Indiana Jones -- he's got to be Harrison Ford, doesn't he? Okay, we had young Indiana Jones characters -- River Phoenix in the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Sean Patrick Flanery in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles -- but I never really thought of Indy as a character who could be cast in any other way. You know, you figure the part in Raiders of the Lost Ark was practically written for Ford, who'd been in a couple of George Lucas films before that anyway (Star Wars and American Graffiti).
However, that assumption couldn't be more wrong. I've been digging around on that great source of reliable information, the Internet, and reading all kinds of stories about the casting of Indiana Jones. The general gist is that Steven Spielberg was interested in Ford, but Lucas didn't want to be one of those directors who cast the same guy in all his movies. So they tested a bunch of other actors, and were seriously interested in one who had to back out ... and then ended up with Harrison Ford after all. We are all profoundly grateful. But let's take a look at some of those actors allegedly under consideration, and a few more that I threw into the mix just for fun. (I picked only actors who were alive and the right age at the time, which is why you don't see Steve McQueen on the list.)
Selleck is the most likely of all the casting choices on this list. He'd supposedly been picked to play Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but couldn't make it work with his Magnum P.I. schedule and had to decline. I can see him as Indiana Jones, but I think his performance would have dated the first film even more than it is now (which arguably isn't much). Selleck always strikes me as being a product of the 1980s. His later attempts at action-adventure movies provided us with fare like High Road to China and Quigley Down Under. For bonus points, imagine if Spielberg had succeeded in not only getting Selleck in the lead but also convincing Danny DeVito to play Sallah, and hey, let's throw Debra Winger in the mix as Marion Ravenwood. Raiders would have been less of a hit and more of a cult movie, dripping with extra cheesiness, on a double-bill with Big Trouble in Little China.
Douglas came along a few years after Raiders and offered his own take on an Indy-style character in Romancing the Stone. But why didn't anyone think of him as Dr. Jones? He was the right age and had the right looks. Douglas hadn't done much in the way of action films before Romancing the Stone -- he'd played a heroic doctor (Coma) and a heroic cameraman (The China Syndrome) but nothing involving fight scenes and Nazis. Apparently he had a skiing accident in 1980 that would have kept him out of the running for action roles. It's said that Sharon Stone was seriously considered for the role of Willie Scott before Kate Capshaw came along and stole Spielberg's heart. I'm not fond of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but a version starring Douglas and Stone might have had much more entertaining chemistry (and been much less shrill).
I've only read one reference to Bridges possibly being cast as Indiana Jones, but it does make the mind boggle. On the other hand, you can't think of The Dude in this context -- this is the Jeff Bridges who starred in an entirely different kind of blockbuster special-effects movie, Tron. Before that, he'd been in the King Kong remake and Heaven's Gate. (And way before that, The Last Picture Show.) Still, I can't picture him in the fedora. And just think ... what in the world would have happened to his career? Would we still enjoy him in The Big Lebowski or The Fisher King? Could he have fit a fourth Indy film in his schedule along with Obadiah Stane in Iron Man? This is an alternate reality I prefer not to pursue.
Have you ever seen the film Armour of God 2: Operation Condor? The 1991 film was Jackie Chan's tribute to Raiders of the Lost Ark, except that Chan decided his action hero would have three lovely supporting heroines, not only one. The opening scene in particular is obviously a love letter to the opening in Raiders. It makes you wonder what would've happened if somehow, in some universe, Spielberg and Lucas tried casting Chan as Indiana Jones. Chan's big American film in 1981 would turn out to be The Cannonball Run, which did not exactly launch his Hollywood career, and which showed that he didn't have the fluency of English he displayed 16 years later in Rush Hour. He wouldn't have delivered "It's not the years, it's the mileage" in quite the same way, but on the other hand, Indy would have had fabulous martial arts skills.
Matheson apparently participated in some screen tests to cast Marion, reading for Indy, but I can't determine whether he was seriously considered for the role. All I can think of is Otter in Animal House, the womanizing frat boy carrying the little doctor bag. Otter might possibly carry a whip, but I'm not sure he'd know how to use it. And it would have been weirder still if he'd been paired up with Karen Allen -- you'd expect Peter Rieger to show up at any moment and punch his lights out. The last I've seen of Matheson was as the Vice President on The West Wing ... very un-Indy-like.
This is all my own imagining -- Kline had appeared in no movies around the time Raiders was being cast, and would have been a completely unknown except for Broadway musicals and a small soap-opera role. His role as the Pirate King in the 1983 film adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance is delightful, and shows that he at least knew how to swashbuckle a bit. And let's not forget that he played Douglas Fairbanks in Chaplin. I can't really see him as Indy, though. He's not quite edgy enough. However, he did end up working with Raiders co-writer Lawrence Kasdan in several movies, starting with The Big Chill and moving into a more action-hero role (sort of) in Silverado. If he'd starred in the Indiana Jones films, Kline might never have taken such a broadly comic role as Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, so let's be thankful he was off the Hollywood radar at the time.
Several sources claim that Nolte was in the running for the Raiders lead. But the actor frankly scares me sometimes, which doesn't strike me as a good characteristic for an action hero like Indiana Jones. Indy should never be creepy. But back in the late 1970s, Nolte wasn't playing creepy guys -- he was perhaps best known for playing a bad boy-type in the TV mini series Rich Man, Poor Man. He missed out on Raiders but instead ended up with the lead in 48 Hours as the straight man to Eddie Murphy. I like to imagine an edgier, darker version of Raiders in which not only was Nolte cast as Indy, but Sean Young (who'd participated in screen tests) played Marion Ravenwood and Klaus Kinski (who claims he was offered the role) terrorized everyone as Major Toht.