Tim Burton Used Robin Williams As Bait To Get Jack Nicholson As His Batman's Joker

Back in the ancient times before the advent of pop culture websites, us film and TV nerds had to scrounge for our movie news in some really weird places. I vividly remember stumbling across a bit of rumor mill gossip in the family's copy of TV Guide, of all places, that concerned Robin Williams and "Batman," and it always stuck with me. 

We knew that Tim Burton was working a sequel to the 1989 box office smash, but didn't know what it was about at that time and the TV Guide writer was absolutely positive that the villain for "Batman 2" (as they called it) was going to be The Riddler played by none other than Robin Williams. My mind raced at this possibility, picturing the manic energy of Williams going up against the dark, brooding Michael Keaton Batman. 

So, when Danny DeVito was announced as playing The Penguin I remember being disappointed. I shouldn't have been, because "Batman Returns" rules and only gets better as each year adds a new dozen new superhero movies without any hint of the charisma, sexiness, and gothic weirdness of Burton's sequel. But still, I will always remember those pre-internet days with a little bit of fondness.

One thing I wasn't aware of until recently was that round of rumor-mongering wasn't the first time Williams was in the "Batman" casting discourse. He was in talks for the first film, although it seems Burton never really seriously considered him for the role of the Joker.

Wait'll they get a load of Robin

In the 2018 book "Robin" by Dave Itzkoff, the author tackles the casting of the Joker and quotes Williams on his experiences negotiating with Burton and his producers. From Williams's point of view, they did indeed make him an offer, but never had any intention on casting him in the part. They were set on Jack Nicholson, but Nicholson needed a little prodding to sign on, so they pulled an old producer trick by starting negotiations with another star to force a decision from the one they actually wanted.

Williams said they asked for a response by a Monday and when Williams responded prior to Monday they told him that Nicholson already committed that weekend. Williams explained:

"I replied, but they said I was too late. They said they'd gone to Jack over the weekend because I didn't reply soon enough. I said, 'You gave me till Monday, I replied before the deadline.' But it was just to get Jack off the pot."

Is it a crummy trick to pull? Yeah, but it worked. Nicholson signed on and the rest is history.

That does leave us with an interesting "what if," though. Would Tim Burton's "Batman" have been as good without Nicholson, who did end up taking an iconic stab at the popular comic book villain? It's a fascinating thing to turn around in your mind, especially when you consider Williams's darker roles that he took later in life, like in "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo." Would he have tapped into that darkness or played it for laughs? 

We'll never know, but part of the joy of being a comic book movie fan is kicking around these hypotheticals and dreaming about what could have been.