12 Times Actors Decided To Bet On Themselves - And It Paid Off

List Rules
Vote up the risky moves that worked out in the end.

Imagine O.J. Simpson as the Terminator or Robert Redford as Michael Corleone. That could have been the case if Arnold Schwarzenegger and Francis Ford Coppola didn’t take huge career risks by betting on themselves. Schwarzenegger just instinctively knew he would make a better villainous cyborg than a hero, and Coppola could see that Al Pacino had the “magnetic quality” needed to play Michael Corleone. 

It takes a lot of confidence and steely determination to turn down life-changing money when you’re a starving artist. However, that’s exactly what a struggling Sylvester Stallone did when he refused to sell his screenplay for Rocky unless he played the lead role. 

Which other actors and filmmakers decided to risk it all for their vision? Make your voice heard. Vote up the risky moves that worked out in the end. 

  • In the mid-1970s, Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor in Los Angeles. He was so broke that he had to sell his dog Butkus for $40 in order to buy food.

    Stallone got the idea to write a script about a heavyweight boxing underdog who defies all odds and goes the distance in a title match. That idea became the script for Rocky, which would serve as an opportunity for Stallone to finally grab a potentially game-changing lead acting role. 

    The wanna-be actor found a producer who absolutely loved the script. He offered Stallone a massive payday of $360,000 for the screenplay rights. The catch was that they didn't want Stallone for the titular role. 

    Despite the fact that Stallone didn't have enough money to buy food, he turned down the offer. He said:

    I thought, "You know what? You’ve got this poverty thing down. You really don’t need much to live on." I sort of figured it out. I was in no way used to the good life. So I knew in the back of my mind that if I sell this script. and it does very, very well, I’m going to jump off a building if I’m not in it. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’m going to be very, very upset. So this is one of those things, when you just roll the dice and fly by the proverbial seat of your pants and you just say, "I’ve got to try it. I’ve just got to do it. I may be totally wrong, and I’m going to take a lot of people down with me, but I just believe in it."

    The producer wanted to make Rocky so badly that they eventually agreed to let Stallone star in the movie. Rocky hit the big screen in 1976 and became a monster at the box office. It also won the Academy Award for best picture. Rocky has become one of the most popular franchises in cinema history with a total of eight installments. 

    It was happy endings all around, even for Butkus. "The screenplay for Rocky sold, and I could buy him back, but the new owner knew I was desperate, and charged me $15,000... He was worth every penny," added Stallone. 

  • It's hard to remember the period of time in the 1990s when Robert Downey Jr. was in and out of jail after being arrested multiple times on drug possession charges. The once highly regarded actor even told a judge in 1999, "It's like I have a shotgun in my mouth, and I've got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gunmetal."

    After serving extended time in prison, Downey pulled his life together and started working regularly in small-budget Hollywood movies. After seeing his performance in Shane Black's indie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, director Jon Favreau wanted to cast Downey in his new Marvel superhero movie Iron Man. At the time, of course, Marvel movies weren't a thing yet.

    Despite Favreau's insistence, the studio didn't want to hire Downey because of his long history of drug and alcohol abuse. Favreau revealed that Marvel executives told him "under no circumstances are we prepared to hire him for any price.”

    But Favreau didn't give up on Downey. He believed that the Academy Award-nominated actor was perfect for the title role because of Downey and Stark's parallel life journeys. "He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career," said Favreau. "That’s Tony Stark. Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic-book character who is having trouble in high school, or can’t get the girl. Plus, he’s simply one of the best actors around."

    Eventually, the studio relented. It also only reportedly paid Downey $500,000 for the first Iron Man. Terrence Howard made more in his supporting role as War Machine.

    The gamble worked out all around. The Iron Man franchise has raked in an astounding $2.4 billion over three films. It also launched the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and its 27 blockbuster movies. Downey ended up making millions on the back end of the original Iron Man's $585 million worldwide box office. Also, with the two additional Iron Man movies and his multiple appearances in the Avengers installments, it's estimated that Downey has made between $396 million and $435 million for his participation in the MCU.

  • Francis Ford Coppola was 29 years old and hadn't yet scored a major hit movie when Paramount tapped him to direct The Godfather. He had no clout in the industry, but he had a vision.

    Taking on the adaptation of Mario Puzo's popular novel became a daunting task for the green writer-director. He revealed during an interview with NPR:

    You know, I was, like, about 29 when I started. I had two kids and one about to be born. I had absolutely no money. I was making what had become a more important film than it was when I got the opportunity because the book had continued to become more and more important. And I had no power, and yet I had real opinions on how it should be done. And I was always just trying to bluff the studio to let me, you know, do it my way. And it was just the most frightening and depressing experience I think I've ever had.

    One of the biggest sources of pushback from Paramount was the casting of Michael Corleone. The studio wanted a big-name draw like Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal for the lead role. However, Coppola had seen Al Pacino on Broadway and knew that he had his young Don. 

    Coppola took the risk and cast the then-unknown stage actor. However, when the studio executives saw dailies of Pacino's performance, they were less than impressed. Pacino revealed in a 2016 interview that the studio tried to fire him three times. "There was a movement not to have me in the part," said Pacino.

    Even Pacino himself thought he was miscast and would have made a better Sonny Corleone. However, Coppola stuck with his instincts. "His intelligence is what I noted first. He knows how to use his gifts," said Coppola of Pacino. "He uses what he has, this striking magnetic quality, this smoldering ambiance."

    The risk paid off immensely. The Godfather not only became a box-office hit, but it's also widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. The epic also won the Academy Award in 1973 for best picture.

  • Imagine in the original 1984 Terminator, an unknown Austrian actor with a heavy accent named Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the part of human resistance fighter and hero Kyle Reese. The role of the villainous cyborg assassin Terminator is played by former NFL great-turned-actor O.J. Simpson. 

    It seems almost blasphemous to consider, but that's the way Orion Pictures co-founder Mike Medavoy originally drew it up. Thankfully, even though The Terminator was only James Cameron's second time behind the camera, he knew that Simpson wasn't right for the part of the cyborg. 

    Schwarzenegger met with Cameron. The hulking seven-time Mr. Olympia winner had only done one film before reading Cameron's script. However, he had a handle on the bad guy. 

    "I got fixated on the Terminator," said Schwarzenegger. "He’s a machine. So everything has to be matter-of-fact. I told Jim that. I said there should be no joy, no gratification, no kind of victory lap of any sort. Just the mission, complete. I go through these points. Jim, afterward, says to me, 'F**k, you analyze it better than the way I have written it. Why don’t you play the Terminator?'"

    Schwarzenegger was hesitant at first. The Terminator only had 27 lines of dialogue, and Reese was the hero. Eventually, the Austrian agreed.

    It was clearly the right choice. The Terminator is considered one of the most legendary movie characters of all time. Schwarzenegger may not have had much dialogue, but he certainly got the most out of every syllable. Imagine O.J. saying, "I'll be back."

  • "You are so money and don't even know it."

    Jon Favreau had just broken up with his girlfriend. He was feeling really down and lonely. The Midwesterner moved out to Los Angeles to become an actor but hadn't really landed any substantial roles. Favreau decided to use the screenwriting software his dad bought for him and wrote a screenplay featuring characters that were based on people he knew. He finished the screenplay in 10 days and called it Swingers

    Favreau's agent went to work looking for an option deal. "People were interested in optioning it, but they had a lot of notes. They wanted to change Vince’s character to a girl and have them not go to Vegas and said the dialogue was too repetitive, and it had to be darker and more violent. I was really trying to embrace the notes. I tried to change the script, but I just couldn’t," said Favreau.

    Favreau brought in line producer Nicole LaLoggia and director Doug Liman to help sell the script. "I started taking meetings with Jon and Victor. Crazy meetings. They would come to the table and say, 'We love it, we wanna make it, we wanna give you $8 million, but you’ve gotta cast Johnny Depp as Trent and we need Chris O’Donnell to be so and so,'" said LaLoggia. "Jon and I would look at them cross-eyed and say, 'No. Thank you very much, here’s your suitcase full of money back, we’re leaving.'"

    Instead of taking the money, Favreau bet on himself. Liman came up with the roughly $279,000 production budget under the condition he be allowed to direct. Favreau cast his friends, Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston. The rag-tag group finished production in 20 days. 

    Swingers hit the big screen in 1996. It didn't become a massive box-office hit, but it did bring in over $4 million on a minuscule budget. More importantly, the cool throwback vibe of the indie and its ever-quotable dialogue helped the film became a Generation X cult classic.

    The movie also launched Vaughn's acting career. Today, Favreau is one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood with massive hits like the Iron Man franchise and Elf.

  • In 1997, M. Night Shyamalan was a 25-year-old mostly unknown writer-director. Yet, he knew that his spec script for a psychological horror movie called The Sixth Sense was a winner. He made the trip from his hometown of Philadelphia out to Los Angeles to sell his screenplay. 

    Despite only having directed one small-budget comedy that failed at the box office, Shyamalan would not accept anything less than what he thought The Sixth Sense was worth. He revealed his non-negotiable parameters during an interview in 2019:

    I have to be attached as director, and we’re going to have a $1 million minimum bid. If they want to read it, they have to know that this is going to start at $1 million. I was 25 when I wrote it. I felt sometimes when you are writing something that no one’s asked you to write, you have to decide its worth and decide how it’s going to be in a kind of very specific way. It’s fine if no one wants to pay that money for it. If they don’t want to make it, I will shelve it. You have to not be bluffing when you say stuff like that. I wasn’t bluffing. I’ll do other things, but I won’t make the movie.

    Even with Shyamalan's demands, several studios were willing to throw millions of dollars at The Sixth Sense. "I went over to a studio, and then there was another call [from my reps] and they said, 'Someone else just bid, you go drive over to another studio,'" said Shyamalan. "I remember it ended with Disney hearing that another company was going to come in with a big offer. So they called immediately and said, 'We want to close it. Right now.'"

    Disney's Hollywood Pictures outbid several other studios and sealed the deal with an unprecedented $3 million bid. Plus, Shyamalan got the green light to direct. 

    The Sixth Sense went on to become the second-highest-grossing movie of 1999, raking in over $672 million at the global box office. The film also became a water cooler must-see sensation with one of the most memorable jaw-dropping twist endings in movie history.

    Shyamalan developed into a bankable auteur with a signature vision and narrative style that made horror movies accessible to the mainstream.