The action threequel Die Hard With a Vengeance is celebrating its 25th birthday on 19 May. Original Die Hard director John McTiernan returned to the world of Bruce Willis’s tank top enthusiast John McClane for the movie, which earned $366m (£300m) globally to become the highest-grossing film of 1995. It was another hit for the in-form Willis and saw Samuel L. Jackson join the franchise as reluctant buddy Zeus Carver.
But Jackson almost didn’t get the role at all, with another 1990s star in the frame — Laurence Fishburne.
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In fact, the role of Zeus was reportedly written with Fishburne in mind, given the fact the star was riding high in the wake of critically acclaimed work in Boyz N The Hood and the Abel Ferrara neo-noir King of New York. He had also just been nominated for an Oscar for playing Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It. McTiernan had also wanted Fishburne for the role of Sergeant Al Powell in the first Die Hard, according to an interview he gave to Empire.
The story of Fishburne’s Die Hard 3 involvement was revealed by Quentin Tarantino on the podcast The Rewatchables over at The Ringer. He revealed Fishburne was his first choice for the role of Jules in Pulp Fiction, but that the actor was advised not to take on a supporting role by his agents as it would hurt his chances of being offered leads in the future. They said that, at this point in his career, he had to be “above the title” in terms of billing.
Jackson would, of course, take on the part — one of the most recognisable in what would become a glittering filmography. Fishburne, earlier this month, said he remained “happy” he had passed on the job.
Meanwhile, Fishburne was in the frame for the Zeus part in Die Hard With a Vengeance, but had asked for a sizeable pay cheque, according to Tarantino, leading to a back and forth negotiation. However, Fishburne hadn’t counted on the fact that Die Hard producer Andy Vajna was going to the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, where Willis was, of course, appearing in Pulp Fiction — which ultimately won the Palme d’Or and headed to the Oscars off the back of Cannes.
Vajna went along to the premiere and witnessed Jackson’s exceptional performance in Tarantino’s magnum opus. Jackson was offered the role of Zeus, which he gladly took, leaving Fishburne with no role and no hefty pay packet.
The story didn’t end here, though. Fishburne sued Cinergi — Vajna’s production company — for breach of contract in July 1994. As part of the suit, which alleged Cinergi had broken a verbal agreement for him to play the role of Zeus, Bruce Willis was issued with a summons as he attended a screening of his then-wife Demi Moore’s movie If These Walls Could Talk in 1996. Fishburne reportedly alleged that Willis had been present at a crucial meeting related to the role.
According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings by Cinergi, a trial was set for August 1997 with Fishburne claiming damages of $1.75m (£1.43m). The suit was settled just prior to the trial date, with Cinergi paying $750,000 (£614,000) to Fishburne and also promising an additional $600,000 (£491,000) to the actor if they did not exercise an option on a play and related screenplay written by the star.
That final detail presumably refers to Fishburne’s play Riff Raff, penned in 1995, which would ultimately become the 2000 movie Once in the Life — Fishburne’s directorial debut. Cinergi closed in 1998, having sold much of its library to Disney and the Die Hard rights to 20th Century Fox. Now, of course, the House of Mouse owns all of it — and is reportedly stalling the sixth Die Hard movie, known as McClane.
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Ultimately, Fishburne was cast as Morpheus in The Matrix, taking on a major role in one of the biggest films of 1999 and a classic that would go on to define the sci-fi genre for a generation to come, as well as taking his career to new heights. But it’s interesting to note what could’ve been if Fishburne hadn’t passed on Pulp Fiction, or if Jackson hadn’t made the seismic impact he did in Tarantino’s film.