Recast, Regenerate, Reboot

August 20, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Any kind of recasting is a potentially dangerous minefield. Once audiences have become familiar with an actor in a role, or once an actor has been inextricably linked to a character, it can become difficult to change the actor without risking the wrath of the audience. Why do some recasts work while others do not? There's no straightforward answer to that, but here are some thoughts.

The biggest motion picture recast occurred in 1969, when George Lazenby took over the role of James Bond from Sean Connery. The producers of the 007 franchise judged that Bond was bigger than the man who played him. As it turned out, they were only partially right. On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Lazenby's lone outing as the superspy, was not nearly as well received as its predecessor. This forced the filmmakers to meet Connery's exorbitant salary demands for a swansong. The actor returned for Diamonds Are Forever, then was again replaced. This time, with Roger Moore taking over the tux and gadgets, audiences were less resistant to the change. Since then, there has been more curiosity than hostility surrounding the debut of a new actor. Every Bond has his adherents: Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig. One could even argue that the reason Bond has lasted so long is because the frequent recasting has kept things fresh. (007 is not the only recast that has occurred for these films. M, Moneypenny, Blofeld, Felix Leiter, and even Q - sort of - have been replaced over the years.)

In general, the British appear less concerned about a revolving door of actors than the Americans. Consider the long-running TV series, Doctor Who, which began in 1963 with veteran actor William Hartnell in the lead role. Three years in, Hartnell's declining health no longer allowed him to participate in a weekly series, so he gave up the role. Rather than retiring Doctor Who along with Hartnell, the BBC decided to change the actor. They hired Patrick Troughton (who bore no physical resemblance to Hartnell and could not play the role the same way) to take over. The on-screen explanation for the change was that the old Doctor's "body wore out" and he "regenerated" into a new one. (Anything can happen in science fiction.) Viewers had little trouble accepting the concept, and Doctor Who continued for another 20+ years with five additional lead actors (Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy). When the show was resurrected off the scrap-heap by the BBC in 2005 to become a surprise ratings hit, the "regeneration" concept returned as well. New Who, as it has been called, has featured two lead actors, with David Tennant taking over for Christopher Eccleston in 2006.

But re-casts do not always go smoothly. Some fans were irate when Kirstie Alley was replaced by Robin Curtis as Saavik in some of the early Star Trek films. (Curtis ultimately had more screen time as Saavik than Alley, but the latter is remembered as the "real" character, in large part because she originated the role.) In The Mummy movies, Maria Bello's interpretation of Evelyn (replacing Rachel Weisz) was greeted with derision. (A better move would have been to write the character out of the script than attempting a recast.) Opinion was sharply divided regarding Maggie Gyllenhaal's replacement of Katie Holmes in The Dark Knight. (It didn't bother me, but it was a problem for some others.) Then there were the revolving Batmans from the early '90s. Keaton-to-Kilmer-to Clooney. I don't really recall much outrage, however. I'm not sure anyone cared. That Batman series was always more about the villains than the heroes, anyway.

Perhaps the way to go with recasts is to "reboot" a series. No one made a fuss when Christian Bale stepped in for Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney and Michael Caine replaced Michael Gough. Batman Begins was accepted as a "reboot" of the Batman franchise. One of the problems Bryan Singer encountered with Superman Returns was trying to retain elements from the Richard Donner era. This opened up Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth to direct comparison with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.

Perhaps the best recent example of a successful reboot is Battlestar Galactica, which retained names and plot points from the '70s series but completely reworked everything. I can recall the anger in fandom when it was announced that Starbuck would be a woman, Boomer would be an Asian instead of a black man, and the Cylons would no longer intone "By your command." Now, some four or five years later, Ronald Moore's vision of the BSG universe has supplanted Glen Larson's original interpretation. Even Richard Hatch, the only actor to appear in both, has admitted that the new one is a more complete series.

It's impossible to discuss recasts and not to mention two hot topics in this arena. The first is Star Trek. When J.J. Abrams' movie arrives in theaters next summer, it will be the first time a legendary series with a cult following has been rebooted. Gone are William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, etc. (Leonard Nimoy is providing a "bridge" between the old and new.) How will audiences, protective for more than 40 years of these personalties, react to the re-casting of an iconic character like James T. Kirk? I don't envy Chris Pine. In order to be accepted, he has to capture the essence of Shatner while at the same time making the role his own. Such a mixture of mimicry and originality is a tall order even for a veteran, let alone someone untried. Nevertheless, if there's no Shatner to be found in this Kirk, Pine will be excoriated. And if it's all Shatner, Pine will be dismissed as a copycat. It may be a no-win situation.

Then there's the question of whether the Joker should return for the next Batman movie. Reading between the lines, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that's what Chris Nolan originally intended. But now? Does he dare re-cast the character? Does he move forward without the Joker? It's a thorny issue with which Nolan will have to wrestle. Failing to bring back the Joker could damage his vision of the third film but re-casting the role could open him up to widespread mutiny by the legion of fans that have elevated The Dark Knight to its exalted status. Like the questionable decision to reboot Star Trek, this potential re-casting issue won't disappear any time soon.