The death of Christopher Reeve brought to mind yet again how much this remarkable actor has contributed to the Superman legacy.
Reeve's seriousness and professionalism reinvigorated a character that I and millions of other "Fifties kids" first came to know and love through the George Reeves television series and the comic books that introduced us to the joys of the printed page. Years later (in March of 1983, to be exact) I was on the editorial staff of Omni magazine and had the opportunity to interview Reeve in the course of my work. The subject of our discussion was the impending release of the much-anticipated Superman III, the sequel to his two previous box-office triumphs as the Man of Steel. I spoke to Reeve on the phone on the afternoon of March 15, 1983 and found him to be friendly, enthusiastic, and cooperative.
After the article was finally published I wished I had seen the film first, which wasn't released until three months after the interview. The little I did know about the movie was from seeing a sneak peek in Starlog magazine. Like many others who saw Superman III, I was generally disappointed in it and would have asked him some critical questions had I seen the picture prior to the interview.
Interestingly, Superman III is to me a bit less objectionable today than it was 21 years ago, perhaps because I was expecting so much of the movie, coming as it did on the heels of the first two films, which were so great. Then again, compared to Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Superman III looks like Citizen Kane.
Here then is the interview, transcribed directly from the magazine in which it appeared in August 1983. This material is Copyright © 1983 by Omni Publications International Ltd. All rights reserved.
Christopher Reeve, famous for his portrayal of the latest incarnation of what has been called the most widely known figure in American fiction, is discussing his third and, he says, final appearance as the caped extraterrestrial. The film, directed by Superman II veteran Richard Lester, also features comedy superstar Richard Pryor, who adds plenty of laughs to this fantasy of human greed and artificial intelligence.
"The film takes place in 1983, with contemporary people who have the larger-than-life hero, Superman, in their midst. It is really a comic book, and within that we play it straight," Reeve explains. "The movie literally starts on a matchbook cover. The opening shot is of Richard Pryor - a guy out of work who picks up a matchbook that reads: EARN BIG MONEY, BE A COMPUTER PROGRAMMER. Whereas the other Superman films started big (outer space, other planets) and worked down, Superman III starts small and develops into an epic-size movie."
But is there an antitechnological bias present in the film? "There certainly is from Richard Lester's point of view. One of the premises of this movie is that as we move into the future and toward high tech we must try not to move away from people. That's Lester's bias and my bias, and it definitely works into the story. Getting a machine to do all our work for us isn't necessarily a good idea."
Lester, an American who achieved success in England directing the zany 1964 Beatles classic A Hard Day's Night, and who has imbued all of his films (including Help!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers, and The Four Musketeers) with his own brand of humor, opens Superman III with a collection of sight gags of extraordinary urban calamities. "The style with Lester is not just to spoof any values or anything, but to show absurdities in the world," Reeve explains. "I had a discussion with him about the way computers round off decimals on paychecks to the nearest number. There's a great many fractions of cents that get stored away someplace, and the man who could tap into that would have a windfall." Lester liked Reeve's idea and used it for Richard Pryor's character, computer hacker extraordinaire Gus Gorman. Gorman's silicon larceny causes him to be blackmailed into assisting his employer, industrialist Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), who plots to control the world's oil supply. As for Clark (Superman) Kent, he's away on assignment for the Daily Planet.
"Clark goes back to Smallville for his high-school reunion, and he makes a new friend," Reeve reveals. "He meets a girl he knew as a kid, name Lana Lang [Annette O'Toole]. She's divorced, has a nine-year-old son, and is trying to make a living. Clark and Lana renew their friendship. She likes him, and there's a kind of attraction there, but they're just friends, really. Remember at the end of Superman II, he causes Lois Lane to forget that they had a relationship. That was the end of romance for Superman. Lois was his one true love, it didn't work out, and ther won't be another. The idea of hopping from bedroom to bedroom in contemporary fashion I think would be wrong for Superman.
"Also, you'll see a far more normal Clark Kent. If you remember in the first movie, when he was growing up, he was an average farm kid with no behavioral problems. He didn't stutter and push his glasses around; that was all a disguise he invented for living in the city. When he goes back to Kansas you see him drop all that and ask himself, Why do I do all this shtick? Clark helps Lana without putting any pressure on. When men and women aren't trying to impress each other, there's a good chance that something very close can develop."
Unfortunately for Superman, what does develop is a bizarre personality change, caused by a dose of Gus Gorman's home-made kryptonite. The man of steel, transformed into a drunken hooligan, must come to grips with himself and then battle a supercomputer (programmed to defend itself at all costs) in a climactic, effects-filled, living video game.
"I think this is probably the most technologically accomplished of the three Superman films," Reeve declares. "I oversaw a great deal of how the flying was to be done, whereas in the first two films I went along for the ride. We have shots in Superman III where I actually fly over real city traffic, about four feet above the deck. Long flying shots over wheat fields and real outdoor stuff. It's more ambitious, and yet, I feel that the flying has gotten to the point where it's so good you don't even notice it, which is the ultimate compliment. People will see the film and take it for granted: 'Oh yeah, Superman flies, of course.'"
Richard Pryor, not generally noted for any aerial abilities, was also required to be air-borne, making for some scary moments for the comedian. Reeve explains: "I rehearsed with Richard in the studio for a couple of days, taking him off the floor slowly, first three feet, then five, and then ten, and explained how to 'fly.'
"But then the crew got him on the set at eight in the morning, put the harness on, and suddenly he was dangling on wires from a crane outdoors. They whipped him up to sixty feet without any preparation. Those construction cranes look flimsy; they don't look solid. It was not a kind thing to do to him. They should have eased him into it. But the scene called for him to be terrified. The unit knew that he was safe, and they decided to capture that real fear. Richard Lester is big on that. No one was in danger at any time, but they could have been more courteous to Pryor."
Although the combination of Richards ensures that there is plenty of comedy in Superman III, the atmosphere on the set was "not a nonstop party," according to Reeve. "It was professional, it was economical, as opposed to what Richard Donner did on the first movie. Donner luxuriated, did a lot of scene painting (the Cheerios on the breakfast table, the unlimited horizon of wheat fields), and then would gradually let each thing go and move on. Lester is not that way. Superman III is closer to the second movie. We were moving so fast that when a shot was over, everyone's mind was on the next thing. Pryor picked up that technique. He got to the point quickly, and many things were the first take. Sometimes, though, he can be fishing for two or three takes and then suddenly get it. He's like a flat stone skipping over water; the stone will bounce several times before it goes in. That skipping stone is fun to watch, but you'd better be ready when he hits. The danger is that you'll be off when he's on." Lester encouraged this spontaneity from his performers by shooting certain scenes only once, using several cameras to cover each angle."
The release of Superman III coincides with the character's fiftieth birthday, Superman having been created in Depression-ridden Ohio by two teen-age science-fiction fans, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. An escapist and optimistic response to an era of hardship and the fear of war, Superman caught on faster than a speeding bullet after his initial comic-book appearance in 1938 and soon spread to syndicated newspaper strips and radio. Film was the inevitable next step, and in 1941 pioneer animators Max and Dave Fleischer earned an Academy Award nomination for the first in their series of 17 color Superman theatrical cartoons. Through the years, the character appeared in two movie serials, a feature film, a TV series, and a Broadway musical.
As the current keeper of the cape in this latest and most ambitious series of Superman movies, Reeve suggests why the character's popularity is stronger than ever. "Because he's such an accurate psychological model. He combines basic fantasy with everyday reality, and it's an unbeatable combination. What person who faces the nine-to-five world that we all live in has not dreamed of flying, power, and freedom?" "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" by the voice of England's working class, the Kinks, is one of several recent pop songs inspired by this universally recognized icon. Cliches about X-ray vision and undressing in phone booths are familiar to us all, as is the encapsulated S insignia, a motif seen frequently in the mass media.
"Superman is a strong visual representation of a thought common to every citizen of Western culture. Namely, How do I function as an individual in a society where I feel like a mouse? "However, we mustn't pump this up into being pseudomythology," Reeve cautions. "Superman should be left up on the screen or on the page. The questions that people have come up with about the symbolism of Superman are really quite frightening. Religious figures have called me up and asked if I'm aware of the responsibilities of being a contemporary Christ figure. Hey, I'm an actor from New Jersey; I can't be responsible for that."
Though proud of his work as Superman, the Princeton native feels it's time to move on. "You can't get stuck on any one thing in life. They're planning Supergirl now, and we had long talks about how much money it would take me to do Superman IV, but I said, 'Don't bother.' Money can't buy satisfaction, and I've got to do movies I'm happy with. I don't want the Superman films to become formulaic. Each of them stands on its own two feet. I hope Superman III makes it - it's two hours where you can check your problems at the door."