Richard Donner: No one will ever play Superman the way Christopher Reeve did

June 01, 2011 | 7:56 a.m.
richard donner Richard Donner: No one will ever play Superman the way Christopher Reeve did

Richard Donner in Burbank in May 2011 (Carl Samrock)

The character of Superman endures through the decades like, well, a Man of Steel. In comics books, on television, in film, in video games, even on Broadway  and beyond, the famous red cape flies on and on, even when the textures and attributes of the hero fluctuate for the era and the audience. For many fans — especially those under 50 — their mental image of Superman is the face of Christopher Reeve and the film universe of director Richard Donner.

superman anthology Richard Donner: No one will ever play Superman the way Christopher Reeve didOn Tuesday, our Geoff Boucher sat down with Donner to chat about “Superman: The Motion Picture Anthology (1978-2006),” which arrives as a new Blu-ray boxed set from Warner Bros. on June 7, and about his upcoming appearance at the Hero Complex Film Festival. Donner directed the 1978 film starring Reeve and also shot footage for the sequel, 1981’s “Superman II,” but never finished the film after a bitter split with the producers. In 2006, a version of that could-have-been sequel was released on DVD as “Superman II: The Donner Cut,” which will be given a rare theatrical screening on June 11 at the festival.

GB: Superman, the character, persists, but every generation finds its own version. Of all those versions, I’d say none of them loom bigger in the modern imagination than yours. That must be very satisfying for you. 

RD: Yes, it is satisfying. I don’t think about it, but when you say it like that or ask it as a question, well, yes, it is satisfying. It was a shock too. Any movie you do, it becomes the most important movie of your life, the most important year or two of your life. You never know what it’s going to turn out to be or how it’s going to be received but, in their life, some of them mean more to you than others. And that’s very important. Some of them change your life.

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve in the 1981 film "Superman II." (Los Angeles Times archive)

GB: A million decisions go into making a feature film the size of “Superman.” When you look back, what would you say were some of the essential choices you made on the film that you are proudest of? Be they about tone, casting, your approach, the story, etc.

RD: That’s simple. It was Tom Mankiewicz. I had known him since he graduated Yale as an “intellectual writer” who found himself writing James Bond [with his scripts for the 1970s films “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Live and Let Die” and “The Man with the Golden Gun“] but always wanted to write something that was going to change the world. When we read what we had and we got permission for rewrite, I approached Tom and told him I was looking for two things: One, we have to convince the audience that a guy can really fly; the other is that this has to be a love story. The minute he heard that, he cottoned to it and decided to make the movie. I have a little cutout of Superman, it shows him flying in the cloud, and he was dragging a word on his cape: Verisimilitude. It came from Tom. We wanted to do this — and it’s a comic book, but it had to have its own sense of reality. You don’t parody it. That was the most important decision.

GB: On June 11, we’re going to be showing “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” and I’m curious how you view that 2006 release now. It’s a fascinating and unexpected artifact …

RD: That’s what I say, actually — it is an artifact. It was almost 30 years, and it was laying, rotting in a can, for so long. I never thought it would see the light of day. It was like a gift to me when it was finally out there, a gift that somebody gave to me. And that somebody was Michael Thau, who I’m hoping will be there [at the screening]. He should be on stage. I hope he will be. He’s the one that persevered, the one that said, ‘There’s a groundswell, all the fans want to see this.” I told him he was crazy but he pushed with Warners and there were enough fans, and he got it made. He did a great job, just a great job. There’s footage that, probably, if I had ever finished the film, I would have reshot because it was done in such a hurry because we were trying to get the first and second movie done together. But it’s all there. When we did the first movie, we didn’t have an end in mind. Tom and I would drive to work every day trying to come up with the end of the film, and finally one day, I don’t know who came up with it, it might have been the driver, who said, “Why don’t you use the end of ‘II,'” which was Superman turning the world back. So we did; we figured that when we went back to finish making “II,” we would come up with something else. But the brilliant Salkinds [the father-and-son producing team] did what they did.

superman gallery2 Richard Donner: No one will ever play Superman the way Christopher Reeve did

GB: It’s hard to describe how much Christopher Reeve meant to people in this role. I imagine you start thinking quite a bit about his life and his death when these revisitations to “Superman” come along.

RD: More than that. Many years ago, when “Superman” came out, there was a half-body cut-out on the side of the sound stage up here [on the Warner lot in Burbank], and it had the logo and everything. Years later, I was over in either the sign shop or the prop shop, and I looked up and I saw it there. I said to the guy there, “Can I have that?” and he’s says, “No, no, it belongs to the studio.” About two years later, Michael Riva, the production designer, was doing something, and I knew he was over in the prop shop and I told him, “Mike, just steal it, you’re a designer, nobody’s going to ask you, just take it.” So he took it down, he delivered to my house and put it up on the side of a hill next to my house. It looks like Chris is coming out of the hill. Shortly thereafter, Bob Daly, who was chairman of Warner, came for dinner at my house and saw it and said, “Where did you get that?” And I said, “You gave it to me, don’t you remember?” And he said, “Oh yeah, that’s right.” So I was good. But the point is I think of Chris all the time. This thing is right next to my pool, and I get in the pool a lot and I look up there and I think about him a lot. There’s nobody that could have played that role the way he played it. I don’t think anyone will ever come along and play it like he played it — others will have to play it different — and on top of that, he was a really special individual. A great kid, a great person, loving and devoted, a great sense of humor and the personification of a good friend. He also made my career. I think about him an awful lot.

— Geoff Boucher


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18 Responses to Richard Donner: No one will ever play Superman the way Christopher Reeve did

  1. stasiuwong says:

    I grew up as a Batman fan but yes, Chris Reeve is my definitive Superman then, now, and forever.

    • Karen says:

      Yes, but I think the next Superman also portrayed the goodness of Superman. I wondered if only Chris could do that, but that is the essence of Superman. whoever gets that right………….gets the most important aspect of Superman. The innate goodness and purity of heart. Took a little time to get used to the next Superman-see, can't even remember his name. But I would like to see him do the part again.

  2. Judy Nelson, JD, MSW says:

    Thanks Richard for a great interview.. Hope you and Lauren are well. Best, Judy Nelson

  3. Harriet Bee says:

    I too think about Chris Reeve when I am floating in the pool. And I don't need some big old sign on the hillside to prompt me. I don't know what it is – the chlorine maybe? – but the moment I enter the water I find my thoughts drifting to 'Superman' and Chris Reeve – and sometimes even to Valerie Perrine. But never to Margot Kidder, thank god. I don't think I would go into the pool ever again if it made me think of Margot Kidder when I was in there. As a side note, when I'm in my neighbor's pool my thoughts often turn to 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' – the 1978 version with Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum; and I always think of 'The Boys from Brazil' when I take a dip in my other neighbor's Jacuzzi – but that's because my neighbor is an old Nazi.

  4. Jack Flack says:

    Let's hope they can find an improvement. Nostalgia clouds the casting in the original franchise. Reeve was a fine actor but Superman needs to be a clear alpha male and Reeve was not that guy. Even worse, they tried to cull from the same pool and cast Brandon Routh who's not even a beta male. Not once in any of the films did I ever see Superman is going to win this fight other than the fact he was hiding behind his writers and producers.

    It's time to do this character justice.

    • Harriet Bee says:

      Yeah, enough with you beta males posing as alpha males. Get a clue all you betas and stop with the alpha act. Jack and me can see right through it. You just can't pull it off, boys. Let the true alphas have a chance, will you? Stop being so selfish.

  5. Sophie says:

    I've never understood the utter nostalgia for the Superman films. The original Star Wars trilogy is not nearly as corny as the first two Superman films. They are highly entertaining, with great effects. But EXTREMELY saccharine sweet and sentimental, including the acting by Reeves. Fine if you like that sort of thing. As for me, I was 8 when the first Superman film came out. I loved the first two, especially II. But seeing them now is a bit cringeworthy.

    • James says:

      You're not even a true superman fan since you're disrespecting the legacy and memory of christopher reeve.

    • David Robertson says:

      I was 6 years old when I saw the first SUPERMAN MOVIE . I can’t get enough of SUPERMAN I even have the costume of SUPERMAN with the red boots and the full length cape . I even look just like SUPERMAN . I was down in Chicago IL when they were filming the movie THE MAN OF STEAL and I had my SUPERMAN suit on at that time . The director and the Photagaphers of the movie were taking my pictures .

  6. EC Cameron says:

    I first came into reading comic books b/c of Superman II, so for countless years & countless franchises of the character (TV's animated adventures, Smallville, L&C, and yes– even the corny "Superboy"!), Reeve has always been my Superman.

    What made him so great was how he distinguished Clark Kent from Superman. No one else has ever done it as well, although Routh's copying of Reeve's tricks helped a bit. The take on the character then was also true to his origins and mythos (except for that sleeping-with-Lois bit!), b/c the ppl working on it at the time understood how much it was a Christ-reference and the-ultimate-American-immigrant idea.

    MOS Producers: PLEASE… Remember to keep him true to this mythos and avoid turning him into a Marvel movie clone– angst-ridden, overly flawed, and/or "pure action hero". He is NOT Batman (dark, vengeful), he is NOT Iron Man (lush, "male slut"), and he is NOT Spider-man (angst-ridden), He is a POSITIVE character, a model of goodness and light, he is NOT okay with killing people, and a role model for the world.

    • brettghampton says:

      I'm with you up to a point, EC – but the Superman from the comics would probably not have been so petty as to return to that diner in "Superman II" to beat up the bully that beat up a powerless Clark Kent (though it was amusing and satisfying to watch). I think you're a little too dismissive of Marvel characters, not all of whom can be categorized as you describe. And the fact of the matter is that the writers and producer of "Man of Steel" have been heralded for the degree of realism that they brought to the Batman character and stories. To me, that means we probably WILL see some previously undisplayed emotions and feelings from Superman. It means we undoubtedly will see how the real world would respond to someone who suddenly appears on the world stage who can fly, has incredible strength and speed, and who has abilities that make him both superior to human beings and that make him a potential threat to the safety and security of the world.

  7. king fred says:

    I'm actually surprised anybody likes these films. I'm a big comic fan, but I hated the Superman movies. I thought the special effects were weak and the acting completely wooden.

    • Gregory says:

      That is your opinon. The 1st Superman movie set the bar for future Superhero films. If it wasn't for Superman: The Movie, there would be no X-Men, Dark Knight, etc.

  8. Chris Broderick says:

    I never liked Superman of DC in general, having grown up with Marvel's characters. Superman in the comics was strictly a cardboard cutout. But the first movie by Donner was a lot of fun — no one mentions Hackman, who was hilarious in his first comic role — and Reeve's boyish and bumbling version of Clark Kent made the character come alive in ways the comic never has. It was flawed — the whole Krypton thing with Brando was purple then and nearly unwatchable now — but it didn't take itself seriously like so many comic book movies now (Dark Knight, anyone?). Jackie Cooper, Glen Ford, the John Williams score — they were terrific. Margot Kidder was an embarrassment, which is unfortunate because the role was well written. But yes, Donner is right, Reeve's likability really made that film.

    • Will says:

      That was the problem I think with the Superman movies, is that Lex Luthor is portrayed as comic relief. Lex is to be a ruthless and cunning evil man, who is always just out of Superman's reach purely out of his sheer genius. The superhero is only as good as the super villian, and it seems to me that no one except for the WB (Smallville) got Lex right.

      I'm not a hater of the films, I do enjoy them. As a matter of fact, the first one is on the TV right now, because my 3 year old son has become an avid Superman-aholic. I just hope that in the new Superman universe, starting with 'The Man of Steel', will get Lex right.

  9. CybexAl says:

    Why are people beating up on Kidder. She was a great Lois! The thing about the Superman movies was that they were incomplete. Donner never finished the second one which would have been a bigger classic than Superman the Movie and would have completed his great vision, I'm sure. All these detractors that believe an alpha male Superman would have made a better movie than the Donner one are about to get a lesson in why Superman translated to the screen without a sophisticated character makeover could never work. I really believe that Man of Steel will fail because of this. It's way too obvious an iteration.

  10. anthony says:

    I think that Christopher reeves son should play the superman since he looks so much like his father and will better fit the role of Superman

  11. kal el says:

    Christopher Reeve will always be SUPERMAN, why ? because the movie was made with a powerful ingredient nobody could count on, and that is love every scene was masterfully performed by Richard Donner.
    Of course we respect every actor in new movies but no matter how hard they try, Superman Christopher Reeve left us a great legacy of love and courage and justice.Besides he was stated in life in Time magazine as the real SUPERMAN, for those who have forgotten or haven't read the article August 26, 1996.
    Dear Christopher Reeve you never die to us, you are the real and unique SUPERMAN for ever.

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