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WC15: “Superman” Stars Reminisce About Donner Years, “Crazy” ’70s

by  in Movie News Comment
WC15: “Superman” Stars Reminisce About Donner Years, “Crazy” ’70s

During an hour co-moderator Shay Towers called “the most exciting in my career,” the stars of Richard Donner’s “Superman” gathered at WonderCon to take look back at the 1978 film, its director and star. Though Donner could not attend, he sent along a video message thanking the fans for “holding this movie up in your hearts.” He also issued a warning about the cast members in attendance: “Don’t believe a single word they say.”

After the video, actress Valerie Perrine — who played Eve Teschmacher in the first two films — was asked about her memories of Donner. She laughed and said, “I don’t know if I can tell the story!” After some coaxing, she said she and Donner took off in a Winnebago one day into the Canadian wilderness. She said, “Dick would go out into nature and say he was fucking nature!”

Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane and refers to the director as “Harry” because “he doesn’t look like a Dick,” recalled the way the director would help relieve tension on set. During “Superman’s” filming, Kidder was in the middle of a divorce and stuck in England during the proceedings. “He teased me relentlessly because he knew if he could get me to laugh, it would release the tension,” she said. “If I got stuck, he would yell ‘divorce!’ and it would get me going.” Considering the kind person she knows Donner to be, she added, “You just sensed this huge love and huge heart. He’s one of the best human beings on Earth.”

Kidder also talked about Donner’s directing style, saying that “he figured out how to direct each person the way they needed to be directed. He directed Chris [Reeve] entirely differently from how he directed me.” Where Reeve, who played Superman, worked with precision and needed every beat and movement planned out ahead of time, Kidder liked to experiment during takes. “With me, [Donner] just let Kidder fly,” said the actress.

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Jack O’Halloran, who played the mute Kryptonian Non, called Donner an amazing individual. He recalled flying to London with Gene Hackman — who played Lex Luthor — to discuss the film with the director. At this meeting, O’Halloran suggested Non have a child-like aspect to him. He was surprised to see Donner was amiable to the idea, which influenced the way the character was presented in “Superman II.” “He’s such a tremendous director,” continued O’Halloran. “I’ve been fortunate. He did it with class.”

“My first memory of Mr. Donner was at the casting session,” said actor Marc McClure, who played Jimmy Olsen in the four Christopher Reeve “Superman” films and “Supergirl.” McClure remembered he was living on a houseboat in Marina del Rey at the time of the audition and Donner was thrilled to hear about this. “We ended up talking about boats for twenty minutes,” McClure said. “As I was leaving, he asked me if I knew who Jimmy Olsen was and I said, ‘Gee, golly, Mr. Kent!’ and left.” Two months later, Donner called him back in to make sure he was the same actor he talked to about houseboats; McClure subsequently got the part.

Aaron Smolinsky was three years old when he met Richard Donner. He was cast as baby Kal-El in the Smallville scenes, which were shot in Canada. Smolinsky posed a question: “What’s it like to get a three-year-old to do anything, let alone come out naked?”

“He was meticulous in every detail,” added Diane Sherry, who played Lana Lang in a handful of Smallville scenes. “I was waiting in Canada for a month to do my close up because he wanted the sun at the exact right place.”

Towers’ co-moderator, Caped Wonder founder Jim Bowers, asked about how Donner worked with the special effects. This led Kidder and O’Halloran to recall tough days on the effects stage.

“It was painful,” Kidder said. “If you’re hanging in a harness for 14 hours a day for weeks and weeks, your pelvic area gets very sore.” All of the actors seen flying in the film had to have a molded bodycasts made. The casts would then be used in special costumes to connect the actors to the various poles, wires and other rigging tricks used to make the flying scenes look natural.

“If you had to go to the bathroom, it was elaborate process to get out of the costumes,” said Kidder. She also remembered one instance when the rigging started to come lose; Reeve attempted to hold the two of them up forty feet above the studio floor. Afterward, she asked Reeve why he tried to keep them up. “I really thought I could do it!” said Kidder, quoting Reeve.

O’Halloran recalled that they had to convince the crew to put safety mats on the studio floor just in case something really went wrong. “They said the molds would never break — and then I broke mine!”

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Even McClure experienced some of the flying effects. In a scene deleted from the finished film but glimpsed in a rare ABC airing, Superman helped Jimmy take aerial photos of Hoover Dam. He recalled the technical challenge, but his memories centered more on Reeve. “The first time I was up on the wires with Chris, we were forty feet up and I’m just talking and talking [as myself] and he asked me if I could just be like Jimmy Olsen.” Reeve, like many actors, needed filming to mirror the scene as much as possible. Though not a method actor himself, McClure was happy to switch to the more innocent and inquisitive Olsen.

Asked about Reeve as a person, Kidder said she and the actor had a brother/sister relationship. She remembered going ice-skating with him at a rink in London while surrounded by locals that were sheepish about skating and holding onto the rails for dear life. The two devised a wicked game. “The game was ‘how many people could you knock down without touching them,'” she explained. Both she and Reeve were comfortable on the ice, claiming she could skate like a hockey player. It scared “the living daylights” out of the people around them. “Then we figured out if we held hands, we could bring the whole rink down!” she continued.

Briefly talking about Reeve after the tragic accident that left him a quadriplegic, she said she once visited him to tell him he was, perhaps, in even better shape than when was Superman. She said he understood what she meant completely. “He bloomed into someone extraordinary,” she said. “He really became a heroic person.”

Discussion moved on to filming on location in New York and the sets at Shepperton Studios in London. The New York portion of filming coincided with the infamous 1977 citywide blackout. “We needed lots of lights for the night scenes and Geoffrey Unsworth — who was the most extraordinary cinematographer — had all the lights plugged in, but needed more,” Kidder said. “He asked someone from the city for one more plug and a cop told him to plug into a lamppost and then all the lights in New York went out.” According to Kidder, Unsworth was convinced he caused the blackout.

Perrine recalled the courage she needed to jump into the pool that dominated Lex Luthor’s underground lair. “I can’t swim,” she said. “I can sort of baby-paddle and I was so scared, I got a bottle of champagne and drank it all. If you listen carefully in the scene, you can hear me slur my words.”

“It was the ’70s,” said Sherry.

“It was pretty crazy time,” added Kidder.

O’Halloran recalled the days Marlon Brando appeared on set as Jor-El. The actor made headlines when he was offered a million dollars for the month of work on “Superman”, but O’Halloran remembered him as a professional. “When he comes on a set, you can hear a pin drop … [but] he said good morning to everyone at the start of the day and goodbye to everyone at night. He was really down to earth.”

“Is it a true story that he took care of the whole crew and paid them £300 each?” asked McClure.

“We were working five or six days [in a row] and it was dinner and he said to Donner that we should take a day off,” said O’Halloran. At the time, Donner was under tremendous pressure from the producers to shoot a lot of material as quickly as possible. Brando asked producer Ilya Salkind how much it cost per day to film. Salkind told him it cost $350,000 a day. According to O’Halloran, Brando replied, “Let’s take tomorrow off; I’ll pay.”

As the hour drew to a close, McClure took a moment to thank the fans for coming to see them. “I love my home and I could easily stay there, but every time I come to an event, these guys are the greatest group of people to be around.”

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