The notorious and audacious 2003 film, Bad Santa, originally had a different leading man in mind before Billy Bob Thornton stepped into the alcoholic department-store Santa role. In a revealing interview with The New York Times back in 2016, the movie’s writer, John Requa, disclosed that the character was initially conceptualized with James Gandolfini, famous for his work on the acclaimed series The Sopranos, in mind.
Requa explained that the Coen brothers, who initially pitched the anti-Christmas movie concept, envisioned Gandolfini playing the irreverent and unorthodox Santa figure. They tailored the character’s essence to suit Gandolfini’s style, inspired by their previous collaboration on “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” However, the plan to cast Gandolfini didn’t materialize as expected.
“Bill Murray was attached, but he stopped returning calls like Bill does. They were also courting Jack Nicholson,” Requa added, shedding light on the list of actors considered for the role after Gandolfini’s departure. Thornton, who eventually landed the role, also mentioned that Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage were among the actors considered before him.
Thornton’s manager brought the script to his attention, and despite the initial conception tailored for Gandolfini, Thornton found the character and story compelling. He quickly recognized the potential and felt compelled to take on the role.
Interestingly, while Thornton made the role his own, the script retained the original dialogue, resulting in a melding of the Southern cadence of Thornton with the New York dialogue crafted for Gandolfini. This blend showcased Thornton’s Southern rhythm delivering lines written for a New York setting.
Notably, while Bad Santa didn’t feature Gandolfini, he did star in another Christmas-themed film titled Surviving Christmas alongside Ben Affleck, released a year after Bad Santa’s debut. In the end, both Thornton and Gandolfini found their moments to shine in festive projects, albeit in different roles and movies.