Superman had been flying on movie screens for decades when SUPERMAN, starring Christopher Reeve, premiered in New York City on Dec. 11, 1978.
The comic book superhero first landed in theatres in a 1941 series of animated shorts and then went live in a 1948 movie serial. The 1951 feature SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN, starring George Reeves, helped promote Reeves’ now classic TV series THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which aired from 1952-58.
Warner Bros.’ 1978 SUPERMAN, from executive producers Alexander & Ilya Salkind and director Richard Donner, who directed THE OMEN (1976), sent Superman into another movie universe. It cost $55 million to make and did $300.5M worldwide, sparking a new genre of mega-grossing superhero epics based on comic book stars like BATMAN, SPIDER-MAN & THE AVENGERS.
What now seems the ideal combination of director & casting could easily have gone in many other directions. Steven Spielberg was asked to direct but wanted too much money, so the Salkinds waited to see how moviegoers responded to Spielberg’s new film JAWS. Spielberg moved ahead with his projects when it went into the record books as Hollywood’s first summer blockbuster.
Guy Hamilton, who directed 007 classics like GOLDFINGER & LIVE & LET DIE, was hired to direct when SUPERMAN was supposed to shoot in Italy. Then finance issues moved to film to England, and Hamilton left since, as a tax exile, he could only spend 30 days annually in the U.K.
Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin & Sam Peckinpah were among those approached to direct, but they all had prior commitments or didn’t feel it was their kind of movie. Donner, who was going to direct DAMIEN: OMEN II, agreed to direct SUPERMAN for $1M. He then hired Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote LIVE AND LET DIE, to write a new screenplay.
The Salkinds intended to shoot SUPERMAN & SUPERMAN II simultaneously to save money. But as the shooting took longer and budget issues multiplied, Donner and the Salkinds were increasingly at odds. Richard Lester, who directed 1964’s A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, agreed to be a mediator, reportedly because the Salkinds still owed him money for directing THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS: MILADY’S REVENGE (1974). By the time the Salkinds fired Donner, he’d shot nearly 75% of SUPERMAN II. Lester took over but wiped out any savings by reshooting most of what Donner had filmed in order for Lester to be credited as the sequel’s director.
New York doubled for Metropolis, and the Daily News Building doubled for the Daily Planet’s offices. SUPERMAN was shooting there the night of the city’s 1977 blackout. Since Donner had generators for filming, he let the Daily News use them to publish that night. Later, Donner recalled laughingly that cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth thought he’d caused the blackout by using too much energy.
“I don’t see Superman as the way he’s being treated today, which is very dark. He was a fantasy that really believed in ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way.’ He believed it, and it gave him an aura.” – Richard Donner on the legacy of Superman