In a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, Robert De Niro revealed two shocking details about his career choices, which, if had gone in that direction, would have brought a significant change in his filmography and career progress. While confirming he first auditioned for Sonny Corleone before being cast as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II; he also revealed that he was the first choice to play Josh in the 1988 hit comedy Big, a role which eventually went to Tom Hanks.
The revelations were a part of the True/False game Fallon had designed to converse with Robert De Niro, who was present via video conference in front of the first live audience taping in over a year (the pandemic had earlier restricted gathering of audiences in such shows). After discussing the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which De Niro is a founder of, Fallon asked the veteran actor to answer a few questions in True or False to make the interview interesting.
Fallon opened up with the question concerning De Niro's involvement in the first Godfather film, alleging that De Niro auditioned for the role of Sonny Corleone, a role which eventually went to James Caan. Replying in confirmation of the rumor, De Niro replied with this.
"Yes. Everybody was up for Michael, but everyone knew Al [Pacino] was gonna do it, [and] that Francis wanted him. And then - but I wanted to do the Sonny part too and I read for it. But I think [that] Francis was pretty set on Jimmy Caan too. But you know, they let me read [the role]."
Jimmy Fallon even surprised the audience and the viewers with a small clip from the original audition De Niro gave for the part of Sonny Corleone. Moving further, Fallon called for a myth, per which, De Niro was the original choice for the role of Josh in the 1988 hit comedy Big, a role which Tom Hanks eventually took. This one was probably a shocking one for some as De Niro confirmed this myth as true as well, saying,
"Yes. But we had a thing - an issue with the negotiations, so it went the way it went. But that is fine. You know."
Well, the audience wouldn't disagree with it because both the scenarios turned in huge favors for De Niro's career. Firstly, losing on the role of Sonny Corleone to James Caan allowed De Niro to be cast in a lead for the second film of the famous Godfather Trilogy. Though Caan was nominated for an Oscar in his role as Sonny, his character was killed off in the first film.
De Niro went on to play Vito Corleone, a younger version of the character Marlon Brando played in the first film. For his performance, De Niro received huge applause and acclaim, leading to his first Academy Award win in the Best Actor category. If he'd played Sonny in the first film, he would've never gotten a chance to play Vito in the second. From thereon, De Niro went on to star in a number of blockbusters leads such as Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and Raging Bull.
On the other hand, passing on the role of Josh in Big gave Hollywood another star in Tom Hanks. Hanks, though a successful actor, was yet to have his big hit in the industry when Big came along. For playing Josh in the film, Hanks received his first Academy Award nomination in the Best Actor category, while winning Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Musical or Comedy. The film's success launched Hanks' as a reliable and profitable actor, eventually leading him to star in projects such as Apollo 13, Philadelphia, and Forrest Gump.
Notably, De Niro competed at the Golden Globes that year against Hanks, being nominated for his role in Midnight Run. The two roles that De Niro never got a chance to play turned highly fruitful for De Niro himself and luckily for Hanks. There are tons of such surprise casting changes which has led to critically acclaimed performances from the other actors. And De Niro's replacements worked out really well.