It's been widely reported for years that John Lithgow was in the running to play the Joker in Tim Burton's 1989 vision of Batman, which was originally going to be directed by Gremlins helmer Joe Dante. But Lithgow is now, nearly 30 years later, finally commenting on his decision to not take the role. The role obviously went to Jack Nicholson, who went on to universal acclaim for his portrayal of the Joker. Before Nicholson, it was Caesar Romero's version on the campy 1960s television series, which Nicholson ditched in favor of a darker, more sinister take on the villain.
Back in 1989, a Batman movie by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton was a bit of a gamble. Lithgow spoke to Vulture about his regret of not taking the role and his circumstances around that time. Lithgow explains.
"My worst audition was for Tim Burton for Batman. 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."
It's not hard to imagine Lithgow playing a villain, but after all of these years it's hard to imagine him as playing the Joker against Keaton's Batman. Even picturing an unhinged Robin Williams is hard to imagine after Nicholson's commanding performance. Lithgow went on to explain his circumstances further. He says this.
"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's that for stupid? Actors are not necessarily smart people."
Now Lithgow has obviously done fine for himself and his acting career, but one can't help play a game of what if? What if Lithgow had played the Joker? Well, first off, he'd probably have a lot more money in the bank and have some pretty awesome action figures of himself. It's not that stupid of a stupid decision, he was tired. After all, he was 43-years old at the time.
This was not the first time that Lithgow had been approached to play the Joker. Back in the mid-eighties The 'Burbs director Joe Dante was on board to make a Batman movie and he wanted Lithgow. Dante has said that he wanted Lithgow for the role after meeting him on the Twilight Zone movie. Dante reportedly wanted to do a more Joker-centric version of Batman and just decided that he had more interest in the Joker than Batman, which was probably not the right mindset at that time.
Over 30 years later we've seen many incarnations of the Joker, spawning debate all whenever it's brought up. Who wore the purple suit better? Was it Leto, Ledger, Nicholson? Or was it Mark Hamill's voice acting in the animated series? The arguments will go on until the end of time, or at least the end of the day about who the best Joker was, and it's pretty interesting to think about Lithgow in that mix. Undoubtedly he would've done a masterful job, but would he have ended up on the Mount Rushmore of Jokers?