Cliffhanger Brought In John Lithgow To Replace Christopher Walken The Day Before Shooting Began

In the opening sequence of "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls," our intrepid pet detective is scaling a daunting cliff face to rescue a raccoon stranded on a mountaintop in a plane crash. He almost succeeds in bringing the cuddly critter home via a high wire when disaster strikes: A harness breaks and Ace can't stop the raccoon plummeting to its death.

"Cliffhanger" was enough of a pop cultural moment for the "Ace Ventura" sequel to give an extended homage to the film's most famous scene, but Renny Harlin's vertiginous action thriller now feels like a movie lost in time. While "Demolition Man," also released in 1993, gets kudos nowadays for predicting aspects of our current world, "Cliffhanger" barely even gets a mention in lists of top '90s action movies. It didn't get a whole lot of love back in the day, either. While it was a box office hit for Sylvester Stallone after a string of stinkers, many critics felt it was a formulaic "Die Hard" ripoff, and it was nominated for Worst Picture at the Golden Raspberry Awards.

I think that's a little unfair. Sure, it's "Die Hard on a Mountain," but I've always been a sucker for a good precipitous set piece. If you've got a hero clinging to a tiny ledge while bad guys try to make him fall to his death, I'm dangling off the edge of my seat. Plus, any movie where a Cockney henchman calls Michael Rooker a "slag" can't be all bad.

Remarkably, "Cliffhanger" was one of the rare Stallone movies when he didn't find himself on the Razzie ballots, but John Lithgow was nominated for his turn as the movie's psychotic criminal mastermind, Eric Qualen. He made a memorable pantomime villain, though the actor wasn't even the first choice for the part.

So what happens in Cliffhanger again?

Ace mountain-climbing ranger Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) and his partner Jessie (Michael Rooker) scramble to rescue their two friends, Hal and Sarah, stranded in the lofty Colorado peaks. A harness breaks and despite Gabe's best efforts, Sarah falls to her death.

Eight months later, guilt-stricken Gabe is ready to quit for good, but he can't help responding to a distress call from climbers stranded in the mountains. Teaming up again with Jessie (Janine Turner), who blames Gabe for Sarah's death, they find out the SOS came from a gang of international robbers led by Eric Qualen (John Lithgow). They've found themselves stuck on the peaks after an audacious midair heist went disastrously wrong, leaving three cases stuffed with cash scattered across the mountain range. The plan is to lure rescue rangers to their location and force them to retrieve the loot.

The plot of "Cliffhanger" is pretty thin, but it's padded out with plenty of stupid stuff, like riding a goon down a slope like a bobsled while punching him in the face, and killing another henchman by powerlifting him onto a stalactite in a cave. The overall preposterousness hardly matters, because looking back after a few decades of CG saturation, the practical effects and real-life stunts are thrilling. The highlight is the wild midair heist, where the stuntman was paid $1 million of Stallone's stake to climb from one plane to another at an altitude of 15,000 feet, without safety measures. It remains the most expensive aerial stunt in cinema history, and it was worth every penny.

The nonstop action and violence doesn't leave much room for performances, and Stallone has little else to do apart from grunt, sweat, and grimace. The standout is Lithgow, who really enjoys himself as the sneering, sadistic Qualen.

How Lithgow replaced Walken in Cliffhanger

The phenomenal success of "Die Hard" created a new market for good actors in scene-stealing villain roles. And John Lithgow, with his outsized jack-o'-lantern features, was already moving in that direction when he played the baddie in "Ricochet" opposite Denzel Washington, and the shrink with a psychopathic alternate personality in "Raising Cain." He's such a versatile actor, just as good playing serious roles (Oscar nominated for "Terms of Endearment") as he is in comedic ones (six Emmy Awards for "3rd Rock From the Sun.") His performance in "Cliffhanger" falls somewhere in between, callously murdering people and relishing his sub-Bond quips. 

He's a big guy, too. He towers over Stallone in real life and is presented as a believable physical threat to Sly in the final showdown. Lithgow is clearly really into it, which is a testament to his professionalism and adaptability after he was parachuted into the lead baddie role at the last moment. He explained in a GQ interview:

"I think I had been cast as the sort of second villain. My role was supposed to be [played by] Christopher Walken, but he bailed and they sort of moved me up the night before."

One of the main criticisms at the time was Lithgow's attempt at an English accent, which was also a last-minute decision:

"I remember sitting around with Renny Harlin trying to decide what nationality Eric Qualen was. Was he an American Secret Service man, maybe a South African, or how about an Englishman? It was literally that, and I said I don't think I can master South African overnight, and I think we should make it something other than American. Let's just go the Alan Rickman route."

Who would be best? Lithgow or Walken?

Other casting rumors for Qualen included David Bowie and Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry. Bowie could have definitely worked, but Ferry? I can only picture him walking around the mountains wearing a white tux and a cummerbund, which I would actually love to see.

Curiously, I can imagine both singers in the role more than Christopher Walken. He can certainly overact just as well as John Lithgow and has some memorable villains on his filmography, but I struggle to see him duking it out on a clifftop with Sylvester Stallone. Physicality is rarely his thing, apart from maybe that Fat Boy Slim video where he flies around a hotel lobby, and his menace is usually defined by stillness. Even as a younger man, he seemed somehow decrepit and haunted, which worked wonders from his creepily hilarious turn in "Annie Hall" through "The Deer Hunter" to his wonderfully reflective career best in "The Dead Zone." When Walken talks, we want to listen without distraction, and he might have seemed a little lost out there filming on location in the Italian Dolomites. As for Lithgow, he loved it:

"Cliffhanger" was the best job I ever had ... Pretty much my only flat-out action film, and I was even in the big climactic brawl with the hero, and the hero was Sly Stallone, it was like, wow, at the total top of the action film food chain. It was like as good as it gets."

Lithgow's enjoyment translated to a performance that was great fun, fitting nicely into that '90s rogue's gallery of over-the-top villains alongside Gary Oldman in "Leon" and Nicolas Cage in "Face/Off." So who cares what the Golden Raspberries think?