With the release this week of Todd Phillips’ new standalone comic book film Joker, Joaquin Phoenix joins the ranks of Heath Ledger, Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill to take on DC’s totally iconic and completely unhinged Clown Prince Of Crime.
But pop culture could have been very different, with the likes of Willem Dafoe, Robin Williams and even, according to rumours, David Bowie, having been considered to play the villain in the past.
Here are the A-listers who came close to striking terror in the hearts of the residents of Gotham City…
With his inimitable bone structure and ability to show such extreme intensity, it’s no surprise that Dafoe has established chops in playing baddies, and specifically, comic book evil geniuses. See: his role as the Green Goblin in 2002’s Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi. But way before then, he was apparently in talks to play the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Batman.
Read more: How each actor prepared to play Joker
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last year, Dafoe revealed that the film’s writer spoke to him about the part, but that he never received an official offer, saying, “[Screenwriter Sam] Hamm said something about how physically I would be perfect for the part, but they never offered it to me.” The role went on to be made famous by Jack Nicholson.
The The Crown star was once in line to play The Joker in an unmade 1980s Batman movie. In the early eighties, before Tim Burton’s Batman and on the back of the success of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, Warner Bros. had plans for a Batman film to be directed by Gremlins’ Joe Dante. Dante turned down the project, but it was Lithgow he had in mind to play The Joker, who would have been one of a few villains in the piece.
However, he would have been such a good fit for the role, Dante has said, that he cited it as his reason for dropping out completely, saying, “I wanted to hire John Lithgow for that part because I had met him on The Twilight Zone movie. And for whatever reason, I started to gravitate more towards The Joker than towards Batman. And I actually woke up one night and I said to myself, 'I can't do this movie - I'm more interested in The Joker than I am in Batman, and that's not the way it should be.” If only he had known that a standalone Joker film was possible…
According to TheWrap, Ryan Gosling was initially eyed to play Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad, but turned it down because he didn’t want to be tied in to a multi-film deal. Apparently, only after he turned it down, was Jared Leto approached for the heavily-tattooed incarnation of the character for which he famously went method on - delivering a dead pig to the cast’s first table read-through, sending anal beads to his castmates as a wrap ‘gift’, and refusing to be called by his real name on-set, instead asking only to be referred to as ‘Mistah Jay’.
Robin Williams revealed in a 2010 interview with Empire that he has been in the running to play not one - not two - but, three different Batman villain roles on the big screen. In 1995’s Batman Forever, he was in the running to play The Riddler (as was Michael Jackson, who is said to have lobbied particularly hard for the role), though it eventually went to Jim Carrey. But the late comedy legend was also considered to play The Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, before the part went to Jack Nicholson.
Williams, a dedicated Batman comic fan, was spoken about for the Joker role a second time when Christopher Nolan, who had directed Williams in 2002’s Insomnia, came to casting The Dark Knight Rises. This time the role went to Heath Ledger, who went on to win a posthumous Oscar for it. Though Ledger’s character goes down as one of the most iconic Jokers in cinema history, Williams’s take on the role could’ve been incredible - imagine his chaotic comedic energy, combined with the creepiness he showed he could portray in movies such as One Hour Photo.
Before Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, and before Joe Dante’s unmade movie, there was another Batman movie that never got made. 1985’s The Batman was to be directed by Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, with Bill Murray in the title role as the Dark Knight, and Bowie opposite him as the Joker. Eddie Murphy was also in line to play Robin in the movie. So it’s safe to say, it’s pretty much the greatest Batman movie never made.
Since then, comic book writer Grant Morrison has spoken out about how the music icon influenced his version of the Joker in his Batman RIP storyline, with one comic book issue featuring the Joker going as far as being titled “The Thin White Duke of Death”. Author Neil Gaiman has also said in an interview with Wired in 2009 that Bowie would be his first choice to play the Clown Prince in an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, while screenwriter Sam Hamm is said to have wanted Bowie again to play the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.
The The Pianist Academy Award-winner has been connected to the role as Batman’s prime adversary on more than one occasion. He was apparently in line to play the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, before the role eventually went to Heath Ledger.
Then, in 2017, when Zack Snyder’s Justice League movie was in the works, he told newspaper Metro about his interest in the potential of taking on the role once more, saying, “I would do it if I feel I can contribute something valuable and that the role would be interesting to me. To me, the villains are way fun! But [studios] don’t offer me those roles. If there is an opportunity to do something like that and play a comic book hero or villain, that’s not something I’m fundamentally opposed to.” The Joker didn’t appear in Justice League in the end, though.
Playing Loki in the MCU as well as Joker in the DC movie universe might have been a difficult juggle, but at one point n 2014, Hiddleston was rumoured to be in the running for the role in Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Of course, the villain didn’t end up appearing in the film, but if he had, Hiddleston could have ended up as the arch villain of all superhero movie universes. As it turns out, he kept it more low-key. (Sorry.)
He’s already famed for playing a psychotic, white make-up wearing clown in his iconic role as Pennywise in It, so perhaps its no surprise that when Tim Curry was cast to voice the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series he only recorded four episodes before being recast - for being way too scary. Instead, he was replaced with Mark Hamill.