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Keanu Reeves Passed Up on Starring in a Movie With Al Pacino and Robert De Niro

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: Jason Kempin / Getty Images and Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Jason Kempin / Getty Images and Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

In the realm of missed opportunities in Hollywood, one name might come as a surprise to fans: Keanu Reeves. The beloved actor, renowned for his enigmatic charm and dynamic performances, once made a bold career decision that doesn’t seem to track with the John Wick role he’s become known for. Reeves turned down a part in the iconic 1995 film Heat, and with it, the opportunity to star alongside legendary actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, in favor of something else.

Speed-ing to stardom

Reeves might be a well-known actor now, but he wasn’t always. He started his career with a variety of minor roles in Canadian television and theater. He was eventually cast in some more major roles, even working alongside actress Lori Loughlin in The Night Before. In 1989, Reeves started to make a name for himself when he was hired for the comedy classic Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Transitioning into more mature roles, Reeves was in consistent work between 1991 and 1994.

Keanu Reeves as Jack Traven, wearing a denim shirt and brown pants as he leans out an open bus door.
Keanu Reeves as Jack Traven in a publicity still for Speed. (Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox / kakadu / MovieStillsDB)

Most notable were Point Break, which earned over $80 million at the box office, and Speed. He was specifically cast in the latter because director Jan de Bont was impressed with his performance as FBI Agent Johnny Utah in Point Break. Speed is considered by many to be the film that made Reeves famous, with the actor starring alongside successful stars like Sandra Bullock and Dennis Hopper and receiving immense praise for his role.

Turning down two legends

After this, many doors opened for Reeves that he could only have dreamed of just a few years earlier. One of these was an opportunity to work on the film Heat. He was initially offered the role of Chris Shiherlis, while Robert De Niro and Al Pacino were cast as Neil McCauley and Lieutenant Vincent Hanna, respectively. In fact, De Niro was the first actor to receive a copy of the script and he was the one who got Pacino on board after he showed it to him.

Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro sit on directors chairs talking to each other with a car in the background.
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sit together behind the scenes of Heat. (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. / Esamuel / MovieStillsDB)

Before production began, however, Reeves ended up declining the offer to play Shiherlis. It turns out even the chance of working alongside two titans of the industry wasn’t enough to make him accept. Instead, the role was taken on by Val Kilmer, and the rest is history. Heat was generally well received, earning over $65 million in the United States box office alone, and the performances of the leading actors were praised by many – even if Kilmer hadn’t been the first choice.

A true thespian

So what would possibly be a better opportunity for Reeves than working on a crime drama with De Niro and Pacino? Well, it turns out that the lead role of Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Canada was. He had previously performed some Shakespeare, such as the 1993 version of Much Ado About Nothing. Reeves was so excited about having another opportunity to do so that he supposedly studied Hamlet in between takes on the set of Speed. 

Keanu Reeves as Don John in a white and black historical jacket with two rows of buttons.
Keanu Reeves as Don John in a publicity still for Much Ado About Nothing. (Photo Credit: The Samuel Goldwyn Company / emesvau/ MovieStillsDB)

Although his time as Prince Hamlet is one of Reeves’ least-known roles, it earned him significant praise. One critic went so far as to say, “He is one of the top three Hamlets I have seen, for a simple reason: he is Hamlet.” It’s no wonder, as the actor himself expressed what a powerful experience it was: “It’s like this kind of code that once you start to inhabit it with breath and sound and feeling and thought, it is the most powerful and consuming and freeing at the same time.”

More from us: Keanu Reeves Wore Dolly Parton’s Iconic Playboy Bunny Costume for Halloween

Initially, his refusal to act in Heat – followed by declining a role reprisal in Speed 2 – may have hurt the actor, but he easily came back from it to have a truly impressive Hollywood career and star alongside Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate. 

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.

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