Joss Whedon’s landmark television series Firefly firmly established itself as a cult-classic in the fifteen years since its premature cancellation in 2003. The unique and high-concept sci-fi western ran for thirteen episodes before Fox notoriously cancelled the beloved program. However, the series found life once again in 2005 with the premiere of its accompanying feature film, Serenity. Since then, the series found a new life with generations of fans around the world with its DVD release.
How would the legendary series look if it came out of Hollywood’s Golden Age? Who would play the characters we’ve all come to know and love. We’ve taken popular films like: Guardians of the Galaxy and Marvel’s The Avengers and put them through the recasting couch treatment. Let’s turn our attention to the amazing characters filling the Firefly universe.
Actor Michael Callan didn’t come to features at the beginning of his career. Rather, Callan started on Broadway in the 1950s. His big break came when he originated the role of Riff in the original Broadway production of West Side Story.
His film debut came in the 1959 war film, They Came to Codura. This propelled the young actor into a film career, which developed quickly. He got his first starring role in 1961 when he helmed the classic sci-fi film Mysterious Island and rode a wave of fun and entertaining roles throughout the 1960s. He seemed particularly adept in comedies and adventure movies. Callan also experienced no trouble bouncing from television screens to feature films. He often appeared in guest starring roles on television, and even starred in the series Occasional Wife, which ran for 30 episodes in 1966. He worked steadily into the 1980s, before stepping back from acting in 2006.
In his early roles, Callan brought a rugged charismatic star persona to the screen, making him perfect for a role like Malcom Reynolds. The actor seems at ease on the frontier in a western film, or even on a dinosaur infested desert island. He’s believable as an action lead and with his winking charm, he is a solid choice to captain Serenity.
Actress Diahann Carroll has been a fixture on television and movie screens since she made her screen debut in 1954. Her early roles came in popular studio musicals like Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess. However, her big screen break came in 1961 when she starred in Paris Blues opposite Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier.
In 1966 producers cast Carroll in the title role of the television series Julia. The part established itself as a historic one in the history of television. The series lasted for three years, and starred Carroll as a young nurse and single mother. The role was likable, realistic, and very much a progressive one as America’s political climate shifted into the late 1960s. Carroll’s next role is in the Hugh Jackman, P.T. Barnum musical, The Greatest Showman.
Zoe Washburne was admittedly a tricky role to cast. While Carroll doesn’t have the action/genre experience that some of the others on this list have, her work during the 1960s speaks for itself. Zoe is a one of a kind, trail-blazing character in Firefly. Even in the pilot episode, Zoe is seen charging into battle next to Mal, very much holding her own. During the 1960s, Carroll emerged as a trailblazer in her own right. Her characters stand-out of their courage and reliability, making her an ideal candidate to play Zoe.
Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne
Actor Dwayne Hickman is perhaps best known to audiences for his title role in the much loved classic television series: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The series began in 1959 and ran for a staggering 148 episodes before coming to an end in 1963.
Hickman was in fact a child of Hollywood, and made his screen debut in 1942. He worked steadily throughout childhood, appearing in a number of small and uncredited roles until the middle of the 1950s. The expanding television medium took off quickly, and Hickman found a home on the small screen. His success as Dobie Gillis, and previously in The Bob Cummings Show, kept Hickman gainfully employed for much of the decade.
Hickman came out on top of the shortlist to play Wash, standing out among the crowd. Hickman worked with actor Michael Callan (and Jane Fonda) in 1965’s Cat Ballou and the actors shared incredible chemistry on screen. Hickman’s ability with comedy, as well as his well honed chemistry with the rest of this cast makes his a perfect candidate to play Wash.
Jane Fonda rose to acting prominence in 1960 as the heir to Hollywood royalty. Her father, Henry Fonda, established himself as a Hollywood A-Lister in the 1930s. The younger Fonda’s trip to stardom was a quick one, her cinematic breakout coming in 1963’s Sunday in New York.
Fonda’s career has stretched into the 2010s, with the actress most recently starring in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. Her career continually evolved from the 1960s as she took roles in the sci-fi fantasy film Barbarella before eventually transforming to fit the grounded realism of movies like Klute and Coming Home. Fonda is truly a Hollywood mainstay, demonstrating her ability to keep her career fresh and active even as she continues to age.
An interesting dichotomy to Fonda’s work starts after she wrapped Barbarella. In the early days of her career, the actress found herself cast repeatedly in very sexual roles. She was a sex kitten. One only has to look as far as Barbarella to see that. However, even in roles as early as Cat Ballou there is an intelligence and an independence simmering below the surface of Fonda’s characters. This aspect of her personality boiled over in the 1970s, plunging her into a new stage of her career. In juggling these two drastically different sides of her star persona, Fonda becomes an ideal candidate to play Inara. The companion struggles with her own persona, as well as society’s perceptions of her. This is the very problem which plagued Fonda as her career developed in the 1970s.
With his roles in contemporary films like The Notebook, James Garner is probably one of the most remembered names on this list. The young actor made his screen debut in 1956, working equally among television and movies as his career quickly gained traction.
In 1957, Garner landed a career defining role when he accepted the role of a lifetime. The actor was cast as Bret Maverick in the television show Maverick. The show ran on ABC, lasting five seasons. Garner’s career continued with gusto in the following years. He worked steadily into the early 2000’s. Garner passed away in 2014 at age 86.
In his role as Brett Maverick, James Garner created one of the earliest examples of the anti-hero on television. It is this archetype which draws the closest associations with a character like Jayne. Throughout his earliest roles, Garner showed a flair for quippy, wise-cracking dialogue. It is this flair for a winking performance, as well as his ability to play colorful, interesting characters which makes James Garner a perfect choice to play Jayne.
Actress Sandra Dee made her screen debut in 1957, and it only took films for the sixteen year old actress to land her first starring role in The Reluctant Debutante. From that point, the young starlet found herself on a meteoric rise, securing a line of stellar roles in movies like: Gidget, Imitation of Life and A Summer Place. She easily established herself as a go-to actress in the early 1960s.
Throughout the course of her career, Dee’s characters walked a line common to teen leading ladies of the 1950s. While she personifies a definite sense of innocence (“Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity”). However, many of her characters were much more worldly than they let on. It is this aspect of her star persona which brings her to the top of the list to play Kaylee. Throughout Firefly’s run, Serenity’s intrepid engineer is a very sweet, and seemingly innocent character. However, she turns her perceived innocence on its head with lines like, “I ain’t had nothin’ twixt my nethers that doesn’t run on batteries!”. As such, Dee stands out as I particularly strong choice to play Serenity’s faithful engineer.
Dr. Simon Tam
Dreamboat Tab Hunter made his screen debut in 1950, but it wasn’t until 1955’s Battle Cry that his career truly took off. The middle of the decade was a big one for the young actor, who managed to parlay his exploding acting career into a popular music career as well. In fact, Hunter’s cover of the song “Young Love” proved a massive success, peaking at #1 on popular music charts.
On screens, Hunter’s career peaked in the late fifties. He partnered with actress Natalie Wood on a number of films. Studio publicity invested a lot of money into the pairing, even orchestrating a romance between the two young performers. However, the young actor’s career was on the way down by the early 1960s. The downfall of the studio system left stars like Hunter struggling to find a home.
Hunter, who just turned 86, appeared in the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, showing there is more to life than stardom. The actor looks happy and healthy, living with his husband in California.
Simon proved a difficult character to recast. The role of the juvenile male lead is a challenging one, with bland and boring performers common, if you’re not careful. Simon is completely out of his element, acting out of sheer loyalty to his sister. Hunter brings the wide-eyed fragility of a character like Simon. He’s a young, brilliant physician who finds himself thoroughly out of his norm. However, he also conveys the bravery to face his fears head on.
Actress Jean Seberg experienced a meteoric rise to fame when the teenager won an extensive talent search to star in Saint Joan, a film based on the legendary Joan of Arc. Seberg found herself under the powerful wing of A-list director Otto Preminger, whose expertise and skill propelled the young performer to an immediate stardom.
Seberg’s career can best be described as tumultuous. The actress worked extensively for her very short filmography, but soon ran into personal and professional turmoil By the late 1960s, Seberg’s extensive political involvement attracted the attention of the US intelligence organization. The resulting trauma, a premature pregnancy, and the death of her infant daughter saw the actress descend into depression and anxiety. The talented actress committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 40.
Seberg’s star persona conjures a fascinating mixture of individuality and independence. However, throughout her career, the actress also personifies a certain fragility. It is the combination of these starkly different traits which brings her to mind as a perfect candidate to play a character like River Tam.
Performer Sammy Davis Jr., isn’t primarily known for his film and television roles. In fact, while he has a few screen credits dating as far back as the 1930s, his true screen breakout didn’t come until 1960. That year, he appeared opposite his Rat Pack buddies (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin…) in Ocean’s 11.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Davis Jr.’s star rose to prominence as a singer and nightclub performer. He showed extraordinary talent, making himself known for not only his catchy songs, but his skills as a comedian and impersonator. Towards the end of the 1950s, Davis Jr joined with Frank Sinatra as a member of the Rat Pack.
His work with Frank Sinatra propelled much of the success of the later years of his career. He worked non-stop deep into the 1980s before his death in 1990.
Sammy Davis Jr. emerged as a perfect candidate to play Shepherd Book. Throughout his career, Davis seemed unafraid to tackle very layered characters. Even in his early role in Ocean’s 11 shows there’s much more to his character of Josh Howard. He’s a complicated individual. Davis Jr. seems thoroughly able to tackle not only the good natured preacher, but also the secretive man with a past.
Did we miss someone? Can you think of a different choice? Shout them out in the comments.