Marlon Brando Made Filming Christopher Reeve’s ‘Superman’ a Nightmare

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Marlon Brando’s involvement in
    Superman
    was crucial to the film’s success and credibility, despite causing headaches for the cast and crew.
  • Brando’s refusal to memorize his dialogue and unprofessional behavior on set frustrated co-star Christopher Reeve and others involved in the production.
  • Brando’s disputes with Warner Bros. over box office revenue from
    Superman
    resulted in legal issues that extended beyond the film’s production.


It goes without saying that Marlon Brando is one of the greatest actors ever. Brando helped to introduce a new level of authenticity to screen acting thanks to his experiences working with Elia Kazan on A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, and you would have a hard time finding a film professor who doesn’t reference his work in The Godfather.


Although Brando is an important figure in the history of Hollywood, he’s also no stranger to controversy. It’s almost impossible to rewatch his performances in films like On The Waterfront, The Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, or The Island of Dr. Moreau without thinking about the hectic behind-the-scenes stories shared about their productions. Although Brando helped usher in a new level of dramatic authenticity to superhero movies with his performance as Jor-El in 1978’s Superman, he also caused innumerable headaches for both his cast and crew.


Superman

An alien orphan is sent from his dying planet to Earth, where he grows up to become his adoptive home’s first and greatest superhero.

Release Date
December 13, 1978

Runtime
143

Writers
Jerry Siegel , Joe Shuster , Mario Puzo , David Newman , Leslie Newman , Robert Benton

Tagline
You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly!


Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ Needed Marlon Brando

Although there had been many adaptations of DC comics on the small screen, including the George Reeves Superman series and the infamous Adam West Batman show, the prospect of a live-action adaptation of a comic book character was virtually unheard of at the time that Superman went into production. Would audiences actually be convinced that “a man could fly,” as the eventual teaser poster suggested? Many directors had an interest in the project, with noted filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Peter Yates, Richard Lester, and Sam Peckinpah all throwing in their hats to direct prior to Richard Donner’s deal. Once Donner settled on a deal to helm a new Superman origin story based on a script by The Godfather writer Mario Puzo, he realized star power would be an important part of the film’s success.


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Although Hollywood A-Listers such as James Caan, James Brolin, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight, and Kris Krisstoferson were considered for the role, it was eventually decided that an unknown actor would best embody the small-town charisma of Clark Kent. Casting an unknown like Christopher Reeve as the titular character meant that the film would need some serious star power to grant it credibility. At this period in his career, Brando was bigger than ever. Although he had been somewhat absent from mainstream studio films in the late 1960s, The Godfather had been such a cultural landmark that it effectively relaunched his career. The only issue was that Brando was now far more interested in political causes than he was in his screen performances. He famously refused to accept his Oscar win for The Godfather in order to protest the mistreatment of America’s indigenous communities.


Donner had to lobby Brando hard to get him interested in playing Jor-El, and had to make many concessions in order to appease the Oscar-winning actor. Brando’s salary was a record-breaking $3.7 million and 11.75% of the box office gross profits, a generous financial reward that wouldn’t be rivaled until Jack Nicholson worked out a similar deal for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Brando’s intentions were noble, as he reportedly wanted to use the funds from his Superman payday to fund a documentary series about the discrimination that Native Americans faced in the United States. However, that meant that Donner had to hear some of Brando’s wild ideas for the character, which included playing the part “like a bagel.”

Christopher Reeve Was Upset With Marlon Brando’s Behavior


Getting footage of both Brando and his fellow Academy Award winner, Gene Hackman (who had been cast as Superman’s archnemesis Lex Luthor), was a priority for Superman’s producers. Unfortunately, Brando was about as uncooperative as possible when it came to filming the critical Krypton scenes that would become the emotional bulk of the film. He refused to memorize his dialogue, which forced the crew to create cue cards for the entirety of his twelve days on set. Reeve, once a massive fan of Brando’s work, accused his idol of “phoning in” his performance and complained about his unprofessional behavior during his media appearances in promotion of the movies.


According to Cary Elwes, who worked on the film’s set as an intern, Brando “had no incentive to be on time, because his agent had struck the most amazing deal for him,” and “every day that the picture went over, he got another million dollars.” Elwes revealed that Donner was forced to lure Brando out of his trailer with food in order to convince him to continue filming. Once it became clear that Brando couldn’t be counted on to deliver everything that Puzo and Donner originally had in mind for the character, Warner Brothers hired screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman to rework the script.

Marlon Brando Was a Headache for Warner Bros. Long After ‘Superman’

However, the end of the Superman shoot didn’t mean that the studio’s issues with Brando were over. Brando sued the studio after Superman became the second highest-grossing film of 1978, as he felt that he had been shorted on the film’s box office revenue. This caused additional headaches for Warner Bros., as footage of Brando’s Joe-El had already been shot for Superman II. Even though the theatrical version of Superman II cuts out Brando’s appearance, archive footage was used for both Donner’s restored director’s cut of the film and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.


Although the behind-the-scenes chaos certainly colors the appeal of Brando in Superman, the Jor-El storyline is still essential to the film. Superman needed the emotional context of Clark Kent’s upbringing on Krypton to work so that he would feel truly “alien.” In a film that contains only a fraction of the action sequences that most comic book movies today do, these paternal scenes were critical. Filming Superman may not have been a pleasant experience for those who worked with Brando, but it remains one of the best superhero movies of all time.

Superman is available to watch on Max in the U.S.

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