The Richard Donner-helmed 1978 Superman brought forth an extraordinary experience for movie-going audiences. At the time of its release, the movie enjoyed a record-breaking reception. The endeavor subsequently became Warner Bros.’s biggest hit at the time. The superhero genre as we know it has been shaped by Donner’s Superman, with his ambitious pursuit marking the first instance a film adaptation of a comic-book superhero took itself seriously.
To put it simply, the 1978 movie heralded a new age of superhero movies, whose foundation paved the way for modern-day DCU and MCU initiatives. However, what might not be known to many is that the initial idea for the film suggested a premise that had the potential to tarnish Superman’s legacy as a classic comic-book character. The individual who ultimately proposed a revision of the script was none other than director Richard Donner.
The story goes something as follows.
Alexander Salkind Approached Richard Donner For Superman (1978)
When film producer Alexander Salkind, known for having produced The Three Musketeers, approached the Lethal Weapon director, the latter was offered a million-dollar deal to helm the Superman film.
Before Donner’s involvement, pre-production had commenced for the 1978 film. The only requirement was to find a director to take the place of Guy Hamilton. Hamilton had to step down from the project due to two main factors: firstly, the production had shifted to England, and his status as a tax exile prevented his participation; secondly, he had fallen ill at the time.
As a result, Alexander Salkind reached out to Richard Donner and requested him to take on the endeavor. Donner enquired about a few things before asking Salkind about the movie’s script. The producer responded by affirming that the script was “perfect.”
That couldn’t have been the farthest from the truth.
Richard Donner Disapproved Of Superman‘s Original Script
Within an hour after their phone conversation, a weighty, bulky-looking script was promptly delivered to Donner. What he received couldn’t have been more disappointing. The script ended up being incredibly lengthy, spanning around 500 pages and encompassing both the initial picture and a sequel. Unfortunately, it also disregarded the source material. This is how the director recollected the situation:
“There was a delivery guy at my door within an hour, with this script that was so thick and big you’d get a hernia from lifting it. […] So I sat down and read the script, and it took forever. It was the longest thing I have ever read. It was indulgent and heavy and had no point of view and treated [the comic books] with disrespect.”
One of the scenes that he recalled from the original script detailed the following:
“It was disparaging. It was just gratuitous action. I’m reading this thing and Superman’s looking for Lex Luthor in Metropolis, and he’s looking for every bald head in the city. And then he flies down and taps a guy on the shoulder and it‘s [Kojak’s] Telly Savalas, who hands him a lollipop and says, ‘Who loves ya, baby?’”
Donner was rather displeased with the frivolous, campy nature of the premise. The absurdity of the original script, although well-written, had the potential to destroy Superman’s legacy. Having read Superman comics during his childhood, the director felt a strong sense of responsibility to safeguard the character from being portrayed inaccurately.
He wanted to protect the project from encountering the same fate that befell many comic book adaptations of the time: being treated as a joke. This is when Richard Donner brought in screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite the Marlon Brando starrer.
Alexander Salkind Was Initially Hesitant To Accept The Rewrite
Donner was eventually flown to Paris for a meeting with Alexander Salkind. During this meeting, the director strongly advocated for a rewrite of the original script. However, this proved to be a difficult task, as the producer stood by his belief that the original script was flawless. Following is how their conversation went:
“The first thing I said was, “Mr. Salkind, this needs a major rewrite.” He said, “No, no, no, this is a perfect script.” I said, “It’s not a perfect script.” So I started telling him all my feelings and he said, “You’re wrong.” I said, “Thank you for the trip to Paris, but I can’t do this.” And we started leaving.”
At this point, the producer felt compelled to hear out the filmmaker’s request. Salkind demanded, “OK, tell me what you would rewrite.” While some fiscal arguments arose, shortly thereafter, Donner’s requests were ultimately approved, allowing him to proceed with the production process.
This was how late director Richard Donner was able to bring to life an endeavor that honored Superman’s legacy as a character and forever transformed what the superhero genre stands for. No longer confined to cartoonish, comedic entertainment, live-action superheroes began to be treated seriously and evolved into figures of dramatic heroism.
Superman (1978) is available for streaming on Max.