It's my general impression, from perusing the old news archives, that a lot of established artists didn't take the idea of LOTR very seriously. It's true that fantasy didn't have the best track record in movies. And I think the schedule which required the major actors to pretty much relocate to NZ for an extended period of time was a real turn off for people who had families and established lives.
Here's what Conway said in June 2000:
...and contrary to rumor, Conway will NOT be in Peter Jackson’s massive Lord of the Rings trilogy. That’s not to say the rumor mill was inaccurate in reporting that he, at one point, had been attached to the project. "I pulled out of Lord of the Rings, which may yet prove to be one of the bad mistakes in my career, and I’ve made alot of them," he says. "I was upfront with [the filmmakers]. they offered me the role of Theoden, which is a wonderful part. But... their schedule. They wanted me to go out in January to New Zealand for six weeks, then go home, then go back again for another six weeks, then go home again and then come back again for three months. I said, ‘Whoa!’ The character is in two of the films. It wasn’t worth it. He has a couple of good scenes, but the rest is all battling with armor and stuff. You could have a stuntman do that, which they probably would have done anyway. But I really suffered about it"
And here's what he said a month later:
KevinConway: The quick answer for that (pulling out of LOTR) is, I was set to do it, they were going to pay a ton of money for that. The unresolved problem was the schedule. They're doing ALL of it, so a three year off and on commitment for me, it would have been a year and a half about with small breaks of 3 weeks, a month here, 3 weeks there. I wouldn't have been able to do anything else. I couldn't do it, I backed out of it. I saw myself sitting in New Zealand for like a month between shots, or flying back to NY then flying back to New Zealand after a couple of weeks. There's no way to adjust the schedule, I knew I would be miserable. I left them plenty of time to recast, I don't know who they recast. I've been to New Zealand already, bungee jumped off a cliff. I didn't think I could do it, it was really exciting, I liked it because I'm a little afraid of heights, so this was a good way to crash through that. I was showing off, there was a guy with us who was one of those know-it-all guys and I think it was more male testosterone check than it was anything, I didn't want to jump off a cliff, but this guy kept saying how dumb it was. I was going to play Theoden, a King.
Interviewer: You as Theoden would have been spectacular. They settled for Bernard Hill (Cap'n Smith in "Titanic").
KevinConway: The bad guy was going to make me depressed, I was going to be killed, I couldn't understand why it would take them a year and a half. I'd be there right now.
KevinConway: The really depressing part is that he's got to be 20 years older than me. So that's how they saw me, as an old ...
KevinConway: I do have a white beard though, unfortunately prematurely whitened. I don't know anything about him as an actor, I couldn't sit through Titanic. I worked with Leo in Quick and the Dead, he's a wonderful young actor, but I just got really tired of the story. There's no way it needed to be 3 and a half hours long. That's one of my main bones to pick, is the length of movies nowadays. You can't go to a movie that' s under 3 hours, there's something wrong with that. Lawrence of Arabia NEEDED to be 3 hours. Dr. Zhivago needed to be 3 hours, but not some of these other movies with a fairly straightforward story, I don't think.
I wrote this in an old post on LOTR Movie:
You know how many of us feel that the right people are found for Tolkien projects? Well, maybe this is a case of the wrong people being tested and spit out. One wonders how much winging and doubting like this kept other people from wanting to be involved in the project or even backing out after saying they would be involved.
And I keep thinking about the good bye haka that the stunties gave Viggo and Bernard. What a lovely resolution of that early drama.
sources for quotes:
LOTR soundtrack website
magpie avatar gallery ~ Torn Image Posting Guide