Christopher Reeve Had Harsh (But Honest) Words For His Superman Co-Star Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is a towering figure in film history, from his rise to fame in the 1950s as a young actor who embodied a rawer and more fragile sense of masculinity to his evolution into a seasoned veteran extolled for his naturalistic, mumbling line delivery and magnetic screen presence. Brando was also notorious for being difficult to work with, whether that meant refusing to return the common courtesies extended to him by his co-stars or almost going out of his way to put as little effort as possible into his roles as he got older.

Such was the case with Brando's turn as Jor-El, the biological father of Kal-El, in Richard Donner's "Superman." The actor appears in less than 20 minutes of the 1978 film, yet he was paid $3.7 million (a substantial sum for the time) and got an astounding 11.75% of the backend for less than two weeks of work. In fact, if Brando had gotten his way during his talks with Donner, he wouldn't have appeared on-screen at all. Suffice it to say, Brando's antics failed to impress his co-star Christopher Reeve, who had only just started his career when he signed on to star as the Man of Steel.

'He's no longer in the leadership position that he could be'

In a display of integrity and sincerity worthy of Superman himself, Reeves was bluntly honest about his time working with Brando on "Superman" during an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman" in March 1982, just a month after the show had debuted.

When Letterman asked if "anything interesting" had come of their relationship, Reeves didn't hold back:

"I must say — I don't say this to be vicious — but I don't worship at the altar of Marlon Brando because I feel that he's copped out in a certain way. He's no longer in the leadership position that he could be. He could really be inspiring a whole new generation of actors by continuing to work, but what happened is the press loved him whether he was good, bad, or indifferent. Where people thought he was this sort of institution no matter what he did, so he doesn't care anymore. And I just think it'd be sad to be [his age] and not give a damn. That's all. I just think it's too bad that the man has been kind of forced into that hostility."

On top of being refreshingly candid in his answer, Reeves had a pretty valid point. When it came time to shoot his scenes as Jor-El, Brando refused to learn his lines in advance and instead read them off of cue cards attached to his co-stars' chest. He would pull a similar stunt with "Apocalypse Now," having failed to do any prep work before showing up on-set (forcing director Francis Ford Coppola to halt production for a week to help the actor). Brando claimed this was all part of his Method acting process, but it reeked of apathy and vanity.

A missed opportunity

When Letterman joked Brando was his other guest that night, it got a big laugh from both Reeve and the studio audience. Nevertheless, Reeve assured he wasn't saying anything he wouldn't tell Brando to his face:

"I don't care. Listen, that's something I would say to him as well. I don't want to be accused of talking out of school. But, you know, he could be a real leader for us."

Quite right. Brando had almost 30 years of experience under his belt by the time he made "Superman." But rather than trying to lead younger actors like Reeves by example or earnestly collaborate with his fellow creatives, Brando was guilty of allowing his ego to get in the way of his craft. When Letterman asked Reeves if it was still "exciting" to work with a legend like Brando in spite of all this, Reeves didn't back down:

"Not really, no. [Laughs] I had a wonderful time, but the man didn't care. I'm sorry. He just took the [money] and ran. I just still care. I'm a real beginner and I just care so much that it hurts when someone's phoning it in. But he is a wonderful actor. He is a brilliant man. But at this moment, he just isn't motivated, that's all I mean to say."

"Marlon's going to kill me," he added with a laugh.

After temporarily retiring from acting in the early 1980s, Brando only worked on nine other films up until his death in 2004. His reputation would only continue to worsen over that time due to his on-set behavior, although there were outside factors at play. Perhaps if he had changed his outlook after "Superman," things might have gone differently. Instead, whatever potential Brando had to mentor a new generation of actors went unfulfilled.