A hero is only as good as their villain. And from the 1960s TV series to recent blockbusters, Batman has had the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime has been brought to life on screen many times. But Jack Nicholson made such an impression in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman that it was decades until someone else stepped into the role. Still, he wasn’t Burton’s first choice.
Jack Nicholson landed an epic payday as the Joker in ‘Batman’
Few movie stars are as iconic as Nicholson. For decades, he seemed to be the quintessential Hollywood A-lister. From his front-row seat at the Oscars to his decades of blockbuster hits, Nicholson could do anything he wanted. As such, that made his decision to put on white make-up and play the Joker so much more impressive. And Nicholson — predictably — nailed it.
For Burton and his Batman, getting Nicholson gave the project a new level of legitimacy. But of course, the actor didn’t come cheap. In fact, Nicholson negotiated for a percentage of the movie’s grosses, an approach that was way less prevalent than it is today. Entertainment Weekly once claimed he made $50 million, but more recent estimates are closer to $90 million.
Tim Burton’s original choice for the 1989 film gave the ‘worst audition’
Nicholson set the bar high for big-screen Jokers, one Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix arguably topped decades later. But when Burton initially signed on for Batman, he approached John Lithgow for the role. The actor’s most recent movie at the time would have been 1987’s Harry and the Hendersons. But Lithgow believed he wasn’t right for Joker, he told Vulture.
“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.”
Given how unproven superhero movies were back then, it makes sense Lithgow wouldn’t think Batman would be a “big deal.” After all, only the Christopher Reeves Superman movies had been produced. And even that series crashed and burned before Burton got his movie going. So Lithgow’s decision to turn down Joker likely seemed like the most sensible one then.
How would John Lithgow’s career have been different if he was Joker?
For as gifted and versatile an actor as Lithgow, there’s little doubt he would have done something memorable and very different with the Joker. But would Batman have become as much of a pop culture landmark without Nicholson’s star power? Or on the other hand, perhaps Lithgow’s performance could have pushed him quickly to leading-man status.
For most of his career, Lithgow has been a celebrated character actor. But seeing the history of Oscar-winning actors playing the Joker, maybe he could have joined their ranks. Lithgow played a few dark roles in the years following Batman, most notably in Raising Cain and Cliffhanger. At this point, those villainous roles are as close to Lithgow’s Joker as fans will get.