Jim Hill: From the Archives
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After getting over their disappointment of losing Nicholson, Ron and John tried to find another Hades. They auditioned a number of actors looking for someone else who could play cool, funny and furious. Eventually, in the fall of 1994, they settled on character actor John Lithgow.
Then best known for his Academy Award-nominated performance as the trans-sexual former football player in 1981's The World According to Garp, Lithgow was obviously a talent. And he labored mightily in his recording sessions to try and make the character of Hades work.
But - as Hades' lead animator Nik Ranieri roughed out sequences using Lithgow's vocals - the scenes just laid there. There was no real humor or menace to John's version of the Lord of the Underworld. The character just came across as ... well ... a hammy actor.
After nine months of trying to make Lithgow's portrayal of Hades to work, Musker and Clements had to face facts. While John was a nice guy and a total professional to work with, he was also the wrong performer for this part. After apologizing profusely (and blaming the failure of Hades on their inadequate script, rather than on Lithgow's less-than-inspiring performance), Ron and John released John from the project in August 1995.
(One of the great ironies of this whole situation was that Lithgow was let go from Hercules because Musker, Clements and Ranieri felt that John just didn't have enough comic energy to play the part. Later that year Lithgow's new sitcom, Third Rock from the Sun, debuted on NBC. In his performance as alien-in-disguise Dick Solomon, John revealed that he has a huge gift for playing comedy. His broad farcical performances even won him two Emmys for Best Actor in a Comedy. Not enough comic energy, eh?)
With Lithgow gone, Musker and Clements are in a real tough spot. With less than 20 months 'til Hercules due in theaters, the film still doesn't have a voice for its villain. Things were looking pretty hopeless until someone suggests James Woods.
Best known for his work in edgy dramas like Joseph Waumbaugh's The Onion Field, Woods may seem like an odd choice to play a cartoon Lord of the Dead. At least, Musker and Clements thought so. But the folks over at Disney's casting office liked the speed and intelligence James demonstrated during his audition for the role. They asked Ron and John to give the guy a shot.
So that's how Musker and Clements found themselves in a recording session with James Woods, fumbling for a handle on Hades. James was looking for some sort of direction. So Ron and John explained that the Lord of the underworld was a powerful figure who was charming but ruthless, capable of doing anything he had to to get ahead.
"Sounds like some studio executives I know," Woods joked.
And that - my friends - is the real secret behind James Woods' version of Hades, Lord of the Underworld. In order to eventually earn the right to make Treasure Planet, Ron Clements and John Musker made a deal with the devil (AKA Jeffrey Katzenberg) to make Hercules first.
James Woods' Hades
Now it's Halloween week 1995. And James Woods has just handed Ron & John the ultimate in-joke to slip into Hercules. After all, what better way is there for Musker and Clements to honor the man who insisted that they make this film than by placing a caricature of him into the movie?
That's right. Jeffrey Katzenberg - in all his smooth talking, schmoozy glory - served as Woods' model for his performance as Hades, Lord of the Underworld.
You want proof? Go find a picture of Disney's Hades. Then take a closer look at his long face, sharp features, intelligent eyes and balding head. Now draw a pair of glasses on the Lord of the Dead 's face.
Does this demon now look sort of familiar?
What amazes me is that this poorly kept secret didn't come out last year during Katzenberg's compensation trial. The press gave Eisner such hell for reportedly saying that he "hated the little midget," imagine the ruckus the media would have raised if they'd found out that that Michael's animators had modeled Hades' look and vocal stylings on the former Disney studio head.
The real question here is: Did Eisner know that Hades was modeled after Katzenberg?
There's no real proof that Michael knew and / or condoned this jab at Jeffrey. But I think that it's interesting to note - even though Hercules didn't do particularly well at the box office during its initial release in the summer of 1997 - Eisner still allowed Ron and John to go forward with their dream project.
That's right, Treasure Planet. Full production of the film is just now getting underway. This long-awaited sci-fi spoof should hit theaters in the summer of 2002.
So who's got the last laugh now?
-- Jim Hill
Jim Hill can be reached using the Talkback form below or by emailing him at [email protected].
Jim Hill is this guy who lives 'way out in the woods of New Hampshire. (Hey, it's not like he wants to live there. But the Witness Protection Program has got rules, you know.) He has one beautiful daughter and three obnoxious cats. When he's not looking for real work, Jim writes about the Walt Disney Company and related matters for LaughingPlace.com, AmusementPark.com, "Orlando Weekly" and Digital Media FX.
The opinions expressed by Jim Hill, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of LaughingPlace.com or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the past decisions and future plans of the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.
-- Posted April 5, 2001
-- Originally published on another website in April 2000