One of the greatest action movies of all time, and also one of the greatest Christmas movies (yes, Die Hard is indeed a holiday movie) almost didn’t have the leading man that we know and love. That’s right, the main character, the barefoot “fly in the ointment,” as he called himself, the man who saved the Nakatomi hostages, N.Y.P.D. detective John McClane, could have been played by someone other than Bruce Willis. A weird realization, but not so much when you consider that Nicolas Cage was at one time attached to a potential Tim Burton-Superman movie. Or, how about when Sylvester Stallone was approached to do Beverly Hills Cop before Eddie Murphy was even considered for the role of Axel Foley?
Like many projects in pre-production, the casting process can be extensive and can sometimes go through many rounds of consideration just to cast only one character. Picking the actor to play McClane certainly included a considerable list of top names in Hollywood at that time. And they all declined before Willis could finally make “fists with his toes,” and the rest is cinematic history.
The following are actors who were at least rumored and who — in one way or another — could have starred as John McClane in Die Hard, but ultimately passed.
This is definitely not a name you thought you’d see here. However, Die Hard is based on an action-thriller novel called “Nothing Lasts Forever,” written by author Roderick Thorp. This book is actually a sequel to another novel, “The Detective,” which also got a film adaptation of the same name in 1968. This previous movie starred Sinatra as the protagonist. Due to the contractual details behind the production of that film, the actor playing the hero was obligated to be formally offered the role. But, Sinatra was in his early seventies when pre-production for Die Hard began, hence him sensibly turning down the role.
John Travolta was possibly considered for the role of John McClane. Rumor had it, though, that 20th Century Fox wouldn’t allow it, because Travolta was considered a “has been” then. By the time the development of Die Hard started in 1987, Travolta had already turned down a few hit movies of that decade. Films like American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Splash were each movies that he had a decent chance of landing, though not in the end. However, Travolta would co-star with Bruce Willis a year after Die Hard in Look Who’s Talking (1989), Look Who’s Talking Too in 1990, and Pulp Fiction in 1994.
Robert De Niro
Legendary actor Robert De Niro had also been rumored for consideration in playing McClane, but it obviously didn’t work out that way. The same year that Die Hard was released, De Niro starred in Midnight Run, a comedy-action film co-starring Charles Grodin. At the time, De Niro didn’t quite have much experience with roles in action movies of the same scale as Die Hard, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. However, both films would end up opening on the same weekend, so it might’ve been pretty tough for De Niro to shoot two separate movies, including one as demanding as Die Hard was, without conflicting schedules.
Clint Eastwood once owned the rights to the novel “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the novel on which Die Hard is based. He was said to have planned to star in a film adaptation of the book around the early 1980s, even also to possibly direct the project as well. This could’ve likely resulted in a different tone or style from what we actually saw with Bruce Willis, an actor with whom the filmmakers of the finished product made slightly humorous tweaks to the screenplay to make things less gritty. In the same year that Die Hard came out, Eastwood was already starring in The Dead Pool, the fifth of his Dirty Harry films.
The late action star Charles Bronson was also considered for the role of John McClane, but he was under contract with The Cannon Group, Inc. during the eighties. Cannon was the film distribution company that was behind many of Bronson’s hit movies during that decade. He starred in three of his five Death Wish series of movies, along with other films such as 10 to Midnight, Murphy’s Law, and Messenger of Death, to name a few. In fact, the fourth Death Wish sequel, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown, was released in 1988, the same year as Die Hard.
Leading eighties man Richard Gere was likely a natural choice to star as McClane. He spent the first half of the 1980s earning top actor status by starring in American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Cotton Club, and that was before 1985. Gere worked on two movies in 1986, No Mercy and Power, but slowed down from 1987 into 1988, which could’ve opened the door for him to star in Die Hard. It’s not known officially why he passed on the movie, but perhaps it could’ve been for an undesirable script, a very common reason for any actor to turn down a potential role.
One of the top action stars during the eighties was considered to play the character that would be known as McClane. And since Die Hard was always going to be an action movie, why wouldn’t you at least think about Sylvester Stallone? Between 1982 and 1988, the year Die Hard was released, Stallone starred in the action movies First Blood, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Cobra. That stretch of movies would’ve been more than enough to cast him in Die Hard. All that work got Rambo actually mentioned in the movie, at least. However, Stallone might’ve had creative differences with the filmmakers already attached to work on the movie. The same thing occurred back in 1984 when he wanted to do Beverly Hills Cop in a much darker and grittier tone than what audiences ultimately got with Eddie Murphy. What Stallone had envisioned then, some say, is what fans got two years later out of his 1986 movie Cobra, which was nothing like Willis’ performance as McClane.
The only other action star considered as big, if not bigger than Stallone, is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was his action-packed rival, also considered for Die Hard’s lead role. During the 1980s, he starred in more action movies than Stallone, likely making him a considerable front-runner for Die Hard’s hero. And similar to Stallone, Schwarzenegger was literally named in the movie, as a nod to how big his reputation as a heroic killing machine already was at that time. From 1982 to 1988, Arnold starred in Conan the Barbarian, and the direct sequel, Conan the Destroyer, his most famous role in The Terminator, Red Sonja, Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, The Running Man, Red Heat, and Twins. In fact, it was Twins, a 1988 buddy-comedy movie, that Schwarzenegger would choose as a change of pace away from all of his action movies, leaving the role of McClane available for someone else.
This one’s a bit of a spoof, but it’s still technically true because of an initial scheduling conflict, of all things. Originally, Willis was barely being considered (if at all) for the role of John McClane, but when he was finally offered the opportunity, Willis turned it down. At the time, he was co-starring with actress Cybill Shepherd on the hit ABC primetime comedy series, Moonlighting. The film’s shooting schedule would have coincided with the filming schedule of the TV show that Willis was contracted to. But Shepherd had gotten pregnant in the middle of everything, halting Moonlighting’s production schedule for 11 weeks, which opened the elevator doors – pun intended — for Willis to run barefoot through the Nakatomi Tower.
Others who were rumored to have had the chance to play McClane
Over all of these years, just over 34 to be exact, there have been numerous stories and rumors over who was offered the lead role in Die Hard. All of the previously mentioned names do make sense in one way or another and so did Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds, Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson, Paul Newman, James Caan, and Al Pacino. Their names have all been mentioned in countless articles and stories over the years regarding past casting rumors. And each of these guys was at the very least, quite bankable during the eighties, and very likely would’ve made the studio more than their money back from the production budget after the movie’s release.
Bruce Willis was mainly known during the 1980s as a TV actor, even winning a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Comedy Series the year before starring in the movie that shot him into superstardom. And even though he wasn’t a top name under consideration for McClane then, he wasn’t the only television actor that had a shot. Miami Vice was pretty big during that decade so naturally, Don Johnson was floated around as a possibility for McClane. So was MacGyver’s Richard Dean Anderson, which might’ve worked out well since that character was pretty good at utilizing what was around him to save the day.