Steven Spielberg‘s Oskar Schindler almost looked vastly different.

The auteur’s Oscar-winning 1994 film “Schindler’s List” was led by Liam Neeson, who portrayed the real-life German businessman who saved more than 1,200 Jews from the Nazis during World War II. However, according to CAA co-founder Michael Ovitz, Mel Gibson was briefly considered for the title role.

“Mel Gibson’s name came up. He was interested. His agent put him forward,” Ovitz told The Hollywood Reporter in a 30th anniversary retrospective cover story. “But it wasn’t going to happen. Steven wanted a non-movie star for the part.”

At the time, pre-“Braveheart,” Gibson was coming off of three “Lethal Weapon” movies.

There were others considered — Neeson recounted in the oral history hearing Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner as well — though Spielberg was personally not naming names.

“A lot of people were interested in playing Schindler, and a lot of them were movie stars, and to all of them I promised never to divulge any of their history with me, so I’m not saying those names are accurate,” Spielberg told THR. “I’m saying there were a number of people, even more than the names you gave me.”

Actress Caroline Goodall, who played Emilie Schindler in the film, shared that Spielberg “really didn’t want American actors playing these roles, because he felt that European actors had a visceral understanding of the second World War.”

Spielberg added that “Schindler’s List” was his first “adult” film as he was “terrified” about authentically portraying the true story of a Holocaust hero.

“I was certain I wasn’t ready to deal with the gravitas of that subject matter, morally or cinematically, and I felt I lacked the wisdom to be able to discuss the story in the inevitable conversations that all of us have after our films are ready to be released,” Spielberg said. “But I didn’t want to stop the story from getting out into the zeitgeist. […] Emotionally, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a filmmaker. It’s the best movie I’ve ever made. I am not going to say it’s the best movie I ever will make. But currently, it’s the work I’m proudest of.”

And it is especially important today. Spielberg cited a rise in antisemitism in recent years — especially since Donald Trump became president.

“Since 2016, antisemitism has joined racism, xenophobia, homophobia and all these maladies and cultural afflictions in the air at eye level. I think it’s here to stay — and I think it’s a good thing that it’s here to stay,” Spielberg said. “Everybody wants it to go away because it’s uncomfortable to deal with it. It needs to be uncomfortable, because the only way we can find a solution to the way people treat the Jews is for it to always be part of the conversation.”

Spielberg went on to call 2024 Oscar contender “The Zone of Interest” the “best Holocaust movie I’ve witnessed since my own.”

THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Sandra Huller, 2023. © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
THE ZONE OF INTEREST, Sandra Huller, 2023. © A24 / Courtesy Everett CollectionCourtesy Everett Collection

Bullet-dodged in hindsight, optically, on that whole Mel Gibson thing. Years after “Schindler’s List” was released, actor/director Gibson was accused of antisemitism by screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Gibson was also caught making racist and antisemitic comments in a drunken tirade after a 2006 DUI arrest.

“I’ve never discriminated against anyone or done anything that sort of supports that reputation,” Gibson told Variety in 2016, reflecting on the incident. “And for one episode in the back of a police car on eight double tequilas to sort of dictate all the work, life’s work and beliefs and everything else that I have and maintain for my life is really unfair.”

Leave a comment