Stanley Kubrick's The Shining Had A Surprising Second Choice For Jack Torrance If Jack Nicholson Said No
A list of the most memorable performances of all time is incomplete without mention of Jack Nicholson's turn as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. There is no more iconic cinematic descent into madness than what he delivers in the film, and it's hard to imagine what the movie would be without his particular magic as an actor. Unsurprisingly, this was an outlook that Kubrick shared in the development of the film (hence the casting), but the legendary filmmaker did have one other name that he considered as a backup choice: Kris Kristofferson.
This interesting bit of trivia about The Shining comes from some recent myth debunking performed by Snopes. The website analyzed a well-spread story that Robin Williams was among the actors who were considered by Stanley Kubrick as alternates to play Jack Torrance, and filmmaker Lee Unkrich provided the truth for them.
Unkrich, a Shining superfan who has co-written an upcoming book about the film for TASCHEN, explained in an email to Snopes that Robin Williams was not on a short list to play Jack Torrance because A) he wasn't a big enough star, and B) he was too young for the part. When Kubrick was first developing the film in 1977 (the same year that a 40-year-old Jack Nicholson was cast), the debut of Mork & Mindy was still about a year away, and a 27-year-old Williams was far from the household name he eventually became.
Getting a star to play Jack Torrance was essential for Stanley Kubrick, as one of the key reasons why he took The Shining on as a project was because he needed to make a film that would be a commercial hit. Lee Unkrich explains,
After the box-office disappointment of his previous film, Barry Lyndon, Kubrick was sorely in need of a hit, and he chose The Shining in an attempt to make a more commercial film. Kubrick had long wanted to work with Nicholson (they had discussed a biopic about Napoleon), and when Nicholson called Kubrick to ask what he was working on, Kubrick told him about The Shining.
In the research for his aforementioned book, Lee Unkrich learned from information at Warner Bros. that Kris Kristofferson was Stanley Kubrick's only backup choice, and it was his name alone.
Today, Kris Kristofferson isn't considered a movie star on the level of Jack Nicholson, but in the 1970s he had put together quite an impressive acting resume, including three Sam Peckinpah films, Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and 1976's A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand. And, of course, that was about a decade after establishing himself as a beloved singer/songwriter.
It's an interesting bit of trivia in part because it provides insight into the mind of Stanley Kubrick, but it also makes one think about how the casting choice could have impacted Stephen King's relationship with the film. The author has criticized the movie in many ways over the years, but one standout has been his judgement about Jack Nicholson's performance. He's described Nicholson's Jack Torrance as not having an arc, but instead a "flat line."
While it's possible that Stanley Kubrick would have directed Kris Kristofferson to put on a similar performance to what we see from Nicholson in The Shining, it's also possible that Kristofferson could have played with the softer side of the character differently – perhaps as a better representation of who Jack Torrance is on the page. Unfortunately, we won't know the answer until multiverse travel is invented and we can peek into another reality where that casting came to pass.
For more about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, you can read my Adapting Stephen King column about the film, and head over to our ranking of the best Stephen King movies of all time.