The Two Acting Legends Who Almost Starred In The Silence Of The Lambs

What is there to say about "The Silence of the Lambs" that hasn't already been said? More than three decades ago, director Jonathan Demme took Thomas Harris' terrifying crime drama and transformed it into one of the premier horror films. In the years since, the film's legacy has gotten complicated, to put it kindly, but is still revered as one of the all-time-greats. Jodie Foster's performance as Clarice Starling is hailed as one of the most inspiring roles for women in cinematic history, and Anthony Hopkins' iconic turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter permeated through pop culture and is one of the most easily identifiable characters from the silver screen. "The Silence of the Lambs" became the third film to sweep the five major categories at the Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 64th event. To this day, "The Silence of the Lambs" remains the only Best Picture winner largely considered a horror film, and only one of six to ever be nominated alongside "The Exorcist," "Jaws," "The Sixth Sense," "Black Swan," and "Get Out."

While the characters in "The Silence of the Lamb" have been given the sequel treatment and separate television adaptations with "Clarice" and "Hannibal," the performances from Foster and Hopkins feel synonymous with the characters. And yet, "The Silence of the Lambs" could have been a very different movie had two Hollywood icons not passed on the project, leaving the role of Hannibal Lecter ripe for Anthony Hopkins' taking.

Gene Hackman optioned the rights to The Silence of the Lambs

With a career spanning more than six decades, it's safe to say that Gene Hackman is a living legend. While many modern audiences know him as Lex Luthor in 1978's "Superman," Hackman is one of the most celebrated actors of all time, having won a Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in "The French Connection" and Best Supporting Actor as Little Bill Daggett in 1992's "Unforgiven." Before Hopkins was part of the Dr. Hannibal Lecter discussion, Hackman had already optioned the rights to Harris' novel, "The Silence of the Lambs," with the intention of directing the film and starring as the cannibalistic doctor. It was when screenwriter Ted Tally was brought on that Hackman started questioning his commitment, waffling between directing and playing Lecter or FBI chief Jack Crawford (played in the final product by Scott Glenn). But he ended up dropping out of the project altogether.

Reportedly, it was Hackman's daughter who convinced him not to pursue the role, believing that the violent and disturbing content of the film could potentially harm his career. While the Hackman who would later play characters like the cigarette-addicted, hacking William B. Tensy in "Heartbreakers" or the eccentric Royal Tenenbaum would have led to an odd Lecter, the Hackman who gave us FBI Special Agent Rupert Anderson in "Mississippi Burning" would have made for a fascinating cannibal with possibly even more "creepy" appeal, considering Hackman can look like a kind-eyed as a grandpa out of a storybook.

Jeremy Irons needed a break from playing sadists

If there's one thing Jeremy Irons is good at, it's terrifying audiences as some of cinema's greatest villains. Whether it be the ​​deranged twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers" or the manipulative and murderous Scar in "The Lion King," Irons knows exactly what it takes to thrive as a bad guy. Like Hackman, Irons was also up for the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, but after pulling double duty in "Dead Ringers" and about to start production on Barbet Schroder's "Reversal of Fortune," he ultimately decided to pass on the role, needing a break from playing such horrific characters. 

"I like doing edgy things," Irons told the Telegraph, "I thought I just can't do it, I'm already too far down this road." Irons would eventually earn the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Claus von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune," with Hopkins winning the following year in the role Irons had himself turned down.

Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Derek Jacobi, and John Lithgow were all also at one point considered for the role of Dr. Lecter, but of all of the candidates, Irons is the one that admittedly sounds like the best possible runner-up. Hopkins was magnificent, there's no denying that, but Jeremy Irons could have married the pure terror of Hopkins stillness with the irresistible allure that Mads Mikkelsen would eventually bring to the character in Bryan Fuller's "Hannibal" series. Alas, everything seems to have worked out in the end.