The Making of ‘Superman the Movie’ (1978)

  

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James Caan was offered $4 million to play the title role in Superman but he refused it. Marlon Brando rang him and asked, ‘What’s the matter? Isn’t the money enough?’ Caan replied: ‘The money’s incredible…but you don’t have to wear the suit.’ Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood were also offered the role. Redford wanted too much money and Eastwood was too busy to accept it. Sylvester Stallone desperately wanted to play Superman but was rejected as looking ‘too Italian’. He later learned that Brando had casting approval and had turned him down. Even diminutive Dustin Hoffman was considered. Paul Newman was offered a choice of roles; the lead, Jor-El (Superman’s dad) or Lex Luther, for a flat $4 million fee. He did not fancy any of them.

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World champion boxer Muhammad Ali was considered for the lead simply because of his physique. And if you think a black Superman a novel idea, a gay one is even more so. British singer Elton John was tested and became another unlucky candidate. Thank God. Olympian Bruce (now Catelyn) Jenner turned down the lead to appear in the Village People’s unbelievably awful musical, Can’t Stop the Music (1980). John Wayne’s son Patrick was actually cast, but had to withdraw when his famous father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Arnold Schwarzenegger and singer Neil Diamond (believe it or not) lobbied hard for the role but neither was seriously considered. The difficulty lay in finding a man who was not only well-built but also a fine actor in an era when, unlike today, actors with six-packs were not the norm. In all, two hundred men were auditioned before Chris Reeves was chosen. He was completely unknown when he was cast as the Man of Steel. David Prowse (the man inside the Darth Vader suit in the Star Wars films) was hired to supervise a bodybuilding regime to bulk up the young actor and his weight ballooned from 170 to 212 pounds. The producers intended to ask Joan Crawford to play Ma Kent, but she was desperately ill and died shortly before production began.

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Baby Kal-El and his folks – played by Brando and

Susannah York

By the time Brando made this movie he could not be bothered to learn his lines and would only read them from cue cards. He tried to convince everyone (and himself, probably) that this was the best way to keep the lines ‘fresh’ and not over-rehearsed. In the scene in which he places the infant Kal-El into the escape pod, he read his lines off the baby’s diaper! For just 12 days of shooting he received $3.7 million plus a percentage of the profits. This payment also covered the sequel which was shot at the same time, but for Brando it was not enough. He sued producer Ilya Salkind and Warner Brothers for $50 million more, claiming they had cheated him out of his share of the profits. In the end he received $14 million for ten minutes of screen time. His salary made him the highest paid star in the world at that time. Gene Hackman was paid $2 million for portraying Lex Luther while Chris Reeve only got $250,000 for playing the title role. It was grossly unfair but it opened many doors for him.

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Jeff East as young Clark Kent                               Jeff today

After finalizing a deal with DC Comics for the rights to Superman, Ilya Salkind and his father, Alexander, set about putting together their movie. Ilya wanted Steven Spielberg to direct, but Alexander had reservations. In fact, he got cold feet about putting all their eggs in an unproven director’s basket, so Ilya agreed to wait and see if Spielberg’s much talked about ‘big fish’ picture was a success or not. As we now know, Jaws was a phenomenal hit and, by the time the Salkinds approached him to direct Superman, it was too late. He was already committed to his next project, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind.

Some interesting trivia: When Clark Kent slips into a phone booth to change into Superman, he emerges a couple of seconds later with his hair parted on the opposite side. Twenty-year old Jeff East plays the young Clark Kent but, in order to maintain on-screen continuity, Christopher Reeve dubbed all his dialogue. The shot of young Clark kicking a football into orbit was achieved by the use of an air cannon which was placed under the ground and the ball fired from it. The lovely British actress Susannah York was chosen to play the birth mother of Superman. The cute little tyke who played baby Kal-El on Krypton was seven-month old Lee Quigley, a Londoner. Tragically, he would die in 1991 at the age of 14 after inhaling solvents. The helicopter scene was supposed to be shot atop the Pan Am building, but was vetoed after a real-life accident on the helipad there killed several passengers.

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Clark Kent – hair parted on the left side                                Superman – hair parted on the right

Director Richard Donner was furious when his Art Director John Barry missed out on an Oscar nomination for his amazing work on Superman. He had constructed an entirely fictional city and a fortress at the North Pole, yet California Suite was nominated for merely duplicating an existing hotel. Pre-production for Superman took place in Italy where the company spent over $2 million on flying tests that were not very convincing. Before they could complete the tests the entire company had to leave Italy because Brando could not enter the country without being arrested. He was facing obscenity charges because of his involvement in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972).

Superman was completed on a budget of $55 million, making it the most expensive production in movie history to that time. Seventy-five percent of Superman II was shot simultaneously until the money ran out. When the main feature was released to cinemas in December 1978, it made $300 million in its first theatrical run! So great was its success that it presaged the arrival of the Hollywood super-hero franchises that are still plaguing us today. Superman II made it to the theatres in 1980 and it, too, made money.

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