The 1990s were good years for filmmakers and great years for moviegoers. Rather than seeing the prevalence and success of one movie genre over the other, the nineties were a decade in which multiple films across several genres were not only highly rated and critically acclaimed, but they were also enjoyable, moving, and/or hilarious.
The last decade of the century saw several successful romantic comedies, including While You Were Sleeping, Pretty Woman, and You’ve Got Mail, as well as a few hilarious comedies that are still watched frequently today, including Home Alone and Groundhog Day. Titanic and Forrest Gump led the charge among dramas, and a few teen comedies even took off in the 1990s, including Encino Man and Clueless.
The public’s reception to films of varying genres, storylines, and characters may be one of the reasons behind the success of a film that made its theatrical debut in 1994–one that many fans still think is based on actual events when, in reality, it was inspired by a Stephen King novella from the early 1980s.
Johnny Depp & Tom Hanks Are Just Getting Started
In 1982, when Stephen King first published Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, no one had ever heard of a dark-haired, chisel-faced boy from Kentucky named Johnny Depp. And very few had heard of an up-and-coming actor in his twenties named Tom Hanks, who hailed from Concord, California.
That’s because–at the time–Depp had yet to make an appearance on the small screen, the big screen, or any screen in between. In fact, Hollywood wouldn’t see him until his cameo in A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984.
And Tom Hanks was just starting his career that year with his first lead acting role in the made-for-television film by Steven Hilliard Stern, Mazes and Monsters, about a bunch of college kids who are caught up in a fictional role-playing game.
Just over a decade later, in early 1993, backed with a $25 million production budget–the equivalent of $52 million today–filmmakers set out to breathe new life into Stephen King’s 1982 novella, and by that time, everyone had heard of Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks, and Hollywood directors lined up for the chance to sway the young actors to star in their respective films.
The Shawshank Redemption
Shot almost entirely at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, the story of The Shawshank Redemption (1994), produced by Castle Rock Entertainment, is set in Maine and follows the story of former banker Andy Dufresne, played by actor Tim Robbins, who is sentenced to life in prison in 1947 for the murders of his wife and her lover, despite his insistence of innocence. While incarcerated, Dufresne meets and befriends Ellis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman), an elderly man in prison for the murder of his wife and two others.
The film tells the story of the pair’s unlikely friendship and follows their lives in prison and events that transpire while they’re incarcerated, including the discovery of corruption among prison staff, Andy’s nearly 20-year effort to tunnel out of his jail cell, the witnessing of murder and assault inside the prison, and more.
After serving 40 years, Red is paroled but struggles to live life outside the prison. But he remembers promising Andy that he would visit a town called Buxton, as they formerly discussed. There he finds money and a letter buried under a tree. The letter gives Red instructions on what to do next, and ultimately, the two friends are reunited in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, after Andy’s escape and Red’s parole violation.
Depp and Hanks Wanted at Shawshank
Though the film wasn’t a huge box office success, Morgan Freeman earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in the story, which actor Tim Robbins once described as “a uniquely non-sexual love story between two men.
But Robbins and Freeman weren’t the studio’s first choices to play the roles of Andy and Red.
In fact, filmmakers working on Shawshank considered several actors for the roles. Tom Cruise reportedly attended a table reading of the script for the film, though he took issue with the inexperience of the film’s director and rejected the role of Andy. Actor Kevin Costner was also tapped as a possible Andy, but he declined, choosing instead to move forward with his new film, Waterworld (1994).
The director also had his eyes on Tom Hanks, known already as a wildly talented actor with an uncanny ability to seemingly “become” the person he played in his films. At the time, however, Hanks’s schedule was full as he was embodying Forrest Gump for the upcoming release of the film by the same name.
Charlie Sheen read the script and loved Red’s character so much that he submitted an audition tape but to no avail. Castle Rock Entertainment was more interested in Johnny Depp embodying the character of Red, though the director ultimately decided on actor Tim Robbins, citing his performance in the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder.
Morgan Freeman ultimately scored the role of Red, at the recommendation of producer Liz Glotzer, who chose to deviate from King’s novella, which described Red as a “white Irishman.” Stephen King reportedly praised the adaptation.
Over the years, The Shawshank Redemption has grown in popularity, landing in the #1 spot on IMDb’s Top 250 Movies List, but it’s interesting to think about what might have been, had Andy and Red been played by Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp instead.