Before Easy Rider came along in 1969, Jack Nicholson was niched for a decade in Roger Corman-land. Four Oscar nominations later, he won the golden guy for a role that would pretty much define the rest of his career, that of McMurphy, the violently exhuberant inmate of 1975's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. No question that even without that role, Ol'Jack would still have made it as one of Hollywood's sacred monsters. But without him for that movie, would IT have made it on most everyone's perpetual top-100 list? See what you make of who almost made the cut.
The story goes that Kirk "discovered" the novel and had it adapted for the stage in order to play McMurphy. Owning the movie rights didn't help him much, since no studio would come near it. You'd think that having sonny Micheal take up the producer's mantle would help the old man, but ultimately THAT's what cost him the role - being too old. No one disputes the Oscar worth of Kirk, but the fact is he came from a different generation of actors, and would probably have portrayed the aggressive inmate TOO aggressively or classically- Not the establishment hating pothead who turns the asylum upside down.
Bare in mind that in 1975, Burt was just starting to be Burt; after spending the 60s guest-starring on television, he was just just becoming a fan-favorite thanks to Deliverance and The Longest Yard. However improbable, had he won an Oscar instead of Jack, would he have strayed in the part that truly made him Burt, The Bandit? Think about it...No Smokey, no Cannonball Run and no Starting Over. On the othe hand, no Cop and a Half and a whole string of 80s cat-litter worthy B-listers that could only be stopped by P.T. Anderson and the awesome Boogie Nights. As for McMurphy...meh! He just ain't off-the-wall and wacky enough.
Don Corleone? Col. Kurtz? Terry Malloy? Forgive me for insutling the Great (big) One, but I just don't see it. Being only 33, the image of Brando I grew up with is of a fat and bitchy old Prima Dona. Granted, that's close to what Nicholson has turned into lately, but still... Jumping around, raising hell with his water canon? nah...I don't buy it.
Now honestly, THAT I would've liked to see. Although Sonny Corleone's death is one of the more memorable of modern Cinema, we just don't get enough of him, period. I wanna see Sonny get into a pissing contest with Louise Fletcher -You get close enough and *Badaboum* you got blood all over your nurse's uniform! If they made him an offer, they should've made one he couldn't refuse...
In the words of Bill Lumberg, hum...yeaaah...Hackman is incredibly versatile. Or at least WAS back in the 70s. Now he's just overexposed, so I can't get enough perpective to envision it. Besides, Popeye Doyle was a bit of a McMurphy himself, and can provide a heck of a car chase. Although, If it had been enough to keep him from turning Lex Luthor into a spoiled brat with too much time on his hands, then maybe...
If it was made today...
On-the-nose casting would put smart money behind Sam Rockwell or Johnny Depp, although green-thinking Studio Suits would definitely push for a Frat Packer, one of Judd Apatow's buddies or -God Forbid- Adam Sandler. MY dream casting would put Simon Pegg in the rebel-rousing seat, alongside Gary Farmer as Chief Bromben and Angelina Jolie slithering her way into Nurse Ratchett's outfit. And maybe Matthew Lillard as Billy.