The Weird Connections Between 'The Godfather' And 'Superman'
It's weird to think that the beloved '70s movie that kicked off the superhero film genre and the one where some mobsters leave a horse head in someone's bed were co-written by the same guy AND star the same Hollywood legend as the protagonist's dad. It's even weirder to realize that, without The Godfather, the first Superman movie would have been very different or possibly not even happened at all, triggering a Butterly Effect-esque chain of events that would lead to 2022's The Batman being about Robert Pattinson as a guy who collects baseball bats.
See, when producer Ilya Salkind first decided to make a Superman film in the early '70s, no one took the concept of a "superhero movie" seriously -- or no one important, anyway. When Salkind approached DC Comics about it, he found that they had very specific ideas about what should and shouldn't happen in a Superman movie, and some of the writers there were even gunning for the screenwriter gig. After months of listening to the nerds ramble, Salkind got tired of negotiating with DC and went straight to their parent company, Warner Bros., and to his surprise, the deal was done "in two minutes." He says he called WB to ask about Superman and they ended up throwing in the rights to include any character who had ever been in the same comic as him (Batman, Wonder Woman, Don Rickles, whoever) because they truly did not give a crap.
The suits at WB had zero faith in superheroes as movie material -- at best, they were fodder for campy TV shows or terrible musicals, like the '60s Superman one that got an infamously bad TV special around this same time. This is how most people envisioned superhero adaptations back then:
So, the Salkinds managed to nab the rights to make a Superman movie, but now they needed a way to convince people that this would be an actual movie and not just two hours of "BIFF! POW! SOCK!" sound effects. Sci-fi author Alfred Bester was in negotiations to write the screenplay at DC's recommendation, but Salkind and his co-producer/dad ultimately turned him down because they wanted a "big name" that would bring credibility to the project. The Godfather Part II came out one month after the Salkinds bought the Superman rights, so they had their "name" right there: Mario Puzo, who wrote the original novels and co-wrote the movies' screenplays with Francis Ford Coppola. Incidentally, Coppola was one of the directors considered for Superman; we're not sure if he'd be more or less likely to think Marvel movies are "despicable" today if he'd gotten the job.
For Superman himself, the Salkinds looked at Godfather actors Al Pacino and James Caan, who was also offered the roles of Lex Luthor and Superman's dad, Jor-El (maybe even all at the same time, Eddie Murphy-style?). Basically, they really, really wanted some Godfather talent in this movie. And they got it: once Puzo finished his 550-page mammoth of a screenplay, which took him six months and involved consulting with DC writers, the Salkinds used it to attract Marlon Brando for Jor-El ... although the $3.7 million (plus 11.75% of the box office) salary probably helped, too.
It was a calculated investment: two days after Brando signed on, Gene Hackman joined the cast too. The Salkinds began hyping the movie in the media as "MARLON BRANDO AND GENE HACKMAN! Oh, and Superman's in this, too, probably" (they didn't have an actor for that tiny part yet).
Brando's horniness also helped get the movie's final director, in a roundabout way: at first, the movie was supposed to be shot in Italy, but then they found out that Brando would be arrested if he set foot there due to being found guilty of (according to Wikipedia) "aggravated, gratuitous pansexualism" after starring in the erotic movie Last Tango in Paris. The production moved to England, but now it was director Guy Hamilton who couldn't go there due to "disputes with British tax authorities." Hamilton was deemed more replaceable than Brando, though, so they went to England anyway and replaced him with The Omen director Richard Donner, whose realistic style ended up playing a big role in the movie's success.
Although Donner says that Brando "turned out to be a love" during shooting, there are reasons to believe he wasn't totally into the movie. For one thing, he famously floated the idea that Jor-El could be a talking suitcase or a green bagel, because who's to say Kryptonians don't look like that? And if that turned his part into a voiceover role and allowed him to literally phone it in from home, sigh, so be it. There's also the unconfirmed but highly likely story about Brando reading his lines from baby Superman's diaper, which isn't that far-fetched when you consider that, even on The Godfather, he had cue cards taped to other actors' bodies so he didn't have to memorize his lines.
Brando ended up suing the Salkinds for his cut of the box office and having his already filmed scenes deleted from the second movie, but it was all worth it because he'd served his purpose. According to Donner: "They didn't buy Marlon Brando the actor; they bought Marlon Brando the name. They bought him to back up their investment, and once he agreed to do the picture, they were able to raise money on his name." The same thing went for Mario Puzo, who, according to one of the writers he met at DC, was "pissed" when he realized the Salkinds always planned to "use Mario's name to sell the movie and get someone else to write the real script." Donner said Puzo's was "a well-written script, quite honestly. But it is a ridiculous script." When Donner signed up, the script included stuff like:
-- Superman looking for Lex Luthor on the street and stopping a man with a bald head, but it turns out to be Kojak actor Telly Savalas, who says his catchphrase "Who loves ya, baby."
-- Lois Lane walking in on Clark Kent wearing Superman clothes in his apartment and thinking he's just dressing up to "impress" her, even though he literally looks like Superman.
-- The missile that Superman shoots into space (the one that was supposed to break off California) causing the closest star to explode and shaking "the stability of the furthest galaxies."
Puzo's original draft isn't online, so it's unclear how much of the above came from the same mind as the Godfather decapitated horse head scene and how much was added by the other writers who passed through the script before Donner joined. What's important is that Donner thought it was still way too long and way too silly, so he had script doctor Tom Mankiewicz re-rewrite it. When Mankiewicz was done, he claimed that "not a word from the Puzo script was used."
That didn't matter to the Salkinds because their plan worked: by the time they were shooting, even Warner Bros. had bought into the hype, so much so that they purchased the movie's international distribution rights and threw Donner and crew $20 million bucks to help finish it.
So forget about The Offer, we want a TV show about the seedy machinations behind the making of this Puzo/Brando movie. And if no one will finance it, maybe hire the writers from The Offer and then just cut them out?
Follow Maxwell Yezpitelok's heroic effort to read and comment on every '90s Superman comic at Superman86to99.tumblr.com.
Top image: Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures