The possibilities are endless when it comes to who could've played a given part in a film that went on to become a classic. Many actors are often first approached for a role, only for them to turn it down or see scheduling get in the way. Warren Beatty and Elvis were famously in the running to star in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," to use an example that actually could've really worked. Normally, when we imagine another actor in a role that seemed tailor-made for them in retrospect, it's difficult to see anyone else fill their shoes. In the case of Billy Bob Thornton in "Bad Santa," it seems unlikely that anyone could have been a more perfect choice to fill the boots of an alcoholic, foul-mouthed mall Santa Claus who's actually a crook in disguise.
It almost happened though. It's not surprising that a lot of actors were interested in such a fantastic role, however. Acting titans like James Gandolfini, Bill Murray, and Jack Nicholson were all considered at one point. Sometimes, a role comes to you at the exact right point in your career, and that's exactly what happened with Thornton, who had made a name for himself as an indie icon with "Sling Blade" and "Monsters Ball" while also showing some big budget clout with the outer space schlock of "Armageddon."
It sounds like the majority of age-appropriate actors throughout Hollywood got a hold of the hilariously dark script by Glenn Ficarra and Jon Requa, generating tons of interest. The Coen Brothers also executive produced "Bad Santa" with Terry Zwigoff of "Ghost World" fame directing. That combination added some serious clout. Luckily, Thornton didn't waste anytime going after the role that may end up defining his career.
The Perfect Role At The Perfect Time
Thornton hadn't really shown off his comic timing and willingness to be a disheveled antihero until the role of Willie fell into his lap. Interestingly, Thornton would wind up acting in two Christmas classics back-to-back, having just appeared as the President of the United States in "Love Actually," opposite Hugh Grant as the British Prime Minister. That romantic dramedy is a legitimate tearjerker for the holidays, and the filthy R-rated antics seen in "Bad Santa" became the perfect antithesis for Thornton to sink his teeth in to. Looking back during an interview with the New York Times, Thornton knew it was the perfect role at the perfect time:
"I heard Sean Penn was considered, and Nicolas Cage. My manager called and said: 'Wait until you read this script. I've never seen anything like this. 'I'd read maybe a third of it, and I called him and said, 'We've gotta do this.' It was kind of a no-brainer."
R-rated comedies were king at the box office during the 2000s, providing another reason that the timing for Thornton felt serendipitous. "Wedding Crashers," "Old School" and "Superbad" were all smash hits that embraced their lewd and crude characters with generally misguided motives. "Bad Santa" was immediately placed in the pantheon of dark comedy classics, and eventually Thornton was even talked into returning for a sequel. The less said about that, the better.
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