‘Friday’: The Big Reason Chris Tucker Beat Chris Rock for Smokey

Throughout his career, Chris Tucker has only appeared in a dozen or so movies. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he became one of the world’s highest-paid actors thanks to the Rush Hour films. But Tucker’s rise as a movie star really began with 1995’s Friday. So it’s wild to think Chris Rock was once in contention to play Smokey opposite Ice Cube. When it came time to find the right person for the job, however, one simple reason gave Tucker an edge.

Chris Tucker wears a dark suit and furrows his brow of camera
Chris Tucker | Phillip Faraone/WireImage

Chris Tucker delivered a star-making turn in ‘Friday’

At the time, Tucker was known almost exclusively for his stand-up comedy. His biggest movie credit up to that point was a small role as Johnny Booze in House Party 3. That film did play a hand in getting Tucker cast in Friday, as New Line Cinema produced both. But it was still an uphill battle for Friday co-writers Ice Cube and DJ Pooh as well as director F. Gary Gray to convince the studio Tucker was the right choice.

Tucker’s appearance on Def Comedy Jam made the team behind the movie certain he would be the perfect Smokey. Still, the audition process didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. But thankfully, in the end, Tucker wound up on set next to Ice Cube, and a star was born. Their chemistry remains so palpable that fans still hope to see the actors reunite, even though Tucker never appeared in the Friday sequels.

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Director F. Gary Gray thought Chris Rock wouldn’t fit

The original plan was to cast DJ Pooh as Smokey. But the studio rejected that idea. So the process of casting the key role was a rigorous one. When Gray was gearing up for Friday, Rock was a much safer bet than the unproven Tucker. Rock had recently completed a four-season run on Saturday Night Live and had even starred in his own hit movie, 1993’s CB4. Yet, as Gray told Complex, even he didn’t feel like the right fit for the movie.

“I go for authenticity. There have been times in my career where I hired real killers and thugs, and the moment you roll the camera, it’s like a deer in headlights. They can’t even be themselves. [Chris Tucker’s] brilliance is that he shines when the lights are on. … There was talk about Chris Rock playing Smokey because he had kind of a bigger name, but Chris Rock is very New York. Although Chris [Tucker] is from Georgia, he had kind of an LA vibe. So we just rolled the dice and scored. His instincts are amazing, and as much as I could want to take credit for Friday, I wouldn’t. Friday is Friday because of Chris Tucker.”

To Gray’s point, it’s not only Tucker’s screen presence but his chemistry with Ice Cube that makes the movie work. While Rock would likely have been a fun choice, his sensibility might have clashed with the laid-back California vibe Friday hoped to capture. Given how well-loved the movie is even now, fans would agree Gray made the right call.

Chris Rock wouldn’t be a movie star until much later

Of course, Rock’s career didn’t exactly suffer. The star continued to be one of the most successful stand-up comedians of the time. And though he never became the kind of movie star Tucker did, Rock certainly led his share of films over the years. Perhaps most notably, he even became a director and producer in the early 2000s.

Rock’s most successful movies, however, have been in the world of animation, according to The-Numbers.com. The actor’s voice role as Marty the zebra in the Madagascar movies have been hugely profitable. Most recently, Rock will appear opposite an epic ensemble cast in director David O. Russell’s next movie. Ironically, Tucker plays a supporting role in Russell’s 2012 Oscar-winning blockbuster Silver Linings Playbook.

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