Why John Lithgow Turned Down David Cronenberg's The Fly

In 1986, David Cronenberg had a reputation that preceded him. Having already made "Scanners," "The Brood," "Shivers," "Videodrome," and "Rabid," Cronenberg was known in the filmmaking community for his bleak horror and unsettling gore. When Cronenberg completed his work on the Stephen King adaptation "The Dead Zone," he immediately began working on a film adaptation of the 1966 Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." While Cronenberg reworked the script and designs for the film over the course of a year, he ultimately ended up leaving the project, which ended up being completed by Paul Verhoeven as "Total Recall." (What Cronenberg contributed to that film is a matter of record.) 

Luckily for Cronenberg, Brooksfilms (the studio behind "The Elephant Man") was looking for a director to remake the 1958 classic "The Fly," a film about a scientist who is hideously transformed when a fly buzzes into his teleportation pod during an experiment. Cronenberg read the film's original screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue, and did not like the schlocky gore elements nor several of the characters. The director subsequently rewrote the script almost entirely from scratch, condensing characters, adding new dialogue, and reworking a scene wherein a baboon and a cat mutate together, and then are beaten to death (the baboon/cat scene was shot, but ultimately cut from the final film). Cronenberg's script retained the story of bodily mutation, but the tone became far more contemplative and thematically rich; it's easy to see "The Fly" as a metaphor for watching a loved one waste away from a terminal disease. 

With a script everyone approved of, the project moved forward. The next step was casting the lead role of Seth Brundle. Although the part would ultimately go to Jeff Goldblum, it was also offered to a different actor: John Lithgow.


In 1986, John Lithgow was already a star, having appeared in Brian DePalma's "Blow Out," the Academy Award-winning film "Terms of Endearment," the teen dance drama "Footloose," and as the villain in the sci-fi cult classic "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension." Lithgow was a hot commodity, and he was not averse to playing villains in effect-based sci-fi movies. 

Lithgow ultimately turned the part down, for reasons that he would not reveal for many years — which he said was out of respect for Jeff Goldblum (his "Buckaroo Banzai" co-star), who would eventually take the role. While doing press for the 2014 queer romance "Love is Strange" (wherein he and Alfred Molina play a couple who are finally marrying legally after 39 years together), Lithgow was interviewed by In Magazine about being approached to act in "The Fly": 

"Let me tell you an amazing story that only occurred to me today. I've never told anybody this out of respect for my good friend Jeff Goldblum. But I was asked to play The Fly and I turned it down. A few months before that, I had been asked to do a film adaptation of a gay-themed play, 'As Is,' which was about the first flowerings of the AIDS crisis. I ended up not doing that because I wasn't available. But my agent wanted me to do The Fly and I didn't want to do it. I just finished another project and I was exhausted, and I found it such an icky story."

So, yes, Lithgow was turned off by the goop and the gore. Having seen the completed film, he had plenty of reason to be concerned. The practical special effects in "The Fly," achieved by the masterful Chris Walas, are unsightly and repellant. There are scenes wherein Seth Brundle vomits acid onto people, body parts fall off, and other revolting imagery happens. Lithgow wasn't quite prepared to play such an "icky" role. 

For a moment, though, his agent (unnamed) continued to push for "Thy Fly." I issue a content warning, as the rest of Lithgow's story involves a homophobic comment from Lithgow's agent: 

"I told my agent I just didn't want to play something so grotesque. And he said, 'Let me just put it this way: I'd rather see you play a fly than a homosexual.' This was in 1986. Can you imagine?"

As the kids say: welp.

Goldblum as Brundlefly

The finished film was released on August 15, 1986 with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis starring, and John Getz in a notable supporting role. This was the second film to feature Goldblum and Davis together after 1985's "Transylvania 6-5000," and the pair married shortly after "The Fly" was released. They would also appear together in 1988's "Earth Girls Are Easy." 

Lithgow would instead, during that same period, act in "Santa Claus: The Movie," the underrated nuclear drama "The Manhattan Project," and the long-running production of "The Front Page" at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. He says he was exhausted when approached with "The Fly," but Lithgow continued to work pretty constantly throughout the late '80s. Indeed, between film, TV, and theater projects, John Lithgow has worked consistently since about 1981. His most recent projects include the upcoming FX series "The Old Man" and the Audible audio drama "Sandman." At 76, Lithgow shows no sign of stopping. If they ever remake "The Fly" a second time, perhaps he would be game.