How Apocalypse Now’s Harvey Keitel Was Fired…and Other Actors Replaced During Filming

Olivia Wilde and Shia LaBeouf have gotten into an off-air argument over whether the actor was fired from Wilde’s “Don’t Worry, Honey.”

This controversy is unlikely to make a big mark on Hollywood history, as we doubt the psychological thriller did. But around other big overseas productions, there have been more than one case where an actor has been fired – most often by the director – after the film has already started shooting.

One of the most famous such stories involves two Hollywood legends – actor Harvey Keitel and director Francis Ford Coppola.

When he began preparing the later classic Apocalypse Now, Coppola wanted actor Steve McQueen for the role of Captain Benjamin Willard. However, McQueen does not want to be away from the States for three weeks, and he wants too much money, which Coppola cannot afford. So the wheel turns. The next person to turn down the role was Al Pacino, and after him several more names of celebrities of the time were being floated as possibilities, including Clint Eastwood, as he himself revealed years later.

The main obstacle to participation for most is one – they don’t want to spend so much time shooting in the jungle.

So they settled on Martin Sheen, as they were impressed by his casting for the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather (which ended up being played by Al Pacino). Sheen, however, has taken part in another film and thus falls out as an option.

This is where Harvey Keitel comes in. The actor was obviously far from the director’s first choice, but was cast as Willard because of his performance in Martin Scorsese’s 1973 Treacherous Streets.

Trouble came when the team began filming in 1976. Coppola realized after only a few days that he was not satisfied with Keitel’s performance. His argument is that it is difficult for an actor to play a “passive bystander”. This, along with Keitel’s apparent displeasure of his own, led Coppola to return to Los Angeles and replace him with the now apparently free Martin Sheen.

In the end, it only took 4 days of shooting, during which scenes with Keitel as Willard were replaced with scenes with Sheen.

Keitel told Insider in 2021, more than four decades after filming, that he harbored no ill feelings toward the production or Coppola, who he said did what he “felt he had to do.”

His problem is with the version that has been presented publicly for his replacement.

“I think in the book about the making of the movie they say that Harvey Keitel didn’t like the jungle, he didn’t want to be in the jungle. Well, Harvey Keitel spent three years with the US Marines in the jungle,” commented the replacement actor, referring to his time in the military , in which he enrolled after turning 17 years old.

The story with the film itself is clear – “Apocalypse Now” is considered one of the greatest films ever made. Keitel has nothing to regret – his career then accumulated roles in significant tapes such as “The Last Temptation of Christ”, “Thelma and Louis”, “A Pack of Dogs”, “Bugsy”, “Criminal” and many others.

However, his case is not unique. However, unlike other dismissals when filming has already begun, after this story, at least apparently, there are no negative emotions left.

Fantastic Beasts and Fired Actors

Two other interesting cases of actors who were cast and then fired involved two of the most popular aliens on screen – The Predator and The Alien.

Around the filming of the first film “The Predator” (1987), there is a great chance that two of the action legends of the 80s – Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger – will be reunited on the screen.

In the sci-fi actioner, Arnie has been chosen to play the lead role of Butch, the commander of a squad of mercenaries sent into the jungle on a dubious mission where they encounter an alien hunter.

Opposite him in the role of the almost invincible Predator should have been Van Damme, albeit in costume. Originally the alien concept was for a very mobile alien ninja with a rather more dummy design.

However, it turns out that the Belgian is far from looking threatening next to his taller colleagues who are supposed to be his victims. Van Damme himself doesn’t help himself with constant complaints about how warm he is in the suit and that his real face won’t be seen on screen. So in the end, it came to the conclusion that a scarier design was needed for the Predator and a bigger actor to fit into the new suit.

Van Damme was let go and replaced by Kevin Peter Hall, who is about 2.18m tall.

Another actor was supposed to kill aliens on screen, but his bad habits cost him his place in space horror history.

It’s about James Remar, fired from Aliens (1986), James Cameron’s direct sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien.

The actor, known from “Cotton Club” and “Dexter”, was recommended by Walter Hill – a mutual friend of him and Cameron, and got the role of Corporal Hicks. He even recorded a few scenes before being replaced by Michael Bean (“Terminator”). At the time, the reason given was “emergency events at home”, but the truth turns out to be darker.

“I had a terrible drug problem, but I overcame it,” Remar said years later on the Sidebar podcast. “I had a great career and personal life, but I screwed it up with a terrible drug addiction… I was originally cast as Corporal Hicks, but I was fired after a few weeks of shooting because I got caught on drugs, and Michael Bean replaced me.”

The return of the king, but not the one he was meant to be

Stuart Townsend was supposed to play Aragorn. Pictured: with Charlize Theron, with whom he had a relationship for several years at the turn of the century.
Photo: Getty Images

Stuart Townsend was supposed to play Aragorn. Pictured: with Charlize Theron, with whom he had a relationship for several years at the turn of the century.

For Stuart Townsend, another vice proved to be an obstacle to his participation in “The Lord of the Rings” – youth.

Today, we can hardly imagine any other actor as Aragorn than Viggo Mortensen, but in fact he was not the first choice for the role of the exiled king, but the then 28-year-old Townsend.

However, he was released the day before actual filming began, despite having trained and rehearsed for two months beforehand. An even bigger problem for him is the producers’ refusal to pay him, arguing that he didn’t work enough.

“I don’t have good feelings for the people in charge [за филма]. The director (Peter Jackson, note author) wanted me, and then apparently he changed his mind because he actually wanted someone 20 years older and completely different,” Townsend told Entertainment Weekly years later.

The result – Townsend goes home and Viggo, 42, reads The Lord of the Rings on the plane to New Zealand to create one of the best roles in the entire trilogy.

Who drives the DeLorean?

The original Marty McFly and the real Marty McFly.
Photo: Getty Images

The original Marty McFly and the real Marty McFly.

And if that was painful, imagine how Eric Stoltz felt after shooting Back to the Future for a few weeks before being replaced.

Stoltz has been cast as Marty McFly in director Robert Zemeckis’ fantasy comedy, though Michael J. Fox was actually the frontrunner. The problem is that Fox was working on the series “Family Ties” at the time, and the show’s producer, Gary David Goldberg, wouldn’t give him the script so he wouldn’t lose one of his stars.

So Stoltz has been cast as a backup from the start, and the team isn’t sure he’s a complete fit.

This is confirmed when the shooting of the film begins. Days pass, and Zemeckis becomes convinced that the actor in the lead role is not for her. Stoltz plays Marty McFly too seriously and lacks the energy the filmmakers are looking for.

A problem turns out to be that, as a method actor, he remains in character and between takes, refusing to live up to his real name. Something that doesn’t sit well with fellow actors and crew members. Tensions rise and the comedy is threatened, leading to another attempt to bring Michael J. Fox to the project.

Producer Goldberg this time persuades, tells Fox about the offer, and Fox accepts without having read the script.

Even then, however, filming with Stoltz continues, as the switch cannot be made immediately. Finally, Zemeckis broke the news to the cast and crew, who, given the tension, were rather okay with much of the footage being reshot.

Michael J. Fox subsequently took on the role of Marty McFly not only in this film but also in its two sequels.

Stoltz, for his part, also built a career with roles in Criminale and smaller productions such as Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming and Roger Avery’s Killing Zoe, turning again to serious films after seeing that comedies they are not for him.


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