Superman: The Movie was the first feature-length blockbuster superhero film, and at the time, it was hard to imagine what that would actually be like. Would it be a self-consciously silly romp, like the 1966 Batman film based on the campy TV show? What would it look like, once you put a guy in blue tights and a red cape, and strung him up on wires?
The producers, Alex and Ilya Salkind, were constantly announcing that they were spending the most money in history to make the grandest movie in history, but they were hucksters, and nobody knew if they could pull it off.
Co-producer Pierre Spengler’s negotiation with DC Comics for the film rights took two and a half months, because DC was concerned that the project could turn into an embarrassing flop, which would reflect badly on their marquee character. According to a Variety article, when they finished, it was “spelled out in the contracts that the performers signed to play both Superman and Lois Lane must have had no connection whatsoever with pornographic films.”
So that tells you how low DC’s expectations were, for this project. They actually thought it was possible that the Salkinds would hire porn stars to play Superman and Lois.
There is a mythology about the making of Superman: The Movie, which grew in story and song as it passed from Variety to the Los Angeles Times, from Starlog to American Cinematographer, from the making-of book to the making-of TV special, and all the making-of DVD featurettes to come.
It’s the heroic saga of a group of unlikely allies, coming together to perform a great feat that will be sung through the ages — and the most satisfying backstage legends are the ones that end with everyone agreeing that the conclusion was meant to be. It took us a long time, they say, but we perservered, and in the end, destiny guided our hand to make the perfect choice.
From the start, the question of who would play Superman was paramount; the movie would live or die based on this choice. He had to look strong and muscular, without going overboard into Hercules territory. He had to be attractive, and compelling. He had to be competent in a wide range of styles, from action-adventure to romantic comedy. And he had to look like the guy in the comic book.
The casting process began in September 1975, after the Salkinds hired Guy Hamilton as the director, and it lasted all the way to February 1977, just a month before shooting began. According to the legend, they met with 200 actors across that year and a half of searching, and screen tested a half dozen or so. As Hamilton began pre-production in Rome, they started calling around to see who was available.
Alexander Salkind’s first choice was Robert Redford, one of the most acclaimed American actors of the time. His big break was in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a huge critical and box office success. He went on to headline a string of hit films — The Way We Were and The Sting in 1973, The Great Gatsby in 1974 and All the President’s Men in 1976 — which made him an incredibly bankable star. He would have been wrong for the part, of course — he was blond, and forty years old — but the Salkinds valued previous box office success above all else.
He said no. They didn’t have secure financing yet or a complete script, and he was so well-known that he thought people wouldn’t accept him in a cape.
So then they asked Paul Newman, Redford’s Butch Cassidy co-star, which tells you a lot about how the Salkinds were leading this process. Newman was also a very successful and well-regarded actor, but he was 52 at the time, and if people wouldn’t accept Redford in a Superman costume, they definitely wouldn’t suspend disbelief for Newman.
To be fair, the Salkinds offered Newman the choice of either Superman or Lex Luthor, which he also wasn’t right for. He turned them down.
It got a little crazy after that.
They asked Warren Beatty, who would have been great, if it was 1965. Beatty tried on a costume and ran around his pool, and told the Salkinds that he felt too ridiculous.
They talked to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and decided that his Austrian accent wouldn’t work, even if they wrote in the script that it was a Kryptonian twang.
Clint Eastwood was too busy.
Steve McQueen said no.
Sylvester Stallone really wanted it, but the Salkinds felt that he was too Italian for the part.
After a while, it just got silly.
Ilya met with singer Neil Diamond, who was thinking about breaking into acting. They talked to Kris Kristofferson, James Caan, James Brolin, Ryan O’Neal, Jan-Michael Vincent, Sam Elliott, David Soul, Robert Wagner, Charles Bronson and Paul Rudd (not the one you’re thinking of).
An out-of-touch Alex Salkind even took a meeting with the promoter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Alex was interested in having Ali come in for a screen test, until Ilya broke the news that Ali was Black.
At one point, the three front-runners were Nick Nolte, Perry King and Jon Voight, and they actually put Voight on contract, so that they could use him if they couldn’t find anybody else.
The odd thing is that when people write about casting this part — both at the time, and ever since — they only talk about the way the actors look, and not what they would bring to the role, or what kind of Superman they would be. Muhammad Ali wasn’t rejected just because he was Black — I mean, he was rejected just for that, but he shouldn’t have been — when the real problem was that his carefully cultivated public persona was aggressive and boastful. One of his famous catchphrases was “I am the greatest!“, which plays well for a champion boxer, but that’s not the guy that you want playing Superman.
In September 1976, they conducted a very well-publicized screen test with Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner, known at the time under her previous name, Bruce Jenner. A few months before, Jenner had set a world record in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Summer Games, taking it away from the previous gold medal winner, Soviet decathlete Mykola Avilov. That was apparently a big deal at the time.
A charming world champion, Jenner was being called the World’s Greatest Athlete, and had ambitions of becoming a lead actor, which everyone assumed would happen effortlessly. Even Variety, a trade paper known for being cynical, referred to Superman as “the role [Jenner] might have been born to play.”
So Jenner flew to London to do a screen test, and guess what, it turned out that acting and being on a Wheaties box are not equivalent skills.
A month after Jenner’s tryout, Guy Hamilton had to drop out of the project, and in November, Richard Donner got the director’s job. The production was still cycling through the long list of living human beings with Y chromosomes, trying to keep the project afloat. If they couldn’t find someone to play Superman, then they were finished.
And just when they were getting desperate, Ilya Salkind’s wife had a dentist’s appointment in Beverly Hills.
As the story goes, Skye was having her teeth cleaned, and suddenly she looked up at the dentist and thought, that’s Clark Kent! She came home raving about the guy, who had never acted in his life before, and things were so bleak over at Shepperton that Ilya said, you know what? Let’s bring him in for a screen test.
It wasn’t one of the great ideas in American cinema. Don Voyne, D.D.S., was a very handsome man with a great body and a strong jawline, but he couldn’t make you believe he was hot if his hair was on fire. You can watch a video of Voyne’s screen test on the fan site Superman1978, and I recommend that you do, because it’s hilarious.
In the scene, Superman has come to Lex Luthor’s lair, to have a confrontation about some bit of villainy.
Voyne begins with his hands on his hips. “It’s all over, Luthor,” he says —
— and then points at the other person in the scene, to complete the line: “You’re coming with me!”
At that point it’s essentially over, four seconds after it starts. That line read is enough to disqualify young Dr. Voyne from the list of potential Supermen.
I mean, if you’re looking for an angry Superman, then Voyne’s your guy; he projects nothing but pissed-off vibes. He is fed up with Luthor’s criminal schemes, and he is not shy about letting it show.
To be fair, the script points in that direction. “It’s too late!” Luthor sneers defiantly, as Superman stomps across the room. “The rocket is already on its way, and even you can’t fly fast enough to stop it!”
Our hero grabs Luthor, picks him up like a rag doll, and gives him a little shake. “I won’t have to fly anywhere not after you tell me where the controls are!” Superman says, all in one breath.
“Controls, who’s got controls?” asks Luthor, who you will be interested to know is not being played by Eugene Levy.
“I’ve traced the signals to this room,” Superman says, giving Luthor the stink eye, and another little shake. “Now, you tell me!”
Luthor still denies it, so Superman yells, “Don’t force me to do humanity a favor!” and drops him like a bad habit. Then he stalks out of the room, snarling, “You overblown, deluded creep!”
It’s very watchable, if you like muscular, furious men dressed up in tight clothes, which I’m not going to lie to you, I don’t hate. But if Dr. Voyne is considering cancelling tomorrow’s appointments because he’ll be busy signing the standard rich and famous contract, then he should probably think again.
And then, like a miracle from Heaven: Christopher Reeve.
Reeve was a tall, handsome actor who trained at Juilliard, and after graduation went straight into a two-year stint as Ben Harper on the CBS soap opera Love of Life. At night, he performed on stage, and in 1975, he appeared on Broadway with Katharine Hepburn in Enid Bagnold’s A Matter of Gravity.
Hoping to break into films, he moved to Los Angeles in 1976, where his best offer was the lead in the NBC TV series Man From Atlantis, an adventure show where he’d have to wear green contact lenses, and webbed hands and feet. Reeve turned it down, and a pre-Dallas Patrick Duffy took the part, for as long as it lasted. Then Reeve got his first movie role — a bit part as a sailor in Gray Lady Down, a Charlton Heston disaster movie about a nuclear submarine.
Disappointed, Reeve returned to New York and appeared in My Life, an off-Broadway play starring William Hurt. And then somebody asked him if he wanted to play Superman.
Reeve’s agent expressed interest in the role, and casting director Lynn Stalmaster had the gift of seeing the potential that nobody else in the production could see. He says that he kept putting Reeve’s picture on top of the pile of headshots, and Donner and the producers kept putting it at the bottom of the pile.
Finally, after the humiliating experience with the dentist, Ilya and Donner decided to meet with Chris Reeve. None of the people involved thought there was much promise. In his biography, Reeve said that he only went to the meeting because it was on the way to Grand Central Station, where he was headed to go visit his dad; if it was in another part of town, he wouldn’t have bothered.
So he came, and they talked, and Donner was not immediately impressed. Reeve was 6’4″ and 188 pounds, and Donner thought he was too young and skinny for the part. Ilya says that he was the one who decided to do a screen test, but Ilya says a lot of things, so who even knows.
They offered Reeve the screen test, and Reeve said that he couldn’t go — he was still doing the play, and he didn’t have an understudy. To clear Reeve’s schedule, Donner bought out the entire house, at five bucks a seat.
On February 1st, 1977, Christopher Reeve appeared on set at Shepperton Studios wearing a padded Superman leotard and black shoe polish in his hair. He sweated like a horse under the hot studio lights, making big dark sweat stains under his arms. He was magnificent.
Superman1978 has a video of Reeve’s screen tests as well, and that’s worth watching too, to see how magic just happened, right in front of everybody. They do a version of the interview scene with Lois, and amusingly, Reeve starts the scene with his hands on his hips, as Don Voyne did. But the dentist looked petulant and stagey, and Reeve looks confident and at ease.
“Good evening, Miss Lane,” he says, from his perch on the wall. “Thank you very much for finding the time for this interview.”
And then he steps down easily to land on the floor, and he’s Superman.
From that point, you don’t need me to tell you what he’s like. He’s Christopher Reeve and he’s playing Superman, as he was obviously destined to do.
It’s on between Donner
and the Salkinds in
1.36: When the Shooting Starts
— Danny Horn