Nicholson. Ledger. Leto. Everyone who has played Joker in the modern era has been an Oscar-winning actor. It’s an iconic role, but in the late 1980s, John Lithgow didn’t know that. He auditioned to play the role in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and actively tried not to be cast. It’s a decision he regrets to this day.
“My worst audition was for Tim Burton for Batman,” Lithgow told Vulture. “I have never told anyone this story, but I tried to persuade him I was not right for the part, and I succeeded. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal. About a week later I heard they were going after Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson.”
Another factor was likely the fact Burton was the second filmmaker that wanted to cast Lithgow as Batman’s greatest adversary. According to the same interview, Joe Dante (director of Gremlins) was working on a Batman movie that never happened and also tried to cast Lithgow as Joker.
“I was doing M. Butterfly on Broadway and it was an exhausting show,” Lithgow said of the Dante project. “It would have meant leaving that show and going right into a movie, and I said, ‘I just don’t think I can.’ How about that for stupid? Actors are not necessarily smart people.”
Lithgow, of course, did fine for himself. But he missed out not once but twice on one of the marquee roles not just in comic book movie history, but in all of film history.