John Lithgow Almost Played the Joker in ‘Batman’

Drew Dietsch
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John Lithgow is one of the best actors of all time. More importantly, he’s fantastic at playing truly villainous characters. That might come as a shock to those who only know him as the lovable Dick Solomon in Third Rock from the Sun, but Lithgow has a history of playing heavies with some real menace. Modern fans learned this when he portrayed Arthur Mitchell in Dexter. He’s also shown up as the big bad in films like Blow OutCliffhangerRaising Cain, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. But, if history had taken a different path, John Lithgow would have played the greatest villain of them all: the Joker.

The Last Laugh

john lithgow buckaroo banzai dr lizardo
John Lithgow as Dr. Emilio Lizardo in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is one of his Joker-esque roles

Lithgow had been courted for the role in the past when Joe Dante (Gremlins) was attached to make Batman. That film eventually fell apart and the reins were handed to Tim Burton. Burton initially went after Lithgow as well, but Lithgow was too swamped at the time. Lithgow opened up about the experience while at the Tony Awards:

“My worst audition was for Tim Burton for Batman,” Lithgow told Vulture this weekend 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.

“I was doing M. Butterfly on Broadway and it was an exhausting show. 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.”

It would have been intriguing to see Lithgow in the role but Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Clown Prince of Crime is legendary. That’s not to say Lithgow wouldn’t have been equally or even more iconic in the part. Movie history is filled with enticing stories of what could have been. Believe me, I’ve written about quite a few. It would be fun to visit the alternate universe where Lithgow did take the part. But, until someone invents Rick’s portal gun, we’ll only have our imaginations.

Drew Dietsch
Drew Dietsch has written for CHUD.com, the News-Press, WhatCulture, and releases a weekly film review podcast, The Drew Reviews Podcast. He'll yak your ear off about horror movies, Jaws, RoboCop, and/or Batman if you let him.
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