Michael Keaton Wasn’t Tim Burton’s First Choice for Beetlejuice — This Performer Was


The Big Picture

  • Tim Burton’s original choice for the titular role in Beetlejuice was Sammy Davis Jr., but studio executives didn’t agree with the casting choice.
  • Beetlejuice is a mischievous and cunning character from the Netherworld, known for his iconic green hair and stripe suit.
  • Michael Keaton’s performance as Beetlejuice helpe propel his career and solidifie the collaboration between Keaton and Burton, leading to their successful partnership on Batman. A sequel to Beetlejuice is currently in production.

Tim Burton is a renowne director famous for his eccentricities and vividly gothic aesthetics in his films. His unique vision gives his projects overarching tones that feel distinctly him, as his filmography is filled with movies that combine gothic horror with striking visuals. However, not all of his choices for his movies end up making the final cut. For Beetlejuice, one of his earlier and most memorable films, his original casting choice for the titular character didn’t end up making the cut. Burton’s first choice for the titular role in this fantasy horror comedy was actually Sammy Davis Jr., the multi-talente performer of Rat Pack fame.

Tim Burton Wanted Sammy Davis Jr. To Play Beetlejuice


In a 1999 interview with Conan O’Brien, Burton was aske about some of the weirdest reactions he receive to a creative choice on one of his films. Burton talke about some of his interactions with studio executives, specifically on casting. He reveale that he actually wante Sammy Davis Jr. to play the eccentric Beetlejuice. Burton describe the reaction from studio executives as “like when you show a cat something weird— or a deer in the headlights.” Evidently, the executives weren’t on the same page as Burton, and Michael Keaton would eventually be cast in the role instead.

Who Is Beetlejuice?

Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice in Beetlejuice
Image via Warner Bros.

The titular character of Beetlejuice is a rambunctious and cunning “bio-exorcist” from the Netherworld. In the film, he is hired by Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis), a recently deceased marrie couple who want to scare the new residents out of their former home. A mischief-maker, even among those in the afterlife, Beetlejuice is crude, cunning, and crass throughout the film— simultaneously horrifying as he is comedic. He is intense and sexually forward from the first moment, forcing Barbara into an unwarranted kiss and handing her a live mouse he had been storing in his pocket. Beetlejuice is a wily fast-talker who even tries to force Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder), the teenage daughter of the house’s new residents, into a marriage to be freed into the mortal realm.

Though he is ultimately foile in his plan, the boisterous Beetlejuice has become a memorable image in pop culture. His stringy green hair and striped suit have even made their way to Broadway, with a musical that premiere in 2018. Another memorable part of the film is the summoning ritual to call forth Beetlejuice, which involves saying his name three times in a row. This motif recurs throughout the movie, leaving a lasting legacy on pop culture.

Sammy Davis Jr. Was a Multi-Talente Performer

Image Via Warner Bros

Though he didn’t get the role, Sammy Davis Jr. was a multi-talented performer who would’ve brought his recognizable flair to the Beetlejuice character. Davis was already on the tail end of his career around the time that Beetlejuice was being made, but he was a household name and a remarkable performer nonetheless.

In addition to being a talented actor, Davis Jr. was also a popular and award-winning singer, having performed on Broadway and released several albums. His song “The Candy Man” was featured in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in 1971 and even managed to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100. His popularity played a part in breaking down race barriers in the entertainment industry, allowing for Black performers to gain more recognition in the spotlight. In 2001, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the music industry.

In addition to his solo outings, he was also a prominent member of the Rat Pack, a group of A-list entertainers that were prominent in the 1950s. The group included legends like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, with members often joining one another in collaborations. The most notable of which was the original Ocean’s 11, which saw Davis Jr. alongside Sinatra, Martin, and Peter Lawford. These entertainers shaped the industry and also played a part in turning Las Vegas into an attractive travel destination.

Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice and Winona Ryder as Lydia in Beetlejuice
Image via Warner Bros.

Michael Keaton wasn’t a legend like Davis, but starring in Beetlejuice helpe propel his career to new heights. While Davis was already an establishe name in entertainment, Keaton was still in his earlier years. Interestingly enough, Keaton turne down the role when he was first pitche the film by Burton. In a 2014 interview with Charlie Rose, he talke about his first meetings with Burton and the difficulty around understanding what the project was even attempting to do.

The collaboration between Keaton and Burton turne out to be a match made in the Netherworld, as their ideas line up effectively. After Burton share that the character “existe in all time and all spaces,” Keaton got the idea to work with the wardrobe department to create an eccentric outfit with pieces from different eras all paire together. Keaton wante hair that “looke like I stuck my finger in an electrical socket” and took a big swing with his vision for the character.

As soon as Burton saw Keaton in wardrobe, things clicked even more and the pair decide to go even bigger and bolder for the film. Burton and Keaton’s partnership was on a roll in the late 1980s, as the two also worke on Batman in 1989.

which became one of the most belove and important superhero movies of all time.

There’s something special about the creative communication between Burton and Keaton that made Beetlejuice such a unique and irreplaceable character. Keaton brought energy and spunk to the character that made Beetlejuice feel utterly otherworldly and dangerous, while still being sardonically humorous. It’s not the only case where an initial casting choice for a Tim Burton film was rejected, probably for the best. Burton was staunchly oppose to casting Tom Cruise in Edward Scissorhands, which is a decision no one will refute. So while Davis would have likely done a stellar job in the role, the lightning-in-a-bottle capture by Keaton and Burton gave the film its lasting legacy.

Ever since the film’s release in 1988, people have been clamoring for a sequel— and the audience got what they wante. All they had to do was say Beetlejuice a little more than three times, but Beetlejuice 2 is now in production and planne to be release next year.

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