Superman 1.35: The Dentist

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.

So far in this blog, we’ve discussed the dinner in Paris, Brando and the money, and the lollipop. The next song in the cycle is The Tale of the Dentist.

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 180 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.

Monday:
1.36: When the Shooting Starts.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

30 thoughts on “Superman 1.35: The Dentist

    1. An actor’s life for me…can you imagine dining out on the story that you were the dentist’s scene partner in screen tests for Superman?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m wondering: did the moguls making Superman hire long-time acting teacher Jeff Corey to give acting lessons to the inexperienced Dr. Voyne for his screen test? Did Jeff then segue into appearing in the audition with his pupil?

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Turns out that’s exactly what happened, according to Tom Mankiewicz’s memoir! And Jeff Corey also directed at least some of the Superman screen test footage (he’d directed TV including a fair amount of NIGHT GALLERY). So now it all comes together.

        And Don Voyne *had* acted a little, but over a decade prior and seldom more than a few lines if that (he was a USC football player and as often happened if you played football in California, he had small roles as frat members or “gym attendant” and the like on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, MY THREE SONS, and so on briefly in the sixties before pursuing dentistry, basically when they just needed someone young, good looking, and athletic to hang on the periphery).

        Liked by 5 people

  1. Forget young Dr. Voyne. Lex Luthor in the screen test is played by Jeff Corey, a great character actor who went back to radio (he recurred as Lt. Ybarra on radio’s Philip Marlowe and was often on ESCAPE). He racked up roles, from bits to key supporting parts, in MY FRIEND FLICKA, MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, BRUTE FORCE, and THE KILLERS among others. *And* he had a supporting role in SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN (Luke Benson).

    He was great but like a lot of people, he was blacklisted in the fifties and shifted mainly to teaching acting for awhile, then made a comeback in the sixties and seventies (usually with a moustache which helped take attention away from his eyebrows) and stayed busy until he died in 2002 (later roles include voicing senior citizen villain Silvermane on the 90s Spider-Man animated series and a guest part on CHARMED). And to bring it all full circle, he appeared with Redford and Newman in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID as their aging sheriff pal.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Apparently all of us were primed and ready to write a log comment about Jeff Corey. So we’ve figured out what Danny’s next project should be after he finishes the 10,000 posts he’s on track to write for this blog: Jeff Corey Every Day.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. See, I figure you’ll slow down a bit as you go. Superman: The Movie might take about 100 posts, as might Superman 2: The Other Movie. And Blade, that one has to be at least 100 posts. But I can’t imagine that even you are likely to find 100 things to say about a movie starring Shaquille O’Neal.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Well, if you continue at your current rate (30 posts for 47 minutes of film) that’s about 1.5 minutes per post. You’re doing at least 91 movies of, let’s say 2 hours each. That’s 10,920 minutes divided by 1.5 minutes per post, so ONLY 7280 posts. Google says there are 261 weekdays in a year so that will only take 27.89 YEARS to complete. I would stick with you, Danny, but I doubt I’ll live that long! Especially since they’ll probably put out at least another 91 movies over those 28 years. But maybe my math is wrong. Or maybe Howard the Duck or–Shaq made a superhero movie?!– will save us a little time.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Jeff Corey was unsurpassed at playing characters who sincerely believe that what they are doing is the only morally acceptable course of action, which is why he was usually perfect as a villain. He would certainly have been great as almost any member of Superman’s Rogue’s Gallery. He would have been especially good as Brainiac.

      But I think Luthor is the exception. Luthor is that rarity, a bad guy who knows that he is the bad guy. He’s at his best when he is reveling in his evil. He’s like The Joker in that way, a vision of pure malevolence. You can’t reason with him, you can’t reeducate him to care about living beings and their happiness and a world of justice. He already he knows everything you know about those things- he just doesn’t care about any of them.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “Jeff Corey was unsurpassed at playing characters who sincerely believe that what they are doing is the only morally acceptable course of action”

        I remember his role in the Season 3 finale of Babylon 5 where his character was explaining why the Shadows were really the good guys!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the links to those screen tests. Reeve certainly had a charming presence which was undeniable, and do we know who his Lois Lane screen partner was?

    As for Don Voyne, DDS: if my dentist looked like that, I’d be going in for a cleaning every week.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Pop culture’s gain was daytime’s definite loss. Scroll back up to that photo of Reeve and his soap opera costar smiling. Now imagine getting to see HIM, day after day, year after year, conceivably until the industry finally pulled out of New York decades later.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. What, no De Niro?
    It reminds me of the search for Scarlett O’Hara. The difference is that there were a couple viable alternatives to Vivien Leigh. I can’t think of any actors from the 1970s who were in the right age range with the right physique who could actually act. There are a few who miss out on one of those points like Beatty. Others miss on multiple points like Brolin. I really can’t think of any other actor who could have done it.
    I recognized Jeff Corey but didn’t know his name. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Ah, Jeff Corey. And I’ll add to the list of his credits already mentioned the smug ruler of city-in-the-clouds Stratos in original STAR TREK’s “The Cloud Minders” (1969) and a derelict drunken bum in Olivia De Haviland’s LADY IN A CAGE (1964, which also has James Caan as a vicious home-invading punk). The guy did it all.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where not everybody knows who Jeff Corey was.

        Yes, I agree with Grant. Jeff Corey would’ve made a great Lex Luthor.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. Jesus Christ does everyone in the world know who Jeff Corey is?

        For what it’s worth, I thought it was another “Hey, it’s that guy!”, Vincent Schiavelli.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Spock does indeed take a liking to her. At one point she asks if she has disturbed him, and he replies “Extreme feminine beauty is always… disturbing.” I can still make my wife laugh out loud by telling her that I find her “extreme feminine beauty always… disturbing.”

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Reeve’s A&E Biography episode details how he first heard about the Superman film. While visiting Los Angeles, actor Michael O’Keefe (Danny Noonan from Caddyshack) mentioned that he was eager to play the part of Jimmy Olsen. Reeve wished him luck but I can guarantee that O’Keefe’s height lost him the part. When it came time for Reeve to accept the title role, fellow actors Treat Williams and William Hurt each tried to him out of doing it. I believe they were jealous that they weren’t asked to audition.

    Like

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