There have been many famous portrayals of the Joker over the years, but none quite as enduring as Jack Nicholson’s spellbinding performance in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Batman. Though most people are probably unaware of it, Nicholson’s decision to play the iconic devil role opposite Michael Keaton’s Batman was influenced by a dark intention.
Given that he was cast against Keaton’s Batman, The Departed actor was aware that his portrayal of the Joker needed to be outstanding in order to stand out.
Fortunately, everyone else involved in the project appeared to see things the way Burton did. However, it appeared that Nicholson understood the vision the most.
Jack Nicholson Intended His Joker to Scare Children
In Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Jack Nicholson knew right away how he would portray Joker and it was the only way the movie could have been taken seriously. In a featurette published by The Hollywood Reporter, the multiple Oscar-winning actor remembered how he was too dedicated to a darker interpretation of the Batman universe:
“I was afraid because of my feel of the television series and the way movies tend to be done and talked about. I didn’t want this to go through the normal, ‘Let’s brighten it up for the kids.’ I thought this was a very strong — in every way — transitional movie about the genre, and really why they wanted me in there.”
Co-producer of Batman, Peter Guber stated in the same featurette that Nicholson’s participation gave the film more credibility in the business:
“It changed the nature of the ‘comic’ framework into a film — from a movie into a film with the inclusion of Jack Nicholson. There was something to be discovered there by the critics and by the media because they would find it intriguing that Jack wanted to do that.”
And he was aware that children would be interested in the character in a darker context as he told The Hollywood Reporter with an evil tone:
“My early experience in working for an audience full of children: the more you scare them, the more they like it. The worse you are, the better, because that was my response to the Joker. This is a hateful occurrence, this man, if you looked at it literally. Every kid loves this guy, I believe.”
The film also starred Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Jack Palance, in addition to Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton.
Was Jack Nicholson The First Choice To Play The Joker?
Dourif has made appearances in genre films like Alien: Resurrection and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where he played Billy Bibbit opposite Nicholson. He revealed the information at Comic-Con in New York (via Business Insider), saying:
“Tim Burton saw me on a plane and wanted to cast me and they [studio Warner Bros] said no.”
He further jokingly added:
“He [Nicholson] takes all my roles.”
Meanwhile, another candidate, John Lithgow previously revealed to Vulture that he tried to convince Burton not to cast him during his audition, a move he later publicly regretted:
“I have never told anyone this story, but I tried to persuade him I was not right for the part, and I succeeded. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal. About a week later I heard they were going after Robin Williams and Jack Nicholson.”
Since 1980, the studio has prioritized casting Jack Nicholson, and thus his outstanding performance ensured that the character was always associated with his name.
With over $400 million in box office receipts, Batman was a box office hit that received positive reviews as well. Following the success of the first film, three sequels were released: Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), and Batman & Robin (1997).
Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin are streaming on Amazon Prime Video.