When Arnold Schwarzenegger made his ascent into elected office, many no doubt assumed that his retirement from show business meant the end of the “Terminator” series with which he will be forever associated.
Never underestimate the power of a franchise — the idea, the premise and the context can often be more powerful than any single creative element. Cast members, writers, directors can all be replaced in the name of letting the franchise live on. So with a Schwarzenegger-free “Terminator: Salvation” coming to theaters, here’s a look at how several movie series have tried to stay afloat without their original stars in place, with very mixed results.
It’s not about the actor
The classic example of a film franchise where it’s the character, and not the performer, who matters would be the ongoing James Bond 007 series of movies. Granted, the first performer who tried to handle Sean Connery’s Walther PPK, George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” charmed neither critics nor audiences nor producers and was immediately let go from the position. (In the years since the film’s 1969 release, many critics — myself included — have come to the defense of Lazenby and of “Majesty’s” itself.)
From Connery to Lazenby to Connery again to Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton to Pierce Brosnan and now Daniel Craig, the 007 franchise remains a global juggernaut. Audiences have come to expect that actors will eventually grow too old to play the deadly globe-trotting (and bed-hopping) assassin, and while there’s always a difference of opinion about how the current Bond ranks opposite his predecessors, the movies continue to do well.
While it’s hard to find another American franchise with the staying power of Bond (going on 50 years), there are other examples of cast replacements that didn’t drive away audiences — whether Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character was played by Alec Baldwin (“The Hunt for Red October”), Harrison Ford (“Clear and Present Danger”) or Ben Affleck (“The Sum of All Fears”), the grosses were all pretty much comparable. And before the disastrous “Batman and Robin” put the Caped Crusader into storage for a decade, Val Kilmer’s debut turn in “Batman Forever” actually outgrossed Michael Keaton’s second outing in “Batman Returns.”
The overhaul of “Star Trek” with a new cast playing the legendary crew of the USS Enterprise obviously didn’t scare off ticket-buyers either, although the prominent participation of Leonard Nimoy as “Spock Prime” no doubt assuaged many Trekkers who might otherwise have stayed away.
It’s not about any actors
Masked-killer franchises like “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween” didn’t necessarily rely upon the same actor wearing the mask in each film — aficionados can distinguish, say, Kane Hodder’s Jason Voorhees from other performers’ turn at the machete, but most audiences can’t — so continuity wasn’t a big issue in keeping those series alive. (The fact that most of the rest of the cast gets killed before the final reel also preempted any future contract negotiations.) The “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies depended upon Robert Englund reprising his role as Freddy Krueger — a killer who actually speaks — but they were the exception and not the rule.
It could be argued that the “Jaws” movies didn’t really rely much upon an ensemble cast, even though Lorraine Gary does turn up in three of them. It was the robot shark who sold tickets for those movies, although the series’ diminishing returns had more to do with what was happening on the other side of the camera. If Steven Spielberg had decided to come back for the “Jaws” sequels (the way he did for “Jurassic Park” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), the grosses wouldn’t have dipped so severely from film to film.
Kids also become very replaceable in sequels, especially if years pass between movies and the characters are supposed to be at the same age. None of the “Vacation” flicks ever cast the same brother and sister twice, and only a handful of actors — including future Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley — suited up for all three “Bad News Bears” movies in the ’70s.
Tatum O’Neal and Walter Matthau made tracks after the first “Bears” comedy, and the subsequent films’ lack of star power was reflected in the grosses not only for the sequel but also for Richard Linklater’s remake — the original grossed $32 million, a lot for 1976, while the newer version’s $32 million gross was disappointing by 21st century math.
No star, no audience
The history of Hollywood is littered with sequels that floundered without the oomph of the original leading men and women. Just a few months ago, the “Fast and the Furious” franchise rebounded mightily when original players Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez rejoined the pit crew.
That resurrection is more exception than rule, however — once producers flop with a new cast, that usually spells the end of the franchise. Hilary Swank’s a double Oscar-winner these days, but there was a time when her career stank of the death of the “Karate Kid” movies, after she failed to successfully fill Ralph Macchio’s gi in “The Next Karate Kid.” “Meatballs 2,” “Dumb and Dumberer,” “Predator 2” — the duds just keep coming.
It’s no wonder there was panic among “Harry Potter” fans when it was once rumored that the growth spurts of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were outpacing production schedules and that the three performers might have to be replaced by more age-appropriate actors. That thankfully never came to pass, but studios are right to be concerned about losing the talent in movies where the audience wants very much to see the same people playing the same roles from film to film.
That’s why it’s pretty much a given these days that an actor who signs on for a film will have to sign a contract committing to two or three more as the same character in case the first one takes off.
Contracts can only cover so many situations, however. The tragic death of Heath Ledger precludes his participation in a follow up to last year’s smash “The Dark Knight,” and the makers of the recently-announced “Harold and Kumar” sequel will have to wait for Kal Penn to finish his job working in the Obama administration before he can go back before the cameras.
And speaking of politics, there’s still the fate of the latest entry in the “Terminator” series to be determined. Audiences will be the final judge over whether or not the saga can go on without the seemingly integral participation of Schwarznegger — or, for that matter, of Linda Hamilton, who makes a vocal cameo in the new movie.
The people behind “Terminator: Salvation” are no doubt looking to their star Christian Bale, who helped breathe life into the once-dormant “Batman” series, as a franchise-saving good-luck charm.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.