In the mid-1970s a young Richard Donner fresh from directing the The Omen box office hit was hired by Alexander and Ilya Salkind to direct a big screen version of Superman. (The Salkinds spoke to an unknown Steven Spielberg at some point to direct it, but he was busy with some big fish story.)

The Salkinds who had a big hit a few years back with a high octane comedic version of Alexander Dumas’ over-familiar Three Musketeers novel boasting an all-star cast didn’t have a particularly fondness or affinity for the Superman character. They just smelled big bucks and somehow managed to sign two of the era’s biggest Hollywood stars, namely Marlon Brando (and no, we’re not just talking girth here Brando had yet to balloon into the human Zeppelin he would become towards the end of his career) and Gene Hackman. Brando would be Jor-El, Superman’s Kryptonian father and Hackman would be Lex Luthor, Superman’s bald arch-nemesis.

The Salkinds’ lack of understanding for the character showed in the list of big name stars they seriously considered for the role of Superman, anyone from Robert Redford and Paul Newman to Elton John! Unafraid to spend money to make Superman an event movie and not just a cheap B-flick, they got then-hot author Mario Puzo to do the screenplay. Puzo (who wrote the Godfather novel on which the much-superior movies were based on) didn’t understand the character either, and wrote it as high camp. One scene for instance had Superman searching for Luthor and then stopping a bald guy who turns out to be Telly Savalas, then a superstar for appearing in the popular Kojak TV show in a cameo, as himself!

"Anyone from Robert Redford and Paul Newman to Elton John were considered for the role of Superman . . ."

Donner did however understand the character and instinctively knew that avoiding the self-aware camp of the 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West was the best route to take. Instead the film would buy into the iconic lead character’s mythos. Sure, there’d be humour but it’d be all played straight and central to the movie’s success the story would be investing in the love story between Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane. If audiences believed in them as characters, then they’d also believe that a man can fly . . .

Lucky enough to come across the perfect Superman, namely the then-unknown Christopher Reeve and rewriting the screenplay, Donner redefined the modern superhero movie and made a beloved classic in the process.

However, the initial plan was to turn the huge sprawling screenplay (the product of several rewrites by a small army of writers and “creative consultants”) into two separate movies that would be filmed at the same time. The idea was novel at the time it was only later when it would become a more common practice with the likes of Back to the Future II and III, the last two Matrix movies and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But making a man fly involved developing some difficult special effects work and the production schedule was pretty tight and punishing to start with. So with a release date looming for the first Superman movie, it was decided to finish that movie first and then finish the sequel later. So with only about 70% of Superman II in the can, Donner focused on getting Superman - the Movie done first.

When Superman – the Movie became 1979’s second highest biggest box office hit (clocking in at a box office take of $82 million, it lost out to Grease for the number one spot), it was only a given that Superman II would be finished. There was only one problem: the Salkinds had fired Donner . . .


Next: "The producers also felt that they didn’t need Marlon Brando anymore either, which would have meant paying the actor more money . . ."




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