MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Phil Coulson only continued as a character past “Iron Man” because Samuel L. Jackson decided not to appear in “Thor.”
As the old Konstantin Stanislavski saying goes, “there are no small parts, only small actors.” This has certainly been proven over the years, as seemingly small characters went on to become major characters (or at least larger roles than first expected). An actor’s ability to make a cappuccino got him a role on “Friends” that lasted a decade. An extra in “The Avengers” impressed Joss Whedon so much in her one scene that he cast her as one of the leads in his next film. However, there are also the cases where circumstances ended up with an actor’s big break vanishing at the drop of a hat, like the actor who was cut from the cast of “Bonanza” before his first episode even finished filming due to Michael Landon’s jealousy.
Clark Gregg’s journey as Phil Coulson is definitely one of the better examples of this trend, as his small role in “Iron Man” eventually ballooned into a larger role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and then a starring role on ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Is it true, though, that Coulson’s journey only moved past his initial “Iron Man” appearance because of Samuel L. Jackson deciding not to co-star in “Thor”?
The answer is a tricky one.
Samuel L. Jackson has had a slightly contentious history with Marvel and the character of Nick Fury.
It’s not really all that dramatic, but after the studio made such a big deal out of the character’s appearance in “Iron Man”, Jackson basically wanted to make sure that he was going to be taken care of financially on a long term basis, and that the studio weren’t taking it for granted that he would just show up whenever they wanted him to show up. Ultimately, they ended up resolving their issues and he got a long-term, multi-picture contract (that is ending soon, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens next with Fury). However, as a result of the contract snag, he opted not to appear in 2011’s “Thor.”
A few months ago, much was made about an appearance by “Thor” screenwriter Zack Stentz on Kevin Smith’s great podcast, “Fatman on Batman”.
On the show, Stentz explained that the role that they had written for Fury in the film was now off limits.
And then they’re like ‘Well, you can have S.H.I.E.L.D., but Sam Jackson’s holding us up in negotiations so we don’t know if we can have Nick Fury. And we’re like ‘Well, how about that Clark Gregg guy from the first Iron Man, he was great and he popped! Can we have Coulson?’ And they’re like ‘Coulson, Coulson, Coulson… oh him! Yeah, you can have him.’… They ended up giving him a bigger role in Iron Man 2 because they liked how he was popping in Thor. Clark Gregg actually sent us t-shirts as a thank you.
That’s an awesome story, of course, but it has been reported as “Clark Gregg owes his post-‘Iron Man’ career to Samuel L. Jackson not appearing in ‘Thor,'” which I think is a bit misleading.
In a great interview with Rob Leane at the Den of Geek, Gregg explained his original casting in “Iron Man.”
[W]hen you signed up for Iron Man, did you have any idea you’d still be talking about Phil Coulson all these years later?
No… especially in the incarnation when they hired me – his name was literally only ‘Agent,’ and he only had about three lines. And yet they wanted a three picture deal, which I thought was just ludicrous. Because his name was only Agent! I knew they were doing that for everybody, because they had plans, and so we finally made that deal. And then, it was very clear that that was all it was going to be.
But there was something. There was something about what happened in that scene, and I think by the time I showed up there was a little bit… Maybe Jon Favreau did me a solid… And they kind of beefed up that scene.
I think by the time I showed up, he had a name. And yet there was really nothing. Then I remember [Jon] pulling me aside and going ‘are you free? Are you free right now? I think they’re adding some more stuff,’ and I was like [very quickly] ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! I’m gonna get free!’
And every step of the way, as it became this character, people were like ‘you can’t have this guy! He’s not in the comics! There’s plenty of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that could be from the comics!’ And then other people kind-of yelled back at them like ‘no, we like this guy! He’s kind of… us!’
And just, piece by piece, they kept adding stuff for him to do, and movies, and it all kinda culminated in this, you know, magnificent exit at the hands of that Asgardian mischief-making bastard, and I thought that was it! I was well and truly pleased, and kind of went back to making little indie films, and the stuff I normally do, and then, um, got a call from Joss [Whedon] saying ‘we think you might not be so dead.’
So, as Gregg noted, they had already bumped up his role from when he was originally cast and they had signed him to a three-picture deal as soon as he was cast.
There is little doubt that his appearance in “Thor” helped him a lot, and I could easily buy that Coulson’s prominence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was only as big as it was because of Samuel L. Jackson being unavailable for “Thor”, but it seems unlikely that Gregg wasn’t going to appear in “Iron Man 2” and who knows how that would have gone?
So I think that the very cool story that Stentz revealed has taken on some undue importance, but it’s still a very cool story!
Just for the legend itself, I’m going with it as…
STATUS: More False Than True
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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