That Time John Lithgow Almost Played Hannibal Lecter In Silence Of The Lambs

the silence of the lambs hannibal lecter anthony hopkins

Whenever it comes time to make a list of movie villains who stand the test of time and scare us all out of our wits repeatedly, there is never any doubt that the name Hannibal Lecter will show up somewhere near the top of the ranking. As played by Anthony Hopkins in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, the character left its stamp on popular culture, going down in film history as one of the creepiest bad guys ever created.

With most roles that end up becoming this beloved and well-known, though, there was someone else who can very close to playing the part. And, we know now that that person is Bombshell's John Lithgow. The actor talked recently about how close he came to nabbing the soon-to-be iconic role of the psychopathic cannibal and what his hopes were for the gig at the time.

If Anthony Hopkins had turned it down they were coming straight for me. I even went in to meet with (director) Jonathan Demme and he said 'I have to tell you we've offered it this morning to Anthony Hopkins,' and I said 'Then what am I doing here?' And I just crossed my fingers that he would turn it down, and he didn't. On the other hand, I don't think I could have done it as well as Anthony Hopkins....I would have been much taller, that's the main difference.

Ooooh! So close, right? John Lithgow made a very good point, while he was chatting with Deadline, when he noted that he wondered aloud to The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme why they'd brought in him for a meeting after offering Hannibal Lecter to Anthony Hopkins not long before. Were they simply hoping that if Hopkins turned it down they'd have Lithgow readily available to say yes and sign on the dotted line?

Either way, the point turned out to be moot, and as we all know Anthony Hopkins did not turn down his shot at taking on the mantle of Hannibal Lecter. Not only did this lead to him immediately getting a spot in the annals of film history, but it also turned into a Best Actor Oscar for Hopkins and to him reprising the deadly role in two sequels, 2001’s Hannibal and 2002’s Red Dragon.

John Lithgow, for his part, hasn't been hurting for work in the decades since he lost out on portraying Hannibal Lecter. Recently, the two-time Academy Award nominee has gotten accolades for bringing Winston Churchill to The Crown on Netflix and playing Roger Ailes in the aforementioned Bombshell.

Though, those of you who remember his wackily comedic turn on the space-aliens-in-America sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001) might be surprised that he was ever up for a part as intense as Hannibal Lecter. But, he has played many bad guys and psychopaths (but not The Joker) in his time on screen, and here's Lithgow being super villainous in the 1993 Sylvester Stallone actioner Cliffhanger to prove it:

Well, aside from the shocking similarity in how John Lithgow and Anthony Hopkins looked back in the day, I'd say that Lithgow's skills as a movie bad guy were plentiful enough for him to make a convincingly creepy Hannibal Lecter. He's willing to self-deprecatingly admit, though, that his version of the classic character would have merely been "taller" than the one we eventually got.

If you haven't seen The Silence of the Lambs, or Cliffhanger, for that matter, both are available to watch on a variety of streaming services. For what's coming to the big screen next year, be sure to check out our 2020 movie release schedule!

Adrienne Jones
Senior Content Creator

Yennefer's apprentice, Gilmore Girl; will Vulcan nerve pinch pretty much anyone if prompted with cheese...Yes, even Jamie Fraser.