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‘Superman,’ The Inside Story: Director Richard Donner Remembers Meeting Stallone to Play the Lead, Working With Brando, and a Near-Fatal Knife Attack

The famed director reveals how Marlon Brando wanted to play Jor-El as a "bagel," fights with his producer and how he discovered Christopher Reeve for the first-ever big-budget superhero movie.

Fanboys and critics alike are arguing over how director Zack Snyder has portrayed Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel and the new Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But when director Richard Donner brought the superhero to the big screen in 1978’s Superman, there were no such debates. The movie promised, “You will believe a man can fly,” and audiences bought it enthusiastically. The film grossed $300 million worldwide — the equivalent of $1.09 billion today — and it still boasts a 93 percent approval rating on RottenTomatoes.com.

But the story behind the making of the movie is almost as dramatic as what appeared onscreen. As Donner tells it, he was sitting on his toilet, riding high from the success of 1976’s The Omen, when the phone rang and Alexander Salkind introduced himself. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. Donner had never heard of him.

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Salkind was the producer of 1973’s The Three Musketeers. He was also reported to have taken unused footage from that film and turned it into a sequel, 1974’s The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge, prompting the Screen Actors Guild to introduce “the Salkind Clause,” forbidding any filmmaker to divide a film into two installments without contractual permission.

Now he told Donner that he was months away from shooting Superman but had lost his original director, Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger). He wanted to offer Donner the job, along with a massive $1 million fee.

Salkind had already signed up Marlon Brando as Superman’s dad, Jor-El, and Gene Hackman as the villain Lex Luthor — the latter for a reported $2 million, the former for almost $4 million. He also had a hefty 500-page script in place, which covered one picture and a sequel, both to be shot back-to-back. But the clock was ticking, and he needed an answer.

Here Donner, the famed director of films such as Lethal Weapon and The Goonies, picks up the story, as he told it to Stephen Galloway March 29 in his Beverly Hills office.

I was hot. It was just a high point in my life, because I had done a lot of TV and then The Omen. I was getting a lot of calls and I had no idea where I was going. And then I got this call from Alexander Salkind.

He said, “Do you know who I am?” and I said, “No. Why are you calling me?” He said, “I’ll get to that. I’m a producer. Did you ever see The Three Musketeers?” I said I did see it, and he said “I produced that.” And I said, “The way I hear it, they tried to release a second picture without paying the actors.” He said, “Well, that’s a long story. I’m making Superman. I don’t have a director and I’ll pay you a million dollars.”

A million dollars! That was like saying, “I’ll give you all the tea in China.” I said, “Oh. How many pictures is it?” He said, ”Two. I have Marlon Brando for X number of weeks and I have Gene Hackman, and we start shooting on such and such date.” I said, “Whoa, that’s close.” He said, “But we’re all prepared. We’re ready to go.” I said, “What’s your script like?” He said, “Perfect.”

There was a delivery guy at my door within an hour, with this script that was so thick and big you’d get a hernia from lifting it. And there were other things with [the package], and one of them was the Superman costume. So I sat down and read the script, and it took forever. It was the longest thing I have ever read. It was indulgent and heavy and had no point of view and treated [the comic books] with disrespect.

It was disparaging. It was just gratuitous action. I’m reading this thing and Superman’s looking for Lex Luthor in Metropolis, and he’s looking for every bald head in the city. And then he flies down and taps a guy on the shoulder and it‘s [Kojak’s] Telly Savalas, who hands him a lollipop and says, “Who loves ya, baby?”

I was brought up on Superman as a kid. There was a whole point in my life where I read Superman. So when I was finished with it, I was like, “Man, if they make this movie, they are destroying the legend of Superman.” I wanted to do it just to defend him. 

I called [writer] Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a friend for years. He said, “I don’t want to get involved. I don’t want to do a comic book.” I said, “Tom, it’s more than a comic book. Please come over.”

I got a little stoned, smoked some weed, put on the Superman costume. I was in pretty good shape then. It was like elastic. And Tom pulled up, and I ran across the lawn and Tom turned and looked at me and ran back to his car.

Tom says, “You’re crazy. Get the f— away from me!” I said, “Tom, listen. You’ve got to read this.” I gave him all my feelings about what we should do. I said, “The most important thing when you look at it is this: Make a love story. And prove a man can fly.” So he read it and he called me that night and said, “You know, there’s a lot we can do with this.”

The next thing, they were flying me to Paris [with Donner’s agent Steve Roth] to meet with Mr. Salkind.

Salkind lived in a hotel in Paris. Now, he [had a diplomatic passport] from Costa Rica, even though [he wasn’t] from Costa Rica. I thought, “What am I dealing with?” We went to his hotel. We met in his bedroom, because he had a cold. We sat down. He never got out of bed.

The first thing I said was, “Mr. Salkind, this needs a major rewrite.” He said, “No, no, no, this is a perfect script.” I said, “It’s not a perfect script.” So I started telling him all my feelings and he said, “You’re wrong.” I said, “Thank you for the trip to Paris, but I can’t do this.” And we started leaving. He said, “OK, tell me what you would rewrite.”

Then we had some money arguments and Steve and I walked out, went back to our hotel. Anyway, we get back to the hotel, and they’re on the phone, and they say, “OK, we agree.”

We were running late for the plane, and Mr. Salkind said, “I’ll have my driver take you.” We got into this big Citroen sedan, and the driver was [French President] Charles de Gaulle’s driver! He made it all the way from the Ritz to the airport in, like, 11 minutes.

[Soon after, Donner and Mankiewicz] were on a plane to London. And the next day we drove out to Pinewood, where they had the Superman offices, and met with their production team. And they laid out all their preproduction.

They had filmed some flying tests, and I looked at them and said: “This is terrible.” The flying was like bad television, like lying on a board on a process screen. The stuff they had was corny. I said: “You guys don’t understand. You’ve made a farce out of this.” So I called the Salkinds [Alexander and his son, Ilya] and said, “Listen, maybe this isn’t going to work. We have to start from scratch.” [They said:] “No, no, everything you have is perfect.”

All they cared about was what things cost. So we had to start literally from scratch. I threw everything out, and we had seven units shooting at the same time. I had the main unit broken down into stuff to shoot with [Superman], stuff to shoot with the heavies, the Brando setups. We had a flying unit [headed by veteran director] Andre De Toth. I had a miniature unit building dams, a miniature unit that was doing Krypton.

Tom was with me every second in London. Every morning my driver picked him up — I had a driver under contract, seven days a week, 24 hours, whenever I needed him. Every day, I had them pick up Tom, then we would drive to Pinewood or Shepperton. We shot at both.

We had a great casting director [Lynn Stalmaster]. He would put many, many people together. But the Salkinds wanted a name. I met with Sylvester Stallone because of them. I tried to be nice and say, “This is wrong.” I liked Stallone; he turned out to be a nice guy. He wanted to do it. I remember meeting him in his manager’s office and I was as cordial as I could be. He was a big star and I’m some punk kid.

A lot of actors wanted to do it. They gave me a list of all these names and I said, “Listen. Your flying stuff is shit, and I have to create a man who flies. Even if you saw Paul Newman or Robert Redford in that costume, no one is going to believe them.” I fought for an unknown.

Anyway, one of the actors comes in and it’s this kid, Chris Reeve. He walks in; he’s got this great big sweater on, blondish hair. I said, “What’s under the sweater?” And he says, “Well …” He has this thick sweater on and he’s this skinny kid. I said, “Problem quite honestly, buster, is I got to get a guy that is bulk, that looks like a muscle zoo.” He said, “Listen, I was a jock in school and when I went into acting I lost 50 pounds.” I said, “I don’t believe you — you’re an actor.” He says, “No, I did. I swear to you.”

I went down to see him in a play that night. It was some off-Broadway thing. He played two roles, as a son and a grandfather. And I kind of hired him on faith.

I had to go back to London, and I flew Chris back, which was so far from his life. When he told his father, who was a professor at Princeton, that he was doing Superman, his father said, “Man and Superman?” [George Bernard Shaw’s play]. That’s the world Chris came from. He came over, we did this test in costume, the one I had in L.A. He was just wonderful as Clark Kent and as Superman. He really got the idea of a terribly pained individual living a dual life.

He did the screen test with an actress in London, scenes with him as both Superman and Clark Kent. And when it was over, I told them I found my man.

I’d seen Margot Kidder [who played Lois Lane] in a TV series called Nichols. She was charming and very funny. When I met her in the casting office, she tripped coming in and I just fell in love with her. It was perfect, this clumsy [behavior]. She was one of the few [actresses] we flew to London to test with Chris. Anne Archer [also tested]. But they were magic together.

Let me tell you a funny thing about Margot. When we were shooting, her makeup man comes to me and says: “We have a little problem. Margot scratched her eye putting her contacts in.” I said, “Do it without your contacts.” That day she was wonderful, because she was wide-eyed, with no depth perception. She walked into a desk — and she was the girl I wanted her to be. She said, “But I can’t see!” There was a law after that: Every morning people had to come to me and make sure she didn’t have her contacts in, and that she would act without her contacts. It just made her wonderful.

Brando lived in L.A. and I had to go and meet him. I called Jay Kanter, who was a very powerful agent and studio executive, and I said, “Can you give me any hints?” And he said, “He’s going to want to play it like a green suitcase.” I said, “What does that mean?” “It means he hates to work and he loves money, so if he can talk you into the fact that the people on Krypton look like green suitcases and you only photograph green suitcases, he’ll get paid just to do the voiceover. That’s the way his mind works.“ I said, “F—,” and then I called Francis Coppola. He said, “He’s brilliant. He’s got a brilliant mind. But he loves to talk. Keep him talking, and he’ll talk himself out of any problem.”

So I go to California and I meet Marlon F—ing Brando at his house on Mulholland Drive. Myself, Tom Mankiewicz and Ilya Salkind. He and Jack Nicholson had a little compound. We rang the gate and a couple of German shepherds came down, and there’s Marlon Brando. And it was hard to talk, because this is Marlon Brando! He invites us in and we go into his house for a drink; it was late in the afternoon and we sat down and we started to talk, and we talked and talked. Finally, it was getting dark and he said: “But listen, that’s not why you’re here. You’re here to talk to me about [the role].”

He said, “Why don’t I play this like a bagel?” I was ready for him to say “a green suitcase” and he said “bagel.” He said, “How do we know what the people on Krypton looked like?” He had good logic. He said, “Maybe they looked like bagels up there in those days?” I said, “Jeez, Marlon, let me tell you something.” He’d just told us the story about a kid [and how smart he was] and I said, “It’s 1939. There isn’t a kid in the world that doesn’t know what Jor-El looks like, and he looks like Marlon Brando.” And he looked at me and smiled [and said], “I talk too much, don’t I?” He said, “OK. Show me the wardrobe.”

He and Chris did not meet at the beginning. But they did have a scene, because I remember how nervous Chris was, working with Brando. But Brando was nice to him. He was nice to everybody. They had dinner; he was Chris’ hero. He was a doll. He was totally present, on time. Not difficult, [though] we had to put his dialogue on other actors’ chests. He would say, “I don’t want to read it like I’ve read it before a bunch of times. The first time I read it, it’ll be honest.” He made it work. He was the ultimate. He was Marlon Brando. He was Marlon F—ing Brando.

He saved Tom Mankiewicz’s life, probably. We were having dinner with Mr. Brando, eating steaks,  and there was this woman in our party and all of a sudden, she started yelling at Tom, that he didn’t know what he was doing. She grabbed a knife [from] the plate and goes to stab Tom. Marlon reached over and grabbed her and the knife and calmed her down. It was a steak knife and, God forbid, it could have very easily been a tragedy. It was nuts.

Every day for eight months, we’d run these tests of flying and look at dailies. A wonderful man came into our life, Zoran Perisic. In those days, a front projection unit was massive and weighed about a ton. And he had invented a front projection unit that weighed 35 or 40 pounds. It had a zoom on the projector and on the lens that was photographing all parts of this. So you could zoom and move. The camera was flexible. He came to me and we ran all these tests and I said, “This is f—ing great!” So I went to Salkind and said, “I want to do this,” and they wouldn’t pay the $25,000 for him to finish developing it. So Warners put it up. And the day we saw [Superman truly seem to] fly for the first time, there was dead silence. A couple of guys that ran the flying unit were crying, because it was so good.

We were traveling all over. We shot in New York. We shot in Calgary, Canada — which is where Smallville USA was. We had to go there eight months in advance to find the farm where Ma and Pa Kent live and plant rye, so that when we shot, it would be great flowing fields of wheat.

Everything went wrong. I mean, we were shooting in Calgary for all that exterior work, and we researched and researched, and it never rains in the summer in Calgary. It rained every day.

[During the shoot] I had a bunch of these handheld radios in my golf cart and I would get a call from production and they would say, “Get over to stage blah blah. They’re doing the tests. We’re ready to shoot.” I’d go over there and go back and shoot the principals, and then get a new setup that would take hours, because it was so vast.

The biggest problem I had was really with the producers, because instead of helping me, they were hurting me. The thing [with the Salkinds] was always about money. They’d say, “You can’t do this,” but I would have no alternative and they wouldn’t show me the budget. They never ever told me what the budget was. I had no idea what I was spending. I was making a movie and they wouldn’t tell me the budget. So there was no way I knew what I was spending. Sometimes I’d authorize something and nothing would be there; they would just arbitrarily cancel it. They didn’t want anyone to know where that money went, I guess.

They kept saying, “You’re going over budget.” And I would say, “How am I going over budget if I don’t know what the budget is?” It got to the point where I just told them: “Don’t come on to set. You’re counterproductive.” And it became us against them. They were against the quality of the movie.

We couldn’t find an ending. We talked and talked and finally we stole it from Superman II and figured when we finished that, we would have come up with a new ending.

I finally got a cut, and we were going to take the work print to Los Angeles and have a screening at the studio, because we were editing in London. It was all arranged, and [editor] Stuart Baird and I flew to L.A., and when we get there, I get a call from [Warner Bros. executive] John Calley, who says: “We’ve got a big problem. The Salkinds won’t release the work print because they say we’re trying to steal it.” And I say, “We can’t steal it. They have the negative there.” He said, “Well, they’re claiming that we can make a negative off the work print.” I said, “No, you can’t. That’s physically impossible.”

The negative had to be shipped to L.A. and [Warners had to pay the Salkinds] all this money [to do so]. The negative had to be cut, timed, printed. So [there was no time to hold] test screenings. Not one. I saw it at the lab, no audience, without sound. The second one I saw with sound.

I didn’t know what I had until I saw it with an audience at the premiere. They loved it. I couldn’t believe it. It was thrilling.

[Donner was about to go to London to film what remained of Superman II.] I had almost bought a little Chevy van; I was going to ship it to England because it was big enough that I could have a desk in it and the chairs would recline. Then I get a call from my agent, who said: “I just received a telegram from the Salkinds. You are no longer needed.” That was it.