The 1990s was Chris O’Donnell’s heyday in the realm of movies. From Scent of a Woman to the Joel Schumacher Batman duology, he was one of Hollywood’s more prominent young stars, and at one point he had the opportunity to appear in 1997’s Men in Black. Had O’Donnell joined the sci-fi/comedy blockbuster based on the same-named comic book series, he would have played Agent J, but because director Barry Sonnenfeld wanted Will Smith to play the character instead, Sonnenfeld had to convince O’Donnell not to hop on board by claiming it would be a mediocre production. Sonnenfeld recalled:
[Spielberg] told me I had to go to dinner with Chris and convince Chris to be in the movie. But I knew I wanted Will Smith, so I told Chris that I wasn’t a very good director and I didn’t think the script was very good and if he had any other options he shouldn’t do Men in Black. He let it be known the next day that he was not interested.
So if executive producer Steve Spielberg had had his way, we would have seen Chris O’Donnell as the new recruit donning the black suit and sunglasses, but thanks to a little trickery, Barry Sonnenfeld talked him out of it. Given that Will Smith had shown off his comedic chops on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s six seasons, as well as had some sci-fi experience under his belt with Independence Day, I think most of us will agree that Sonnenfeld made the right choice choosing him to play the cocky Agent J instead. As for O’Donnell, he left his mark on 1997 with Batman & Robin, which wasn’t nearly as popular as Men in Black, to put it as delicately as possible.
Barry Sonnenfeld also mentioned during his interview with The Huffington Post that executives were pushing to have Clint Eastwood to play Agent K in Men in Black, but Sonnenfeld believed that Tommy Lee Jones was the better choice because he was “very intimidating.” So in that alternate universe where Eric Stolz stayed on as Marty McFly in Back to the Future and Tom Selleck was Indiana Jones, there could be a Men in Black movie where Chris O’Donnell and Clint Eastwood were the ones battling a creepy cockroach alien. As interesting as that would be to watch, the back-and-forth between Smith and Jones in Men in Black is just too good to pass up for anything else. Sonnenfeld even compared their interplay to classic Hollywood duos like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones’ dynamic paid off critically and commerically in the end, as both actors returned for two Men in Black sequels, although Smith spent more time in Men in Black III with Josh Brolin, who played Agent K in late 1960s. While it doesn’t look like we’ll see them back for a fourth movie, we should be glad that Barry Sonnenfeld was able to pair them together for a trilogy. As for Chris O’Donnell, you can see him fighting different kinds of bad guys nowadays on NCIS: Los Angeles.