ByKit Simpson Browne, writer at Creators.co
Writer-at-large. Bad jokes aplenty. Can be gently prodded on Twitter at @kitsb1
Kit Simpson Browne

Now, with Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice facing a veritable blitzkrieg of critical skewering, and latterly a severe drop off in box office takings, it's perhaps not too surprising that a whole lot of folks out there are looking longingly into the superheroic past, searching for a simpler time. A time when Superman didn't snap people's necks, when his father looked more like Marlon Brando than Russell Crowe, and when Lex Luthor was an angry older man played by Gene Hackman. In other words, 1978, and the release of the original Superman.

As it turns out, though:

The Original 'Superman' Movie Has A Super-Strange Secret Origin

So much so, in fact, that when the film's director, Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon), was recently interviewed about it by The Hollywood Reporter, he couldn't help but reveal a truckload of incredibly unusual facts about the movie's development and production.

Below are some of the most intriguing insights, including the fact that...

Richard Donner Dressed Up As Superman To Persuade Tom Mankiewicz To Rewrite The Script

Specifically, Donner — who had recently been brought on by producer Alexander Salkind to turn a 500-page script into two Superman movies — realized that he needed some help getting the script ready for production. As he puts it:

"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."

Which, as it turned out, almost went badly wrong:

"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.'"

Which was quite a challenge, seeing as...

According To Donner, The Original Script Was Appallingly Bad (And Featured Kojak)

As he argues:

"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."

Which, from the way Donner tells it at least, he then had to work pretty hard to do. For one thing:

The Film's Producers Wanted To Cast Sylvester Stallone As Superman

Yup, that's right. That Sylvester Stallone, fresh from the rampant success of the original Rocky. As Donner points out:

"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 s—t, 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."

Fortunately for posterity, Donner soon met Christopher Reeve, who apparently killed it in both his screen test...

"He was just wonderful as Clark Kent and as Superman. He really got the idea of a terribly pained individual living a dual life."

...and his audition:

"...when it was over, I told them I found my man."

The next step, though, was dealing with the film's biggest name: Brando. The only problem?

Marlon Brando Wanted To Play Jor-El As A Bagel

And in case you're wondering, I do indeed mean quite literally as a bagel. Y'see, Donner had apparently been warned before first speaking to Brando that the actor wasn't a big fan of actually having to act. As he was warned by agent and studio executive Jay Kanter:

"... 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."

Which, as it turned out, was pretty much exactly what happened. After arriving at Brando's compound, Donner found himself immersed in what must have been a deeply surreal conversation:

"[Brando] 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.'"

And so it was that Jor-El was not played by a Marlon Brando-sounding bagel, and all was right with the world. Especially considering the fact that...

Brando Pretty Much Saved A Guy's Life During Filming

Specifically, the life of Tom Mankiewicz, the film's writer (a.k.a. the same guy Donner surprised by wearing a Superman suit up above). As Donner tells it:

"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."

Which at the time probably put the whole bagel thing into perspective.

Now, you can read Donner's full story right here, but in the meantime...

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