This is the seventeenth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
While filming the back-to-back films “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers” in 1973, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind began to look toward their next project. At the recommendation of his son Ilya, Alexander Salkind began aggressively pursuing the feature film and television rights to Superman. By 1974, the father-son duo had secured the rights and began pre-production on what would be a superhero movie unlike any superhero movie anyone had ever seen before it.
As with the Musketeers movies, the Salkinds envisioned Superman as a two movie epic that would be filmed concurrently. The first step on the journey toward a cinematic Superman was to hire a writer up to the task. While William Goldman and Leigh Brackett were both approached for the job, the Salkinds ended up hiring the famed novelist of “The Godfather,” Mario Puzo. “The Godfather” had been a wild box office success in 1972.
DC Comics, in their licensing deal with the Salkinds, made a point to have a stipulation of final approval added over any actor considered to play Superman. The Salkinds sent DC a list of possible actors for approval. Among the list of DC Comics approved names were Muhammad Ali, Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood. Alexander Salkind felt that a big star was needed to play Superman, in order to give the film some legitimacy. Offers were made to Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Burt Reynolds to play Superman, but they all turned down the role.
While the search for the perfect Superman continued, and with Puzo hard at work on a massive screenplay, the Salkinds turned their direction toward finding a director. Francis Ford Coppola, Richard Lester – who had directed the Musketeers movies for the Salkinds – William Friedkin, and Sam Peckinpah were all in negotiations to direct the film. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were also both approached for the job, but Spielberg was committed to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and Lucas was busy with “Star Wars.” Ultimately, Guy Hamilton – who had directed the James Bond films “Dr. No” and “Goldfinger” – was hired.
While the monumental task of casting Superman was still ongoing, the Salkinds had secured the services of “The Godfather” star Marlon Brando to play Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El. A few days after Brando was cast to play Jor-El, Gene Hackman signed on to portray the film’s antagonist, Lex Luthor. With two Oscar winning stars in key roles, the pressure to cast Superman with a big name was eased and Ilya Salkind suggested they begin to look at unknowns for the title role.
After Puzo turned in his 500-page screenplay, the Salkinds felt it was too long and hired Robert Benton and husband and wife team David and Leslie Newman to rewrite Puzo. The new version of the script had many elements of camp, making it similar in tone to the 1966 Batman television series.
Originally, the Salkinds planned to film in Italy and had already done much of the film’s pre-production in Rome including around $2 million in failed flying tests. As the production got closer to principal photography, Marlon Brando discovered that there was a warrant out for his arrest in Italy on charges of obscenity because of his film “Last Tango in Paris.” Because of this, the production was moved to Pinewood Studios in England. Due to Guy Hamilton’s tax problems in the UK, he was not able to work in England and had to leave the production.
After seeing “The Omen,” the Salkinds offered directorial duties to Richard Donner. Donner quickly set to work to get the production back on schedule, but he found that most of the pre-production work done in Italy was worthless. He also wasn’t happy with the camp-ridden script turned in by the Newmans and Benton. Donner brought in Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite the script once again. It was Mankiewicz who came up with the idea of the Kryptonian family crests, explaining why Superman wears his S-shield.
Casting director Lynn Stalmaster had suggested Christopher Reeve for the role of Superman almost immediately once it was decided to cast an unknown instead of a big name. Donner and the Salkinds thought he was too young, and he was certainly too skinny having recently lost weight for a stage production. Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner – now Caitlyn Jenner – had auditioned but was dismissed. Patrick Wayne, the oldest son of John Wayne, was cast in the role but had to drop out when his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Once again, Lynn Stalmaster suggested Christopher Reeve.
Christopher Reeve was brought in for a screen test and both Donner and the Salkinds were impressed with his performance. Due to his thin stature, Donner told Reeve he would have to wear a muscle suit, but Reeve opted instead to put the weight back on himself. Bodybuilder David Prowse – most well-known as the body performance of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy – was brought in to be Reeve’s personal trainer.
Originally, “Superman: The Movie” and “Superman II” were filmed concurrently, however due to many delays and cost concerns, it was decided to halt production on “Superman II” and focus on making the first film’s release date. “Superman II” was already about 75% in the can.
“Superman: The Movie” was a critical and financial success, and the Salkinds were quickly given the greenlight to finish “Superman II.” Due to “creative differences” between Donner and the Salkinds, however, Donner was not asked back. Instead, the Salkinds brought in Richard Lester to finish “Superman II.” Due to Directors Guild rules, however, much of the footage already shot for “Superman II” had to be re-shot under Lester’s direction in order for him to get a director credit on the picture.
The firing of Richard Donner caused a rift between the Salkinds and much of the cast and crew. Tom Mankiewicz was asked back to work on the script, but refused. Likewise, Gene Hackman – who had already shot all of his scenes for “Superman II” with Donner – refused to reshoot anything for Lester. Every bit of Lex Luthor footage in “Superman II” was directed by Richard Donner.
Lester brought in many slapstick and comedic elements to the film, and “Superman II” under Richard Lester took itself much less seriously than had the original. Lester couldn’t go as far as he’d wanted to, however, because he still had to somewhat match the tone of the more serious Donner footage. Lester did go further with the slapstick in “Superman III.”
It was Lester who introduced the idea of the giant cellophane S-shield – whatever that was about – and the silliness on the street when Zod and his minions are blowing everything around with their super-breath. Lester, also, came up with the idea of the magic kiss that wiped Lois Lane’s memory of the last several days. This was actually necessary due to the original ending of “Superman II” – Superman turning back time – was inserted into “Superman: The Movie” because it was deemed the most spectacular moment in both films and the studio didn’t want to lose it if “Superman II” ended up getting canceled.
Despite many of the changes made by Richard Lester, which actually hurt the quality of what the film could have been, “Superman II” was a hit and in the years to come became regarded by most fans as the “Wrath of Khan” of the Superman film series.
26 years later, to tie in with the release of “Superman Returns” in 2006, fans would finally get to see Richard Donner’s original vision of “Superman II” when Warner Bros hired him to put together the film as he saw fit and re-released it as “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.”
To be continued…
Barry Freiman (February 2006). “One-on-One Interview with Producer Ilya Salkind”. Superman Homepage.
Julius Schwartz; Brian M. Thomsen (2000). “B.O.”.Man of Two Worlds: My Life In Science Fiction and Comics. New York City: HarperCollins. pp. 135–142.ISBN 0-380-81051-4.
Richard Donner, Tom Mankiewicz, Ilya Salkind,Pierre Spengler, David Prowse, You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman, 2006, Warner Home Video
Ilya Salkind, Pierre Spengler, DVD audio commentary, 2006, Warner Home Video
David Hughes (2003). “Superman: The Movie”.Comic Book Movies. Virgin Books. pp. 5–23.ISBN 0-7535-0767-6.
Lynn Stalmaster, Superman: Screen Tests, 2001,Warner Home Video
The Making of Superman: The Movie (television Special), 1980, Film Export, A.G.