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Antonio Banderas nearly played Russell Crowe’s most iconic role

Hollywood is littered with stories of "almosts" and "near misses," and if another actor was cast in this iconic role, things could have been very different.

Russell Crowe

Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandal epic Gladiator came out over twenty years ago, and was a huge success at the box office, at the Oscars, and as a career-launcher for Russell Crowe. But the writing process, and the production were both mired by problems – not the least of which was the death of Oliver Reed during filming.

Casting was just one of several issues that arose surrounding the giant production. Joaquin Phoenix was still only 25 at the time, and largely associated with teenaged roles. Writer David Franzoni told Yahoo for the Gladiator 20th anniversary in 2020; “everyone was like, ‘Joaquin Phoenix, isn’t he some kind of stoner surf kid?’ The audition tape was a knockout. It was mind-boggling.”

Mel Gibson was apparently in the running for the lead, as was Antonio Banderas. Banderas makes sense because you may have forgotten that Maximus is referred to as The Spaniard throughout the movie. Ultimately, Franzoni and Ridley Scott pushed hard for Russell Crowe, because they were so blown away by him in LA Confidential – and understandably so.

“There were a couple of actors that Steven (Spielberg, whose production company Dreamworks SKG was behind Gladiator) felt he needed to go to because of his relationship with them. And we were all sort of hoping they’d say no.”

Banderas’ career wasn’t too negatively affected by him not landing the role. He co-starred with Angelina Jolie in erotic thriller Original Sin in 2001, and Brian de Palma’s neo-noir Femme Fatale in 2002. He would go on to appear in Frida, several Pedro Almodovar movies, and of course playing Puss in Boots in the Shrek franchise. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish has recently been released, with excellent reviews.

Russell Crowe was nominated for the Lead Actor Oscar three years in a row – for The Insider, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind. He won for Gladiator.

Check out our guide to the new movies coming out in 2023.