Leslie Nielsen Was Extremely Close To Having A Role In Ben-Hur

Screen tests offer a glimpse into what could have been. Once we've become accustomed to seeing the film's original actor in the role, it can be difficult to even imagine someone else filling their shoes. At the very least, screen tests show us how other actors approached the material versus what we ended up getting in the finished film. What would "Star Wars" have looked like if Kurt Russell had gotten the part of Han Solo instead of Harrison Ford? Or if Robert DeNiro had been chosen as Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather" rather than James Caan? What would it have been like if Messala in William Wyler's "Ben-Hur" was played not by Stephen Boyd, but Leslie Nielsen? Because that's what almost happened. 

When we talk about Nielsen, it's often about his iconic roles in spoofs like "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun" franchise. The fact that Nielsen is a solid dramatic actor in films like "Forbidden Planet" and "The Poseidon Adventure" can sometimes get lost in conversation. He also did a plethora of guest-starring roles in television throughout the first few decades of his career until that very silly parody of airliner disaster movies like "Zero Hour!" and "Airport" changed the trajectory of his career.

Nielsen was stuck making spoof movies because he'd become so synonymous with his unique brand of comic timing, which is to say that he didn't have to do much. That's what made him a brilliant comedic performer. He never had to try to be funny. All Nielsen had to do was be so deadly confident in his delivery, no matter what he's been given to say, and his character's incompetence to recognize the absurdity of it would do the rest. When you look at Nielsen's "Ben-Hur" screen test, there's a serious actor waiting to get out, but he just didn't seem like a good fit for the role.

I am serious, but don't call me Messala

When "Ben-Hur" swept the 32nd Academy Awards with 12 nominations and 11 wins, one of those golden statues went to Stephen Boyd for Best Supporting Actor. It feels appropriate that both Boyd and Charlton Heston each won an Oscar given that their performances are symbiotic in nature. If either one of them were acting opposite someone who couldn't match their energy, the doomed friendship at the center of "Ben-Hur" wouldn't have been nearly as powerful. Perhaps that's what makes it so difficult to see Nielsen opposite Heston in this film.

There are two screen tests (previously highlighted by the now-defunct Roger Ebert's Journal) of Nielsen as Messala (watch above), one where he's acting opposite Cesare Danova and the other, Yale Wexler. Neither play off of Nielsen very well either. It also doesn't help that we can't see much of Nielsen's performance besides an over-the-shoulder shot that gives the actors playing Judah Ben-Hur all of the attention. The emotional struggle at the heart of this scene is pretty much removed. It's only a screen test, but a dear kinship between the pair is sorely missing. Nielsen plays Messala like a friend you haven't seen since high school trying to sell you on a pyramid scheme. He only really cares about what you can bring to the table, and if you can't be a part of it, his pushy behavior makes you wonder if you were even friends to begin with. There's hardly any love in his voice. When you look at how Boyd interacts with Heston, however, the pair's vulnerability demonstrates how perfect their casting was.

A reunion between friends is sullied by the nature of unspoken tension. When Judah and Messala reunite, they're flooded with nostalgic emotions of the past. The tearful happiness in their eyes, But that's the funny thing about nostalgia; once the serotonin rush of revisiting something — or in this case someone — important from your past wears off, what you have left is the present. They're in tears, but at the same time, both know firmly which side they stand on. When Messala talks of Judah joining the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, Heston's performance shows a conflicted man who recognizes the ideological shift that has been made since they were children, but he still so desperately wants to cling onto that more innocent period of time. Boyd, meanwhile, shows a man that believes that his childhood friend will join his legion once he's made the right amount of concessions to make Judah happy. Neither bites on the other's fishing pole, and a tragic rivalry is born.

"Ben-Hur" is currently streaming on HBO Max.