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Christopher Reeve, Superman: How The Role Nobody Could Play Went To A Nobody

Icons | September 25, 2020

Source: IMDB

Few casting choices can touch Christopher Reeve as Superman in the 1978 film of the same name. Could the DC Comics blockbuster have succeeded with Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, James Caan, Bruce Jenner or Neil Diamond playing Clark Kent's alter ego? Fortunately we will never have to watch any of those guys fly around in blue-and-red tights. It's a cliche to say an actor was born to play a role, yet it's hard to imagine anyone else as Superman, and it's hard to look at pictures of the late actor and not see the Kryptonian hero. But getting to Reeve wasn't easy -- in fact, the search for Superman was a long and painful process that saw the producers consider just about every actor in Hollywood.

Producers Felt It Was Crucial To Have A Big Star Play Superman

Ned Beatty, Reeve, and Gene Hackman (as Lex Luthor) in 'Superman.' Source: IMDB

A box-office smash, Superman (also billed as Superman: The Movie) solved the riddle of how to make a serious superhero movie. The previous big comic-book success was the campy Batman TV show from the '60s -- could stories of beloved comic book heroes ever make the big screen in a way that wasn't ironic if not outright comical? Today, with our film industry dominated by Marvel and DC heroes, the question is ludicrous, but in the early '70s a big-budget superhero movie was considered a risk.

The most common way Hollywood hedges against risk is by using known quantities that will put butts in seats -- in other words, if Superman had any hope of succeeding, it needed a big star in the title role. The 1978 film did feature some big stars, notably Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. But the quest to fill the iconic title role was a grueling task for director Richard Donner and co-producer Ilya Salkind.

The Search For Superman Took Two Exhausting Years 

Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Superman. Source: IMDB

When trying to find their Superman, the crew was looking for someone extremely specific; someone who would not only resemble a muscleman hero with rock hard abs and a robust physique, but someone who could sincerely act. Initially, they wanted to use a celebrity actor to prove that the movie was more than just a comic book brought to life. This goal seemed easily attainable since Superman had the highest budget up until that time -- $55 million. However, the money did not make the hunt any easier as the search for the lead role lasted from early 1975 to 1977, one month before they began filming.

Redford? No. Eastwood? No. McQueen? Nope. Caan? Nah. Stallone? Come On...

Robert Redford in 'The Candidate' (1972). Source: IMDB

The producers' first choice to play Superman was A-list actor Robert Redford, who was exceedingly popular throughout the world. Although his blonde hair, blue-eyed look wasn’t exactly “Superman,” the crew believed some makeup could create the superhero appearance. However, Redford was quite skeptical since the script wasn’t quite finished so he turned down the role. Salkind then decided to hire one of Hollywood’s top talent agents Lynn Stalmaster to help fulfill the role. With Stalmaster’s suggestions, they offered three different roles to famous actor Paul Newman (Superman, Lex Luthor, or Jor-El), but he still refused even with the $4 million proposal. They also attempted Jon Voight and believed he would make a decent backup choice so they signed an agreement that if they could not find anyone else, Voight would fill the void. Two hundred actors, athletes, weightlifters, and unknowns were considered for the role, but still no one could convince Salkind. Steve McQueen was a bit overweight, Clint Eastwood was already working on too many projects, Sylvester Stallone was too Italian and would be rejected by Marlon Brando (see below), Burt Reynolds’ iconic moustache didn’t make sense, and James Caan, who claims he was offered the role, thought the suit was too silly.

Marlon Brando Gave The Film Legitimacy

By summer of 1976, Donner and Salkind decided to change up their methods because filming was right around the corner. Instead of casting a famous actor as Superman, they decided it would be more effective to fill the supportive role of Jor-El, Superman’s father, with a superstar. That’s when they offered Marlon Brando the highest film salary ever at that time, $4 million, which Brando believed was too good to turn down. With Brando, considered the greatest actor of his generation, on the team, Superman was set to be real movie, if not a blockbuster.

They Had High Hopes For Decathlete Bruce Jenner

While morale was high with the Brando now in the film, the exhausting search for the main character continued. After watching the 1976 Olympics, Salkind was impressed with Bruce Jenner, today known as Caitlyn Jenner, who was taking home numerous gold medals for his track skills. They tried out the Olympic athlete, but were dissatisfied with his lack of acting talent. Austrian muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger and famed singer/songwriter Neil Diamond both desperately sought the role, but were both turned down because their talents were elsewhere than acting. That’s when Salkind decided they needed someone unknown to become their superhero.

Even Salkind's Wife's Dentist Got A Screen Test

Dentist Don Voyne's screen test. Source: Twitter

Feeling discouraged from their lack of success, Salkind flipped through the Academy Players Directory and found a photograph of 24-year-old Christopher Reeve whose background did not include any major experience, but many roles in theater and television. Reeve had previously been suggested by Stalmaster, so Salkind invited him to meet with Donner and himself. Reeve was handsome and talented, but Donner (who still wanted to use a famous actor) was wary of his young and lanky stature so no hasty decisions were made yet. The frantic search persisted and soon they were eight weeks away from the starting date. In desperation, they even called in Don Voyne, a handsome Beverly Hills dentist, on the recommendation of Salkind’s wife.

Christopher Reeve Saves The Day As Superman

A pre-Superman Christopher Reeve on the soap opera 'Love of Life.' Source: IMDB

Eventually, Salkind convinced Donner to bring Reeve back for a screen test. Reeve’s performance during the screen test completely astonished the entire crew, including Donner, with his fulfillment of the regular-guy Clark Kent with glasses and slick hair and his transformation into Superman. Reeve no longer seemed too skinny or young, but instead looked exactly like a superhero would appear if one ever existed.

Source: Pinterest

Mesmerized by what they witnessed in the screen test, producers chose Reeve to be the film’s Superman without any hesitation. They suggested he wear a bodysuit, but Reeve wanted his character to be authentic, so he trained with former bodybuilder David Prowse (better known as the man in the Darth Vader suit in Star Wars). The 188-pound Reeve packed on enough muscle to bring him to a shooting weight of 212 pounds. The film was a success and set a high bar for superhero movies -- in fact, it would be over a decade before a superhero movie would be so successful (Tim Burton's Batman, 1989). Reeve’s breakthrough performance in Superman carried him through three sequels, and he eventually starred in other films throughout the next couple of decades.

Tags: Cast Lists From Popular Movies | Marlon Brando | Movies In The 1970s | Superheroes | Superman

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.