Robin Williams

Robin Williams Really Wanted To Play The Riddler For Christopher Nolan

One of the things I really enjoy about researching articles for /Film is finding out about all the different actors who were up for famous parts. Superhero movies are usually pretty good value in that respect and some of my favorite alternative casting choices come from the “Batman” franchise.

In the ’80s, Jack Nicholson was always the studio’s first choice to play the Joker in Tim Burton’s blockbusting “Batman,” but there were also some other great names in the frame at one point or another. As much as I enjoy Nicholson’s performance, I would have loved to see John Lithgow in the part. I think he would have made the character far more grotesque but, unfortunately, he talked Burton out of casting him during an audition. Tim Curry and Ray Liotta would have also brought a totally different energy to the role.

For “Batman Returns,” the list of alternative candidates for the Penguin grows more interesting still. Burton reportedly wanted Marlon Brando while Warner Bros. preferred Dustin Hoffman. Considering Brando’s reputation for eccentricity (which contributed to the disaster of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” a few years later) and Hoffman’s campy performance in “Hook,” it was probably a good job that the role finally fell to Danny DeVito, who aced the part.

One big actor who was repeatedly linked to high-profile roles in the “Batman” movies was Robin Williams. Given his exuberant and larger-than-life screen persona, it feels like he should have been a shoo-in for one of the Caped Crusader’s iconic archenemies. But it never came to pass, although it wasn’t for lack of trying on Williams’ behalf.

Robin Williams was manipulated to land Jack Nicholson for Batman
Warner Bros.
As an avid comic book fan, Robin Williams was a very vocal campaigner for a part as a Batman villain — from his emergence as an actor of true star quality in the ’80s to a few years before he passed away under tragic circumstances in 2014. After a successful stand-up career and a breakthrough role in “Mork & Mindy” that brought him to the public’s attention, he effortlessly made the leap to the big screen, quickly proving that he had acting chops to match his freewheeling brand of vocal and physical comedy. By the time production on “Batman” began in earnest, he had stamped his credentials with an Oscar-nominated performance in “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Williams lobbied hard for the role of the Joker in Tim Burton’s reinvention of The Dark Knight. The story goes that he was even offered the part by the studio, but, in a nefarious masterplan worthy of a Batman supervillain, it was all an elaborate ruse. Their first pick, Jack Nicholson, wasn’t very interested in playing a comic book character, so they used Williams as bait, luring the bigger star into signing a lucrative contract that eventually netted him somewhere between $60 and $90 million.

The manipulation on the studio’s part obviously stung Williams. There is an interview from 1993 where he tries to put a brave face on it, uncorking a great Jack Nicholson impression while magnanimously reasoning that even his successful rival for the role got “ripped off” from time to time. He also used the screen time to speculate that an opportunity to play the Riddler might come along in the future, although another comic star was on the rise who would eventually land the gig.

Robin Williams turned down the role of the Riddler in Batman Forever
Warner Bros.
Tim Burton bowed out of the franchise after the success of “Batman Returns,” declining the opportunity to direct a third film to make “Ed Wood” instead. Joel Schumacher took over and the casting merry-go-round began again. Val Kilmer replaced Michael Keaton behind the cowl and it was reported that Robin Williams was fighting it out for the role of Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler, with John Malkovich, who had made such a memorable impression on bad guy duty in Wolfgang Petersen’s “In the Line of Fire.” Around the same time, Jim Carrey burst onto the scene with the outrageous treble-whammy of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Mask,” and “Dumb and Dumber,” announcing him as a major comic talent to rival the wild and irreverent energy of Williams.

Williams was offered the part, but he turned it down. He didn’t comment and sources vary on the exact reason. Some say that he rejected the offer after how he was duped by Warner Bros. during the Joker casting saga for “Batman,” while an insider at the time said (via Entertainment Weekly):

“He believed the character was too intellectual and not as comedic as the Riddler played by Frank Gorshin on the TV series.”

Intellectual certainly isn’t the word I’d use to describe the performance of Jim Carrey, who was given the role instead. Indeed, his over-the-top turn as the Riddler owes a clear debt to Gorshin’s version in the ’60s TV show, all the way down to his skin-tight costume and cartoonish laugh. After the death of Williams, reports emerged that he became jealous of Carrey’s rising stardom and the younger actor taking the role that he had turned down. Carrey shot down the rumors, stating he had nothing but respect for the comedy genius.

Robin Williams never gave up the hope of playing a Batman villain
Warner Bros. Pictures
When reports emerged that Christopher Nolan was making a sequel to “Batman Begins,” rumors once again circulated that Robin Williams might finally get the chance to play the coveted role of the Joker. With the buzz around Paul Bettany and Adrien Brody potentially landing the part, Williams was happy to put his case forward. In an interview with IGN in 2006, he said:

“Oh god, I’d love to do that one. […] There’s a lot of ways to go. I think you can really explore how bright and how nasty-funny he is, just like I guess what Kevin [Spacey] did with Lex Luthor, made him really funny, but yet still damaged. […] As evil is, accessible and yet still horrific.”

As it turned out, Heath Ledger was Nolan’s only real consideration for the part and the young actor repaid the director’s faith, creating a totally different Joker that many consider the finest big-screen version of the character. Williams was never seriously in the running but he later acknowledged the brilliance of Ledger’s performance in an interview with Empire in 2012, while also touting his eagerness to play some kind of part in the next movie:

“I would work with Chris again in a second, playing anyone in anything. I’d play The Riddler in the next Batman, although it’d be hard to top Heath as the villain, and I’m a little hairy for tights. […] I’m using this article as an ad. Chris, call me, I’ll do anything. I could be a great character — or some weird little man in the background in Arkham Asylum.”

Of course, Nolan eventually went with Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises” and Williams sadly passed away two years later after almost three decades of publicly campaigning to play a Batman supervillain.

What kind of Riddler would Robin Williams have given us?
Searchlight Pictures
It’s fascinating to wonder what kind of Riddler Robin Williams would have given us at various stages of his career under different directors. Given that the “Batman Forever” screenplay was written specifically for him in the role when he was coming off big comic performances in “Aladdin” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” it’s easy to imagine that his version at that time would have been pretty similar to Jim Carrey’s. Although, as he acknowledged with his quip about being too hairy to wear tights, his look might have been quite different: A figure-hugging green leotard might’ve hewed too closely to his outfit from “Hook.”

If Christopher Nolan had gone with the Riddler as Batman’s next foe after “The Dark Knight,” it is very likely that Williams’ take on the character would have been quite different. After the mawkish “Patch Adams” and the box office failures of “Jakob the Liar” and “Bicentennial Man” at the end of the ’90s, the actor sought a new direction with roles that challenged his usual benign screen presence. The result was films like “One Hour Photo,” “Death to Smoochy,” and “Insomnia,” which saw him exploring his capacity for far darker material.

Nolan’s rebooting of the Dark Knight mythos tried to ground the comic book action with one foot in reality and this, connected with Williams’ earlier comment about making the Joker a more damaged individual, might suggest that a Nolan-Williams take on the Riddler would have been closer to Paul Dano’s iteration in “The Batman” than the zany cavorting of Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey. Sadly, we’ll never know, but I think we can all agree that Robin Williams is one of the greatest actors to never play a Batman villain.

Read More:

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button