Superman 1.3: Brando and the Money

From “Godfather” to “Superfather”? Marlon Brando has been offered a reported “unprecedented” salary to play the father — or older brother — of “Superman” for Alexander Salkind. (Variety, June 30, 1976)

The two Superman films, to be lensed simultaneously, will ring up a super budget of $25-30,000,000. Of that figure, $2,700,000, goes to Marlon Brando who plays papa to “Superman”. (Variety, Dec  27, 1976)

Even Brando, long-famed for his temperament, posed no problems. Perhaps even he could hardly believe the money he was being paid for his 12 days — $2.5 million, the most expensive salary on record. (LA Times, July 31, 1977)

We’ve read that white-wigged Marlon Brando, for just 12 days of work as Jor-El, Superman’s father on the planet Krypton, snagged $2.7 million or $3.7 million or $4 million. (New York Times, December 10, 1978)

There are a handful of stories that make up the core mythology of Superman: The Movie — the dinner in Paris, the lollipop, the dentist, the workout, the flying unit, the extra director. But the most important and enduring story — the thing that everyone is sure to mention when they talk about the movie — is Brando and the money.

When you’re watching the movie, here in the present day, you can’t help but wonder why Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman are billed first in the credits, followed by Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Glenn Ford, Trevor Howard and Margot Kidder, in that order.

To anyone with a normal common-sense understanding of how movies work, the lead characters are Superman and Lois Lane, followed by Lex Luthor; the guy who plays Jor-El should be credited fourth at best. Instead, Christopher Reeve is credited third, and Margot Kidder is eighth, arriving directly after a guy whose character is named “1st Elder”. Why does the main character’s dad, who only appears in the first twenty minutes of the movie, get top billing?

Well, as we ended the last post, circa November 1975, we left These Five Men — writer Mario Puzo, director Guy Hamilton and producers Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler — focusing their considerable talents and energies on the super film of the seventies, which then gradually collapsed over the next six months.

Here’s a rough timeline of the ’75-’76 production:

June 1975: The Salkinds announce that the production will begin in Rome in November.

July 1975: Mario Puzo submits his first draft of the script.

Sept 1975: Guy Hamilton signs on as director. Casting begins for the actor playing Superman.

Oct 1975: Puzo submits his second draft. It’s unmakeable. Puzo leaves the project.

Nov 1975: They get new writers to work on the script.

Jan 1976: Production begins in Rome. No progress on casting Superman.

Feb 1976: The special effects team begins work.

March 1976: Everything falls apart.

Seriously, it’s a mess. For one thing, they can’t find anybody famous who wants to play Superman. Robert Redford and Paul Newman don’t want to do it. Arnold Schwarzenegger is too Austrian; Sylvester Stallone is too Italian; James Caan wants too much money. Also, the script is way too long, and would cost a billion dollars to produce; they need a new team of writers to get it into shape.

They’ve already started production, and they’ve built hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sets in Rome. Guy Hamilton’s design and special effects ideas are weak; they have no idea how they’re going to make Superman fly. Then the Italian unions start giving them trouble — meaning that the crew wants to get paid in money, which the Salkinds are allergic to. The investors are getting nervous, especially the ones who are actually aware that they’re investing in a movie about Superman.

And then — just a few months after the nick of time — in walks Brando.

In the mid-70s, Marlon Brando was one of the most famous actors in America, and if you’re too young to know who he is, then you’re just going to have to trust me on that. He first rose to attention as Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, popularizing method acting and sleeveless white T-shirts. At the Academy Awards, he was nominated for Best Actor four years running, finally getting the award in 1954 for On the Waterfront. This was followed by Teahouse of the August Moon, Mutiny on the Bounty, and so on.

Brando’s star dimmed in the mid-to-late 60s, but in 1972 he had an enormous success, playing Don Corleone in The Godfather, which nabbed him another Best Actor award. He also starred in Last Tango in Paris, a controversial erotic rape drama that everybody argued about for basically a year.

There was no doubt that Marlon Brando was a big name — maybe the biggest you could get, in 1976 — and Ilya Salkind liked big things. When the Salkinds were almost ready to give up and stop production, Ilya got a call from agent Kurt Frings, who said, “I can get you Brando.” It might take a couple million dollars to get him to say yes, so Ilya called Alex, and Alex said they should do it, and they sent him a script.

And Brando signed on to play Jor-El, at an astronomical, unprecedented salary that nobody can quite agree on what it was.

There are several reasons why it’s difficult to pin down exactly what Brando was promised for Superman, starting with: it’s none of our goddamn business.

Putting that aside, there are a couple different ways to calculate the figure. In December 1976, Variety said that Brando was getting $2.7 million dollars. In April 1980, the Los Angeles Times reported that Brando was promised 11.3% of the domestic and 5.65% of the foreign gross receipts, with a guarantee of $2.7 million dollars, which is different.

And then, around the time the movie opened, the reliable sources — the official The Making of Superman: The Movie book, and big profile pieces in the New York Times and Newsweek — started to cite the figure as $3.7 million dollars, and that’s usually what’s quoted today.

Over the next few years, once everybody started suing each other, the LA Times insisted on $2.7, but the New York Times stuck to $3.7. Personally, I believe the LA Times, because it sounds like they had access to court documents, plus exaggerating salaries is standard practice for movie studio publicity.

But the point is that Marlon Brando’s extraordinary salary was discussed multiple times in great detail by all of the above sources, as well as every other publication that wrote about the movie. And that’s why there’s such a thing as Superman: The Movie.

You see, nobody had ever made a big-budget superhero movie before, and the obvious assumption was that it would be… well, cartoonish. Some actor looking ridiculous in an obviously padded muscle suit, being dragged across the set on visible wires, accompanied by the BAM! and POW! of the silly 1960s Batman TV series. The whole thing was going to be a joke.

But paying several million dollars to an actor who isn’t even going to play Superman means that somebody must be taking this seriously. It’s possible that it’s still going to be ridiculous and awful, but if it is, then it’s going to be one of those expensive megaflops that offer lots of juicy material for cynical observers of the Hollywood scene and other Monday-morning quarterbacks.

So everybody’s going to talk about it and write about it, and that attracts attention and more star power. Shortly after the Salkinds signed Brando, they got Gene Hackman to play Lex Luthor for a further $2 million, and at that point, it’s a real film.

Over the first fifty years of American movie-making, the studios developed a whole vocabulary of different distribution terms — A-movies and B-movies, features and specials and superspecials and epics — in order to set audience expectations about the value of a particular movie. For the most important pictures, a limited number of prints would be distributed, at a higher ticket-price — and in the early days, they even sent out a live orchestra with each print, and a speaker to introduce the film.

But by 1978, every movie was shown more or less the same way. Big pictures like Superman opened in wide release, at the same price as other films, and you couldn’t drag a live orchestra around to convince people that this movie is worth paying attention to.

So Superman — and the many superhero movies that followed — had to express that this movie was special in a different way, and they did it by telling people how hard it was to make, and how much money it cost. After all, if this was just a silly, inconsequential movie for kids, people wouldn’t go to all this hassle and expense.

This is what movie studios do, when they’re making a superhero film — they spend more than a year planting news stories about what a chore it all is. The audience is told well in advance how much the cast are making, how difficult the special effects are, and how hard the star had to work out to sculpt his perfect superhero body. There’s all this extra-diegetic information that the audience is supposed to learn in advance and bring into the theater with them, in order to appreciate the film properly as the eye-popping spectacle that it’s supposed to be.

Superman: The Movie was such a legendary example of this technique that it’s more than 40 years later, and people are still whining about how hard it was to make. The entire mythology of the Superman production is about the filmmakers overcoming tremendous odds — getting the financing, casting the leads, burning through five writers and two and a half directors, and especially making people believe that a man can fly. So when the audience sees the finished product and it’s actually really good, we’re awestruck — not just impressed with the superheroics on the screen, but also with the everpresent awareness that the people who made it had to work really, really hard.

For the Salkinds, bragging about how much they were paying Brando was such a successful behind-the-scenes sob story news hook that it made the rest of the film possible; everyone wanted a piece of the movie that could blow that kind of money on a supporting role. In fact, Brando’s salary is such a crucial part of the mythology that they bumped the reported figure up by a million dollars,  just before the movie came out.

In the end, of course, nobody knows how much Brando actually received, because the Salkinds never produced anything like a credible accounting of how much money they spent on the picture. And if nobody knew how much they spent, then they couldn’t calculate how much was profit, so everybody who had a percentage of the movie had to take the Salkinds to court to get anything out of them. Ultimately, Brando’s lawyers and the Salkinds’ lawyers negotiated a settlement of some unknown amount, and then the Salkinds cut Brando’s character out of Superman II so they didn’t have to pay him the money that they owed him for that picture, either.

So the one thing that everybody knows about the making of Superman — that Marlon Brando was paid either $2.7 or $3.7 million dollars — is almost certainly not true. Still, it’s nice to dream, isn’t it?

The trouble with Puzo’s script,
and the drafts that followed…
1.4: The Kojak Moment

Movie list

— Danny Horn


13 thoughts on “Superman 1.3: Brando and the Money

  1. “For one thing, they can’t find anybody famous who wants to play Superman.” Well, there was one very big name who was very eager to take the part: Charles Bronson. He auditioned and everything. I love the idea of Superman who wears a mustache and calls guys “pally.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The young Charles Bronson honestly could have been Superman. He didn’t have a mustache yet, and if you watch his small role in the 1953 House of Wax, he had the physique. I think he just didn’t look All American and Apple Pie enough.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow, look at the grinning Lex Luthor on that action figure packaging! He’s so happy about stealing 40 cakes.

    Whatever they paid Brando, I really do think he was worth it. 30 years later, the teaser trailer for Superman Returns was just an old unused speech of his from this movie. And it gave me chills. It’s so much more exciting than anything in that actual movie.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. “He’s so happy about stealing 40 cakes.” Glad to see the shout-out to Bill Walko’s tribute to the Hostess ads that used to be on the inside covers of DC and Marvel comics. We definitely need a Hostess Cinematic Universe to introduce a new generation to all those great tales of adventure.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. “He’s so happy about stealing 40 cakes.” Glad to see the shout-out to Bill Walko’s tribute to the Hostess ads that used to be on the inside covers of DC and Marvel comics.

        I believe that came from a children’s book, not a Hostess ad.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. That was taken from a book called “The Super Dictionary”, which often used very odd ways to define the words in it. The Lex Luthor one was for the word “forty”. There’s a Tumblr site that’s going through each word defined in it.

        Considering that at the time I’m writing this they’re at the word “fireman”, they should be getting to “forty” pretty soon!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Brando was such a towering anomaly in film: this breathtaking beauty who segued into character roles without a blink, a Method Theater Actor who dominated film, whose name was downright Hitchockian in its ability to generate respect.

    He really shouldn’t have existed, much like Superman: The Movie, but he did.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You see, nobody had ever made a big-budget superhero movie before, and the obvious assumption was that it would be… well, cartoonish. Some actor looking ridiculous in an obviously padded muscle suit, being dragged across the set on visible wires, accompanied by the BAM! and POW! of the silly 1960s Batman TV series. The whole thing was going to be a joke.

    Wow, I remember this being the case for the 1989 Batman movie but did not realize people made the same assumptions about Superman: The Movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We were just talking about a new sports recruit for a local school, and I realized the same sort of thing goes on in sports. You hear about a high school player, and they build up some name recognition before you ever see them play. The sports networks play along because it increases their buzz as well.

    This is the magic of Danny: teaching you things you didn’t know you needed to know.


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