“When it comes to muscles and body,” asks a random internet user on the social question-and-answer forum Quora, “Reeve’s Superman looks nothing like Cavill’s. Why didn’t Reeve train for the part?”
That question was posed in February 2017, during the production of Henry Cavill’s third Superman film, Justice League, and while the question is insulting to Reeve, you can forgive the inquisitor getting caught up in the propaganda. By that time, Cavill and his workout routines had been featured in supermarket workout-porn mags at least four times — Men’s Health in 2011, Muscle & Fitness in 2013, and Men’s Fitness in 2015 and 2016 — in an ongoing series of public-service bulletins keeping America updated on the current status of his big-ass arms.
It’s basic Hollywood practice these days, to arrange for the latest superhero to show off his well-sculptured body for the examination and approval of the grocery shopping public. Just in 2020, there were Men’s Health covers for Sebastian Stan, Henry Cavill (again), Kumail Nanjiani and Jason Momoa, plus the superhero-adjacent Yahya Abdul-Mateen, explaining how they developed the ridiculously inflated upper-body superiority that movie audiences have come to expect.
And it’s true that Christopher Reeve’s Superman body is like a first draft, compared to the lavishly-trained muscle-mountains of today. But Reeve’s transformation from stringbean to superhunk sparked just as much interest in 1977, and formed a core part of the Superman: The Movie mythology.
Any discussion of how Christopher Reeve was cast for the film begins with Richard Donner thinking that he was too skinny for the part. This is a picture of what he looked like at the time he was cast, onstage in the Circle Repertory Company’s production of Corinne Jaecker’s My Life.
And looking at him from this angle, yeah, I can see what they’re talking about. He doesn’t look bad, obviously — I’d feel incredibly blessed, to look as good as that — but I have to agree that he wouldn’t quite fill out a supersuit.
So once he was cast, in February 1977, he immediately went into training. They didn’t have celebrity workout magazines like Men’s Health at the time, but descriptions of Reeve’s fitness routine were a crucial element in the film’s pre-release marketing.
For example, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature article in July 1977 on the filming of Superman: The Movie, and it began with four paragraphs on the care and feeding of Christopher Reeve:
Christopher Reeve already had two lunches, one hot and one cold, and downed the second of his four-a-day multivitamin drinks. Now it was teatime and he was attacking a large plate of cakes with undisguised enthusiasm.
“It’s not greed,” he said, apologetically. “It’s just that if I miss a meal I lose weight — and that would be a disaster.”
Twenty-four years old and 6 foot 4, Christopher Reeve normally weighs in at 188 pounds. Which wasn’t nearly good enough for his role as Superman in the $25 million or more epic now being filmed at Pinewood Studios outside London. Whatever else Superman is, spindly he is not. So Reeve was led to the trough and the gym, and after several months of eating four large meals a day and putting in hours of exercise at the Grosvenor House sports club and pool, he built himself up to a very respectable 212 pounds.
And they were able to take out the false muscles from the blue body-stocking, emblazoned in red and gold with an S, which he wears on his world-saving missions.
So clearly, the producers thought it was crucial that the press got the full story on Reeve’s diet. If the star of your movie is sitting down for an interview with the LA Times, you don’t put a large plate of cakes in front of him by accident. Reeve’s “undisguised enthusiasm” for his teatime treats may have been genuine, but the cakes were there in order to communicate an important point, namely “spindly he is not.”
This was a full year before the movie was scheduled to come out, and producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were working full-time on assuring their investors that the movie was worth all of the millions that the Salkinds were still asking for/redistributing from other people’s bank accounts. Their pitch was that this movie was going to be bigger than anyone had ever seen before, and they had three pieces of evidence: Marlon Brando’s salary was the highest anyone had ever been paid for anything, Richard Donner had brilliant people working full-time on the flying effects, and Christopher Reeve was eating four meals a day, not counting snacks and protein drinks.
Another crucial part of the story that I’m amazed the LA Times didn’t bite on was that they’d hired British bodybuilding champion David Prowse to train Reeve, and hoist him up to Superman standards.
According to legend, Prowse was hoping to be cast as Superman himself, and the job of training Reeve has been widely described as a consolation prize. I don’t think that’s how casting actually works on movies — directors don’t usually award runners-up with a job backstage — but it gives the story a little emotional hook that people like to hear and repeat.
Another publicity-friendly hook was that Prowse was the man inside the Darth Vader suit in Star Wars, which I’m sure the Salkinds were very excited about. Ilya liked anything that was connected to success, and he made sure that everybody knew that one of the stars of the biggest blockbuster of the ’70s was now working on Superman.
Then they brought in a film crew to ogle Reeve during one of his workouts, resulting in a loving two-minute scene in the Making of Superman TV special.
“I wore a big, bulky blue sweater,” he says, shirtlessly, “because I thought, oh my god, I’ve got to look stronger, you know? I knew I was skinny, I’d been sitting around, hadn’t been exercising — I mean, I get out and play tennis and stuff — but I don’t in any way do body stuff. So I got the biggest Shetland sweater I could find, up in my attic, and went to this audition with it, and sat there, y’know, trying to look bigger.”
Then we get into the documentary evidence of his routine.
“The point is that when I started I was a stringbean, and Superman’s not a stringbean, so…”
“Already from the start I eat four times a day, I’m on a high meat diet, protein diet, vitamin pills, nothing like steroids or anything like that.”
“But I mean, I get to eat as much of anything that I want, and it’s great, you know? The thing is that on this part particularly, you have to start from the outside and work in. You can do all the interior work you want to do, and it’s still not going to get you to Superman if you don’t have the physical strength to go with it.”
“The thing that happens is that the stronger I get — you know, I’m still not all that strong, but I’m getting there — the stronger I get, the more it helps my mental attitude towards the part.”
And it helps our mental attitude, as well; I, for one, appreciate it enormously. You have no idea how this whole subject perks up my outlook. Reeve definitely fills out the uniform, and when he tells a lovestruck Lois that he’s made out of 225 pounds of supermeat, we believe him.
He wasn’t quite that big in real life, but he was big enough. The generally accepted figure is from that LA Times interview in July ’77 — going from 188 to 212 pounds, a gain of 24 pounds of muscle mass.
David Prowse quoted those numbers in his 2005 autobiography Straight From the Force’s Mouth, but his recollection drifted a bit after that. Larry Tye interviewed Prowse for the 2012 book Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, and Prowse rounded the total up to “more than 30 pounds”, and increased Reeve’s daily protein shake intake from four cans a day to six.
Then in a 2017 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Prowse claimed that he bulked Reeve up from 170 pounds to 212, which would be a gain of 42 pounds in six weeks. Unfortunately, Prowse is no longer with us; if he’d lived another few years, who knows how big Reeve would have gotten?
The odd thing — and this will seem increasingly quaint, as we work through this history — is that we don’t actually see much of his body in the movie. The only glimpse we get of Reeve out of uniform is the honeymoon shot in Superman II, showing Clark and Lois snuggling in bed, which lasts for 12 seconds and you don’t see that much. He doesn’t even wear a T-shirt in this movie; maintaining the difference between Superman and his secret identity means that he goes from suit-and-tie to full superhero regalia, with no in-between steps.
All of those meals and workouts were just intended to fill out the suit, and give him enough strength to hang around in flying rigs all day. Beyond that, the male gaze of the gay males had to move on to find other sources of entertainment, which we did, and that’s why Henry Cavill exists.
In reality, the celebrity workout is not that interesting of a story: people who lift weights and follow strict diet regimes get stronger and more muscular, especially if they’ve got a strong motivation, like starring in an upcoming superhero movie. The basic protocol is pretty well understood, and there’s no particular reason why we should be specifically interested in the Henry Cavill workout, the Chris Hemsworth workout or the Jason Momoa workout, depending on who’s got a movie release coming up.
But when we go to a superhero movie, we want to believe that there’s actually something special about this person. By training his body beyond the peak of perfection, the lead actor has traveled the Hero’s Journey — guided by a wise sage who’s helped him to tap into his potential for greatness, he’s passed through a supernatural threshold into a land of discovery, and returned to us with magical gifts and rock-hard abs. His powers may be fictional, but his biceps are real, and that is all we require. He is larger than life, and we believe.
How does Lois Lane take control
of the balcony scene?
1.72: The Color of Underwear
— Danny Horn