One of the most iconic images associated with The Force Awakens is the image of the cast, new and old, sitting together reading lines and going through the script. Nerds all over the world squinted and read way too much into one simple picture, and it uncovers an oft-overlooked aspect of Star Wars movie history; the casting rumors.
Throughout the six movies, fans have run rampant with their own picks, as well as legitimate gossip, of who was playing who in the original films and the prequels. As time has passed, some of those rumors have been confirmed and we now know how close the part of Han Solo almost went to someone else or Darth Maul to being a woman. So let’s dive into to the bizarre, the interesting, and the close calls in the history of Star Wars casting.
5) Orson Welles as Darth Vader
Just imagine the deep, sonorous baritone of the great Orson Welles as the Dark Lord of the Sith. Nothing against James Earl Jones, who was a distinguished stage and screen actor by the late 70’s, but Welles’ voice is both smooth, dramatic, and iconic. Just take a listen to him do voiceover work for different English products.
Now tell me you wish you were alive then to buy those wonderful products from across the pond?
Who knows what this would have done for Jones’ career if he hadn’t voiced the black-armored patriarch of the Skywalker family, but Welles would certainly have received a boost late in his career. Of course, a dilemma would have arisen in future voice work for Darth Vader, as Welles died in 1985, only a handful of years after the original trilogy wrapped up. Jones did a little work for the prequel, but famously recorded dialogue for the Season 1 & 2 premiere episodes of Star Wars Rebels as well as some random Vader voiceover work for Star Wars Monopoly and the Star Tours attraction at Disney parks.
Regardless, one thing Lucas always had right was making Vader’s voice recognizable and iconic. Hopefully, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren can deliver the same menacing presence and recognizable voice. From what I heard in the trailer, I think he can.
4) Maggie Cheung as Darth Maul
While this casting could’ve was the furthest from being a reality, early storyboards of The Phantom Menace had a much more Japanese samurai/bushido feel to them and early drafts of the story called for Darth Maul to be a lot cooler. In fact, at one point, Lucas considered changing Maul to a female Sith lord and the casting department prominently had a picture of Maggie Cheung hanging on their wall.
If you want to learn more about the storyboards and weep for what Episode I could have been, search for “Star Wars Prequel Storyboards” and prepare to see some great artwork that apparently was largely snubbed by Lucas. Anakin wasn’t a nine-year-old kid, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were around the same age and two awesome looking samurai-like Jedi warriors, and Jar-Jar was still Jar-Jar, but the fate of his people took a much darker turn than what ended up on screen.
3) Anyone but Harrison Ford as Han Solo
When Lucas was finally done getting his movie sold to 20th Century Fox, he had the monumental task of casting for his space epic. While he was sold on casting an unknown in the role of Luke Skywalker, he was less settled on the part of the swashbuckling space pirate, Han Solo. The smuggler turned courier turned rebel hero needed to have swagger, obviously, but also a measure of cynical confidence befitting a roguish hero who relies first on his blaster and asks questions later—hence, Han shot first.
Looking back on the old casting reels, Lucas tested a bevy of actors for the role of Han Solo including Kurt Russell, Nick Nolte, Christopher Walken, and Al Pacino. Even Sylvester Stallone said he answered the casting call for Han Solo but never was even considered since he didn’t fit the part at all. No kidding. All of these choices seem weird now, but Russell seems the most likely to have been able to pull off the part of a self-assured, masculine Solo.
While it might be hard to imagine someone else having played Ford’s role, Harrison didn’t initially audition for the part. He has admitted in past interviews, as has Lucas, that he originally got involved with the project as a filler to read lines for the part of Han Solo while auditioning the part of Princess Leia. Lucas was familiar with Ford from working with him on American Graffiti, Lucas’ breakthrough directorial effort. Harrison read lines with a young, vibrant daughter of Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, and Lucas saw the chemistry between them. He asked Ford to stick around and was eventually offered the part. And that led to the “I know” heard around the world and cemented Ford a place in hearts forever.
2) David Cronenberg or David Lynch Directing Return of the Jedi
Alright, this isn’t really a casting choice, but could you have imagined one of these two brilliant and enigmatic auteurs manning the director’s chair for Episode VI? While the role was eventually given to Eye of the Needle director, Richard Marquand. Unfortunately, Marquand would not live long to see and reap the benefits of directing the final chapter of Lucas’ trilogy. He only made a handful of movies after Return of the Jedi and he tragically died of a stroke at the age of 49 in 1987.
However, Lucas was dead set on finding a visionary, something he styled himself as, for Episode VI, and he originally had tried to obtain Cronenberg and Lynch for his movie. Could you have imagined a David Cronenberg-directed Jabba’s Palace? It would have been weirder and grosser than it already was. The droid torture scene after C-3PO and R2-D2 were given to Jabba would have scarred a collective generation. We would still be having therapy today.
And a David Lynch Star Wars? Lapti Nek would have been a slow dirge and Oola, the blue Twi’lek dancer would have had a five-minute interpretive dance interspersed with cuts of Boba Fett holding a single, flaming block of ice as a veiled metaphor for Solo’s inevitable escape. And the Emperor? Well, he would most certainly have been totally normal until his head morphed into the space slug from The Empire Strikes Back and yelled Huttese backward at Luke to join the Dark Side.
All of that to say; maybe we’re glad Marquand ended up directing this movie.
1) Michael Jackson as Jar Jar Binks
Now before you close your browser in disgust, stay with me and believe when I say this was absolutely true. Michael Jackson was a huge fan of Star Wars and had developed a friendship with George Lucas over the years. So much so, Lucas let Jackson entertain the idea of being Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace. You heard it right here. Just when you thought Jar Jar couldn’t have been any less likable.
The details behind this story come from a recent interview VICE did with Ahmed Best, the voice and motion-capture actor behind Jar Jar in the prequel trilogy. Best said when George, Natalie Portman, and Lucas’ kids met Michael Jackson at a concert, Lucas introduced Best as “Jar Jar.” Later on in the evening, Best asked Lucas why he introduced him that way and Lucas told him it was because Jackson had been stumping for the part of the Gungan goofball. The reason Lucas didn’t give him the part is because Jackson wanted to use makeup and prosthetics—oh, the irony—and Lucas wanted to use CGI. Yeah…that’s the reason why. I think even Lucas had enough sense to avoid that casting decision. Could you imagine Jar Jar moonwalking in celebration of Anakin’s pod-racing victory? Or busting out a couple patented Jackson “hee-hee’s” while taking out battle droids? Or how weird it might have been to have Jar Jar hanging around Ani and his little friends? Awkward…
Breathe a collective sigh of relief Star Wars fans, it didn’t happen…but Jar Jar is still terrible. So don’t take a full breath.