To obtain the musculature to convincingly play Superman, Christopher Reeve underwent a bodybuilding regime supervised by David Prowse, the man who played Darth Vader in the original "Star Wars" trilogy.
According to Roger Moore's autobiography he witnessed Christopher Reeve walking through the canteen at Pinewood Studios in full Superman costume oblivious to the swooning female admirers he left in his wake. When he did the same thing dressed as Clark Kent no one paid any attention.
Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and James Caan were all offered the movie's title role. All three turned it down: Redford wanted too much money; Eastwood said he was too busy; Caan said, "There's no way I'm getting into that silly suit."
Initially, Gene Hackman refused to cut off his mustache to play Lex Luthor. In early one-sheets of the movie his face is featured with a mustache. Before Richard Donner and Hackman met face-to-face, Donner proposed to Hackman that if he would cut his mustache, Donner would cut his too, and Hackman agreed. It turned out later that Donner did not have a mustache at all. He wore a false moustache that he peeled off at the last moment.
Gene Hackman flatly refused to shave his head or wear a "bald cap" to play Lex Luthor. To get around this issue, Hackman's own natural hair was styled differently from scene to scene to give the appearance of him having changed hairpieces. Numerous hairpieces are visible in his underground complex. Hackman relented and wore a skullcap in one scene: when he is taken to prison by Superman. It is visible when he angrily rips off his hairpiece to address the prison's warden who questions who he is. Hackman was also forced to shave off his mustache, which he was keen on keeping at the time.
Marlon Brando sued the Salkinds and Warner Brothers for $50 million because he felt cheated out of the film's considerable box office profits. This is the main reason why footage of Brando does not appear in Superman II (1980).
Christopher Reeve dubbed all of Jeff East's dialogue as young Clark Kent due to the perceived discrepancy in their voices so as to maintain on-screen continuity. East himself is never heard during the film.
Donner was disgusted that production designer John Barry and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth received no recognition from the Academy for their work on the film. He was particularly aggrieved that one of the nominees for Best Art Direction was "California Suite" which merely duplicated an existing hotel, whilst Barry created an entire fictional city and a fortress in the Arctic.
When they meet at Lois Lane's penthouse, Lois asks Superman how fast he can fly. He responds that he never timed himself. At the end of the film when he orbits the earth to set back time, at peak speed he appears to orbit the earth 44 times in approximately 10.5 seconds at a diameter of approximately 1.75 times the earth's diameter. This means at peak speed he traveled approximately 183,000 miles per second. The speed of light is 186,000 per second. So essentially Superman was traveling at the speed of light, which is possibly the director's intention, and is extraordinarily "faster than a speeding bullet"!
The movie was filming in New York City on the night of the notorious 1977 blackout. The New York "Daily News" was able to publish despite the blackout, as the film company let the newspaper use their generators.
Donner was not asked to return to complete Superman II (1980) because he had publicly criticized the Salkinds. A similar fate largely befell Margot Kidder who openly supported Donner; Kidder found her role as Lois Lane reduced to a mere cameo in Superman III (1983).
The film was originally meant to end with a cliffhanger - the nuclear missile that Superman deflects would career off into space where it would explode, releasing the three villains we see at the start of the film. Ultimately Donner decided that such an ending was too gimmicky, and that if audiences liked the first film, they'd come for the second regardless.
Casting director Lynn Stalmaster was the first to suggest Christopher Reeve for the title role but Donner and the Salkinds felt he was too young and too skinny. He nevertheless did an excellent screen test that blew the director and producers away. Once he had the part, Reeve underwent a strict physical training session for months, going from 170 pounds to 212 in the period from pre-production to filming.
Because Christopher Reeve was such an unknown actor at the time, the credits of the movie and nearly every trailer for the film list both Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman before the name of the person playing the title character.
Steven Spielberg was offered the chance to direct this film, but the producers balked at the salary he asked for. They decided to wait until they saw how "this fish movie" (Jaws (1975)) that he had just completed did at the box office. The movie was a huge success, and Spielberg went on to other projects.
Marlon Brando was paid $3.7 million and a percentage of the profits for playing Jor-El for 12 shooting days. The fee (plus the percentage) also covered the sequel, which was being simultaneously shot with the original. Brando did not appear in the sequel, however, as he was involved in a lawsuit with Ilya Salkind over what Brando said was the producer's non-payment of his profit-participation for this film. He ultimately received about $14 million for his ten minutes on film. The footage shot for the sequel is used in Superman Returns (2006).
The film was 3 years in planning, 2 years in filming at the height of which there were over a thousand full time crew on 11 units spread over 3 studios and 8 countries. Over a million feet of film was used and at the time it had the highest production budget
Jack Klugman was the first choice to play Perry White but he turned it down at the last minute. The part was then offered to Eddie Albert who'd tentatively agreed to the part but then demanded more money. With filming of Perry due to start the next day frantic calls to the States for a replacement actor resulted in Keenan Wynn accepting the part. After a tiring flight the 61 year old was rushed to the studio for hectic tests after which he complained of chest pains and was rushed to hospital where he collapsed from extreme exhaustion resulting in the part being recast with Jackie Cooper.
On his first day on the set Brando suggested to director Richard Donner that the cameras roll during rehearsal. Brando reportedly said, "Who knows? We might get lucky." According to Donner that very first take was the one that was used in the finished film.
The Superman "S" logo that Marlon Brando wears on his white cloak looks the same as the one used for George Reeves costume in the TV show Adventures of Superman (1952). This was probably an homage. Since this film, the idea of the "S" symbol being a Kryptonian family crest of the House of El has been incorporated into Superman's comic books and subsequent adaptations.
His romance with Lois leads him to contradict Jor-El's orders to avoid altering human history, time traveling to save her from dying. Superman instead takes the advice of Jonathan Kent, his father on Earth.
In the scenes where the burglar is scaling the office building and falling off it, the guy in his office whose window he passes was strapped into the chair and hanging upside down. Most of the building was horizontal, with the footage flipped to make it look as though they were actually on the side of the building
In addition to playing Clark Kent and Superman, Christopher Reeve also supplied the voice of the Metropolis air traffic controller. He is heard on the radio just before the helicopter crash, and during the Air Force One scene.
Originally, the helicopter scene was simply going to have Superman save Lois from falling. Later, Richard Donner decided to have the helicopter drop and the modified scene was called The Double Jeopardy Scene.
According to the DVD commentary by Richard Donner, Goldie Hawn was the first choice for the role of Eve Teschmacher. When Hawn wanted too much money, Donner approached Ann-Margret, who also asked too much.
Pre-production began in Rome with most attention being spent on unsuccessful experiments to make Superman fly. Ilya Salkind later bemoaned the fact that they lost over $2 million on aborted flying tests. The Italian pre-production had to be abandoned when it was discovered that Marlon Brando couldn't visit Italy because there was a warrant out for his arrest accusing him of an obscenity charge thanks to his involvement in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972).
To obtain the 'glowing' effect of the clothing on Krypton, the wardrobe department spent weeks sewing tiny glass balls on to each actor's apparel. If the "material" was accidentally touched, the oils on the actor's hands would interfere with the lighting effect, leaving a dull patch on the costume.
The Bill Haley song "Rock Around the Clock" is heard on a car radio just before Glenn Ford's final scene. Ford starred in Blackboard Jungle (1955), the film that helped launch the Rock and Roll era by popularizing "Rock Around the Clock".
Christopher Reeve proved an even greater asset than anticipated after being cast. For instance, Reeve flew gliders as a hobby and used that piloting experience to make Superman's flying feel more believable, and his performance as both Superman and Clark Kent was roundly praised in making the superhero's secret identity seem surprisingly convincing.
After the success of Rocky (1976), Sylvester Stallone lobbied hard to play Clark Kent/Superman, but he was ultimately turned down. Stallone found out that Marlon Brando, who had casting approval, turned him down for the role, just as he had allegedly vetoed Burt Reynolds' casting as Sonny in The Godfather (1972). (Responding to that rumor, Brando told Playboy Magazine interviewer Lawrence Gobel "Francis [Francis Ford Coppola] would never have cast Burt Reynolds.") Stallone subsequently went on Merv Griffin's talk show and denounced Brando, saying he had no respect for the superstar as an actor or as a man. This surprised many as the early Stallone (as had the early Burt Reynolds) had clearly modeled himself after Brando, particularly Brando's characterization of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954) in his own role as Stanley Rosiello in The Lord's of Flatbush (1974), a man named "Stanley" (a la Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) who had a coop of pigeons on his tenement roof (like Terry Malloy). This mimicry might have been one of the the reasons Brando reportedly had such antipathy for both actors. Stallone later explained that he felt that it was hypocritical that Brando, whom stated on numerous occasions that he took the role of Jor-El simply as a paycheck and nothing more, vetoed him for the role of Superman. Unlike Brando, Stallone grew up emulating and idolizing Clark Kent/Superman (and continues to) as well as having a great love for the comics mythology. Ironically, in his review for the Stallone film Rocky (1976), Roger Ebert called Stallone "the next Marlon Brando".
During the scene in which Superman and Lois go flying together and then Superman flies away, there is no cut between Superman flying away and Clark showing up at Lois's door. This was done using a prerecorded movie of Superman flying away on a screen with Lois standing in front of it. Then, as she walks away from the balcony, so crosses from the screen to the set with her apartment where she opens the door to reveal the real-time Clark Kent.
The first baby Kal-El in the flight sequence of the escape capsule was played by Elizabeth Sweetman. The filming took place at Pinewood in October 1978 when Elizabeth was 6 months old. She earned £40 per day for four days work, netting a grand total of £120 after agency fee deductions.
The Mario Puzo screenplay that Richard Donner inherited (and quickly rewrote) included one infamous camp moment where Lex Luthor encountered Telly Savalas playing Kojak in a railway station. Kojak then offered Luthor a lollipop and asked him his trademark line "Who loves ya, baby?".
Composer John Williams used the same orchestra that he also used for his themes for all six Star Wars movies (he used the London Symphony Orchestra), hence how some of his film scores sound like Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977).
Much of the footage for what would become Superman II (1980) was written and shot simultaneously with the original. Before shooting was complete for the sequel, however, director Richard Donner was fired and replaced with Richard Lester, who re-shot most of the footage directed by Donner.
The movie's original ending had Superman saving California, restructuring the San Andreas fault and then throwing the second missile into space which cracked the Phantom Zone and releasing the three super-villains. Superman turning the world around was originally conceived as the ending of Superman II (1980) to make Lois forget Superman's secret identity.
A number of scenes were shot for the movie but not used in the theatrical version. Among them are: Extended dialogue scenes between Jor-El and his fellow Kryptonians; a scene of baby Kal-El's space pod flying past the Phantom Zone-trapped villains; a scene of a child Lois Lane seeing Clark Kent running extremely fast from a train window; a scene in which Ma Kent tries to wake up a still-sleeping Clark; an additional dialogue between Superman and Jor-El in the Fortress of Solitude; a scene in which Superman is pelted with bullets, fire, and ice as he approaches Luthor's hideout; a scene in which Otis has to feed Luthor's "babies" (some type of animal or monster we never see on screen,) and a scene where Luthor attempts to feed Miss Teschmacher to those same "babies" after she sets Superman free. Although not used in the theatrical cut, most of these scenes were worked into the extended DVD versions. All of the scenes, used in the extended version or not, can be found in the four-disc DVD special edition of the film.
Both William Friedkin and Sam Peckinpah were offered the chance to direct. Friedkin turned down the offer outright. Peckinpah dropped out of the running when he produced a gun during a meeting with Ilya Salkind.
Richard Donner was originally planning to direct Damien: Omen II (1978) when he was hired to direct this film for $1,000,000. Donner began by throwing out the script and hiring Tom Mankiewicz to write him a new one.
The background for this film and its three sequels was based in the original Superman comic book 'mythology', which was changed in the mid-1980's. This accounts for various small differences between current comic books and the films, such as (in the comics) Jonathan Kent living well into Superman's adulthood and various other superheroes occupying the same world (each was originally confined to their own "universe").
Jack Nicholson and Gene Wilder were both considered for the role of Lex Luthor. Nicholson, who went on to play the Joker in Batman (1989), was considered to play Luthor in a Superman film project in the 1990s that was ultimately shelved.
Richard Donner had a single word, printed in big letters, on numerous signs, sent to every creative department involved with this film: VERISIMILITUDE. "It's a word that refers to being real . . . not realistic - yes, there IS a difference - but real," explained Donner. "It was a constant reminder to ourselves that, if we gave into the temptation we knew there would be to parody Superman, we would only be fooling ourselves."
Mario Puzo's scripts proved to be too epic and too expensive so the team of David Newman and Robert Benton was brought in to hone them down. Benton was committed to directing The Late Show (1977) so Leslie Newman - David's wife - came on board, mainly to write Lois Lane's dialog. Their rewrite was more campy than Puzo's and even included a cameo appearance by Kojak, the popular TV detective.
Marlon Brando reputedly suggested that his cameo role as Jor-El be done by him in voice over only, with the character's image onscreen being a glowing, levitating green bagel. Unsure if Brando was joking or not, the film's producers formally rejected the suggestion.
As the production budget and shooting schedule escalated, Richard Donner found the Salkinds constantly on his back. Richard Lester was brought in to mediate the relationship between the director and his producers as both parties refused to talk to each other.
The film of the black-and-white sequence that opens the movie is shown in reverse. The sequence was filmed starting with a close-up of the Daily Planet panel followed by a zoom-out. Then the child's hand turns each page left-to-right, then closes the cover. (As the child turns each page and then closes the cover, notice that the corners fold in the opposite direction of how they should fold.)
In a documentary on the making of the film, director Richard Donner recalled how he had written down the first pieces of information he received regarding the film onto the back of a business card. He held onto the card as a souvenir, and displays it in the documentary "Taking Flight". Close examination of this card reveals that, at one point, Nick Nolte was being considered for a role in the film.
Jeff East, who plays the young Clark Kent, had his voice dubbed by Christopher Reeve, although he knew nothing about it at the time. East wasn't happy with the decision as it was done without his permission. It was some years later that he resolved his differences with Reeve.
The Writer's Guild of America (WGA) gave screenplay credit to Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, although many involved with the production, including director Richard Donner, credit Tom Mankiewicz with writing much of the final shooting script. To make up for the WGA omitting Mankiewicz' name from the screenplay credits, Donner gave him a "creative consultant" credit, which appears after the screenplay credit during the opening titles sequence.
Aaron Smolinski, who played the infant Kal-El, would later appear uncredited in Superman III (1983) as a little boy waiting outside a photo booth while Clark Kent is changing into Superman. He also played a communications officer in Man of Steel (2013).
Guy Hamilton was originally hired to direct this movie, which was scheduled to shoot in Italy. When production was moved to England for monetary reasons, Hamilton backed out because of his status at the time as a tax exile, meaning he could only be in England for thirty days out of every year.
"Faster than a speeding bullet!" (when Clark catches the projectile fired towards Lois' back). "More powerful than a locomotive!" (when young Clark outruns the Smallville train, AND years later, (as Superman) repairs the railroad; supporting the weight.) Finally, if referencing the alternate tagline from Max Fleischer's Superman (1941), "Able to soar higher than any plane!" (when Superman takes the missile, bound for New Jersey, into space.)
It has been alleged that Trevor Howard did not want to act in the film largely because of his loathing of Marlon Brando. He only accepted the role only when he learned he would be acting with Harry Andrews, his friend of many years
The song "Little Bit" - sung by Supertramp - plays on the radio as Lois parks at the gas station. The name of the band is a whimsical reference to the protagonist, as well as its lyrics foreshadow what the hero does later.
The development of the best method to show Superman flying was a long period of experimentation. The methods attempted included simply catapulting a dummy into the air, a remote control model airplane painted as the character and simply animating the flying sequences. The producers settled for a combination of forward projection and specially designed zoom lenses that could create the illusion of movement by zooming in on Christopher Reeve while making the forward projection appear to recede. For scenes where Superman has to interact with other people or objects while in flight, Reeve and fellow actors were put in a variety of rigging equipment with careful lighting and photography to hide the equipment.
Christopher Reeve (Superman / Clark Kent) does not appear on screen until 48 minutes into the film. However, his voice is heard in the Smallville scenes as he dubbed Jeff East. Gene Hackman, who plays principal villain Lex Luthor, is not fully seen until just over an hour into the film.
Both actors Glenn Ford (Jonathan Kent) and Jackie Cooper (Perry White) had both retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve. Each actor reached the rank of "captain" and both had served as public affairs officers (PAOs).
Yugoslav front projection specialist Zoran Perisic invented a new special effects system called the Zoptic Process that allowed matte work of a flying Christopher Reeve to be placed in relation to background processes which would then focus in and out.
First film collaboration between Warner Brothers and DC Comics since the two companies had come under the same ownership during the early 1970's. This was not the first project however, as the Wonder Woman TV series, also produced and distributed through Warner Brothers was launched in 1975.
When the young Clark Kent races the train he is said to be eighteen, while Lois Lane, who is inside the train, appears to be considerably younger. Margot Kidder, who plays the adult Lois, is four years older than Christopher Reeve, who plays the adult Clark.
The filmmakers included several Superman in-jokes (the phone booth gag, for instance). A lesser-known example was the scene where Otis tries to take Superman's cape. This was a tribute to the 1972 Jim Croce song You Don't Mess Around With Jim which had the line, 'You don't tug on Superman's cape.'
The costumes worn by Jor-El and others on the planet Krypton were covered with front projection material to create the highly unusual photographic effect shown. The filmmakers came up with the idea while doing tests for the special effects sequences.
Three of the main cast members would have tragic circumstances happen to them later in life. Margot Kidder had a public panic attack in 1996. Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in 1995 and died nine years later. Marlon Brando had a number of bad things happen to him after the movie. First, his son fatally shot his half-sister's boyfriend. Not to long later, his daughter hung herself. He later died from a number of complications in 2004.
The black and white photograph of a mustachioed man seen on the table in the background of Lois Lane's apartment when Clark Kent first visits is in fact a gatefold copy of the album "Traffic" (1968) open at a picture of Dave Mason and Jim Capaldi.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
According with Jor-El (when this one talks to his son in the Fortress of Solitude), Superman is 18 years old at time of their meeting in the fortress, passing 12 years together studying life and cosmos. When Superman appears in Metropolis he is 30 years old. Christopher Reeve was 26 years old at time of the movie.