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By: Barry Freiman
This is part three of a series of exclusive interviews and stories from the 2005 Cult TV Superhero Celebration Superhero Expo. Hosted by DG Promotions, the Superhero Expo featured the unveiling of "Christopher Reeve as Superman" an eerily lifelike and beautiful sculpture unveiled by Sculptors Bob Dullam and Bob Causey.
Part four will feature a one-on-one interview with Sarah Douglas, the evil "Ursa" from "Superman" and "Superman II". Douglas played in the DCU twice more after Ursa. She returned to the Phantom Zone to play villainess Mala on "Superman: The Animated Series" in 1997. And heterosexual males will likely remember the time she and Heather Locklear spent in the company of DC's muck monster, the Swamp Thing, in 1989's "The Return of the Swamp Thing " Adding to this already impressive Sci-Fi roster are roles in the "V" series and "Conan the Destroyer". Evil may be her on-screen forte, but her comments show a woman of good humor who appreciates her fans. She even flew in from the U.K. just for the Superhero Expo.
Finally, part five will feature a pictorial spread of the event including exclusive looks at the statue and even a re-enactment of the scene from "Superman II" where Non and Ursa threaten to rip Lois Lane in half.
Q: What brought you here today?
A: They said Maggie (Margot Kidder) was coming and I hadn't seen Maggie in a while. Sarah's a dear lady and I see her every now and then. And Sarah said "Will you come? If you go, I'll go". I was in L.A. because I'm producing two pictures. I don't do very many of these things (conventions) but I did because Sarah was coming.
Q: Before boxing and acting, is it true you were a football player?
A: Ya. I played a couple of years with (the New York Jets) in their farm system. When I was eligible to play, I talked (Weeb) Eubank (the Jets' head coach) into letting me go to Philadelphia. I would've played for Philly in 1965.
Q: Then you went into boxing?
A: I boxed for nine years. They had offered me several pictures during the course of that and I kept telling them "no, no".
Q: Did you ever fight Muhammad Ali?
A: We were signed (to fight) four times. We never actually fought but I knocked his brother out. In fact, he (Ali) called me up and said "you gotta do me a favor - you're fighting my brother next week"; I said "your brother?" and he said (to) scare him out of boxing. He was embarrassed. Ali and I are very good friends. He's a super guy.
When he fought Norton, that was supposed to be my fight. Ali was coming to San Diego to fight me. They turned it over to Norton (instead). He promised me that we'd fight but we never did. But we remain friends still to today.
Ali said to me once "Would you really try if you fight me?" I said "Sunshine, let me tell you something. First time in my life I'll go to (boxing) camp, and you better bring a gun in the ring." (laughs) We laughed It would've been a good fight (between Ali and me). He was a great fighter, a great athlete and just a great human being. I like Muhammad Ali.
Q: Do you ever get confused with Richard Kiel, who played "Jaws" in "The Spy who Loved Me"?
A: Well, you know, I turned the movie down. I mean that guy would've never worked, Richard Kiel. They came to me for the Bond movies because they were so impressed with "Farewell My Lovely". I was signed to do a picture called "March or Die" with (Gene) Hackman... I think, looking back in reflection, I should've done the Bond pictures. But I didn't like the script, I didn't like the character. I was looking to do different things when I got into acting... They came to me to do "Silver Streak" and "Force 10 from Navarone". So I turned down several pictures that made Richard Kiel's career. Paramount came after me something fierce, but I was in the middle of doing "King Kong" and we had a break and they said we could squeeze in this other picture, and I should've done it. Looking back on it, I should've worked as much as I could. And (friend Robert) Mitchum told me that; I was foolish looking back on that. That's the way it is.
A: McQueen was a dear friend. I met McQueen in Boston when he was doing the "Thomas Crown Affair" (1968) and he... said, "Man, you gotta come to Hollywood, we'll have a good time." And we became good friends while he was in Boston. We went home and he did a picture called "The Towering Inferno" and his name (in the movie) was Captain O'Halloran. And he called me and said "How do you like your name up on the screen?" And he knew that I had turned down "The Great White Hope" and I had turned down a couple of other pictures, and he said "You gotta get out here"... but I guess I just wasn't ready for it. When they called me for "Farewell My Lovely", I said 'ya' this time. And I enjoyed (that film). That's a great picture - it's a classic. I met and worked with one of the finest gentlemen in the industry - Robert Mitchum. He taught me a lot. He was like a father to me. I really had a tremendous amount of respect for him. It was a great loss when he died.
Q: How much did you know about Superman before you were approached?
A: As a child, we all go through the Superman thing.
Q: Do you recall how you first got involved with the production?
A: I had just finished the picture "March or Die" and I don't think I was five days in-between movies. They grabbed me when I was in London and asked me if I would think about doing the super-villain. They said it was a huge movie. And (Marlon) Brando was going to be in it and I wanted to work with Brando.
Q: What was it like working with him?
A: Brando loved fighters, so Brando and I got on really well. And (Gene) Hackman was doing it and I'd just done a picture with Hackman. So I said 'ya, that's cool, let's play.' And it turned out good.
Q: You actually got to play with the big boys through most of the first two movies - many of your scenes were with Brando and Hackman.
A: Ya. Well, y'know, Brando only worked 11 days. And we worked all 11 days with him. Marlon is such a class act. There's a league out there - Brando and Mitchum, and Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart. We don't have actors like that anymore. They were a class, class act. I watch these guys come in every morning and they say "hello" to everybody, to every technician and they say "goodnight" when they leave. There's nothing spoiled about them, they come to work and they work. They show up on time and do what they're supposed to do. And I learned from that type, and that's the way I work. And I enjoy the industry.
Q: Was Non always supposed to be a non-speaking role?
A: It was my choice. They had three super-villains and I said, 'y'know, somebody has to relate to children - one of us'. (Director Richard) Donner and I had a conversation about it and I said 'if you're going to have this animal guy, let's do it to where he has a hard time working his powers and stuff, like a child learning how to walk.' And do like an adulation to Zod. And make him a child-minded person... I felt somebody had to relate to the children. That's what the movie was about.
Q: And Ursa certainly wasn't going to do that...
A: No. (laughs) I think she was the pin-up dyke of the year. For me, as an actor, doing the facial stuff was cool. To me, it was much better and more effective not speaking and doing everything with my face.
A: Ya, ya.
Q: When Director Richard Lester came on, were there changes made to the Phantom Zone characters?
A: I wasn't a great fan of Richard Lester's. Donner was a tremendous director and a great human being. I really like Richard Donner. And he (Donner) shot most of ("Superman II"). We were doing "I" and "II" together and we got so much into "II" that they had to stop because they had to get "I" done to get it out and we got wrapped up doing "II" because it was such a better movie. And there was so much more being done. Then they came back (with Lester) and they had to re-do stuff because they'd waited such a long period between films and Maggie looked different and Chris looked different. So they had to re-shoot a lot of stuff.
Q: Do you recall when Lester came onboard?
A: Like I said, we were doing "I" and "II" and (Lester) all of a sudden showed up on the set. And then I knew, there was trouble in paradise. Something was wrong. Rumors started floating around that the Salkinds had made a deal with (Lester) already, and they owed him something from another picture. Everything went round and round and round. I mean, I wasn't a happy puppy when Donner didn't come back to finish "II". I though it was kind of foolish of the Salkinds. But they were kind of foolish people. They did a lot of stupid things. They should've done the 10 films they set out to do. And I think part of that was Chris's fault (too) - Chris thought he became a movie star.
Q: Do you want to participate in "Superman Returns"?
A: In fact, when I go back to L.A., I'm going to talk to Warners because we had shot footage at the end (of "Superman II") of us being put in police vehicles and taking off without our powers. They're going to do "Superman", the new one, right off of "I" and "II" like "III" and "IV" were never done. Which I think is a very good idea. So, the continuity, they could bring the three of us back coming out of jail. And we would've aged dramatically because we were like a thousand years old. Once the powers went away, we would've aged. So they can bring us back seeking out Lex Luthor to try to get our powers back and become immortal villains again.
Q: Why do you think it's taken so long to get another "Superman" movie made?
A: It's because they have so many lawsuits. Tom Pollack made a living off of them. Tom Pollack was an attorney and then he became head of Universal Studios because he made such a living from these guys (the Salkinds). I went into his office one time - he had (law)suits stacked up against the wall. It was sad because they'd hurt the little guy. They hurt the vendors and, to me, that was ludicrous. "II" was such a magnanimous movie and it should've been followed up (by "III") right away. And they didn't do it because they were greedy people. They just took the money and ran. And that was really sad. It really was. I mean, I was settled in. I thought we were going to do a string of them. It would've been a lot of fun to do that. I think Terence (Stamp) felt the same way. But I think Christopher was the opposition to it. They couldn't strike a deal with him. They should've struck the deal up front.
Q: What do you recall about the scenes Donner filmed that weren't included in the theatrical version of "Superman II"?
A: Well, Brando, it was the Salkinds again. They wouldn't pay him for another movie. That's what that was all about. He filmed a lot of stuff. They even changed the voice, they changed it from him to the mother and I thought that lost a lot of effect. But they just refused to pay him. I thought that the Salkinds were just real short-minded. But that's their career. They did that in all their (films). It's sad that Warner Brothers didn't have better control over the film. But they didn't have any control. They were only the distributors. I remember, when we were doing "II", the Salkinds had held a gun to (Warner Brothers') head when they gave them "I" and they got an extra $5 million out of them, y'know. So they had a delivery date for "II" and I was there when the Salkinds did this; it was a trip. They had their delivery date for "II" and they were late - as usual. Everything was drug (sic) out. So Warner Brothers said "well maybe we don't want to distribute "Superman II"", and Alexander (Salkind) waited for that. He said, "Oh that means I can bring other distributors in?" And they (WB) said "Ya." Well, I went to this screening - he had a screening at Pinewood (where the "Superman" movies were filmed) - and every major distributor from every major distribution company was there, and he showed the fight scene, which we'd already shot. And Warners couldn't get the rubber bands off their money fast enough. Because the flying shots were magnificent... It was a great concept. It was tedious and slow for the actors. But to put us on poles coming out of a 70-foot screen and shooting vista-vision on vista-vision, and we're flying under bridges and stuff and there's no wires or nothing. And it looks so smooth and great.
Q: Have you ever been approached about returning to the Superman universe in any of the animated series or on "Smallville"?
A: "Smallville", there's been talk back and forth, and I gave them a storyline one time that could bring the three villains into it. But that's all it went to was talk. Television people are kind of funny. I'm not really a television fan. But the show's a hit and that shows you the interest in Superman. And I think that is one of the things that has spurred Warner Brothers to really get into doing this (next movie). And they're doing it - they've got Kevin Spacey doing Lex Luthor, they've got a great Lois Lane.
A: I think he looks perfect. They say he can really act. If the kid is as good as they say, they've signed him to do four (films). So they're looking to put their money where their mouth is. To have a major (studio) have control over it will make it work. I'm going to feed them a storyline when I go back (to L.A.) this week, and sit down with them, and see if we can't work something where the three villains come. Even if we come and phase out just to bridge continuity.
Q: Have you met "Superman Returns" Director Bryan Singer?
A: I haven't met him yet, no. I've heard of him and Donner told me about him.
Q: Is it true that Singer pitched his idea to Donner?
A: Ya, that's right. I remember, I called Donner because there's been so much scuttlebutt about doing Superman again. And I asked Richard, I said 'Dick, are you doing this?' And he said "Oh no, we've got nothing to do with this." And, of course, they couldn't say anything. And that's the way it should be. But then, when they got down to it, I mean they're (Donner's people) the ones making the appointment for me to go see the Producers and we'll sit down, we'll see.. I'd be more than happy to go to Australia and play, and get into this thing. Even though I'm doing some neat films of my own, and the book that I'm writing is going to be a blockbuster, and the film will be huge. So I really don't need to go back and do "Superman". But I would do it because it would complete a page...
Q: How do you feel about a special edition DVD of "Superman II" that would incorporate Donner's vision?
A: I hope they do. I hope they let him.
Q: Is it true you broke your back on "Superman II"?
A: Ya, it's like the straw that broke the camel's back. I'd done a lot of stuff athletically. But we were doing these flying shots and the molds weren't made very well. And they didn't think of the time factor that we were going to be in them. And the positions that you're doing and holding... You really had to go to extremes with these people to get them off their a** to do things. We were doing flying shots on stages and they had people pulling us, they had no mechanism, they had guys pulling the three of us as we flew into the Daily Planet. And we were on "F" stage, and on the floor there was nothing, I mean, you're looking down on a hardwood floor. We've got two piano wires that are holding us up 35 feet in the air... I told them, "Lemme tell you sunshine, if one of these wires break and I hit that floor, if I'm able to get up, you better move." (laughs)
Q: Is it true that the original "Superman" script contained four, rather than three, Phantom Zone villains?
A: Ya, they paired it down to three.
Q: Did they ever cast the fourth villain?
A: No. I think their budget got a little too tippy, y'know? One of the things that shocked me, I was on the set making the deal, and they were already preparing and so the crew was there. And I'm walking down through the studio one day and there's the crew standing around to get paid and they wouldn't take checks. They wanted cash. I said to David Tomlin, who was the First Assistant Director, and I said 'David, what the hell is going on here?' And he said, "Oh you don't know the Salkinds." These guys (the crew) don't trust them for salt. They want their money. The Salkinds are notorious for bouncing checks and all this stuff. I said, 'This is a $50 million picture?' But he said that they (didn't) have the money yet. The money comes when Brando gets on film. That's why he had to work the first 11 days. Once they had him on film, they got the money. That gave them credibility for the picture. See, they hired Brando actually four years before. Brando was paid in gold actually four years before we shot the movie. Because they were supposed to shoot it in Italy. And a guy named (Guy) Hamilton was supposed to direct it and he couldn't come back to England (because he was a tax exile) so they had to get another director.
Q: Did you ever meet Hamilton?
A: No. Donner was the guy. I remember them going through people to get to (casting) Superman. They were interviewing people like crazy. One of the funniest interviews was... a singer and they came out of the Salkind's office, him and his crew, and they were laughing (because) they asked (this singer) to put his career on hold for a year and they're going to pay him $2 million - he makes that a day. And the guy was just so inappropriate to do Superman. It was a joke. They were looking for a name. Bruce Jenner was close, but he couldn't act. I mean, that would've been a bad mistake. And McQueen? It just wasn't his deal. Steve was a great actor, but it wouldn't have worked. Chris fit the bill. He was a skinny little kid when he came on the set and they took a bodybuilder and pumped him up. And they asked me, they said "how do you get the guy to be bigger?" And I talked to the bodybuilder (David Prowse), and they puffed him up, and it worked out very well. But his head got too big for his body, man. Chris was like a 28 year old guy with a 16 year old mind. I mean, there were a few kinks and problems, but it worked out. It worked well. He did the role well. He should've done all the films the way they originally wanted to and I think they would've probably handled the whole scenario a lot better.
Q: Did you ever see Chris after his accident?
A: No. I give Chris a lot of credit. From the time he got hurt until his death, he did a lot for people. He gave people a lot of courage. I mean, I'll never be a hypocrite. I didn't really like Christopher Reeve, we didn't really get on. I thought he was a bit of an a**hole. But, when he got hurt, my heart went out to him and I've seen the courage he gave people. And that was magic. So he did do something with his life that was kind of good and for that, I give him a lot of credit. I can't be a hypocrite, I'm not going to say we were best friends and all that sh*t, because we weren't.
Q: What are your plans next?
A: I got away from (acting) for awhile and I've done some writing. In fact I've just written a book that will come out and is going to be a blockbuster, and we're producing five movies now. We're shooting one called "The List" in L.A. next month with this young boy, (singer/rapper) Usher. And I've got the (acting) bug again to go back on the screen. I'm looking forward to it.