Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Paul Newman, James Caan, Christopher Walken, Charles Bronson, Nick Nolte, Kris Kristofferon. It was the mid-1970s, Superman was about to be made into a movie in which the audience were to be promised that, thanks to then amazing special effects, they would believe a man could fly, and all these actors were approached to play the lead role of Superman.
They all declined.
What’s more, and while they were all declining, the unlikely duo of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Neil Diamond were busy lobbying the Warner Bros studio for the role.
They were both declined.
In the end, the studio decided to go for an unknown actor. Some guy called Christopher Reeve, a graduate from Juliard’s Advanced Program (fellow graduate, an equally unknown actor called Robin Williams) was suggested. But he was declined on the grounds that he looked too young. And too skinny. However, after a great deal of pressure from casting director Lynn Stalmaster, the studio offered him an audition.
He was immediately given the role.
However, the a978 Superman movie wasn’t just a big break for Christopher Reeve. It was a big break for Superman’s intellectual property owners, DC Comics. They had for years been struggling to claw back the market share they had lost during the late 1960s and early 1970s to their arch rival, Marvel Comics. DC’s Superman, once the towering front-runner of comic book sales, had been surpassed in popularity by Marvel’s stable of more flawed, human, and generally fully rounded superhero characters.
The 1978 Superman movie would reverse DC’s fortunes, once more send their Man of Steel soaring to the top of the best-selling comic book charts, and place him firmly back in the epicenter of cultural and (more importantly) commercial consciousness.
But it was, to a lesser but no less important extent, a big break for Jerry Siegel, then an impoverished writer, and for his friend Joe Shuster, a now legally blind and almost bankrupt graphics designer.
That’s because when Siegel and Shuster had been 18 year-olds living in Cleveland in 1933, they had been the original creators of Superman. Although originally conceived as a bald and down and out villain, the two teenagers had subsequently re-imagined their creation as the Superman superhero now so familiar to the world. Their attempts to market and sell their idea, however, initially met with no success. Publication after publication turned them down until, in 1938, the publisher that would become DC comics decided to take a chance and run with their Superman in the now famous Action Comics #1.
The publisher, however, drove a hard bargain. Siegal and Shuster sold their entire rights to DC in return for just $130 and an employment contract as a writer and illustrator. Their salaries, initially at least, were fairly generous, but by the 1940s it became clear to the pair that DC’s earnings from their creation massively outweighed not only what they had been paid but also the company’s claims to the contrary.
After repeated requests for additional payment (only partially given), and after Siegal had returned to the USA from serving during World War II to discover that DC had co-opted his idea for Superboy – an idea they had initially rejected and for which they now denied him the credit – Siegal and Shuster filed suit against DC in 1947 … and were promptly fired from the company. As the case dragged on, and after DC’s out of court settlement offers failed to materialize, in 1959 the financially crippled Siegal agreed to come back to work for DC as for standard pay and without a byline for any of his written work.
In 1965, with DC’s earnings from Superman rising to ever-new highs, Siegal resigned and launched a second lawsuit. Again, this lawsuit dragged on for years and drained his finances even further. Again a settlement was suggested if they dropped the case; again it failed to appear.
In the early 1970s, however, news that a Superman movie was going into production began to make the news. Rumors were that the studio had paid $3 million for the rights, and that Marlon Brando was getting paid $3.7 million and more than 11% of the gross for his part.
Siegal promptly issued a statement putting a curse on the movie on the grounds that DC had robbed him and Shuster of their fair share of the massive profit their creation had generated, and would continue to generate, for DC.
After a slow start, but with Superman now back in the news, eventually DC (now owned by Warner Communication) came to the table and offered Siegal and Shuster a deal: $10,00 upfront payment each, $20,000 per year pension, benefits, plus authorial credits for their work.
Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster died in the 1990s. Their families and heirs continue to get their pensions. The Superman movies keep rolling on, and the mega millions of dollars to the studios and intellectual property owners keep rolling in. Whether Jerry and Joe, or their families and heirs, got or are getting a fair shake is debatable.
One thing, though, seems certain: had it not been for the 1978 Superman movie, they all would have been financially much worse off.
much has been written about the “curse of Superman”: the superstition that grave misfortune will befall anyone who plays the role. Specifically, George Reeves who played Superman on television from 195-58 was shot to death, and Christopher Reeve was left paralyzed after a horse riding accident. Others also suffered.
Can this be linked to Siegal’s curse. No. Siegal’s curse was specific – it was that he hoped the movie “bombed” financially. It didn’t. It grossed $134.2 million in domestic US box office sales.
And it convinced its audience that a man could fly.