Why Christopher Reeve Preferred Director Richard Lester's Vision For Superman

Director Richard Lester, prior to his work on "Superman II" (1980) and "Superman III" (1983), was better known as a director of musical films. His first feature, 1962's "It's Trad, Dad!" was a youthsploitation picture about hip British teens getting into the underground Dixieland jazz scene and featured 27 songs. He followed that with a sequel to the Peter Sellers comedy "The Mouse That Roared" (about the world's smallest nation unwittingly conquering the United States in war), a space race farce called "The Mouse on the Moon." This led directly to two film collaborations with The Beatles, including "A Hard Day's Night," one of the best films ever made, and "Help!," which is quite silly but rather enjoyable. Lester also directed the utterly hilarious film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" with Zero Mostel, before moving into a series of frothy swashbuckling blockbusters like "The Three Musketeers" and "The Four Musketeers." 

Although they were among the highest-profile films of his career, Lester's "Superman II" and "Superman III" are among the oddest. The story of their making is likely well-known to Superman fans: Richard Donner, the director of the 1978 original, had already shot about 75% of "Superman II" before the first film had been released. Donner then put the sequel on hold to complete the first movie, and it was released to critical acclaim and enormous box office numbers

Unbeknownst to Donner, however, Lester was hired to complete the sequel in his place. Lester reshot a great deal of "Superman II," which was also a hit. The director was kept on to make a more comedy-forward film with "Superman III," which starred Richard Pryor, one of the hottest comedians of his day. 

It was not as beloved.

The Reeve view

After the 2006 release of "Superman II: The Donner Cut," the opinion of Lester's work on the series soured. Although his films are liked better than the ultra-low-budget "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," scuttlebutt among fans dictates that Donner's work is preferred. 

Superman actor Christopher Reeve, however, feels quite differently. Having worked closely with both Donner and Lester, Reeve seems to have preferred the efficiency of the latter. In a 1983 interview with Omni Magazine, reprinted on the website Superman Homepage, Reeve talked about the halcyon dreaminess of Donner and the more business-minded approach of Lester. He also clarifies that while "Superman III" is foremost a comedy film, it wasn't a "comedy" set. He said: 

"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."

In "Superman III," Pryor plays an unemployed schlub who discovers a hidden talent for computer programming. He immediately begins hacking into databases at the behest of Robert Vaughn, hoping to find more information about Superman. In so doing, Pryor and Vaughn discover the chemical makeup of Kryptonite and attempt to recreate some in a lab. An unknown ingredient is replaced by cigarette tar, and the resulting rock causes Superman to lose his instincts for "good," becoming "evil."

The Pryor process

Reeve commented on how Pryor, already an experienced actor, still had trouble keeping up with Lester's pace. He commented that Pryor, encouraged to improvise and do different takes, would require several tries to settle into a groove. This, while Lester made his movie with as few takes as possible. Reeve used a placid metaphor to describe Pryor's process, likening him to something out of a Robert Frost poem. He said: 

"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."

Prior to "Superman III," Pryor appeared in hit films like "Car Wash," "The Toy," "Stir Crazy," "Bustin' Loose," and many others besides. Indeed, he had already played against the Muppets in "The Muppet Movie" in 1979 and was no stranger to feature film sets. "Superman III," however, might have been the most expensive film to feature Pryor. And while many Superman fans cite the presence of a broad comedian in a "Superman" film to be, overall, a weird choice, one cannot deny that Lester made an enjoyably oddball film. 

Donner may have made the Olympian blockbusters, but Lester made the human comedies.