Robert Donat (1905-1958)
- Leslie Howard, British Agent, 1934. Part of his unmade Warners schedule.
- Gary Cooper, Peter Ibbetson, 1934. Paramount had a “verbal option” on the Brit for Ibbetson He did not feel bound by it. Fredric March was next up. Then, Coop - who always said he was miscast as the architect hero. Didn’t stop him playing much the same again in The Fountainhead, 1948.
- Errol Flynn, Captain Blood, 1935. Studio boss Jack Warner's first choice refused to leave Britain for Hollywood due to a financial misunderstanding with Warners’ London agent. Therefore, Errol was in... like Flynn.
- Fredric March, Anna Karenina, 1935. MGM production genius Irving Thalberg wanted Donat opposite Garbo, director George Cukor wanted Colman. America won!
- Gary Cooper, Peter Ibbetson, 1935. When helmer Henry Hathaway came aboard, he changed Donat to Brian Aherne, before falling back on his Bengal Lancer. (Must have hurt!)
- Donald Woods, A Tale of Two Cities, 1935. “A dread of dual roles,” said producer David O Selznick, was the reason why Ronald Colman refused to play Charles Darney as well as the hero Sydney Carton in the Dickens classic. Aherne and Robert Donat were seen for Darney. (Colman happily doubled up for DOS’ 1936 The Prisoner of Zenda).
- John Loder, Sabotage, 1936. The thriller based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent… ironically the title of Hitch’s previous movie and Donat was eager for a second Alfred Hitchcock film. Producer Alexander Korda had other plans: Knight Without Armour with a naked Marlene Dietrich... and Laurence Olivier at the ready in case Donat's notorious asthma worsened..
- Charles Boyer, The Garden of Allah, 1936. He lost her here - but Donat was nursed through Knight Without Armour by Marlene the following year in London. She developed a special dialogue technique to assist his long, talky scenes with her. She called him her Knight Without Asthma.
- Fredric March, Anthony Adverse, 1936. His asthma and usual indecision blocked various Warner overtures.
- Leslie Howard, Romeo and Juliet, 1936. Shakespeare’s teenage lovers were played by Howard, 43, and Norma Shearer, 36!
- Gary Cooper, The Adventures of Marco Polo, 1938. Asthma again.
- Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938. Cowpoke Roy Rogers paid $2,500 for Olivia De Havilland’s golden palomino, Golden Cloud. And came up with a new name: Trigger.
- Ralph Richardson, South Riding, 1938. For the Squire. Paul Muni said of Donat’s next work, Goodbye Mr Chips: "The most magnificent performance I've ever seen on any screen. Not a false motion - a wasted gesture. He is the greatest actor we have today."
- Cary Grant, Gunga Din, 1938. Arriving at RKO, Howard Hawks wanted Donat, Clark Gable, Roger Livesey, Ray Milland, Robert Montgomery or Spencer Tracy for his three Kipling heroes. However, his RKO screwballer, Bringing Up Baby, flopped. The Silver Fox was out, George Stevens was in. Well in, second only toGone With The Wind in 1939.
- Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights, 1938.
- John Clements, The Four Feathers, 1938. He had signed for the far from cowardly Harry Faversham when Paramount (which made the 1928 version with Richard Arlen) suddenly refused to part with its rights. Clements took over when London producer Alexander Korda, made Paramount an offer it couldn’t refuse.
- Laurence Olivier, Pride and Prejudice, 1939. MGM house genius Irving Thalberg was due to supervise his pet project - co-starring his wife Norma Shearer and Gable - when the production chief tragically died at age 37. By 1939, Shearer was still aboard wit Donat - or Errol Flynn! - as Mr Darcy. Metro played safe with Olivier opposite Greer Garson. Olivier was very unhappy with the result. “Difficult to make Darcy into anything more than an unattractive-looking prig, and darling Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth.”
- Louis Hayward, The Son of Monte Cristo, 1940. Refused to have anything to do with the sequel to the film that made his name in Hollywood in 1934.
- Spencer Tracy, Jekyll and Hyde, 1941. WWII ruined MGM’s plan for Donat tobe transformedin London. In LA, a pal warned Tracy off it. “You would not be good in it,” said Lynne Overman. Why? “Nobody ever is.” Tracy was, understanding the tale first-hand. Not about some magic potion, he said. “It’s just booze. I do know.” Indeed.
- Tyrone Power, This Above All, 1941. Over the previous few years, Fox had planned for Donat, Richard Greene or Laurence Olivier for the Army deserter getting involved with Joan Fontaine’s very upper-crust WAAF. (A member of the UK’s Women's Auxiliary Air Force). Title stemmed from the Polonious soliloquy in Hamlet: "This above all: to thine own self be true..." As John Wayne could have told you; he could recite the entire play. With more pauses than Shakespeare intended…
- Robert Taylor, Stand By For Action, 1942. What a difference a war makes… The November 1941 plans to shoot at MGM’s UK studio were hurriedly switched to Burbank. Once the US entered WWII, Donat, Edmund Gwenn and the Royal Navy became Taylor, Brian Donlevy of the US Navy - where Taylor served during 1943-1946.
- Walter Pidgeon, Madame Curie, 1943. Totally daft. The Minivers playing the Curies. Robert had been producer David Selznick’s 1939 plan for Pierre.
- Gary Cooper, For Whom The Bell Tolls, 1943. He had been in the running - for a wee while - alongside Clark Gable, Sterling Hayden, Ray Milland, Tyrone Power, Robert Preston.
- Robert Newton, This Happy Breed, 1944. Donat refused and directed David Lean asked for an actor he had a great weakness for. "He used to drink far too much. [Then] he would speak the absolute truth... bang on the dot. Withering. Cruel but undeniably true. I loved him!"
- Leslie Banks, Henry V, 1945. Laurence Olivier wanted Donat as the Chorus - and later made the Hamlet that Alexander Korda planned for Donat in 1934.
- Walter Pidgeon, If Winter Comes, 1947. Gone With The Wind producer David O Selznick bought the morality tale in 1939 for Leslie Howerd and Joan Fontaine - or Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh. They all passed. So did DOS, selling his rights in 1940 to UK producer Alexander Korda… who did the same to MGM, which wanted Donat and Greer Garson as the feuding Sabre couple who finished up as Pidgeon and Angela Lansbury… on, for the historic first time, non-flammable film.
- Robert Newton, Oliver Twist, 1948. He tested as Bill Sikes opposite Alec Guinness’ Fagin. "He looked very good," recalled Alec Guinness, "and he was a beautiful actor but I don't think he'd got the vitality to cope." Enough, though, to triumph that year in The Winslow Boy.
- Richard Todd, Flesh and Blood, 1949. Donat was busy planning The Sleeping Clergyman. Not for long.
- Basil Sydney, Treasure Island, 1949. The speculation in town - or certainly in Hollywood Reporter, March 29, 1949 - was that the UK star would be Captain Smollet - in Disney’s first entirely live-action feature shot in England.
- James Stewart, No Highway, 1951. Fussbudget aeronautical engineer Theodore Honey was just perfect for him (and Marlene Dietrich). Not for his health. The reason he managed just 20 films in 23 years.
- John Mills, Hobson's Choice, 1954. He required oxygen cylinders near him on the stage so the insurance companies banned the asthmatic actor. "This," he said, "may end my career."
- Stewart Granger, Beau Brummell, 1953. MGM first planned Donat as the dandy at the court of King George II in 1938. Took another 15 years to assemble an all-British cast: Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, plus James Donald, Robert Morley, Paul Rogers, Peter Ustinov. Queen Elizabeth II attended the 1954 royal UK premiere. Her review? “What a bad film!”
- Vittorio Gassman, War and Peace, 1956. Alex Korda’s big plans - Orson Welles writer-directing the Oliviers, Donat plus the entire Red Army - went up in Cold War smoke.
- Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia, 1962.