When Martin Freeman was cast as Bilbo Baggins for the Hobbit films, it seemed so perfect, maybe even too easy, as if the English actor was actually born to play the character (his beloved roles in The Office, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Love Actually and now Sherlock have just been bonuses). And at the same time born to play a younger version of Ian Holm, which might give you hope for a Fifth Element prequel focused on the priest or reason to push for him to play an android in a Prometheus sequel. Even while reviews for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey have been mixed, Freeman has been praised almost unanimously as being a delight in the part.
That's great news for both Freeman and the Lord of the Rings fanbase which has had Holm iconically situated in their brains for more than a decade. It's hard enough for an actor to have to take on a major literary character without also having to re-create that role after someone else has already done an excellent job fleshing him out on-screen. It's a task that others have had to endure in the past, while additional performers have at least succeeded with the single undertaking of assuming a role originated memorably by another for the purposes of a prequel. I've highlighted eight actors who have accomplished such an endeavor below:
Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class
For The Hobbit, Ian McKellen got to reprise his role as Gandalf, since the wizard has lived for thousands of years and therefore could look the same in a story set only six decades prior to The Fellowship of the Ring. While time and aging can also be a bit tricky in the X-Men universe, the septuagenarian actor wasn't able to do the same for the prequel X-Men: First Class, which required a man 40-50 years younger. They went with an equally talented thespian, Michael Fassbender, whose incarnation of Erik Lensherr in his origination as the evil mutant Magneto is the highlight of an otherwise so-so superhero movie.
Steve McQueen as Nevada Smith in Nevada Smith
Even if Alan Ladd could have somehow been made to look 30 years younger, he unfortunately died before The Carpetbaggers was even out in theaters. So, for the back story of his character from that film, an old cowboy turned actor, the comparably cool and handsome Steve McQueen took over the role. Technically the 36-year-old actor was too old himself for the part, which should have Smith around teenaged or just slight older. But why would anyone want anyone other than McQueen in a Western as a vengeful antihero? And he was at his prime here, with his single Oscar-nominated role to come later the same year.
Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford in Red Dragon
In this instance, the original actor didn't die, Scott Glenn just refused to take part in the continuing franchise adapted from Thomas Harris' novels after becoming too disturbed while working on The Silence of the Lambs. And so continued the casting inconsistencies of the series that had begun with Jodie Foster declining to star in Hannibal.
Harvey Keitel isn't particularly eloquent as the veteran FBI agent, but that doesn't matter since the part isn't all that significant here. It is an interesting occupation of a role in that it's not just a takeover of a character for a prequel but also a re-creation for what's additionally a remake. Dennis Farina, who in many ways is just a poor man's Keitel, formerly portrayed Crawford in Manhunt. I should also recognize Gaspar Ulliel for taking on young Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising, becuase the actor is decent in the part in spite of the film's overall faults.
Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels
It doesn't get more iconic than Star Wars, does it? Even after the prequels have come and gone, Alec Guiness remains the primary version of Obi-Wan Kenobi in my mind, as he surely does for millions of other fans. There was certainly no way that Ewan McGregor was going to replace him as the Force ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi (it wouldn't make sense from Luke's perspective, though neither is Hayden Christensen substituting for Sebastian Shaw).
Still, the Scottish actor was the best possible choice for the part of the Jedi decades earlier as a padawan turned knight. McGregor is apparently quite good at playing younger versions of other actors, as you can see with his match-up with Albert Finney for Big Fish. Now we just need him to do a prequel to the 1970 Scrooge in which he plays both Ebenezer Scrooge (originally Finney) and Jacob Marley (originally Guiness) as young partners.
Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek
Maybe William Shatner's Captain Kirk is actually more iconic than Alec Guiness' Obi-Wan Kenobi. No, that's actually a certainty. Had the recent Star Trek reboot merely been a reboot, any actor could have re-created the role, but the film is actually as much a prequel as it is a reimagining. After all, Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance as the older version of Spock -- which surely made Zachary Quinto's task that much more stressful.
Most of the main supporting cast of the film took to doing slight impersonations of their predecessors, but Pine fortunately didn't try to do his best Shatner voice, which would have been too distracting with the film's main character. At this point in his career, it's hard to argue that Pine is a "great" actor, but he does at least command his first Trek movie like a bonafide star, and we expect he'll be just as good in the upcoming sequel.
Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese in Terminator: Salvation
Yelchin does a nice job with impersonation-based re-creations of roles where it works. He's not exactly doing an impression of the earlier actor, but he still owes a lot to the original performance. We saw him take over for Walter Koenig in Star Trek, for instance, and in the same summer he perfectly aped Michael Biehn's voice in the fourth Terminator film. Salvation is both a sequel and a prequel, and thanks to Yelchin, it was believable that his character would grow up to be Biehn's Reese and go back and start the whole narrative over again.
Ann Blyth as Regina Hubbard in Another Part of the Forest
Another who would have probably been easy to distractingly impersonate, Bette Davis originated the role of Regina Giddens (nee Hubbard) on film in William Wyler's The Little Foxes. In the far-less-known prequel, based on a later play by Lillian Hellman, some sign of Davis's characterization can be seen in the performance by Blyth. The young actress was just a few years into her prestige as an Oscar nominee for playing Veda in Mildred PIerce, and this was also her peak period. It's a strange shame that Another Part of the Forest is not available on video in any form today.
Robert De Niro as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II
In a different way than Terminator: Salvation, The Godfather Part II is both sequel and prequel. Technically the stuff considered prequel is just flashback, but not mentioning this one is a good way to receive hate comments. Never mind that if I also included the similarly functioning Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I'd get almost as much criticism. Anyways, given that De Niro's young incarnation of Vito doesn't share the film with Marlon Brando's, which is limited to the first Godfather, he does fit with the rest of these role re-creations. Of course, this was De Niro's first performace to be nominated for an Oscar, and it was his first win.