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The Careers Famous Directors Almost Had

In honor of Judd Apatow’s new stand-up special, we look back at the professional paths world-class directors flirted with — and how they informed the movies they ended up making

In another universe, Judd Apatow might have ended up a stand-up comic. The writer-director of Knocked Up and Funny People started out working in clubs, but as his career developed, he pivoted to writing when he co-created The Ben Stiller Show in the early 1990s. “I got so busy writing for that show that I didn’t have time to write any jokes or work out material at clubs for about a year,” he said this summer. “When that ended, I thought that maybe it was the universe telling me I was supposed to write.”

But recently, he’s been scratching that itch, creating new material that he’s tested on The Tonight Show and elsewhere. And on Tuesday, he’ll premiere Judd Apatow: The Return, his Netflix stand-up special that’s advertised as his return to the stage after a 25-year absence.

Becoming a director is the dream of many young cinephiles, but it isn’t necessarily the first path many successful filmmakers take. Sometimes, like with Apatow, that journey has a few twists and turns. Here’s a quick rundown of five prominent directors who, depending on circumstance and luck, could have been doing something very different with their lives. Of course, that’s not what happened. But it’s funny how often their aborted career choices found their way into their films.

John Huston

The Career He Had: The two-time Oscar-winner directed films for more than 40 years, including masterpieces such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Man Who Would Be King. For good measure, he was also a fine actor, delivering a memorable turn in Chinatown as the sinister Noah Cross. And his gravelly, booming voice helped inspire Daniel Day-Lewis in his portrayal of ruthless oil magnate Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.

The Career He Almost Had: In high school, Huston decided that greatness awaited him in the ring. As John McCarty notes in his biography The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: The Cinema of John Huston, the future filmmaker dropped out of school to become a boxer. “By the time he was 18,” McCarty writes, “he had won a reported 23 out of 25 amateur fights on the circuit and earned for himself the title of Amateur Lightweight Boxing Champion of California.” But after having his nose broken during a bout, Huston put down the gloves to focus on writing, and eventually directing.

How His Failed Career Informed His Movies: Boxing was a subject Huston touched on in his work, most notably with 1972’s Fat City, about a drunken, flailing fighter (played by Stacy Keach) hoping for a shot at redemption. This ain’t Rocky, though: Seeking a bitter, realistic tone, Huston played up the desperation and futility of his character’s small-town boxing scene. Still, he never considered Fat City to be a boxing movie. “It’s about life running down the sink without being able to pull the plug to stop it,” he once claimed. It’s telling that someone who knew his way around the ring ended up making one of the most unromantic portraits of the sport.

Martin Scorsese

The Career He Has: The Oscar-winning filmmaker has made any number of classics, including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Departed. And that’s to say nothing of the dozens of directors he’s inspired, including Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Plus, it’s very unlikely we’d have had The Sopranos without Goodfellas: Scorsese’s film contained many of the cast members who later made their way to the acclaimed HBO series.

The Career He Almost Had: Suffering from asthma as a boy, Scorsese didn’t play sports and mostly stuck close to home. Raised in a Catholic family in a tough New York neighborhood, he thought maybe he’d devote his life to God. “[M]y first impulse was to go into the priesthood,” he said in Conversations With Scorsese. “It was overwhelming. Especially if you were a kid who couldn’t become a member of organized crime.” He was inspired by a young priest he admired, and even went to seminary school, but he soon decided it wasn’t right for him. “I thought if I could become a priest, I could be like him or as influential as he was at that time for us,” Scorsese said early this year. “I didn’t realize that a vocation is a real calling. It’s much more than wanting to be like somebody else.”

How His Failed Career Informed His Movies: Scorsese’s religious faith is often front and center in his movies. His characters are frequently haunted by guilt, wrestling with a spirituality that contradicts their base, violent tendencies. He’s also made religion the focus of a couple of his films, courting controversy with 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ (which depicts Jesus as a man tempted by sex) and delivering 2016’s Silence, about two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) on a harrowing, soul-searching quest across Japan during the 17th century.

Scorsese didn’t become a priest, but he’s been an advocate for faith ever since — even if he still struggles with his beliefs. As he said around the release of Silence, making the film was “like a pilgrimage. … We’re still on the road, and it’s never going to end. I thought it would for a little while, but once I was there, I realized no. Even in the editing room, it’s unfinished. It will always be unfinished.”

Kathryn Bigelow

The Career She Has: In 2009, she became the first female filmmaker to win Best Director for the Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker. Before then, she was responsible for iconic action-thrillers like Point Break and Strange Days, while in recent years she’s turned toward tense true stories, such as Zero Dark Thirty and this year’s Detroit.

The Career She Almost Had: In the 1970s, Bigelow had aspirations of being a painter. Moving to New York, she became friends with future Einstein on the Beach composer Philip Glass, the two of them going into business together renovating dilapidated lofts to make money. (“There’d be mounds of dried ink on the floors, and I would sand them,” she once said. “I’d do the floors and put up the walls. And Philip Glass would do the plumbing.”) But she changed her mind about her vocation after having a conversation with Andy Warhol. “Andy was saying that film is way more populist than art — that art’s very elitist, so you exclude a large audience,” she told Time.

How Her Failed Career Informed Her Movies: In the same Time profile, Bigelow says that she realized, as opposed to fine art, which “requires that you come to it with a certain amount of information, a context … you don’t necessarily need that with film. A movie is accessible, available. That was exciting to me from a political standpoint.” And although she’s largely made action-thrillers, there’s always been a political subtext to her work. With war dramas like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, the themes are fairly obvious, but a cult favorite like Point Break is, in part, about male bonding and subverting some of the tenets of on-screen masculinity. (It’s fairly easy to see that film as a unrequited love story between Johnny and Bodhi.) So Bigelow may have put down her brush, but she’s still very much interested in art.

Quentin Tarantino

The Career He Has: The two-time Oscar-winner is one of the most important American filmmakers of the last 25 years, delivering zeitgeist-defining movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.

The Career He Almost Had: Having dropped out of high school, the Angeleno worked at a porn theater while pursuing acting, studying under James Best, who was Roscoe on The Dukes of Hazzard. “They were teaching camera terminology in this acting class,” Tarantino once said, “so I actually was able to understand what ‘rack focus’ and ‘whip pan,’ and all that stuff meant. And at some point in that acting class I just realized that I need to be a director. … I realized that I loved movies too much to simply appear in them. I wanted the movies to be my movies.”

How His Failed Career Informed His Movies: Unfortunately, Tarantino occasionally pops up in his own movies, or will star in his friends’ — like From Dusk Till Dawn, which he wrote. Invariably, he’s always the least convincing person on screen. But he’s insisted that his years of struggling as an actor early in his career made him a better filmmaker. “I could never get an audition,” he said in 1996. “[But] acting taught me everything I know about writing and directing. I didn’t go to film school, I studied acting. Most directors don’t know shit about acting. Actors are used to dealing with directors that don’t really understand what they do, or how they do it, or how to talk to them about it.”

Judd Apatow

The Career He Has: As a producer, writer and director, Judd Apatow has been a titanic comedy force. On the small screen, he executive produced the influential NBC series Freaks and Geeks and co-created the MTV sketch series The Ben Stiller Show. As a writer-director for film, he’s been responsible for The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and as a producer, he’s shepherded hits like Talladega Nights, Superbad, Step Brothers, Bridesmaids and this year’s The Big Sick.

The Career He Almost Had: A comedy nerd since birth, Apatow hit upon the idea as a teenager to interview stand-up comics to get a sense of how they did their job. (Some of those interviews appeared in his 2015 collection Sick in the Head.) Apatow hoped to be a stand-up himself, but he struggled. “My earliest material was all about how terrible I was,” he recalled on Fresh Air. “I used to do my act, I wouldn’t get laughs, and at the end I would say, ‘You know, ladies and gentlemen, the great Jerry Lewis said you only learn by being not funny, you learn nothing by being funny, so thank you for giving me a college education tonight.’ That was my closer and that would get a big laugh because I bombed for the last five minutes.”

How His Failed Career Informed His Movies: Plenty of stand-ups have gone on to become filmmakers, including Woody Allen, Chris Rock and Louis C.K. (You know, maybe this isn’t the best company to compare oneself to.) Nonetheless, Apatow’s stand-up roots have informed some of his best work, especially 2009’s Funny People, which starred Adam Sandler as a former stand-up who’s now a huge, hacky movie star. The film is filled with the atmosphere of the stand-up scene, and it’s tempting to think that making the movie reactivated Apatow’s old desire to get on stage.

In an interview with Vanyaland this summer, he revealed he was also inspired by directing Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. “She was doing a ton of stand-up shows,” he said, “so I got to talking to her about it, and started to miss it, and one day I thought ‘Ya know what? Let me go up on stage and make you laugh’ — just so she could see what it was like when I used to do it. So, I wrote some jokes and went over to the Comedy Cellar one night, it oddly went well, and after that show was over, I just wanted to do it every night.”