Christopher Reeve found Superman co-star Marlon Brando less than heroic! The pair played father in son in the Seventies blockbuster, though it seems the warmth between Kal-El and Jor-El didn’t happen offscreen. Twitter user All The Right Moves posted footage from Late Night with David Letterman, where Reeve appeared as a guest in 1982. The interview, promoting movie Deathtrap, has been available online for a while but the account highlighted the section on Brando.
“We’ve had two other people on the show who worked with Marlon Brando,” Letterman asked, “and I know you worked with him for a few days… Anything interesting come of that relationship?”
Perhaps the legendary host knew he’d hear something juicy. Either way, the chiseled leading man Reeve did not disappoint in his remarks about Brando in Superman. “I don’t say this to be vicious,” he started, “but I don’t worship at the altar of Marlon Brando. Because I feel he’s copped out in a certain way.” Referring to Brando’s lack of “a leadership position”, Reeve expanded: “He could really be inspiring a whole generation of actors by continuing to work. But what happened is the press loved him whether he was good, bad or indifferent. Where people thought he was this institution no matter what he did.”
Believing that led to Brando switching off creatively, Reeve said, “I just think it’s too bad that the man has been forced into that hostility.” Ever the mischief maker, Letterman then joked Brando was waiting in the wings. “That’s something I would say to him as well,” added Reeve, having recovered from what must have been Kryptonian levels of anxiety!
“Was it exciting to work with him?” Letterman continued. “Not really,” came the prompt reply. “I had a wonderful time but the man didn’t care, I’m sorry. He just took the 2 million and ran.” Reeve went on to say that as a young actor he felt strongly about his craft. However he also stressed that Brando was “a wonderful actor” and “brilliant man”.
At that point the iconic method actor’s last movie had been 1980’s The Formula, a thriller about the fallout from the second world war which also starred George C. Scott and Sir John Gielgud. It got a fairly lukewarm reaction, with Brando receiving a nomination for Golden Raspberry as Worst Supporting Actor.
It had been a few years since Reeve burst on the scene in cape and tights as the title character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The role sent his career skywards, quite literally. If the original plan for the film had worked out, Superman might have been played by Robert Redford. He, Burt Reynolds and Redford’s pal Paul Newman all said no before the casting department decided to hire an unknown.
Speaking to the website Hey U Guys in 2016, Reeve’s co-star and fellow rookie Margot Kidder (Lois Lane) revealed: “Chris and I were the most inexperienced so we got the lowest salaries of anyone.” Things changed for the second installment in 1980.
“For the second one we renegotiated our contracts because I found out they had things with Chris in Japan holding Pepsi cans in his hand – which I teased him about relentlessly. He then found out they had Taco Bell glasses with my picture on it and we weren’t getting part of the proceeds so we were able to sue the producers. Chris was too nervous about it all so he turned up to work every day but I said through my lawyers that I wasn’t going to turn up until we renegotiate my contract for it to include part of the merchandising. So they upped both of our salaries.”
This financial insecurity wasn’t shared by Brando, who arrived on director Richard Donner’s set with a hefty pay deal. Getting to that point was an interesting experience to say the least. Quoted by The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, Donner said: “I had to go and meet him. I called Jay Kanter, who was a very powerful agent and studio executive, and I said, ‘Can you give me any hints?’
And he said, ‘He’s going to want to play it like a green suitcase.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It means he hates to work and he loves money, so if he can talk you into the fact that the people on Krypton look like green suitcases and you only photograph green suitcases, he’ll get paid just to do the voiceover. That’s the way his mind works.’” When they met, Brando suggested he play Jor-El as a bagel.
Thankfully the offbeat concept didn’t work out and Brando made a memorable appearance onscreen. His final movie was The Score, where he acted alongside Robert De Niro and Edward Norton. He passed away in 2004, coincidentally the same year as Reeve.
In 1995 Reeve suffered a riding accident which left him quadriplegic. He returned to acting, most notably in the remake of Rear Window (1998). Shortly before his final days he played Dr Virgil Swann in TV show Smallville – Tom Welling played Clark Kent. Superman drew attention to both Reeve and Brando, for rather different reasons. However the experience went, the end result is one of the most highly-regarded box office hits of all time.