Before Jack Nicholson won the role of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman, it was John Lithgow’s job to take or leave. He left it, and the actor still regrets the decision to this day.
“My worst audition was for Tim Burton for Batman,” Lithgow told Vulture at the Tony Awards. “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.”
Burton’s Batman released in 1989 when the modern superhero movie boom was in its infancy. The X-Men franchise wouldn’t begin until 2000, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy wouldn’t arrive until 2005, and Iron Man, which launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, landed later in 2008.
The funny thing, though, is that this was the second time Lithgow turned down an offer to play Joker. Director Joe Dante spoke about his Batman movie that never was and said he wanted the Trial & Error star to play the Clown Prince of Gotham. The filmmaker ultimately dropped out because he was “more interested in the Joker” than the Caped Crusader.
“I was doing M. Butterfly on Broadway and it was an exhausting show,” Lithgow recalled of why he passed at the time. “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.”