‘Big’: Tom Hanks Initially Rejected the Starring Role – and Director Penny Marshall Offered It to This ‘Godfather’ Star Instead

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Tom Hanks in his breakthrough film Big. Thanks to his leading role in the film as Josh Baskin, Hanks became a blockbuster box-office darling.

It almost didn’t happen that way, however. Hanks initially turned down the part. An unlikely actor, known more for his portrayals of tough and brutal characters, nearly grabbed it when director Penny Marshall made them the offer instead.

Here’s how it all worked out.

Tom Hanks, left, as Josh Baskin, looks on with delight at a candle-lit cake in a scene from 1988's 'Big'
Tom Hanks, left, as Josh Baskin, looks on with delight at a candle-lit cake in a scene from 1988’s ‘Big’ | 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images

Penny Marshall on directing ‘Big’

Big was Marshall’s first, for lack of a better word, big directorial project.

True, she had directed 1986’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash after both Burt Reynolds and then Howard Zieff had each accepted the director’s job and each walked away from the project. Marshall took over as director six weeks into the film’s shooting.

As for Big, the former Laverne & Shirley star expressed to Today in 1988 her disbelief at how well the film did.

“I think the movie is a good movie but it’s shocking that it got this big,” Marshall told Jane Pauley at the time.

Asked how she knew so much about the behavior and thinking of 13-year-old boys, the director said, “I wanted to be one; I was a tomboy.”

Hanks’ piano scene in ‘Big’ almost didn’t happen

The Apollo 13 actor, incredibly, turned the movie role down at first, as did several other established names.

“I went straight to the three big box-office stars at the time: Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, and Dennis Quaid. All of them passed. Everyone passed,” Marshall wrote in her 2012 memoir, My Mother Was Nuts.

RELATED: Carrie Fisher Introduced Her Friend Penny Marshall to the Legendary Artist Who Would Become One of Her Greatest Loves

Although Sean Penn, Gary Busey, and Andy Garcia read for the lead role, none of them, Marshall said, had what she was looking for. They were either too young, or played the role of a child well, but not an adult.

She offered the role to this Hollywood biggie instead

Finally, Marshall thought of another actor who she knew could fill the role of Josh the child and Josh the adult with agility: The Godfather star Robert De Niro.

The actor who was most well-known for his roles as tough guys was open to the challenge of making “a commercial film,” Marshall wrote.

Robert De Niro in 1974's 'The Godfather Part II'
Robert De Niro in 1974’s ‘The Godfather Part II’ | Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

“He had done all of Marty Scorsese’s movies, but hadn’t broken out in a film the whole family could watch,” she added.

As it turned out, De Niro accepted the role and then turned it down later because he felt he wouldn’t be paid enough for the part.

Finally, Hanks signed on. “We shot in New Jersey and New York,” Marshall wrote. “Once production began, I developed a good rhythm with Tom. In his early 30s, he was confident, but still full of the eagerness of a young actor determined to own the part.”

For both Marshall and Hanks, the film ended up becoming one of their most memorable and lucrative projects. In a word, big.