Okay, we’re almost done with the story of Superman: The Movie, which means that it’s time to call in the lawyers. Last week, we talked about that mad moment in mid-November 1978, when executive producer Alexander Salkind told Warner Bros. that he wouldn’t release the final print of the movie in time for the premiere, unless they gave him another $15 million for foreign distribution rights. And just as they were wrapping up that little scheme, Salkind was arrested in Switzerland by Interpol, for a different but related crime.
Now, I’ve been writing a lot about the Salkinds and their bumbling financial crime syndicate, and people have asked me, “So what ultimately happened to them? Did they get caught? Did they get punished?” There’s no real mystery, so I might as well answer those questions now.
What happened to the Salkinds?
Nothing. They kept on making movies for another fifteen years, which got smaller and less successful until everyone got tired of them. Their last production was the 1992 movie Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, which was astonishingly badly-reviewed.
Did they get caught?
Yes, ceaselessly. Their production company folded in 1993, when Alexander’s son, Ilya, filed suit against his father for fraud and racketeering.
Did they get punished?
Nope. People like this never go to prison. They’re just forces of chaos, whirling through the world like Tasmanian Devils. They pick you up and spin you around, and then they go on their way, leaving you exhausted and confused, and with a different amount of money in your pocket. There’s no way to predict how much money you’ll have at the end of it, but it’s a different amount than when you started.
So here we are in mid-November, less than a month before the premiere of Superman: The Movie, and Alexander Salkind is being led away by Interpol agents. It’s a bit tricky for me to explain this incident, because it’s a typical Salkind story, which means it goes back for several years, it involves several different companies, and everybody involved is lying.
The story starts with a German theater magnate named William Forman, who owned several chains of movie theaters in the 1970s, including Cinerama and Olympic Kinobetriebs.
In 1973, Salkind somehow hooked up with a couple of Forman’s employees — Dieter von Stein, managing director of the company, and the financial director, Walter Strohmenger — and they misappropriated funds from Forman’s companies, to use as credit to fund some of Salkind’s ventures. They executed promissory notes and sold company assets to pay for this scheme, which went on for two years, by which time they’d taken the equivalent of $20 million in German marks. Salkind used the money to make a series of movies — Bluebeard, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, and The Prince and the Pauper — and he also paid for the movie rights for Superman.
In 1975, Forman found out about this strange arrangement, and filed a civil lawsuit against Salkind, with affadavits from Strohmenger and von Stein, confessing to their crimes.
Salkind settled the lawsuit, promising Forman 25% of his share in Superman, which was just going into production. He didn’t miss it, because he was selling shares of his interest in Superman to lots of people. He knew that the shares were based on profits after the movie release, and that was years away — by that time, he’d figure out how to pay everybody what they thought he owed them. If you’ve seen the movie The Producers, then that is exactly what Alexander Salkind did, but he did it in real life, and in a more confusing way.
But Forman really was counting on that money, especially after Cinerama declared bankruptcy in 1977.
Now, Alexander Salkind’s usual technique for evading the law was to not pay any of his debts until someone threatened to have him arrested, and then he would cut a deal with them and give them some cash. That’s why he had to get $15 million out of Warner Bros. all of a sudden, so that he could pay somebody and not get into trouble.
But a week later, he got arrested in Switzerland anyway, which makes me think that there was somebody scarier than William Forman out there. Somebody else got the $15 million, so Forman reported Salkind to Interpol, using Strohmenger and von Stein’s confessions, and got all three of them locked up for embezzlement.
I don’t know what happened to Strohmenger and von Stein, except that they spent several weeks in jail in Munich, before passing out of my field of view.
But Salkind was able to get out of prison because he was the Costa Rican cultural attache to Switzerland, and he claimed diplomatic immunity.
I’m going to give you a moment to reflect on that.
Alexander Salkind was not from Costa Rica. He wasn’t really “from” anywhere, but Costa Rica wasn’t even one of the places that he wasn’t from.
Salkind obtained his diplomatic privileges years before, thanks to former Costa Rican president Jose Figueres, who had a soft spot for shady foreign businessmen accused of embezzling funds and looking for offshore investment opportunities. The Los Angeles Times said that Salkind had a “long association with Costa Rican officials,” so who even knows how crazy that story is.
Later, when the LA Times asked Salkind about his duties as a cultural attache, he explained, “We made an exhibition of Costa Rican paintings, and all that.” Then he paused, and added, “Talk about me as a producer, not as a diplomat, because that is what I’m more interested in.” Yeah, I’ll bet.
So Alexander Salkind diplomatically excused himself from prison, and immediately hired a private jet to take him to Mexico. One of his many eccentricities was that he was terrified of flying, so he usually traveled across the Atlantic by ship. But sometimes, you really need to leave Europe in a hurry, so he put himself under heavy sedation and got through the flight.
And that’s why Salkind didn’t come to the Superman premieres in D.C. or London, missing the opportunity to bask in his greatest success, because he was hiding from the law in Mexico.
The criminal charges were dropped not long after, because Forman refused to appear as a witness for the Munich prosecutors. It seems like he just used criminal charges as a way of clearing his throat, and now he had Salkind’s attention.
Instead, Forman filed a civil lawsuit against Salkind and Warner Bros., charging fraud and breach of contract over his share of the Superman profits.
The way I understand this part of the story, William Forman called up Warner Bros. and said, hello, I own 25% of Alexander Salkind’s profits from Superman, and I would like my millions of dollars, please. And then Warner Bros. said that they had no idea who he was, and this was not their problem. Also, the movie wasn’t even out yet.
So Forman filed the lawsuit on December 11th, suing Warners, Salkind and a bunch of Salkind’s make-believe shell companies, asking for minimum damages of $60 million.
In my opinion, the nuttiest thing about this story is that on December 20th, Variety published a story called “Salkind, From Swiss Clinic, Denies Forman Charges.”
The article says that Alexander and Ilya “deny with sorrow and anger all the accusations made by William Forman.” It goes on to say, “The elder Salkind, who said he was speaking from a Swiss clinic where he was recuperating from unspecified ailments, stated that his attorneys are preparing a legal response.”
Salkind was not speaking from a Swiss clinic. This was ten days after the Superman premiere; he’d been in Mexico for weeks. But he decided to tell Variety that he was calling from a clinic in Switzerland, in order to confuse people. That is how Alexander Salkind conducted himself, during the time that he was with us on this earth.
They finally fixed it all up, don’t worry about that. The scariest thing about the lawsuit was that Forman was asking for a full accounting of Salkind’s expenses and assets, which if Salkind wasn’t already recuperating from an imaginary unspecified ailment would have put him right back in the imaginary hospital.
So Salkind settled with Forman, for $23.5 million dollars. Now, go ahead and ask me how much Forman actually got paid. The answer to that question is that I don’t know.
But that was Alexander Salkind’s way of interacting with the world; lawsuits were his native language. Once the movie was out and earning money, a whole bunch of people started suing the Salkinds, including Mario Puzo, Marlon Brando and Richard Donner.
In fact, in March 1979, the Salkinds even sued Christopher Reeve, claiming that he’d walked out on the Superman II shoot, which hadn’t started yet. But that’s another story, for another movie.
Things look bad for Tinytown in
1.98: That Dam Scene
— Danny Horn