How Richard Donner found his Superman

To myself and many others, Christopher Reeve will always be Superman. 

Seeing Reeve become a star from the film was a wonderful happening when Superman became the blockbuster hit of Christmas ’78, much like seeing Hugh Jackman becoming a star playing Wolverine in X-Men. 

Because of Superman and X-Men, superhero films today try to follow the same path of finding the right unknown, someone who won’t bring any previous movie baggage to the screen, someone that will make you believe that person really is Superman or Wolverine.


Back when I was contributing for Creative Screenwriting, I was very fortunate to speak to the late screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who did a major rewrite of the Superman I and II screenplays, and was there when Christopher Reeve auditioned and got the role.

Tom was part of a major Hollywood filmmaking dynasty. His father Joseph wrote and directed All About Eve, and his uncle Herman wrote Citizen Kane. Tom also became a big force in screenwriting himself, writing or co-writing the major ’70’s James Bond films such as Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun, and The Spy Who Loved Me (uncredited). As a script doctor, he also contributed to a number of films with including The Deep, WarGames, and Gremlins, to name a few.


Finishing work on the Superman script, and finding the right actor to play the title role, was a mad dash rush. 

As Mankiewicz told me, “We had Brando and Hackman with start dates, usually actors have stop dates, so we had to start the picture in May 1977. It was already January, we had to start shooting in May, we had no cast, no Superman, we just had two superstars with start dates that were unmovable. There were no locations picked, there was no Lois Lane, there was nothing. 

“I was in on all the casting sessions and I was writing at night. We were so desperate, I think Jon Voight was in the hole, he agreed to play Superman if we couldn’t find anybody else. But we didn’t want Jon Voight, we didn’t want a known actor in the Superman suit. We wanted an unknown, so when he came on the screen, he was Superman. Everyone said put Burt Reynolds in a Superman suit. Well, for a certain kind of movie where you want to camp it up, Burt Reynolds would have been wonderful. Paul Newman was considered for Superman’s father.” 

Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford were also both considered to play the Man of Steel. “[But]] I don’t think Redford would have seriously considered it,” Mankiewicz continued.

“He might have thought about it if it had some deeper meaning. We were so desperate, we tested the producer’s wife’s dentist from Beverly Hills, and actually he wasn’t that bad (laughs)! We looked at the test and I said, ‘You know, this guy isn’t that bad.’ And Dick Donner said, ‘You really want to put $50 million on this dentist?’


“Dick had seen Christopher Reeve, he had had a small part in a play with Katharine Hepburn called A Matter of Gravity, and he said, ‘This guy isn’t bad. He’s a little skinny, but he’s good.’ We called Chris and he said, ‘I can’t go, I’m in an off-Broadway play. It’s a 99 seat house.’ ‘No understudies?’ ‘No, there’s no understudies.’ So we bought out the house for two nights, which is grander than it sounds because 99 seats at $3 a seat is not very expensive! It sounds grand to say we bought out the house, but it cost less than his plane ticket!

“He came over, and in the original script, there was like a two or three page scene that was kind of campy where he lands on Lois Lane’s balcony. I expanded it to where it was like seven or eight pages, and it became a love story. At the end of it, he took her flying, and that was the test scene for Superman and Lois. Holly Palance, who is Jack Palance’s daughter and a wonderful actress, played Lois in that test.

“The minute Chris hopped onto the balcony off the ledge and said, ‘Good evening Miss Lane,’ cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth looked at me like, ‘This is it.’ He only said, ‘Good evening Miss Lane,’ but he had a shyness and a wonderful quality. He was so nervous that he had huge sweat stains under his armpits in the suit and we said, ‘Boy we gotta fix that suit!’ Dick said, ‘Where’s your plane ticket?,’ and Chris said, ‘In my coat, in makeup.’ Then Dick said, ‘Go get his plane ticket and rip it up! You’re not going anywhere, you’re not going back to New York, we’re bringing New York here! Anything you want! We’ll have somebody who will pack your bags.'” 

And the rest, folks, is movie history…