Why John Grisham Got Woody Harrelson Fired from a Movie

A Time to Kill was a John Grisham movie starring Matthew McConaughey
The movie A Time to Kill, an adaptation of prolific author John Grisham's first novel, was released in 1996, and it was the movie that made Matthew McConaughey into a star. But McConaughey wasn't the actor the director of the movie wanted. The director, Joel Schumacher, wanted Woody Harrelson to star. The only problem: Grisham refused to let Harrelson take on the role.

Grisham is one of the most successful novelists of his era. His second book, The Firm, had already been turned into a huge motion picture starring Tom Cruise. Off that success, Hollywood came calling for the movie rights to his first novel, A Time to Kill, which he wrote in 1989 and whose main character was based on himself.

Grisham was reluctant to sell the rights to that novel, but when the bidding reached a reported $6 million and the right for him to approve of all casting decisions, Grisham finally agreed.

Director Schumacher settled on Woody Harrelson as his choice to play the lead in the movie. But Grisham invoked his cast approval rights and nixed Harrelson. Why? What did Grisham have against Harrelson?

Harrelson had previously starred in the Oliver Stone movie Natural Born Killers, a hyper-violent story about two murderers on the run. Ironically, one of Natural Born Killer's themes was how the media fascination with murder and mayhem gave attention to bad people who then influenced others to do bad things — and then bad people cited the movie for inspiring them to do bad things in real life.

Grisham hated the violence of Natural Born Killers and even, when it was released, called for a boycott. He and Oliver Stone wrote dueling newspaper opinion pieces arguing their positions around the movie. Grisham had nothing against Woody Harrelson personally or professionally. He just didn't want anyone association with Stone's movie to be playing a role that was based on Grisham himself.

Grisham also had a very personal reason for hating Natural Born Killers. Shortly after that movie came out, one of Grisham's acquaintances was murdered. The two killers cited Natural Born Killers in their statement about why they had done the murder.

Matthew McConaughey himself talked about it in an interview years later, saying, "They were looking at Woody but Woody had come out in Natural Born Killers. Oliver Stone and John Grisham got in an editorial fight because there was a copycat murder in Mississippi of someone that garnered some news. I heard John Grisham was going, 'Oh, no way that guy, Woody, who played Mickey, is going to play me.' That moves him out."

Harrelson badly wanted the part, and wanted to speak to Grisham to make an argument for himself, but Grisham avoided him. Harrelson later said:

"I called his house. I said, 'Let's talk about it.' I wanted him to understand what was going on. They said he wasn't home."

So the movie A Time to Kill came out in 1996 with McConaughey as the star. And the role turned him into a matinee idol, so Grisham's casting kibosh of Harrelson worked out in the end for the movie.

And, of course, McConaughey, Harrelson and Grisham all went on to make lots and lots of money over their very successful careers. So don't cry for Woody. But that is why Grisham once said no way to Woody Harrelson in A Time to Kill.

Stream or buy 'A Time to Kill' movie

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