While playing any legendary comic book character comes with a lot of expectations and pressure, no figure is more intimidating to an actor than the Joker. The renowned DC villain has been portrayed by Hollywood giants such as Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill, but the standard was formally established when the late Heath Ledger took on the role for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), earning a posthumous Academy Award for his performance. Since then, actors have attempted to give the character justice, most notably Jared Leto, but have fallen short in the opinion of reviewers.
Though Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker in Todd Phillips’ upcoming standalone Joker feature seems promising, it’s difficult to fathom anybody nailing the role in the same slightly-charming-but-definitely-psychotic way that Ledger did. Nonetheless, a number of performers have come dangerously close to capturing the ultimate villain role throughout the years. Here are five.
5. Adrien Brody
Adriene Brody was reportedly passed up for the role of Batman in The Dark Knight (2008) in favor of Heath Ledger. When the cast for 2017’s Justice League was unveiled, the actor indicated an interest in reprising his role. When asked if he’d ever wear that terrifying smile again, Brody told Metro:
“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.”
4. Ray Liotta
Ray Liotta was considered for the part of the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, which ultimately went to Jack Nicholson, or the Caped Crusader himself, which Michael Keaton ended up playing. The Goodfellas star allegedly declined the opportunity to join the ensemble, but afterward appeared to regret his decision.
“I recall Tim Burton wanting to meet me for Batman shortly after a movie I did, Something Wild,” Liotta told The Playlist in 2011. “At the time, I thought to myself, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m a performer. But today it’s different; it’s excellent because you get additional movies if you do that.”
3. Tim Curry
Although Actor Wars icon Mark Hamill played the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, The Rocky Horror Picture Show star Tim Curry was originally selected as the villain. While there have been several speculations about why Curry left the job over the years, the actor laid the record straight in 2017. “I did play the Joker for a bit, but I had pneumonia and they sacked me—and replaced me with Mark Hamill.” “That’s life,” Curry said to ScreenGeek.
2. Willem Dafoe
For years, fans have campaigned for Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe, who went on to play the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, to play the Joker. In reality, he was considered for the role of Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman but was never formally offered the position. “[Screenwriter Sam] Hamm said something about how physically I would be excellent for the character, but they never gave it to me,” Dafoe told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017.
1. Ryan Gosling
Though Ryan Gosling never responded to the claims, it’s widely assumed that he was given the part of the Joker in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016). According to The Wrap Jared Leto, who finally landed the role, was considered for it only after Gosling turned it down owing to his unwillingness to accept a multi-film contract. Given how badly the picture was received by reviewers, Gosling was wise to decline.