How Jack Nicholson's Role In The Mosquito Coast Landed In The Lap Of Harrison Ford

It goes without saying that Harrison Ford has enjoyed a long and relatively varied career. Still, the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films have made such a big mark on pop culture that it's easy to simply associate Harrison Ford with his larger than life, adventurer-type characters in those franchises (be they curious like Indy or reluctant like Han Solo). Yet, as much as Ford tends to be thought of as a big-budget star first and a character actor second, Peter Weir's "The Mosquito Coast" (not to be confused with the Apple TV+ series of the same name) flipped the script.

Keeping with the theme of adventurous characters, Ford starred in the 1986 drama as Allie Fox, a patriarch that moves his American family to the Caribbean with dreams of building civilization anew. In comparison to the "Indiana Jones" and "Star Wars" franchises, the film was relatively grounded in reality, allowing its actors to focus on the less fantastical issues of exploration.

Allie might be well-intentioned, but he drags his reluctant family through hell in the film (and, despite some resentment, they stand by him). For the story to be believable, Weir had to find an actor that could sell a cocktail of domineering tendencies and charisma. Ford's ability to shift between the two on-screen — not to mention the way his mischievous smile could become threatening at a moment's notice — made him perfect for the job. But Weir didn't always have Ford in mind. Instead, Jack Nicholson was all but guaranteed the role, right up until he had a falling out with producer Saul Zaentz.

Salary negotiations turned sour

At first, Jack Nicholson seemed like a shoe-in for the job. Saul Zaentz had previously worked with the actor while producing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," a box office smash-hit that won five Oscars, including an Academy Award for Best Picture. Considering just how well things worked out, why not team up with him again?

When it came time to cast Allie Fox for "The Mosquito Coast," Nicholson immediately jumped out as a perfect fit, not least of all given his proven talent for playing unstable yet strangely charismatic characters. However, the success of "Cuckoo's Nest" had also led to a power imbalance, at least in Zaentz's mind. According to screenwriter Paul Schrader (via a 2021 article published by The Ringer):

"Jack was perfect for the character. And because Saul had made, or felt he had made Jack's career with 'Cuckoo's Nest,' he felt that Jack owed him one, and he lowballed Jack's price. Jack said, 'F*** you, Saul.' And Saul said, 'F*** you, Jack.' Now, it was a perfect collaboration, but egos got involved, and that's that."

That being said, there were only so many actors who could play Allie Fox with enough nuance. With Nicholson out of the running, Ford was a good option. He didn't come cheap though. Ironically, Schrader claimed Ford was paid roughly the same amount that Nicholson had requested. Schrader also made it bluntly clear which of the two actors he would've preferred for the film:

"[Zaentz] ended up paying Harrison Ford the same salary that Jack was asking. It got to be a pissing contest, and Jack did not want to be seen as an obligation. And obviously it would have been a much better film with Jack."

Between Nicholson and Ford, there were no wrong options

It's really too bad Saul Zaentz insisted on low-balling Jack Nicholson. "The Mosquito Coast" could've been an interesting entry in the actor's filmography, especially when compared to his role as Bobby Dupea in Bob Rafelson's 1970 drama "Five Easy Pieces." Much like Allie, Bobby is someone who's frustrated with overconsumption and its place in American society. Both characters are also relatively intense. But while Allie is fuelled by an intense, misguided love, Bobby is little more than a selfish jerk. Allie is adamant that his family has to be saved; Bobby abandons his pregnant girlfriend to avoid any sense of commitment.

Since "The Mosquito Coast" was released 16 years after "Five Easy Pieces," it would've been really interesting to see the older Nicholson play such a similar character. Still, the casting swap had its perks. Harrison Ford brought valuable suggestions to the set and even came up with a critical moment that helped viewers understand Allie's mindset. Evidently, Ford enjoyed the experience, too. He would even go on to call his turn in the film his all-time favorite role.