Why recast the relatively small role of a doctor in a thriller? Michael Mann's Manhunter was an excellent thriller, featuring Brian Cox in a small role as the imprisoned, chillingly cold cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecktor. When the time came to adapt another one of Thomas Harris' bestsellers, Jonathan Demme went in a different direction, casting Anthony Hopkins as the good doctor. The character's family name was restored (Lecter, not Lecktor) and a whole new set of tics and tricks were placed on display. Hopkins may have been the only actor alive who could have hammed it up to such extreme levels and yet, somehow, made Lector creepy rather than campy, unnerving rather than unbelievable. For his memorable efforts in The Silence of the Lambs, Hopkins won an Academy Award.
Recasting villains is a tricky business. Everyone needs to love, identify with, and cheer the hero or heroine, but if the villain doesn't provide the requisite level of opposition, the picture runs the risk of becoming unbalanced, leaving a gaping hole that cannot be filled in with special effects. And if an actor has established the character in the public's mind, it's difficult for anyone else to measure up.
So Dylan Walsh has an advantage in The Stepfather, which opens tomorrow. Terry O'Quinn originated the title role in the 1987 original, and was a truly memorable monster. Yet the film is not steeped in the public consciousness to a high degree, and O'Quinn has become much better known from playing John Locke in Lost. Walsh's fame, such as it is, comes from the lesser-seen TV series Nip/Tuck. Walsh has a shot of creating his own distinct brand of villain.
In a similar way, Manhunter had been little-seen, so Hopkins didn't have to overcome any entrenched perceptions of what Lecter should be, though fans of the novels surely had developed their own ideas on how Lecter should be portrayed, even as those of us who love O'Quinn as the original Stepfather have difficulty with anyone else playing the part.
Now consider the task that lay before Heath Ledger. Campy it may have been, but Jack Nicholson's version of The Joker loomed very large. His stardom overshadowed that of Michael Keaton in Tim Burton's Batman, and he made the character his own. It's all the more amazing, then, that Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight wiped away all thoughts of Nicholson's version. Much of that has to do with the moody, atmospheric tone that Christopher Nolan had already established in Batman Begins, which paved the way for a more thoughtful psychological exploration. Ledger pushed the character to the far edge of crazy, pulling back just enough to reveal a ghastly personality with deep, disturbed, recognizable roots.
On the other hand, consider the fate of poor Gaspard Ulliel. Even though he played Dr. Lecter as a much younger man in Hannibal Rising, it was impossible to imagine he would grow up to be Anthony Hopkins. Sorry Gaspard! He was callous rather than calculating, outwardly nasty rather than driven from within. It wasn't fair to the actor, perhaps, especially considering the weaker source material (yet another Harris novel), but there you have in one role the highs and lows of recasting villains.
Ulliel wasn't the worst recast villain in movie history, of course. My nominations would include Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor in Superman Returns, a surprisingly bland and by the numbers performance from the Academy Award-winning actor, and William Hurt as General Ross in The Incredible Hulk, an interesting casting choice that just didn't work out because Hurt floated through the movie without leaving much of a mark. Maybe it's just me; I can't forget Gene Hackman or Sam Elliott when I watch the rebooted villains. Hackman played Luthor as a colorful, larger than life villain, while Elliott's growling menace made him a very threatening father / cold-hearted military figure.
But when you talk about villains who should never have been recast, you must pay homage to Boris Karloff. He was identified in the credits for James Whale's Frankenstein as "?" and became known simply as "The Monster." Karloff made a hulking, reanimated corpse not just "Alive! Alive!" but human, setting the stage for Freddy and Jason and Hannibal and The Joker and all the other villains we love to boo and hiss.