Superman 1.85: An Oral History of Christopher Reeve Being a Dick During the Filming of Superman: The Movie

Jake Rossen: “By some accounts, Reeve’s abrupt entrance into celluloid fame brought with it some rather abrasive coping mechanisms.”[1]

Christopher Reeve: “I’m not here to win a popularity contest. I’m not here to have fun. I’m here to put something on the screen that’s going to entertain people later.”[2]

Christopher Reeve: “I was in a play Off-Broadway and my father came to see me. Afterwards, I took him out to dinner and told him that I had been cast in Superman. He thought that was terrific, and immediately asked who was going to play Ann. He thought I meant I was going to play Jack Tanner in Shaw’s Man and Superman, and that moment was the beginning of a tense time.

“My family pretty much wrote me off — their attitude was, ‘There goes Chris, he’s going Hollywood.’ And it was pretty clear that if I turned typically Hollywood my father and I would break off relations. He thought it was the ultimate sellout.”[3]

Tom Mankiewicz: “He really wanted to be a great actor. And he was very serious about his craft. He was obsessed with the fact that Superman would make him a star and ruin his career, all at the same time.”[4]

Jake Rossen: “When [David] Prowse departed to honor a preexisting commitment to a prince in Saudi Arabia, Reeve was furious. He lashed out at his trainer, complaining that he had lost precious body mass during the ten-day absence. Prowse conferred with [Richard] Donner, who told him Reeve’s impending stardom had already begun to inflate his head. Three days later, Prowse was released from his obligations to the production. In Prowse’s eyes, the newly crowned Superman had already become a diva.”[5]

Margot Kidder: “We had fights. And if I’d improvised something, Chris would cut take and say, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I’d yell, ‘Shut up! Don’t tell me how to act. This is your first movie and my tenth!'” One of the most irritating things about Christopher was that he tried to tell everybody what to do all the time. And he was not very thoughtful of other people’s feelings.”[6]

Christopher Reeve: “I mean, you go to a party on Friday and by Monday no one remembers you were there. But they’ll always remember what you put on the screen — good or bad. And I have a responsibility to see that it’s good.

“That’s why I’m willing to make the sacrifices that I do… that’s why I’m antisocial to the extent that I am. I come home every day from work, sometimes in agony because I feel that a scene wasn’t one hundred percent. So that’s why when I’m walking around the set, I can’t take visitors, I can’t take screwing around, I can’t take lateness. I go nuts, because I’m so rigidly focused into the work.”[7]

Jack O’Halloran: “Christopher had never done anything. His claim to fame was a soap. Being Superman was a big step into the limelight. He thought he was a superstar. Chris started believing his own press. He wasn’t the nicest of people until he got hurt.”[8]

Margot Kidder: “I didn’t often do the same thing twice, which Christopher found enormously frustrating. He’d whack his hand down on the table and go, ‘I can’t work with her!’ And I’d go, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake don’t you try and direct me, Chris Reeve!’ Somehow [Donner] accommodated to Chris’ wishes and then to mine. Mine was a much more freewheeling [approach], an almost improvisational way of working, in the sense of going with what happened. And Chris’ was very anal and he wanted to know where every pencil on the desk was before he did a scene. So we were at loggerheads a lot, Chris and I, we were like a bickering brother and sister… and [Donner] would somehow make both of us feel like we were in the right.”[9]

Jack O’Halloran: “Superman was his first film, his big break, and he became self-centered. And one day he made a mistake with me. There was a great restaurant in London that was just starting out at the time and one day the whole crew were there — I would always invite them over — and one time, Reeve started talking about my father, calling him a mob guy and things like that.

“The owner of the restaurant called me and asked me how well I knew this Christopher Reeve guy, as he was saying so much about my family. The next day, I confronted him and I told him never to talk about my father the way he had been. He was acting like he really was Superman and he said, ‘Yeah, your dad is a mobster.’ I grabbed him and slammed him into a wall, and I was about to kick the shit out of him, and Donner grabbed me and said, ‘Not in the face!'”[10]

Christopher Reeve: “I was 24, and dead serious, with dead being the operative word there, really. I mean, I just took this thing like it was a Bible. Because I felt, in a way, that the torch had been passed from previous generations of actors, and readers, who had loved Superman. So I felt, during the 70s and 80s, that I was the temporary custodian of a part that is an essential piece of American mythology.”[11]

Margot Kidder: “He could be a real asshole, frankly. But over time, Chris was much easier to work with.”[12]

Christopher Reeve: “You know, for the past few months, with people staring at me, I’ve had some idea of what it must have been like for Brando, all these years. But I’m not up-ended by what’s happened. Not at all. I know I’m not a better actor now than when I was working Off-Broadway for $75 a week. It’s nice to have been given this chance, of course. And I’m grateful. But that’s about it, really; that’s about it…”[13]

Monday:
Superman finally comes
face to face with Lex Luthor!
1.86: Another Day, Another Door


Footnotes:

  1. Jake Rossen, Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon (2008), pg 82
  2. David Michael Petrou, The Making of Superman: The Movie (1978), pg 89
  3. Wayne Warga, “Career Is Airborne But He’s Got Feet on the Ground”, LA Times (July 15, 1979)
  4. Rossen, pg 83
  5. Rossen, pg 82
  6. Gary Bettinson, Superman: The Movie: The 40th Anniversary Interviews (2018), pg 56
  7. Petrou, pg 89-90
  8. Rossen, pg 83-84
  9. James Christie, You’re the Director… You figure it out. The Life and Films of Richard Donner (2010), chapter 6
  10. James Slater, “Exclusive Interview with Actor/Boxer/Writer Jack O’Halloran”, Boxing News 24/7 (2021)
  11. Taking Flight: The Development of Superman (Featurette for Superman: The Movie DVD set, 2000)
  12. Bettinson, pg 56
  13. Roderick Mann, “Superman Leaps the Credibility Gap”, LA Times (July 31, 1977)

Monday:
Superman finally comes
face to face with Lex Luthor!
1.86: Another Day, Another Door

Chapters

— Danny Horn

14 thoughts on “Superman 1.85: An Oral History of Christopher Reeve Being a Dick During the Filming of Superman: The Movie

    1. “Superdickery” is mostly about comic book covers that appear to show Supey doing something inexcusable. Of which there were a great many, the fans were filled with anxiety when they saw him throwing Lois Lane out of a window and bought the books hoping that it would turn out to be a misunderstanding. Which it always did, but it was a quick and easy (some would say cheap and lazy) way to generate suspense.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. “When [David] Prowse departed to honor a preexisting commitment to a prince in Saudi Arabia…”

    I sympathize. Who among us has not faced this situation?

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Jack O’Halloran had been an above-average heavyweight boxer in the early 70’s, who never got a shot at the title, but did have wins over a couple guys who had. Provoking a guy like that was not Reeve’s smartest moment–it would have gone as badly for him as Superman fighting Muhammad Ali under a red sun.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This brings me back to the question of separating an artist’s actions from his work.
    Finding out he was obnoxious is disillusioning but doesn’t change his contribution to the movie. Structurally, this movie is a mess. The ending does not make any kind of logical sense. What makes it watchable is Reeve. He takes what could be a cartoon character (as Lex is portrayed by the great Gene Hackman) and makes him someone you believe in and care about. It’s Superman who matters in this movie and it’s Reeve’s performance on which it rises or falls. He was young. It was his first movie. He was obnoxious. He was probably terrified. It doesn’t show on screen and that saves this movie for me. I like Superman.
    Whether or not I would have liked Reeve is a totally different question but it doesn’t change what’s on the screen.
    I wouldn’t have liked the Salkinds either, for that matter.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yeah–to quote Sue Lyon, who played Lolita in Kubrick’s film, “I defy any pretty girl who is rocketed to fame in a sex-nymphet role to stay on a level path.” Every single thing about reality as he knew it was changing.

      This was a one in a million shot and he knew it every second of every day. I don’t think I could have handled that kind of pressure at 24 in such a competitive industry, particularly with a father/family that sounds like a bunch of snobbish sociopaths.

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  4. What’s amazing to me is that all the off-screen angst – i.e. Christopher Reeve’s annoying method acting perfectionism versus Margot Kidder’s more in-the-moment improvisational style – NEVER once comes across on screen. Both actors are professional to the core, and once the cameras are rolling, they are in character and in synch with who they are. Had you and others not written about Christopher Reeve being an off-screen “dick,” I never would have known.

    To be honest though, whatever Christopher Reeve did off-screen, he set the right tone – strong, protective, and a certain sparkle – a twinkle in his eye – that makes him all the more endearing to audiences at the time and for eternity, in my opinion. The only other actor to have this sparkle/twinkle in his Superman persona was George Reeves in the 1950s TV show.

    (I honestly did not see the Brandon Routh, nor have I seen any Henry Cavill iterations of the Superman character, so I honestly cannot comment. Maybe they have twinkle/sparkle too to some extent? Reviewers did not like Routh’s portrayal, but he did have something in common with George Reeves – they were both originally from Iowa, my home state.)

    To me, it’s not the Kryptonite that makes Superman more human – it’s that sparkle “twinkle in his eye” charisma that does it for me. Method acting or not, Christopher Reeve had that sparkle/twinkle, something I will always appreciate about CR’s legacy to all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it was more a dislike of the material Routh was given, rather his performance. I never saw the Cavill movies, partially because Superman Returns soured me on it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Routh also started as a stand up comedian, so I would hope he could carry some of that over–I never saw his Superman, though.

      Like

      1. Superman Returns was pretty forgettable in every way, but Routh has redeemed himself somewhat after returning to the role on TV in the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. I don’t see any right or wrong in Reeves’ approach vs Kidder’s approach. Some actors prefer to ‘workshop’ their way through a script, others need the security of staying word-perfect to the script. Both are valid but it can be difficult when both types of actors are in the same scene.

      It was the same in Doctor Who when Jon Pertwee (a script man) and Patrick Troughton (an improviser) worked together. It drove Pertwee mad. In the end the director had to find a middle ground of asking Troughton to stay a little closer to the script while persuading Pertwee to make some allowances for flexibility.

      Like

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