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Batman 75: How Robin Williams Almost Played the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman & Then The Riddler in Batman Forever

Posted on the 14 August 2014 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm

So, Robin Williams is dead, and that’s a seriously tall glass of suck.  We are left to binge-watch his movies (omg, The Birdcage is still so good), and lament all the potential future film and TV roles we’re going to miss out on, that is after the 4 films he left in the can come out.  Increasingly, this website has become rather comic-book movie/TV centric, and as such my natural inclination is to find some angle on this story that brings it back to comic books.

Oh, duh – write about that one time Robin Williams was almost cast as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman!

Actually, there really isn’t much to Robin Williams’ part of the story.  Tim Burton wanted to cast Williams as the Joker during Batman‘s development period in 1988; all of the producers wanted Jack Nicholson.  We know how that ultimately played out.  On the flip-side, the producers didn’t want Michael Keaton as Batman but Tim Burton did, and we know how that ended up as well.  The direct compromised here, the producers comprised over there, etc.

The 1989 Batman 

However, the story actually stars nearly a decade before all of that.  Life-long Batman fanatic Michael Uslan saw what Richard Donner had done with Superman (1978) and was convinced if we could be made to believe a man could fly we could learn to take Batman seriously again despite being barely a decade removed from the Adam West TV show.  So, Uslan co-wrote a screenplay with friend Michael Bourn in early 1979, calling it Return of the Batman and focusing on an embittered, 50-ish Batman coming out of retirement for one last hurrah.


They basically went Frank Miller with it except this was years before Miller ever came along to do The Dark Knight Returns

That wasn’t necessarily a script Uslan wanted to get made.  His aspiration was mostly to just produce whatever movie ended up happening.  The script was created for the specific purpose of showing the Hollywood studio execs what a dark and brooding bad-ass Batman could be.

By October 1979, Uslan partnered with legendary producer Ben Melniker (Ben-Hur, Doctor Zhivago, 2001: A Space Odyssey) to secure the Batman film rights, only to then have every studio in Hollywood turn them down.


No matter what Uslan did, this was what most everyone thought when he mentioned Batman

The only one who bought what they were selling was Peter Guber, who formally committed to developing and producing Uslan’s Batman film through Casablanca Filmworks in November 1979.  It was then a ten-year journey to the screen, during which time Uslan refused to ever give up on the project only to ultimately be pushed aside by Guber and his producing partner Jon Peters.

One thing that never changed during that ten-year period, though, was Uslan’s conviction that the film would feature the Joker as the villain, and he would be played by Jack Nicholson.  In fact, a memo Uslan wrote for Jon Peters on November 6, 1980 states as much in an outline of what should and should not be in the movie.  Why such the hard-on for Nicholson, who at that time was most known for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)?  Well, it has everything to do with the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as Uslan later explained:

“From the very beginning, Nicholson was the only actor I thought could really play the Joker.  For me, the final straw on that happened in 1980.  It was Memorial Day weekend, and The Shining and The Empire Strikes Back were both opening up, and I got on the bus in New York heading back to New Jersey and picked up The New York Post.  And I open it up on the bus, and there I see for the first time the classic still from The Shining, the ‘Here’s Johnny’ shot of Nicholson, and I looked it, and hit hit me like a ton of bricks.  I tore it out, I raced home, I saw down and I whited out Jack’s face, I took a red pen and did his lips, I took a green magic marker and did his hair, and I used that from that moment on to show everybody this is the only guy who can play the Joker.”


The Shining one-sheet


How Uslan made Nicholson the Joker

Where Robin Williams Plays Into It

Of course, while Uslan was apparently carrying around his adorably d.i.y. mock-up of Nicholson as the Joker throughout the 80s Robin Williams was emerging as exactly the kinetic, unpredictable screen persona who would be perfect for the Joker.  After exiting Mork and Mindy in 1982, Williams zipped back and forth between The World According to Garp (1982), The Survivors (1983 –  a lesser-known buddy comedy with Walter Matheau), Moscow on the Hudson (1984 – sort of like Yakoff Smirnoff’s stand-up adapted to a feature film), The Best of Times (1986 – the football comedy with Kurt Russell), Club Paradise (1986 – a Caribbean-set comedy with SCTV alums Rick Moranis and Eugene Levy),  and Seize the Day (1986 – a mostly forgotten dramedy about a down-on-his luck New York salesman).

This half-decade’s worth of hits and misses finally paid off with Williams’s now iconic performance in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), he’s the high-wire, improv-king for half the film, sad, remarkably touching dramatic actor the other half.  This performance earned Williams his first Oscar nomination, and it was fresh off of this that he was approached about playing the Joker.  They even officially offered it to him, and by some reports he actually accepted.

Then they took that offer back.  But, wait, if Uslan had always wanted Nicholson to play the Joker then why did they even officially extend an offer to Williams, even if Burton really wanted him?

Because that’s how the game is played.  Uslan wasn’t kidding about wanting Nicholson, and he’d been working on recruiting the actor to the project since 1986 while working with him onThe Witches of Eastwick. By the time Batman reached the casting stage a couple of years later, the projected budget had grown so quickly that the studio was fully behind casting Nicholson because his name on the marquee seemed like a great box-office insurance.  However, even after the studio put on the full-court press to woo Nicholson he played serious hard ball, recognizing he had all the leverage since it was clear they needed him more than he needed them.

That’s when they offered the role to Williams, who did not realize he was simply being used as leverage against Nicholson.  Once Nicholson caught wind of what was going down he went back to Warner Bros. and also accepted the role with a lot of agreements in his contract including a percentage of the box office takings and the ability to dictate his own working hours, ultimately earning a $6 million salary and percentage of gross plus 17.5% on merchandising, ultimately pulling in over $60 million.  As you can imagine, Williams was poor than a little annoyed.

It’s ultimately hard to try and mentally cut and paste Nicholson’s Joker out of Batman and replace it with an imagined Williams Joker, although as per usual someone has taken to photoshop to give it a try:


Am I the only one who finds that image terrifying?

Batman Forever – If Not the Joker, Why Not the Riddler?

If Williams was an ideal candidate for the Joker surely he’d be perfect to play the character who in the comics is pretty much just a Joker clone – the Riddler.  That was the general wisdom back in the early 90s when Batman Forever was first announced, then simply referred to as Batman III.  Before the studio had hired screenwriters, the industry trades were already assuming the next villain would be the Riddler, and that he’d be played by Robin Williams.  He didn’t exactly shoot down such ideas, quoted at the time as saying, “I loved Batman when I was growing up because we didn’t have Barney then.  I am just waiting to see the script, and if it’s right, then I’ll sign on.”

That script came from Lee and Janet Scott Batchler, a husband-and-wife team who had toiled in TV before making a splash with a script about French magician Robert Houdin which set off a bidding war in Hollywood.  Warner Bros. ordered them to follow the Batman Returns model of using two villains, one of whom had to be Two-Face because incoming director Joel Schumacher already wanted Tommy Lee Jones for that role.  The other villain was up to them, and they picked the Riddler because he was someone audiences would know thanks to the Adam West TV show.  So, they wrote the script thinking that Lee Jones would be their Two-Face and Williams their Riddler.  Schumacher was already working on costume design, coming up with an idea that the Riddler would steal his costume off of a leprechaun fortune-teller at a circus.

Eventually, the Batchler’s had to leave the project due to a scheduling conflict, and Akiva Goldsman was brought in by Schumacher to re-write, although the finished script was essentially the same as the last draft the Batchlers had turned in.

What happened after that has been told in different versions over the years:

  • Williams simply took too long to sign his contract, allowing Jim Carrey and his agent to steal the role away from him
  • Williams didn’t like Goldsman’s changes to the script, wanting to play a Riddler who was closer to the Frank Gorshin version from the Adam West series.  So, he passed on the part.
  • Williams turned down the offer for the role mostly just to stick it it to Warner Bros. for the way they had used him during their negations with Nicholson.

The official explanation is that Williams passed on the part because he didn’t like the script, and the studio rejoiced because his decision freed them up to instantly hire the then-red hot Jim Carrey, he of the 1994 trifecta of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber. Oddly for a man with 3 huge films in one year like that, Carrey was only able to accept the part in Batman Forever because Fox canceled In Loving Color.

Considering how snugly Carrey fit into his body-tight costume it’s a bit odd to imagine Robin Williams filling out the same get-up:


Although it’s not hard to picture him making for a really good Riddler, if perhaps in a version of the character not directed by Joel Schumacher:


Of course, the internet being what it is both of the above stories were well-known enough that all throughout the history of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy there were countless fan-fueled theories that the universe would somehow make it up to Williams and let him end up playing a new version of the Joker or the Riddler. Williams did, after all, begin his late-career comeback with his chilling, brilliant turn as the villain in Nolan’s Insomnia (2002).  Williams himself even joined in on this, letting it be known that if Nolan wanted to talk he’d certainly listen.  Someone at Batman-News.com even adorably wildly speculated Williams had been cast as Dr. Hugo Strange in The Dark Knight Rises.  Yeah, that didn’t happen.

It was probably never going to happen, either, Williams as Hugo Strange in a new Batman movie, but, sadly, we can now definitely say it will never happen just as we will never see a Robin Williams Joker or Riddler.


Source: Bruce Scivally’s Billion Dollar Batman 

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