Why Jeff Daniels Almost Turned Down His Role In Speed

It's a time-honored question asked by audiences and critics alike: "how did [well-respected serious actor] end up starring in [big, noisy tentpole movie]?" While the question has the exact same answer every time (that's "money," to be clear), it doesn't account for the specific nuances of why, for instance, Joaquin Phoenix took a role in "Joker" over "Doctor Strange."

While there are a number of factors for actors signing onto a film in addition to needing to put food on the table, sometimes it's less about the personnel behind the camera or even the material — the ultimate decision may come down to sheer screentime. That was certainly the case for Jeff Daniels when he was considering the role of Detective Harry Temple in 1994's "Speed." Although Daniels was in great need of a job at the time "Speed" was being made, he almost passed on the opportunity based on little more than what page of the script his character died on.

Relationships that end on page 22 never last

There was a lot that was attractive about "Speed" when it was entering production: cinematographer extraordinare Jan de Bont would be making his directorial debut, Keanu Reeves would star, and Graham Yost's script was built around an irresistible suspense-filled hook that involved a bus filled with hostages, fitted with a bomb that would explode if the bus dropped below 50mph.

Yet none of these elements were a deciding factor when it came to Daniels' choice whether or not to play Harry, the partner and friend of Reeves' Jack Traven who originally met his grisly end far earlier in the story. As Daniels recalled in a recent interview, his agent informed him that "we've got this script 'Speed,' we'll send it to you, but you're dead on page 22. You and Keanu go into this 50-story building and you get in the elevator shaft and fall and die." Daniels' interest fell as hard as Harry supposedly would, responding that "the career's in trouble but it's not in that much trouble, so I'm going to pass."

However, fate intervened in the form of a new draft of the script that let Harry live significantly longer. Daniels' agent got word to him that now "you die later...About page 88," to which Daniels instantly responded, "I'm in." Daniels was happy to play what was now an integral role in the film, glad that his role "lasted all the way until I crawled in through that window into that house and the house blew up." As Daniels rightfully surmised, Harry became a character whose ultimate demise is far more affecting than it would've been had he fallen down an elevator shaft barely 20 minutes in.

Daniels has an explosive 1994 — in more ways than one

In a happy coincidence, Harry Temple would not be the only Harry that Daniels would play in a hugely successful blockbuster that year. Although he'd been the lead in a Steven Spielberg production, "Arachnophobia," a few years prior in 1990, Daniels found going into '94 that his "career was at a point where I had to get on a plane at my own expense and fly to L.A. and audition." His desperate need for a job not only led to "Speed," but to the ribald Farrelly Brothers comedy "Dumb and Dumber" the same year.

The one-two punch of "Speed" and "Dumb and Dumber" helped change Daniels' image as an actor, moving him out of the arthouse and intellectual theatre realm into a broader blockbuster space. The change was so notable that it was parodied in a wonderfully silly sketch on "Saturday Night Live" in 1995 during Daniels' second appearance as host.

Fortunately, Jeff Daniels' appearances in "Speed" and "Dumb and Dumber" did not end up typecasting him as characters named Harry who were primarily concerned with dropping bombs. Instead, they proved the actor's versatility, leading to more roles in large scale productions such as 1996's "101 Dalmatians" and 2015's "The Martian." They also afforded Daniels the opportunity to continue maintaining a career in cinema, allowing him to pursue not just other roles in film and television but to own and operate the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Michigan, where he continues to premiere original works for the stage. With the financial success and clout that "Speed" offered him, it's not lost on Daniels that he was "lucky [the filmmakers] did another draft" of the script. Had he missed out, he likely would've exclaimed, ahem, "oh, darn."