It may seem trivial but this process has been hellish for we comic book geeks who have wanted to see an honest film interpretation of this iconic character ever since Matt Salinger besmirched the mantle in 1990. The character has been around since the early 1940's but truth be told, there has never been a major motion picture adaptation of Captain America, forcing us to subside on made-for-TV nonsense and animated films. So as we draw nearer to the big screen debut of live-action Captain America, I thought it would be interesting to hypothesize which actors of years past would have landed the heroic title role had the films been released in their eras.
1940’s: Audie Murphy
Captain America was created as both a reaction to the swell of post Pearl Harbor patriotism and as an instrument of propaganda. He was a physically frail young man who refused to accept that he couldn’t fight for his country during WWII, championing the idea that anyone could enlist. Doesn’t it make sense that the appropriate choice for the first person to play him, in the decade in which the character was birthed, would be a war-hero-turned-actor? This was a guy whose whole career was more or less an endorsement of the armed forces. He’s got the right physicality and a hero’s square face, but his fierceness as an actual soldier (his comrades confessed to being scared of him in battle) would surely translate perfectly to this character.
1950’s: Rock Hudson
No stranger to war films himself, Rock Hudson was the paradigm of manliness for years. This was made all the more ironic by the fact that he was actually gay. With his razor jaw line and boy-next-door charm, Hudson would have been the ideal choice for Captain America. He was also one of the biggest movie stars of his time and even more a box office draw than Murphy. The one thing that may have stood in the way of his being cast was his stature. It sounds ridiculous that a superhero film would shy away from a tall, muscular beefcake but Steve Rodgers starts off as a scrawny milquetoast before being transformed into the super soldier. But, with Hudson being the box office cash cow that he was, especially after the comedies with Doris Day, the studio would have found a script wherein Rodgers had an illness or an injury as opposed to being an outright weakling just to accommodate his casting.
1960’s: Paul Newman
One of the greatest actors of all time, Newman found his stride in the 1960’s, with some of his most historically brilliant performances falling within that decade (The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). He was a living legend his entire life and the studios would have positively salivated at the opportunity to put him in the familiar cowl. He had the right look and would have fit the suit nicely, but what he really would have brought to the role was depth, emotional commitment, and vulnerability. Given the tumultuous political climate of the ‘60s, studios would have bent over backwards to land Newman, despite his anti-popcorn movie tendencies. Think about it; if McCarthy were looking to see who in the entertainment industry was harboring communists, wouldn’t you want to be the studio that released the Captain America movie starring Paul Newman?
1970’s: Martin Sheen
This decade was probably the hardest. There were a few obvious choices for which one could make just as strong a case. The biggest up-and-coming star of the 1970’s was easily Jack Nicholson, but 1969’s Easy Rider was essentially a condemnation of establishment and that rebellious spirit underscored much of his career throughout ‘70s; studios would have been skittish. I think Martin Sheen had heroic presence and the talent to bring a raw intensity to the part that would still have seemed very homegrown. Though it wasn’t released until 1979, the magic of hindsight and hypothetical means that we can use Apocalypse Now as an indication of his performance prowess. He is a tad short for the role, but luckily this was the decade that saw the inception of elevator shoes.
1980’s: Mel Gibson
I know what you’re thinking: an Aussie playing Captain America? But honestly, how many times did Mel play American characters in the ’80? How about today? Being that both Australian and American audiences bore witness to Mel’s action hero chops (The Road Warrior and Lethal Weapon respectively), it would have been remarkably easy for them to buy him as the red, white, and blue guardian of freedom. Not only that, but imagine if the first time we got to see Mel’s adeptness at kicking ass in battle scenes was not in Braveheart, but instead seeing a young, chiseled Gibson trouncing Nazis in WWII.
I’m going to leave the ‘90s alone because the miserable Captain America movie spawned by that decade—which only saw theatrical release in Turkey and the UK, by the way—still leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Seriously, look at this trailer: