Christopher Reeve Had Some Stiff Competition For The Role Of Superman

Who doesn't want to play Superman? The DC Comics character has been depicted numerous times on the big and small screen, with nearly a dozen actors donning the cape. It is a role that many covet — there's nothing quite like the glory the character brings to you, so naturally, there has always been stiff competition surrounding the part. 

Christopher Reeve debuted as Clark Kent and his superhero alter ego in Richard Donner's 1978 film "Superman," continuing to reprise the role in the four-part film franchise. While the actor's performance set a precedent — earning him much love from fans and cementing his interpretation of Superman as the best on-screen Superman — the actor had much competition before bagging the role.

Before Christopher Reeve, there was Sylvester Stallone

In a 2016 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, filmmaker Richard Donner (who passed away in July of 2021) recounted the experience of casting the lead for his "Superman" movie, explaining he had met with Sylvester Stallone for the role. Stallone was an already-established star — the kind producer Alexander Salkind was drawn toward. Donner, on the other hand, wanted an "unknown" actor, someone unexpected. While Stallone was interested in playing the part, Donner had other ideas.

"I met with Sylvester Stallone because of them [Salkinds and casting director Lynn Stalmaster]. I tried to be nice and say, 'This is wrong.' I liked Stallone; he turned out to be a nice guy. He wanted to do it. I remember meeting him in his manager's office and I was as cordial as I could be. He was a big star and I'm some punk kid."

Donner revealed that several actors wanted to play Superman. In fact, the filmmaker was given a list of names, but he felt that viewers wouldn't be convinced by big stars like Paul Newman or Robert Redford wearing the cape. It had to be someone new.

Christopher Reeve got the part, eventually

When Christopher Reeve came in to audition for Superman, Donner wasn't convinced. The filmmaker described the actor's appearance as "skinny" and said he needed a guy that looked like a "muscle zoo." The actor needed to fit the character of the Man of Steel, and Reeve wasn't it. Here's how Donner described the experience:

"Anyway, one of the actors comes in and it's this kid, Chris Reeve. He walks in; he's got this great big sweater on, blondish hair. I said, 'What's under the sweater?' And he says, 'Well ...' He has this thick sweater on and he's this skinny kid. I said, 'Problem quite honestly, buster, is I got to get a guy that is bulk, that looks like a muscle zoo.' He said, 'Listen, I was a jock in school and when I went into acting I lost 50 pounds.' I said, 'I don't believe you — you're an actor.' He says, 'No, I did. I swear to you.'"

Later that day, Donner learned that Reeve wasn't messing around calling himself an actor.

'That's the world Chris came from'

When the filmmaker watched Reeve perform in an off-Broadway play following the audition, he knew the actor was the perfect fit for the role. Christopher Reeve traveled to London for a screen test, reading scenes where he played both Superman and Clark Kent. Donner knew he was the right guy — the actor had flawlessly interpreted the duality experienced by the superhero:

"I had to go back to London, and I flew Chris back, which was so far from his life. When he told his father, who was a professor at Princeton, that he was doing Superman, his father said, 'Man and Superman?' [George Bernard Shaw's play]. That's the world Chris came from. He came over, we did this test in costume, the one I had in L.A. He was just wonderful as Clark Kent and as Superman. He really got the idea of a terribly pained individual living a dual life."

Christopher Reeve played the superhero over the next decade, starring in three other films, concluding the franchise with "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," which was released in 1987. Many actors have taken on the role since, but the essence of what made Reeve so great — his classic movie star persona, confidence, and compassion — remain his alone.