Just like the casting for any major role, getting the right man with the perfect physique and American grin to play Superman is a rigorous process. Though, unlike the casting of suave British spy James Bond, for example, which requires you to be merely handsome and athletic, finding the perfect Superman requires specific characteristics, namely short jet black hair, a stocky build and sharp facial features.
This description perfectly fits the profiles of previous actors to depict the character, such as Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill. Though, before the influential decision to choose Reeve in the very first blockbuster adaptation of the comic, the casting process was a long and complicated one, including the unlikely names of Robert Redford, Paul Newman and even Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It was decided in the early stages of production that the team wanted to sign an A-list actor, with early choices Redford, Newman, Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone each turning the role down. This forced the producers to consider unknown actors for the role, auditioning over 200 individuals for the role, including Christopher Reeve, who director Richard Donner considered ‘too skinny’ for the part at the time.
Unclear why so many Hollywood stars were turning down the role, the casting search soon became desperate, with creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz recalling, “We found guys with fabulous physique who couldn’t act or wonderful actors who did not look remotely like Superman“. Olympic champion Bruce Jenner, Neil Diamond, James Brolin, Christopher Walken, Nick Nolte and James Caan each turned the role down, with the latter noting that “I just couldn’t wear that suit”.
Arnold Schwarzenegger joined this list of names and even made it through several cuts before eventually being struck from the running by none other than Marlon Brando, who plays Jor-El, Superman’s father. Brando’s contract in the film gave him an authoritative say in the casting of the main roles, so he voted against Schwarzenegger, thinking that the public would be unable to hear what he was saying.
For an actor who has made his fair share of eccentric decisions, it’s a shame that Marlon Brando didn’t push for Schwarzenegger’s involvement instead of shoving him out of the running, with the prospect of an Austrian-American Superman simply too good to ignore. In reality, Donner was convinced to have Christopher Reeve in for a screen test in 1977, stunning the production team with his performance before being asked to wear a “muscle suit” for the role. Refusing to wear the suit, Reeve instead underwent a rigorous exercise regime, going from 188 to 212 pounds during this process.
Despite being paid considerably less than his co-stars Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, Reeves looks back fondly on his time in the film, commenting, “Superman brought me many opportunities, rather than closing a door in my face”.