1. Lance Henriksen as William Tecumseh Sherman
Sherman’s a fascinating figure; repellent in many ways, yet certifiably brilliant and one of the few men on either side who went into the war knowing full well what it would mean. He’d be a good figure for a Patton-style biopic, or at the very least would have to play a major role in any such film made about Grant (who at least would be a more palatable character for general audience to sympathize with).
And if such a film had been made around the early 90s or late 80s, there’s only one actor who could have played him: Lance Henriksen. Not only is Henriksen an extremely talented character actor, whose intense, understated delivery and gravelly voice would be ideal for the role, but he even looks a lot like Sherman; both having long, weather-beaten faces and deep-set eyes.
Alas, though Mr. Henriksen is still working at 81, he’s now far too old for the part and so the world has missed a great performance.
2. Caroline Munro as Dejah Thoris
I haven’t seen the 2012 Disney adaptation of John Carter, though I know several people who are big fans of it. I’ll certainly see it sooner or later, but to my mind, whatever its strengths, it will always have one major weakness: it lacks the ideal Dejah Thoris.
Caroline Munro isn’t particularly well known outside of fantasy film circles: her most prominent ‘mainstream’ role being a brief turn as an evil Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me, where she made an impression, but didn’t even have time to be seduced by Bond before getting offed. Among fantasy film aficionados, she’s best known as the female lead in Ray Harryhausen’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
Hollywood, of course, is full of beautiful women, but convincingly playing “the most beautiful woman of two worlds” is a tall order for any actress. Miss Munro, though admittedly not a great actress in her prime, was one of the few who I think could have qualified. Not just because she was spectacularly gorgeous, but because her beauty was of an exotic, almost wild style, with slanting dark eyes and black hair that is exactly how I would picture the Princess of Mars. Reading the book, I always picture her in the role.
Had an adaptation of the Barsoom books been made around the 1970s (perhaps with Ray Harryhausen doing the effects), there would have been no better choice for the titular princess than Caroline Munro.
(She’s still acting, by the way, most notably in a short film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Landlady)
3. John Houseman as Samuel Johnson
Dr. Johnson’s life would be an interesting subject for a film: it would have to be a sedate, thoughtful picture, centered on his friendship with Boswell, and perhaps taking the form of him telling Boswell stories of his work on his famous dictionary. The focus would be simply on the enormous, lovable personality of the man himself, touching on his superficial gruffness and sincere warmth of feeling, his eccentricities, and of course his deep faith.
It would take a very skilled writer and director to do such a film correctly, but had anyone tackled it in the 1970s, then the star would have only been too obvious.
John Houseman was a true ‘actor’s actor’. He’d collaborated with Orson Welles and one way or another had helped train many of the major players in Hollywood, but actually didn’t make his own on-screen debut until The Paper Chase, when he was 71 years old. He won an Academy Award for the performance. The weight of his long experience in the craft combined with his own obvious talent lent him a larger-than-life presence on screen, making him feel like a genuine Great Man.
Dr. Johnson would have to be played quite a bit different from Professor Kingsfield, of course; warmer, more approachable, yet more eccentric and still vastly intimidating. But I can’t really picture anyone but Houseman taking the role and bringing all his natural authority and enormous skill to bear on the role. But unfortunately it never came to be, and Mr. Houseman passed away in 1988.
4. Robert Hardy as Mr. Pickwick
British character actor Robert Hardy, who passed away in 2017) is best known for his many turns playing Winston Churchill (and to later fans for playing Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter films). Fans of another vintage will recognize him as the lovably irascible rural vet Siegfried Farnon in the series All Creatures Great and Small.
Reading The Pickwick Papers I had several ideas for who should play Mr. Pickwick on screen. But considering his particular blend of gentility, absurdity, and genuine substance I really think no one could be better than Robert Hardy, who almost had that as his very own particular niche. Siegfried in particular is a rather Pickwickian character, being both rather ridiculous and thoroughly admirable.
I think a miniseries produced about the year 2000 would have been the ideal time and place for Mr. Hardy to have assailed the role, and I can imagine him investing the role with all his tremendous skill and sincerity. It would have been a Dickensian rendition for the ages.
5. Bernard Hill as Robert E. Lee
Rounding out on the other side of the Late Unpleasantness, the question of who should play Robert E. Lee is rather like asking who should play George Washington, or Theodore Roosevelt. It’s a prestigious role, one that will certainly be a centerpiece of the film (1993’s Gettysburg had Martin Sheen in the role, and though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, I remember finding him disappointing).
For me, ever since I saw the Lord of the Rings films, Bernard Hill c. the early 2000s has been my dream cast for Lee. As shown in those films, he has a commanding presence, but is equally skilled at being thoughtful and introspective, and he certainly looks the part. Of course, Lee would require a more controlled, focused battlefield presence than medieval warrior-king Theoden, but I’m sure he could have pulled it off (the real sticking point would have been whether the British Hill could credibly adopt a Virginian accent).
Alas, however, like Henriksen, Hill is now too old to credibly assail the part. But with a skilled director and a good script, I think he could have been an amazing Robert E. Lee.
(This will certainly not be my only post on this topic, by the way)