Hollywood’s Moral Stand: Actors Who Refused Roles and Awards for Ethical Reasons

Many workplaces have rules about what can and can’t be discussed and there can be consequences if someone breaks those rules. For some, their workplace is an office, and for some multi-million dollar film productions. Some actors have done more than just discuss their opinions but have turned down roles, quit jobs or turned down prestigious awards because of their moral stance on an issue.

Turning Down Roles & Making Demands

Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, // Credit: United Artists

One of the major issues in casting in modern Hollywood is actors playing characters of different ethnicities, cultures, etc., Bradley Cooper’s upcoming film Maestro had been dogged by complaints that Leonard Bernstein should not be played by someone who isn’t Jewish. In what for virtually any other actor would have been considered turning down a career-defining role Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson turned down the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather because he thought “Italians should play Italians” and he had no business taking on such a part. Jack Nicholson already had a couple of career-defining roles so perhaps that made it easier to pass.

Matthew Modine in anti-war epic Full Metal Jacket // Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

War films have been a staple of cinema since the beginning of cinema and much as been said about whether can you have an “anti-war” war film. One film that few people would call anti-war was Top Gun, which sometimes blurred the line between an exciting war film and a recruiting ad for the American military. Matthew Modine was originally considered for the role of Maverick, ultimately played by Tom Cruise, but Modine passed on the film because of his anti-war politics. Instead, Modine took the lead role of Joker in Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick’s devastating attack on American military culture and the Vietnam War.

James Cromwell in Succession //credit: HBO

When James Cromwell was offered the part of Logan Roy’s brother Ewan in Succession, he had a few conditions, the most important being that Ewan would be ideologically opposed to everything Logan Roy and his company stood for. He lambasted Logan for lowering the public discourse, cheapening culture, climate change denial and more. This matches Cromwell’s own politics and meant a great deal to him. Given that, it seems that the Succession writers feel much the same way it probably wasn’t too difficult to accommodate Cromwell.

Much missed comedic actor Robin Williams refused to take part in Aladdin 2 after a falling out with Disney. Williams had been excited to be in Aladdin but did not like the marketing campaigns that came with Disney films, he didn’t want to be featured in millions and millions of toys, posters etc. Disney agreed but the subsequent merchandising storm that followed had Williams feel Disney had broken their agreement with him and wouldn’t have anything to do with the sequel.


One of the most famous examples of an actor refusing an award was Marlon Brando when he refused to be present for his Best Actor Oscar win for his role in The Godfather. Instead of attending Brando sent Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather to collect the award, citing Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans as his reason for refusing it. So shocking was this to some people at the time that John Wayne threatened her and he had to be restrained by security guards. To further complicate matters members of Sacheen’s own family have stated that the family has no Native American heritage.

George C Scott in Patton //credit: 20th Century Fox

Brando’s refusal came only two years after George C Scott turned down an Oscar for Patton on the grounds that he didn’t believe actors should compete for awards, describing the ceremony as a “two-hour meat parade”. Just to complete the set the only other person to turn down an Oscar was screenwriter Dudley Nichols in 1935 due to there being a writer’s strike.

Actors will turn down awards and roles for all sorts of reasons, it needn’t necessarily be of political beliefs or a moral stance, and for such an insecure career it must be a difficult decision to turn down a lucrative role or an award you’ve spent your entire career striving for.

Also Read: Hollywood & The Military: A Special Relationship

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Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.