In the past four decades, there have been several Superman film and television projects, but perhaps none is as fondly remembered as Richard Donner’s 1978 movie starring Christopher Reeve as the caped superhero.
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It was initially decided to first sign an A-list actor for Superman before Richard Donner was hired as director. Robert Redford was offered a large sum, but felt he was too famous. Burt Reynolds also turned down the role, while Sylvester Stallone was interested, but nothing ever came of it. Paul Newman was offered his choice of roles as Superman, Lex Luthor or Jor-El for $4 million, turning down all three roles.
When it was next decided to cast an unknown actor, casting director Lynn Stalmaster first suggested Christopher Reeve, but Donner and the producers felt he was too young and skinny. Over 200 unknown actors auditioned for Superman.
Olympic champion Bruce Jenner auditioned for the title role. Patrick Wayne was cast, but dropped out when his father John Wayne was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Both Neil Diamond and Arnold Schwarzenegger lobbied hard for the role, but were ignored. James Caan, James Brolin, Lyle Waggoner, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight, and Perry King were approached. Kris Kristofferson and Charles Bronson were also considered for the title role.
“We found guys with fabulous physique who couldn’t act or wonderful actors who did not look remotely like Superman,” creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz remembered. The search became so desperate that producer Ilya Salkind’s wife’s dentist was screen tested.
Stalmaster convinced Donner and Ilya to have Reeve screen test in February 1977. Reeve stunned the director and producers, but he was told to wear a “muscle suit” to produce the desired muscular physique. Reeve refused,undertaking a strict physical exercise regime headed by David Prowse. Prowse had wanted to portray Superman, but was denied an audition by the filmmakers because he was not American. Prowse also auditioned for Non. Reeve went from 188 to 212 pounds during pre-production and filming.
Reeve was paid a mere $250,000 for both Superman and Superman II, while his veteran co-stars received huge sums of money: $3.7 million for Brando and $2 million for Hackman for Superman I. However, Reeve felt, “‘Superman’ brought me many opportunities, rather than closing a door in my face.” Jeff East portrays teenage Clark Kent. East’s lines were overdubbed by Reeve during post-production. “I was not happy about it because the producers never told me what they had in mind,” East commented. “It was done without my permission but it turned out to be okay. Chris did a good job but it caused tension between us. We resolved our issues with each other years later.” East also tore several thigh muscles when performing the stunt of racing alongside the train. He applied 3 to 4 hours of prosthetic makeup daily to facially resemble Reeve.
The most expensive film made up to that point, with a budget of $55 million, Superman was released in December 1978 to critical and financial success; its worldwide box office earnings of $300 million made it the second-highest-grossing release of the year. It received praise for Reeve’s performance and John Williams’ musical score, and was nominated for three Academy Awards, and received a Special Achievement Academy Award for Visual Effects. In 2017, Superman was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
Here, below is a gallery of 40 amazing photographs from the making of the superhero film: