Facts You Never Knew About Superman (1978)

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Surprising Facts About Christopher Reeve's Superman

Title card for Superman (1978)
Superman (1978). Warner Bros Pictures

Think you know everything about the first Superman movie? Think again.

The most recent Superman movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice came out in 2016, but it's still a great time to look back at the first full-length theatrical film based on Superman.

Here are 10 facts you probably didn't know about Superman (1978).

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Reeve Was Almost Too Skinny to Play Superman

Publicity still of Christopher Reeve as Superman
Superman (Christopher Reeve). Warner Bros

Casting director Lynn Stalmaster suggested Christopher Reeve play Superman but director Richard Donner and the producers Salkinds felt he was too young and skinny. But the Julliard-trained actor blew them away on his screen text.

After getting the part, Reeve went on a grueling bodybuilding session for months. He went from 170 pounds to 212 before filming.

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Brando Had a Cue Card Hidden in a Diaper

Still from Superman: The Movie (1978)
Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Kal-El (Lee Quigley) in Superman: The Movie (1978). Warner Bros Pictures

Marlon Brando refused to memorize most of his lines in advance. Some felt it was from laziness. But, early in his career, he felt memorizing lines took away from the actor's performance.

“If you don't know what the words are but you have a general idea of what they are, then you look at the cue card and it gives you the feeling to the viewer, hopefully, that the person is really searching for what he is going to say—that he doesn't know what to say,” Brando said for the documentary ​The Making Of Superman The Movie .  

Instead, he had cue cards hidden on the set. For example, in the scene where he puts baby Kal-El into the escape pod, he was reading his lines from the baby's diaper.

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Non Almost Punched Out Superman

Still of Non in Superman: The Movie
Non (Jack O'Halloran) in Superman: The Movie (1978). Warner Bros Pictures

Actor Jack O’Halloran, who played the mute brute Non, says he almost got in a fight with Christopher Reeve behind the scenes.

O’Halloran, who’s father was a well-known organized crime boss, heard a rumor that Reeve was talking about his family behind his back. When O’Halloran confronted him they almost came to blows. Donner stopped him yelling, “Please, not in the face, Jack, not in the face!” O'Halloran was laughing so hard he dropped Reeve and the fight ended.

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Superman Saved The New York Daily News

Still from Superman: The Movie
Cover of Daily News from Superman (1978). Warner Bros Pictures

The studio was filming the scenes in Metropolis in New York during the 1977 Blackout. The New York Daily News was able to get out the morning newspaper out because the production loaned them their generator-powered klieg lights.

The blackout happened after cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth plugged a spotlight into a lampost and he felt responsible. It was a coincidence.

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Reeve Trained With Darth Vader

Still of David Prowse from Champions
David Prowse from 1968 TV series The Champions. ITV

Reeve was trained by British bodybuilder David Prowse. Prowse tried out for the role of Superman but was turned down because he wasn't American.

He later went on to play Darth Vader on the set of the Star Wars films.

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There Was Almost a Musical Number in Superman

Still from Superman (1978)
Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and Superman (Christopher Reeve) in Superman (1978). Warner Bros Pictures

Would you believe there's a singing number in the middle of the film? When Donner was developing the film Leslie Bricusse wrote the song "Can You Read My Mind?" for the scene where Superman takes Lois Lane flying and it was sung by Maureen McGovern. It seemed OK but Margot Kidder kept telling the director "I can sing! I can sing!"

So they took her in the studio and she sang it against the cut of the film. "It wasn’t bad, but it was an actress singing a song instead of a great singer," Donner later said, "So I said, ‘How about talking it through​ like you’re talking to yourself?’ She did it, and it was the best of all three, and that’s what’s in the movie. Plus, it came from her heart." 

They later released the single "Can You Read My Mind?" sung by McGovern and it became a mid-chart hit on the Billboard Hot 100 that year.

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A Director Pulled a Gun on the Producers

Photo of Sam Peckinpah
Sam Peckinpah.

Several high-profile directors were considered before Richard Donner including Steven Spielberg and Sam Peckinpah. Alex Salkind felt that Spielberg was asking for too much money and decided to wait and see how his next film Jaws did. Producer Alexander Salkind said they should wait and see how "this fish movie turned out." It was a hit and Spielberg's price went up.

According to the book Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero when they approached Peckinpah he pulled a gun during the meeting and said, "You gotta shut up kid. What do you know about making movies?" They decided to get another director after that. They went with Richard Donner.

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Superman Almost Had a Cameo by Kojak

Publicity still of Kojak
Kojak (Telly Savalas). Universal Television

The original script for Superman: The Movie was written by Mario Puzo, who also wrote The Godfather, and given to director Richard Donner for consideration. He immediately decided to rewrite it.

It was written as a comedy and included a cameo of famous bald detective Telly Savalas meeting Superman and saying his catchphrase, "Who loves you, baby?"

 "It was a parody of a parody. They were destroying Superman," Donner said. He took the job on the condition he could rewrite the script with his friend Tom Mankiewicz.

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Brando Didn't Come up With Superman Logo

Publicity still of Marlon Brando on Superman: The Movie
Jor-El (Marlon Brando) in Superman (1978). Warner Bros Pictures

While most believe it was Marlon Brando's idea to put Superman's logo on Jor-El's chest it was actually screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz who came up with it.

Richard Donner insisted on grounding Superman in reality and they needed to figure out why he would have the "S" on his chest. "So we decided to give everyone [on Krypton] a family crest with a different letter, which didn't really exist in the comic books," Mankiewicz remembered in the book Comic Book Movies.

Since then the idea that the symbol is a family crest was incorporated into the comics and the reboot film Man of Steel.

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Reeve's Flying Training Helped Him

Publicity still of Christopher Reeve flying in Superman: The Movie
Superman (Christopher Reeve) in Superman: The Movie. Warner Bros Pictures

Christopher Reeve was a trained pilot and used that experience to make the flying scenes more realistic. "I thought it would be fun to mix acting and airplanes," Reeve said during his press tour for The Aviator, "Flying is something that comes naturally to me; it certainly helped me with Superman." 

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Brando Wanted to Play a Bagel

Publicity still of Richard Donner and Marlon Brando
Richard Donner and Marlon Brando on the set of Superman: The Movie. Warner Bros Pictures

It's hard to imagine Kryptonians looking different from the humans. Marlon Brando had another idea. Brando's agent told Donner that he was probably going to suggest playing Superman's father Jor-El as a green suitcase. That way he could stay home and do voice-over work. Donner was ready for it. Or so he thought.

When the director and producer met with Brando in his home he suggested that Kryptonians should look very different from humans. He said, "who knows what the people from Krypton look like?" He suggested that they might look like a green bagel. 

Brando gave a long speech and then asked what they thought. "Marlon, I think that people want to see Marlon Brando playing Jor-El," Donner said thoughtfully, "They don't want to see a green bagel." They showed him pictures of Jor-El from the comics and Brando agreed to do the performance their way.

Those are the wild, funny and strangest facts about Superman: The Movie. The next time you watch it imagine a singing Lois Lane and a green bagel instead of Brando.

About Superman (1978)

  • Synopsis: "Follow the Man of Steel's story from Krypton to Smallville to his life in Metropolis and his alter-ego, mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. Both Superman and Clark Kent must contend with the brilliant villain Lex Luthor and the tenacious, often-in-danger reporter Lois Lane."
  • Release Date: Dec 15, 1978
  • Directed by Richard Donner
  • Starring: Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder

Official Site: http://www2.warnerbros.com/superman/home.html