There are few actors who are able to combine genuine acting chops with a uniquely personal style of performance that leads to star-making roles. Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Nicholson both belong to that category of charismatic leading men, and the two almost worked together as father and son in the 2014 legal drama The Judge. Director of the movie David Dobkin recently revealed to Collider that Nicholson was in talks to play the role of Judge Joseph Palmer opposite Downey, but the veteran actor wanted to make major changes to the script before coming on board.
“We had two meetings with him. He wanted the script rewritten much more than we did, which was a concern. So we went back, Robert Downey Jr. and I, we sat with him again. Then we just had to realize…we just felt like defending the material. We were concerned with where we would had to have gone to get Jack happy. I had Robert in and we were off to the races and we were basically greenlit on the movie so I didn’t want to go back into writing.”
“But they were really fun conversations. Jack is a hell of a storyteller. It was a different movie. It wasn’t right or wrong notes, it was a little bit different. A little more isolated. A little smaller. Less of the brothers. A little less of what was going on. It was a very interesting film. But right after that, I remember walking out of his house with Robert and looking at him and saying, “I don’t know…”. We had been working on that script for two years. I was like “I don’t know if we can go back to writing.” He was like “No, we’re not. Who’s next?” I was like, “It’s gotta be Bobby Duvall.” He’s like, “Alright.” And that’s how it happened. It was a one-two thing.”
It takes a great deal of confidence in the source material to choose the script over having Jack Nicholson star in your project. Both Downey and Dobkins stuck to their guns, and the role went to Robert Duvall instead, who was nominated for several awards, including an Oscar, for his turn as the formidable Judge Palmer.
In hindsight, Dobkin believed they made the right call in sticking to the original script, and letting the material and the performances of the actors carry the movie, even if doing so cost them the chance of having Nicholson in it.
“You’d do almost anything to get him in a movie. By the way, he hasn’t been in a movie since. Man, he’s one of my all-time favorites. It was a hard call. But I loved the movie, Robert loved the movie, we had a slot, and we were going to miss it if we did as big a rewrite as he wanted to do. And some movies you do that. Some movies you don’t. One of the lovely things about that film…that movie is shot very straight. It’s a coverage movie. It’s all about the performances. I didn’t try and move the camera a lot or push things cinematically. I had [cinematographer Janusz Kaminski], so I let him do the lighting. But there’s a certain joy to the movie of just backing off and watching people just perform the material. Bill Dubuque wrote an…