The Men In Black franchise has been a huge success ever since its first installment hit theaters in 1997, earning $589 million on a $90 million budget. Aside from its peculiar storyline, Tommy Lee Jones's deadpan delivery and the exploration of what would happen if aliens lived among us, a large part of that success came courtesy of Will Smith. His approach to Agent J was everything an action-comedy like Men In Black needed, and he was the perfect mirror for audience as they were introduced to an insane world of aliens and monsters.
Smith's performance was so memorable that it's hard to think of J played by any other actor. But did you know Smith was actually the last choice for the role? Yep. As unbelievable as it may sound, his casting actually came about as an incredibly elaborate lie from the first movie's director, Barry Sonnenfeld.
The Lie That Got Will Smith Cast In 'Men In Black'
Early on in #MenInBlack's development process, Sonnenfeld clashed with Walter Parkes –– the president of Steven Spielberg's production company, which was overseeing the movie ––over their respective creative visions. So much so, that he left the project to direct Get Shorty instead (an action-comedy starring John Travolta and Gene Hackman). Fortunately for him, he eventually went back to the film... but there was one little hiccup.
#StevenSpielberg had requested casting Chris O'Donnell (a.k.a. Robin in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin) as Agent J. Sonnenfeld on the other hand, wanted Will Smith for the part, which meant that he had to talk the legendary director out of his choice. O'Donnell was a hot name at the time, having starred in Scent of a Woman, Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever and The Three Musketeers, which made things a little harder for Sonnenfeld.
Due to these facts, O'Donnell's persuasion plan was unsuccessful, and Spielberg sent him to convince O'Donnell to join the crew. But Sonnenfeld set out to do something completely different: Talk O'Donnell out of the role by making him believe the movie was a complete disaster.
As Sonnenfeld recounted during an interview with The Huffington Post:
"[Spielberg] told me I had to go to dinner with Chris and convince Chris to be in the movie. But I knew I wanted Will Smith, so I told Chris that I wasn't a very good director and I didn't think the script was very good and if he had any other options he shouldn't do 'Men in Black.' He let it be known the next day that he was not interested."
With his mission accomplished, he flew Smith from a wedding in Philadelphia to New York, where Spielberg resided. And fortunately for the director, Smith and Spielberg got along quite well, and so the actor was cast in the part. Still, like I said, #WillSmith was the very last choice for the franchise.
Chris O'Donnell Wasn't The Only Actor Considered For J Before Will Smith
Columbia Pictures was also initially interested in David Schwimmer for the efficient yet goofy agent. In this case however, the actor didn't need external motivation to turn down the part as O'Donnell did. Back in the good ol' '90s, Schwimmer signed a three-picture deal with Miramax after completing The Pallbearer, under one condition: That he'd be allowed to direct his own movie.
According to Schwimmer, he had some clout in the studio, so his directorial debut –– 1998's Since You've Been Gone –– was given the greenlight. The actor hired his entire theatre company as the main cast and asked them to have their schedules free for six weeks. But right around the time production was expected to begin, Columbia came knocking with the part of J. Feeling it would be unfair to put his friends' work on hold after promising them their movie, Schwimmer turned the role down, as he revealed during an appearance in The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast:
"So... about a month before production, I get the call about 'Men In Black.' Which was a direct conflict with directing that film; I just said, 'I can't. These are my closest friends in the world, this is their first shot at a movie, my first shot at directing. I can't push [the film back] because I've gotta go back to work on Friends in the fall.' That's what ended up happening."
It's funny to think that Smith –– now being the Men In Black franchise's biggest asset –– was ultimately the last choice for everyone involved. But as we've seen in the past, the best things and characters in movies come unexpectedly.
Unfortunately, during a past interview with Digital Spy, Barry Sonnenfeld stated that neither him nor Smith would come back to the franchise for a fourth movie:
“I wish there were a fourth film. I don't think Will Smith nor I would be involved. But I love the franchise, because I developed it and created it.”
So it doesn't look like Smith will be back to charm us as J. As sad as it is, let's look on the bright side: We got three great films out of him as the character.
What do you think about the journey to getting Will Smith cast in Men In Black? Was there any other actor you would have liked to see as J? Let me know in the comments!