Here’s the story of two movies George Clooney didn’t make earlier – 1998’s Jack Frost and 1999’s Wild Wild West…
Considering the whole Batman thing, George Clooney has seemingly always had a decent relationship with Warner Bros Pictures. He shot to fame playing Dr Doug Ross on the Warner-produced medical drama ER in the 1990s, and has also produced and directed some acclaimed movies for the studio in the years since.
Clooney has also acted in some big movies for the studio too, and perhaps it’s a sign of how far he’s come that we hardly ever mention his not-great performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Joel Schumacher’s infamous second Batman movie, 1997’s Batman & Robin.
Though hardly a Bat-bomb at the box office, the film has never been especially popular, and to this day, Clooney remains self-deprecating and even apologetic about his role in it. Here’s what he had to say during a 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show:
‘I always apologise for Batman & Robin… Let me just say that I’d actually thought I’d destroyed the franchise until somebody else brought it back years later and changed it. I thought at the time that this was going to be a very good career move. Ummmmm, it wasn’t.’
Still, it came early enough in Clooney’s career that he could change course and the reception of Batman & Robin certainly seemed to prompt a rethink on his part. That included two Warner Bros projects that he was attached to after Batman but ultimately didn’t make.
Warner went ahead and made both of these films without Clooney and it’s fair to say that neither of them were any better liked by critics than Batman & Robin. So, what changed his mind?
Love them or hate them, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cold-themed puns and one-liners as Mr Freeze are among the more memorable aspects of Batman & Robin. The calibre wasn’t much higher than that of Clooney’s next potential project, the 1998 family comedy Jack Frost, whose dialogue gems include “Snow dad is better than no dad.”
Clooney would have played Jack Frost, a musician who is killed in a road accident while driving home from a gig. In a peculiar bit of nominative determinism, Jack returns to life as a snowman after his bereaved son plays a magic harmonica. You know, tale-as-old-as-time stuff.
Remarkably, when Clooney was on board, the film was set to be directed by Sam Raimi. He and his brother and writing partner Ivan Raimi rewrote Mark Steven Johnson’s script, which was titled Frosty The Snowman at that point.
In a strategy that’s been revived by later regimes at the studio, the goal for Warner’s 1998 slate was to make fewer movies than usual, but make those movies bigger. Jack Frost was eyed as the studio’s big Christmas offering.
Things got far along enough in development that the Jim Henson Creature Shop who were providing the snowman costume for the film, modelled the design on Clooney’s likeness. However, by August 1997, two months after Batman & Robin came out, Clooney had departed the project and signed onto another, which we’ll come to very shortly.
Raimi also walked away a little while after Clooney dropped out, and he was replaced by first-time feature director Troy Miller, then best known for Mr Show With Bob & David and some Oscar night movie spoof sketches featuring Billy Crystal.
John Travolta and Billy Bob Thornton were considered to replace Clooney, but incredibly enough, his shoes (well, not shoes, cos the snowman didn’t have feet) were filled by another recovering Batman ahead of production starting in March 1998. Michael Keaton plays both Jack Frost and the Clooney-based snowman.
‘We sort of had to play catch-up,’ Creature Shop manager Matt J. Britton told The Los Angeles Times when the film hit cinemas that December.
‘Once it became Michael Keaton, we didn’t change the head completely. We did some signature things to the chin and to the lips because Michael Keaton has this little mouth and talks out of the front of his mouth. You can only do as much to reflect the performer.’
In any case, Jack Frost proved a critical and commercial flop, and it was Keaton rather than Clooney who took a bit of a career hit. He didn’t lead a movie again until 2005’s White Noise but has enjoyed more of a resurgence in recent years.
Coincidentally, both actors appeared in Out Of Sight in 1998 (Keaton played ATF agent Ray Nicolette in another Elmore Leonard adaptation, Jackie Brown, and agreed to make a cameo appearance in Steven Soderbergh’s film) but what about that other film Clooney signed on to make?
When Variety reported on Clooney’s exit from Jack Frost, they noted that Clooney was set to star alongside Will Smith as US marshall Artemus Gordon in a big-screen adaptation of the Western TV series The Wild Wild West.
Billed as “James Bond on horseback”, the adaptation had initially been set up for Richard Donner to direct and his Lethal Weapon star Mel Gibson to lead, but they went off and remade another 1960s series, Maverick, instead. Likewise, Tom Cruise was also attached before Mission: Impossible came along, and in the end, Wild Wild West came to Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld, following their success on Men In Black.
That film had been a much bigger hit with audiences than Batman & Robin, so you can see what attracted Clooney. Smith and Sonnenfeld together again, making a sci-fi comedy blockbuster, with Smith doing the theme song – what could possibly go wrong? Heck, Smith had turned down The Matrix for this one.
As it turned out, Clooney had creative differences with Sonnenfeld. Perhaps chastened by the “very good career move” of playing Batman, his focus was on choosing great scripts rather than playing things he didn’t feel he was right for, and in December 1997, he departed Wild Wild West too.
Also reported in Variety, Clooney explained: ‘We knew going into this that to make it work would be a stretch, but the opportunity to work with Will and Barry was too exciting to pass up.
‘Ultimately, we all decided that rather than damage this project trying to retrofit the role for me, it was better to step aside and let them get someone else.’
Academy Award winner Kevin Kline took over the role of Gordon – it’s unclear if Sonnenfeld meant for Clooney to play Gordon and US President Ulysses S. Grant as Kline does, but it’s a plot point that one has a habit of dressing up as the other.
Despite its massive budget and its well-deserved reputation as a stinker, Wild Wild West didn’t bomb at the box office, but nobody involved has much nice to say about the experience in retrospect either.
Clooney did keep making movies at Warner Bros though, reworking himself as a movie star in films like Three Kings and The Perfect Storm, and put Batman far behind him with his leading role in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, another collaboration with director Steven Soderbergh.
And it’s funny to think that if he’d made either Jack Frost or Wild Wild West (or both!) at this early post-Batman stage, it might have been a very different story for Clooney’s movie career.
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