfather; other sources claim he also declined to appear as Hyman Roth (ultimately played by Lee Strasberg) in The Godfather Part II.
One role James Cagney wanted, but did not, get was the lead in 1940’s Knute Rockne–All American. In a TCM article, Osborne explained: “Notre Dame’s administration had a say in who’d play their famous football leader and said ‘no’ to Cagney because of a stance he’d taken at the time on a controversial political matter.”
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!