Why John Lithgow’s Legacy Missed The Role of the Joker

Tim Burton’s Batman turned iconic when it came out in the summer of 1989, amending the rules of what a comic book movie should be and pushing the Batman to high levels of popularity. It’s pretty much easy to not remember that it didn’t seem possible at all when it was initially announced. The animator, had hit an unexpected score with 1988’s Beetlejuice, but Warner Bros.’ belief in his work to jump-start their most known hero seemed like an impossible task, even until the moment it wasn’t.

‘The Joker’ from Batman (1989)

As Jack Nicholson had bagged the role of the Joker, Burton moved towards another reputed performer for the role: John Lithgow, who made the director undo his decision of trying to casting him. Thus, ended up creating one of the biggest regrets of his succesful career.

John Lithgow’s Negative Assessment towards the Film

The Batman (1989)

For the cast, Lithgow was a significant choice. His versatile acting skills and range extended to all types of villains, and he had already proved his worth as the killer in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. He took on manic roles like the Buckaroo Banzai and Twilight Zone: The Movie. With that in his arsenal, he could’ve brilliantly performed the passive sociopathy of Jack Napier, alongwith the rebirth as the Joker.

However there was only one issue — Lithgow didn’t desire to play the role. As he shared in an interview with Conan O’Brien, he was acting on Broadway in M. Butterfly during that time, and the hectic schedule left him unable to take more. Also, thinking like alot of people at the time, he believed the movie would be a huge risk. The director, was young in his career and relatively untested, seemed much of a risk. Beetlejuice’s success hit like a surprise, and the film’s absurd nature made it look more like a one-time-success rather than the initiation of a long career. However, Lithgow, at that time, had been getting consistent and glowing praise, and considering Batman’s too far-from-assured future, it seemed safe to have turned it down.

Nicholson was the Change of Choice

The Batman (1989)

Thus, Burton chose Nicholson, who had been the studio’s obvious choice for the role.  The actor’s biographer Marc Eliot shared that Nicholson grew up a Batman fanatic and considered the opportunity as “a chance to connect with childhood.” Nicholson had also agreed to a minimal salary in barter for a percentage of the movie’s total financial profits. As Batman became the mighty hit of 1989, and Nicholson’s acting skills were praised as a significant part in the film’s success.

Jack Nicholson as The Joker

Most of this could have been the part of Lithgow’s legacy had the actor not ignored the opportunity; however, he can remain proud of his quality of work, even without having the role of Joker. It was quite impossible to have known how the film was going to be a hit at the time, and evidently, Lithgow wasn’t the only one who made this assessment. Burton’s Batman wasn’t perfect, and even at the heights of its success, it attracted criticism, but to let a fish that big off the line would leave anyone with regrets.

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