The Will Smith-Martin Lawrence buddy-cop classic originally starred two ‘SNL’ favorites

There are countless tales of iconic movie roles that came close to featuring a different actor. Tom Selleck almost played Indiana Jones. Sandra Bullock was offered the lead (yes the Neo role) in The Matrix. Eric Stoltz was Marty McFly, at least for a few weeks, until he was replaced by Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future.

But of all the alternate-universe, what-could-have-been castings, one of the strangest to consider is the original duo lined up for what would become the blockbuster buddy-cop action-comedy Bad Boys, which famously teamed the wise-cracking odd couple Will Smith and Martin Lawrence and was released 25 years ago today, on April 7, 1995.

The franchise-launching hit was almost headlined by Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz.

As Carvey told the New York Times in a 1992 profile, the former Saturday Night Live costars had been polishing the script for Bad Boys — originally titled Bulletproof Hearts and written as a vehicle for the duo — with designs on going into production in February 1993. Fast-forward to less than a month later, and the Los Angeles Times reported that the project, which was set to be bankrolled by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures for $20 million, fell through only weeks before its projected Feb. 16 start date. This, despite the fact that Carvey and Lovitz had filmed test scenes for director Michael Bay, a 28-year-old veteran commercial and music video director (Styx, Donny Osmond, Tina Turner, Meat Loaf, Vanilla Ice) who was set to make his feature film directorial debut — and unleash his hyper-stylized filmmaking style that came to be known as “Bayhem” for the very first time.

It sounds almost too bizarre to be true — not all that unlike the recent revelation that a clueless studio exec once suggested Harriet Tubman be played by Julia Roberts. But 1992 was a long time ago, and you have to remember it also probably marked the zeniths of the comedic actors’ respective careers.

Jon Lovitz as Mephistopheles and Dana Carvey as reenactment actor on the Feb. 18, 1989 episode of Saturday Night Live. (Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

Carvey was one of the most popular performers on SNL at the time, thanks to his portrayals of Garth from “Wayne’s World,” Church Lady and George H.W. Bush. The movie version of Wayne’s World (1992) had just become a big party-time-excellent hit, and a sequel was on the way. (Also mentioned in the New York Times profile: another spinoff that never saw the light of day despite Carvey calling it his favorite film project was a movie called Hans and Franz: The Girly Man Dilemma.) He was even being considered to replace David Letterman on Late Night.

Carvey “isn’t a talent who’s going to be sitting around, those close to him say. His fees are going up daily and he’s caught up in the whirlwind that goes with being a hot property,” the L.A. Times‘s Jane Galbraith wrote at the time of his Bad Boys going bust. Longtime producing partners Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who were spearheading the project, seemed much more disappointed by contrast.

Lovitz had left SNL in 1990, but he was fielding $500,000 film contracts (again, it was a long time ago, so adjust that number for inflation). He was landing prominent roles in movies like Big (1988), My Stepmothter Is an Alien (1988), Mr. Destiny (1990) and A League of Their Own (1992). He was third-billed after Emilio Estevez and Samuel L. Jackson in the 1993 Lethal Weapon spoof National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1 (narrator voice: there was never a sequel), so graduating to his own buddy cop tandem would have made sense in Hollywood hierarchy.

Jon Lovitz as Mephistopheles and Dana Carvey as Chuch Lady on Saturday Night Live in 1988. (Photo: NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Carvey and Lovitz would have almost certainly not been playing the same two (decidedly smoother) characters that Smith (Det. Mike Lowrey) and Lawrence (Det. Marcus Burnett) embodied in Bad Boys and its two sequels, 2003’s Bad Boys II and this year’s Bad Boys for Life. The original script by George Gallo, which sold for $55,000 in 1986, imagined two detectives in New York — not Miami; one a womanizer (Carvey), the other a “Jewish, Nebbish” family man (Lovitz), who trade places to bring down a heroin ring. Carvey wasn’t comfortable with the womanizing aspect, one reason why the script saw multiple rewrites, by James Toback, Larry Ferguson and future NYPD Blue creator David Milch.

There are various accounts to why Carvey ultimately pulled out: According to the Los Angeles Times, even after four screenwriters worked on the project, there was still no filmable script. Another is that Carvey had become a new father (his two sons were born in 1991 and 1993) and didn’t want to spend too much time away from his children. Yet other intel out there suggests that Carvey was deterred by the screen test they filmed with Bay, who was intent on making the film younger and hipper.

Then there’s a more salacious item. According to an unverified trivia item on IMDb, Carvey and Lovitz were invited to join Simpson for a weekend in Las Vegas to celebrate their upcoming collaboration, and Carvey was so horrified by the late producer’s notoriously debauched style of celebrating that he pulled out of the project.

Carvey could not be reached for comment, but Newsday attributes this recollection to him: “I had a half-a-million dollar guarantee that I had to give back. When you get into a corporate movie and they back up a Brinks truck, you are just lost and untethered.”

Lovitz talked to the AV Club about the project in 2010: “The script was awful,” he said. “They rewrote it for three months, but Disney didn’t want to do the new script. They wanted to do the original one, and it ended up going to Columbia. And [president of production] Barry Josephson — who is a friend and used to be my manager — he decided to make it with two black actors, and that’s what happened. It was disappointing. I wanted to do it.”

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

The project went into turnaround and was delayed a year as it moved to Columbia/Sony, where it would be rewritten (again) by Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland and Doug Richardson. More internet lore suggests Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes were once in line for the leads, as well as Arsenio Hall, who was reportedly offered the Lowrey role. (Coincidentally, a photo of Murphy, Snipes, Smith and Lawrence posing together went viral last year as the pairs filmed Coming 2 America and Bad Boys for Life simultaneously at Tyler Perry’s Atlanta studios; Hall is also returning for Coming 2 America.)

Bay and his producers ultimately landed on Smith and Lawrence, who were both hot commodities on television at the time from their success on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin, respectively. Bad Boys went on to gross $141 million worldwide, establishing both Smith and Lawrence as box-office forces and Bay as a master of spectacle who would go on to direct The Rock, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.

Carvey and Lovitz did go on to make a film together — the 1994 yuletide-themed comedy caper Trapped in Paradise with Nicolas Cage (and written and directed by original Bad Boys writer George Gallo), which earned a measly $6 million total. Lovitz told the AV Club he nicknamed the movie “Trapped in S***.” Carvey’s film career downturned from there, hitting bottom in 2002 with the much-maligned action-comedy The Master of Disguise. “I came off Saturday Night Live, I was in some awful movies,” he told AV Club in 2009. Lovitz didn’t fare much better, though he did find cult fandom for the mid-’90s animated comedy The Critic, in which he played the type of film reviewer who would salivate over sharpening his claws to carve up movies like Trapped in Paradise and The Master of Disguise.

Around the release of January’s Bad Boys for Life, Smith and Lawrence addressed the film’s strange casting history seemingly for the first time.

“This is the best partner that I chose,” Lawrence told Entertainment Tonight, to which Smith added: “Yeah, it was Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz, [they] were the original Bad Boys. That would have been a little bit of a different movie.”

You can say that again.

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