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How Tom Cruise Beat Charlie Sheen for 'Born on the Fourth' of July Role

Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen
Ixtlan; Getty Images

Sheen claims that Oliver Stone originally offered him the part of paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic.

What if Charlie Sheen had starred in 1989's Born on the Fourth of July instead of Tom Cruise? Sheen has claimed that director Oliver Stone originally offered him the film's star role as paralyzed Vietnam vet and activist Ron Kovic. "I think the movie would've worked better and his career would've peaked at a higher level,"  Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen tells The Hollywood Reporter. The biopic worked out fine for Cruise and director Oliver Stone – it grossed $70 million domestically and got Stone his second directing Oscar and Cruise his first best actor nomination.

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Sheen thought he was a shoo-in for the career-making part, because his previous Vietnam film for Stone, Platoon (1986), had grossed $138 million domestically and won Stone his first directing Oscar. So why not reteam for Born on the Fourth of July? "He said we were going to have a relationship like Scorsese and De Niro," Sheen told Playboy in 2001. "He said Al Pacino wanted to do the movie, De Niro wanted to -- everybody wanted to -- and ‘I'm going to give you this movie.'" Sheen said Stone didn't call back as promised, but Sheen's brother Emilio Estevez did. "He said, ‘Are you sitting down? Cruise is doing Born on the Fourth.'" Stone's publicist did not offer comment on Sheen's claim.

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"Sheen might have been fantastic in what we know as the Cruise role," says ex-New York Times film critic Caryn James. "He was still, for good reason, taken seriously as an actor. If you look at his career in the late 80's -- Platoon, Wall Street, Eight Men Out -- Fourth of July would have kept him on that path." James thinks he did too few arty films and too many for money. "I have to guess that his personal life led him off that track. What a waste of talent."



It's easy to see why Stone chose Cruise. "Tom Cruise was a much bigger name: Risky Business, Top Gun, Color of Money, Rain Man," says Jim Emerson, editor of Roger Ebert's website. "Did people pay specifically to see Charlie Sheen in Red Dawn, Platoon, Wall Street, Young Guns, Eight Men Out?  Not so much. They were all ensemble pictures -- except for Wall Street, where he played the not-very-interesting protege role again, torn between the two father figures of Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen."


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Rejected by cinematic father figure Stone, Sheen told Playboy he was "Hurt… I wouldn't have cared if Oliver had called me personally, based on what we'd been through. We fought two wars you know. But here was a crucial point for both of us, and he couldn't even call me and say, ‘I've changed my mind." 



Would the immense opportunity of the Ron Kovic role have kept Sheen on the straight and narrow – propelling him straight to an Oscar nomination like the one Cruise got for Born on the Fourth of July (his first of three)? "I think we'd probably be seeing the same end game," says skeptical Andersen.

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Sheen found another kind of immortality on TV, earning four Emmy nominations and a record-breaking salary on Two and a Half Men before falling out with the show's creator Chuck Lorre earlier this year. If he'd been through wars with Stone, this was World War III.



But Emerson thinks he should have starred in another Oliver Stone movie instead. "If Sheen wants to regret not getting an Oliver Stone role, it should probably be Woody Harrelson's in Natural Born Killers. If Sheen could have gone as crazy with it as Harrelson, he might have had more of a movie career instead of winding up being best known for a sitcom."

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Maybe he should star in a different kind of movie than Born on the Fourth of July – say, a film of his Torpedo of Truth stage show. He could call it Born on Mars.