This week I have decided to think about how famous films might have turned out if they had starred other actors. Casting a film is often a matter of luck. In the old days when actors were contracted to a studio they had little choice about the roles they played, which could work to their advantage or to disadvantage.

Clark Gable was under contract to MGM but as a punishment he was loaned to a then Poverty Row outfit called Columbia to make It Happened One Night, much to his disgust. It won him an Oscar. Back at MGM he was frightened to play Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind due to public expectancy but it became his signature role. One of his co-stars, Olivia de Havilland told me he hated filming a scene requiring him to cry as it was so unmanly and Vivien Leigh would complain about his bad breath. Years later when he was filming Mogambo at MGM in Borehamwood he would remove his false teeth and ask 'where is the Gable smile now?'

There was talk of James Cagney playing the title role in The Godfather but declined as he wanted to remain retired. It would have been fun to have seen his portrayal spouting lines like "I will make them an offer they can't refuse" rather than Brando with his mumbling approach. I always thought Brando was overrated but he certainly was a star.

Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Image: Paramount

Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Image: Paramount

Warner Brothers were uncertain about casting Bogart in Casablanca, but could you really imagine one of their other contract stars like George Raft playing the role? They even thought about cutting out the song As Time Goes By but thankfully kept it in. Over at MGM, when casting for The Wizard Of Oz the studio wanted Shirley Temple, but her studio 20th Century Fox refused so they chanced contract star Judy Garland. They even wanted to drop the hit song Over The Rainbow.

Back at Elstree, a young Richard Todd, fresh from serving in the war with distinction, was under contract to Elstree Studios so was invited to a cocktail party. A visiting film director met him and cast him in the new Elstree production called The Hasty Heart. I became friends with Richard in his later years and he told me "I was nominated for an Oscar and it launched me into stardom. I attended the premiere in Leicester Square with thousands of fans outside the cinema. Mind you, Elstree did not pay Hollywood salaries and I later found out the director of photography on the film was paid more than me."

I guess we all know Tom Selleck was the first choice to play Indiana Jones but was tied into a television series and what a risk the producers took in casting the unknown Sean Connery as James Bond. Not many people know this, but Sean played 007 for the last time at Elstree Studios, albeit with a wig, in Never Say Never Again.

I am still waiting to be discovered as I have never been in a movie after 60 years around studios. Okay it would now require a lot of gel on the camera lens, idiot boards to remind me of my lines and mortician's wax for makeup but surely there must be a part for me? Wait a minute, how dare you suggest Phantom Of The Opera!

  • Paul Welsh MBE is a Borehamwood writer and historian of Elstree Studios