'Rookie of the Year' at 25: Why Jake Gyllenhaal turned down the starring role

Jon San
Supervising Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

1993 was a banner year for movies about unexpected, inspirational sporting feats. The triumvirate of Cool Runnings, Rudy, and Rookie of the Year all were released in theaters within months of each another, and to this day, each retains a cult following.

Although Cool Runnings and Rudy preach persistence and hard work, Rookie has a premise more in line with the current superhero surge: 12-year-old Henry Rowengartner becomes a hotshot major-league pitcher after breaking his arm and developing a wicked fastball. As these kinds of movies go, Henry lands a spot on the Chicago Cubs and helps them win the World Series.

Thomas Ian Nicholas plays Henry, although that almost didn’t happen. Director Daniel Stern (Home Alone, City Slickers) told Yahoo Entertainment that he initially offered the part to a young Jake Gyllenhaal.

Jake Gyllenhaal was initially offered the starring role in Rookie of the Year but turned it down to pursue more serious roles. Instead, Thomas Ian Nicholas, left, got the role. (Photo: Everett Collection/Getty Images).

“I met Jake when he did a little part in City Slickers,” Stern recalled. “He was just such a good actor.”

In his first-ever movie role, Gyllenhaal starred as Danny Robbins, Billy Crystal’s son in the 1991 film that co-starred Stern as Crystal’s best friend. On the set, Stern noticed Gyllenhaal’s burgeoning talent, saying he had impressive depth for a kid (see a clip of young Gyllenhaal’s performance, below).

Stern added: “I think we offered [the role] to him but … [his parents] really had — and he did — a more serious-minded career … and you look at that career, good choice. He’s a more serious actor that way. It worked out.”

It sure did. Critically acclaimed roles in Brokeback Mountain, Nightcrawler, Stronger, Donnie Darko, and more prove that Gyllenhaal and his parents were probably right to seek more serious fare, even at a young age (Bubble Boy seems like a notable exception to that rule).

Stern noted that another buzzy actor of the early ’90s, Jason James Richter (Free Willy), was also considered for the Rookie role. And at a certain point, Stern even thought about casting his own son, Henry (now a California State senator).

“When I was getting desperate, my son Henry said he would step in,” said Stern.

As for Thomas Ian Nicholas, just like Henry he’s still a Cubbie through and through. Last week, he posted this on his Instagram:

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