The season two premiere of Best in Show kicks off with a very special guest:, Head of Content at The Ringer, co-host of The Big Picture podcast and fellow awards obsessive.
Editor-at-large Dominic Corry introduces an exclusive excerpt from Gavin Edwards’ new book about the life and work of our most-watched actor, and the Samuel L. Jackson films we never got to see.
Like his wallet in Pulp Fiction reads, Samuel L. Jackson is a bad motherf—ker. In a good way. He’s about the coolest damn actor wandering the Earth these days, and he’s unleashed that cool in more than a few films, 140-odd in fact. And you watch a lot of them. For almost every year of Letterboxd’s first decade, Samuel L. Jackson has been the Most Watched Actor in our Year in Review.
But don’t just attribute that to his presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which he plays the semi-ubiquitous Nick Fury—he still wins even when we exclude his cameo roles. Jackson’s complete and total dependability sees him in constant high demand because he always delivers, in a wide range of genres.
Relentlessly versatile while always giving you something familiar, he balances movie-star charisma and consistency with character-actor panache. His stage-trained projection brings gravitas to every performance, but Jackson somehow never pushes it over the top.
He’s also really good at saying “motherf—ker” and its variations (a long list of every utterance can be found here), so much so that Snakes on a Plane famously staged reshoots to satisfy test-audience demands that Jackson utter the expletive in the movie.
He said it 21 times as the splendidly serpentine Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown in 1997, and twenty times in the 2019 Shaft movie. He almost ran it into the ground by making “a thing” out of saying the word in The Hitman’s Bodyguard (nineteen, most with a wink), but Jackson has enough goodwill by this point to forgive such transgressions. Here’s to many motherf—kers more.
So it makes sense that Gavin Edwards’ new book about Jackson’s life and career is titled Bad Motherf—ker. In addition to a deep dive into all of Jackson’s performances, Edwards also lays out some of the roles he came close to taking, but didn’t (Jackson as Buck in Boogie Nights!? It could’ve happened!), and some other Samuel L. Jackson projects that never got made at all. Speaking of which, we’re still waiting for that long-promised Blob remake, Sam.
Some of those fascinating what-ifs (Michael Caine as butler to Jackson’s jazz musician in New Orleans!?) are covered in an exclusive excerpt from Edwards’ book, reproduced below courtesy of Hachette Books, along with details of Jackson’s involvement in the bizarre animated epic Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey, which, despite boasting a bunch of huge names in the voice cast, hasn’t really been properly released in English-language territories. “Someone needs to find this ASAP,” demands Mody. The excerpt indicates that Netflix and Amazon have shown interest, so maybe exposure in this book can inspire a streamer to finally put it out there. We’d like to see it. (You can watch the trailer, at least.)
Jackson couldn’t be in every single movie that got released, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. His appetite for work being what it was, and Hollywood being the fickle type of industry that it is, he was attached to plenty of projects that got announced but never happened.
A handful of the most intriguing: Truck 44, about firemen who rob a building by setting fire to it, was canceled after 9/11. In the comedy Man That Rocks the Cradle, Jackson would have played a live-in nanny. Black Phantom would have starred Jackson and Kevin Hart as double-crossing hit men. George C. Wolfe wanted to direct an update of the 1961 Danish film Harry and the Butler, where Jackson would have played a New Orleans jazz musician and roller-coaster mechanic who falls on hard times and lives in a converted train caboose—but when he inherits a big chunk of money, he hires an out-of-work British butler (Michael Caine).
He also turned down some movies that went on to be hits with other actors, such as Kiss the Girls, a thriller where Morgan Freeman ultimately costarred with Ashley Judd. “Too misogynistic,” Jackson said. Paul Thomas Anderson invited Jackson to play Buck Swope in Boogie Nights, but Jackson had already committed to another film; the role went to Don Cheadle (who also starred in Hotel Rwanda when Jackson passed on that script). Jackson was attached to The Matrix for years but got tired of waiting for the Wachowskis to make the movie happen, so he took other work; when he was unavailable, they cast Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus.
Weirder than any of those never-happened projects was an animated film that was over a decade in the making (and depending on how you think about it, still might not be finished): Quantum Quest: A Cassini Space Odyssey. Co-director Harry Kloor was a double PhD (in physics and chemistry) who had a personality better suited to Hollywood than the academy; he touted his multiple black belts in modern martial arts and his Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo sports car. Kloor wrote for the TV show Star Trek: Voyager—and in 1996, he was approached by NASA and JPL to see if he could make an educational film about the Cassini-Huygens mission (a probe, launched in 1997, that ended up in orbit around Saturn to collect massive amounts of data on the gas giant and its rings).
The NASA boffins wanted to do a movie about the journey of a photon, taking a million years to go from the core of the sun to the surface, then eighty-seven minutes to travel through space to bounce off Saturn and reach the Cassini probe. Kloor convinced them that while they might be fascinated by this journey, it wouldn’t particularly appeal to kids: Why not turn the photon and other scientific concepts into colorful characters and make an animated movie? NASA bought the pitch, giving him $100,000 in seed money.
Kloor wrote a script for a sixty-five-minute educational movie, called Quantum Quest, about the adventures of Dave the Photon; working all his contacts and leaning hard on the educational angle, Kloor recruited an improbably high-caliber cast of Hollywood talent who worked for scale, recording voice performances for under a thousand dollars each, including John Travolta, Christian Slater, Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Earl Jones, and Samuel L. Jackson. Then NASA revised their plans: they wanted the movie to incorporate actual images from the Cassini-Huygens mission. The probe wasn’t reaching the neighborhood of Saturn until 2004, however, and it would take years to get usable data after that. Essentially, Kloor said, they wanted him to wait a decade before he made the movie.
So Quantum Quest went into hibernation until 2007, when Kloor recruited a co-director experienced in animation, Daniel St. Pierre, and found a studio in Taiwan called Digimax that provided a substantial production budget. Kloor gave the seed money back to NASA with a return on investment. “It’s the only project NASA’s ever made a profit on,” he bragged. “They put a hundred K in and they got two hundred K back, and for years, they kept calling me to say, ‘Something’s gone wrong, because we got more money.’”
Digimax had no animators, so St. Pierre spent many months in Taiwan, teaching its employees the necessary skills, “training a studio to make this film.” The company wanted to do a full-length feature, so Kloor heavily revised his script, expanding it to around one hundred minutes. That meant returning to his actors a decade later and asking them to record new dialogue: most declined (or were never even told about it by their agents). Undeterred, Kloor recruited a second cast, including William Shatner, Mark Hamill, Jason Alexander, Amanda Peet, and Chris Pine. Jackson was one of the few actors to stay with the project.
“Unlike a lot of other people, Sam immediately said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’” Kloor said. “I think Sam truly cares about kids and he loves science fiction.” In both versions of the script, Jackson played a character called Fear, a sentient embodiment of antimatter and the general of the armies of evil, in the service of a villain called the Void. Jackson was agreeable and generous on the day he came to do his voice recording—although he did nickname St. Pierre “Four Eyes” and mock Kloor mercilessly when the writer made the mistake of suggesting a line reading.
Back in Taiwan, the filmmakers edited the material together and worked on character design. St. Pierre said, “The way Sam played Fear was quite serious; he has a sharp, thorny aspect to him. So we put these spikes that could grow out of his shoulders and back and the more excited and agitated he got, the more these spikes would grow.”
They were about to start animating Quantum Quest when St. Pierre was called into an executive meeting: Digimax wanted to cut the movie down to forty-three minutes. (Digimax was funded by the Taiwanese government; as far as Kloor and St. Pierre could tell, the company fell victim to local politics and had its budget unexpectedly slashed.) They cut the movie to the bone, ending up with forty-nine minutes plus credits. Digimax had the distribution rights in Asia and released the movie there: St. Pierre and Kloor believe it did well in those territories but have no hard data.
In the United States, they had an odd property: a star-studded movie too short to play multiplexes but not educational enough to be booked at most science museums. And the animation, reminiscent of the video game Skylanders, was uneven at best. “The Taiwanese team rose to the occasion to the best of their ability,” St. Pierre said. “I have nothing bad to say about the artists and technicians.” In one more feat of recruiting, they signed up Jon Anderson (of the band Yes) to perform the movie’s theme song, “Sing.”
The movie played at a few IMAX theaters, including the screens at the Saint Louis Science Center and the Kentucky Science Center, and then vanished, although it remained available to be booked by educational institutions. Kloor says the movie’s target audience is “kids in the third, fourth, fifth grade—or college students who are stoned.” In the streaming era, Quantum Quest became newly valuable and Kloor has been approached about getting it onto Netflix or Amazon—maybe even restoring it to its intended length. “It would cost a fraction of what people normally spend to have a full-length feature,” he pointed out.
The Cassini probe was destroyed in 2017, burning itself up in the upper atmosphere of Saturn so it wouldn’t contaminate any of the planet’s moons. If Quantum Quest ever gets completed as a feature film, it will have had a journey even longer than the plutonium-powered orbiter. Its saga is a useful reminder that every single movie Jackson has appeared in has required extraordinary effort by countless professionals across a period of years, which makes it even more extraordinary that he’s been in over 140 of them.
Years later, St. Pierre still remembered the advice Jackson gave kids when the filmmakers interviewed him on camera. “Read as much as you can, whatever you can, all the time,” Jackson said. “Fill your mind with thoughts and ideas and other people’s words and philosophies.”
The reason Samuel L. Jackson liked to read was the same reason he liked to act: it was escapism that took him away from his own too-familiar identity, at least for a little while. So he was an avid reader his entire life, favoring science fiction and thrillers and comic books.
Phil LaMarr, who appeared with Jackson in Pulp Fiction, periodically ran into his fellow actor at the Golden Apple comic-book shop in Los Angeles.
LaMarr remembered a day when he was browsing in the adult section of Golden Apple, with his back to the curtain that separated it from the kid-friendly titles. He was interrupted by a familiar voice: “A-ha! Caught you!”
“Oh, goddamn you,” LaMarr thought when he turned and saw Jackson. “When you’re looking at the Milo Manara stuff, you’re not really in a conversational mode.”
The store’s main room, on the other side of the curtain, contained a full array of superhero comics, including Marvel titles that featured Nick Fury. Jackson was fourteen years old in 1963, when Fury debuted in Marvel comic books in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1.
Nick Fury had an eye patch; he chomped on cigars; sometimes he led a squadron in World War II and sometimes he commanded the immensely powerful spy agency SHIELD. But whether he was drawn as a square-jawed war hero by Jack Kirby or with secret-agent op-art stylings by Jim Steranko, he was a white guy. When the character appeared in a TV movie that aired on Fox in 1998, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., he was played by David Hasselhoff.
That changed in 2001, when Nick Fury appeared in Marvel’s Ultimates line, wherein Marvel rebooted their entire continuity, discarding decades of storylines and reimagining favorite characters.
From ‘Bad Motherfucker: The Life and Movies of Samuel L. Jackson, the Coolest Man in Hollywood’ by Gavin Edwards, courtesy of Hachette Books, on sale now. For more on ‘Quantum Quest’, see the film’s website.