Marlon Brando Tried To Talk His Way Out Of Appearing On Screen In Superman

There are a lot of stories about the behavior of Method actors on film sets over the years, and the tales range from pleasantly quirky to unhinged and truly bizarre. Yet despite it feeling at times like these actors are trying to one up each other with their antics, the common denominator seems to be them demonstrating their utter devotion to their character and craft, going to extremes in order to try and achieve a level of authenticity heretofore unseen by human beings.

Then there's Marlon Brando. Where the beginning of the prolific actor's career saw him lavished with praise for his dedication to his performances, by the end of the 1970s, he had transcended beyond being merely a great actor and instead was practically known as an institution in Hollywood. He was, above all, incredibly savvy about the way the industry operated and what value his name held for a production. He was also less and less interested in putting in the hard work into acting that he used to, looking instead to experiment with his craft while seeing what he could get away with.

All of this led to his antics while making 1978's "Superman," in which he was cast to play Clark Kent/Kal-El's Kryptonian father, Jor-El. If Brando had gotten his way — and if director Richard Donner hadn't known how to play mental chess with the actor — Brando wouldn't have appeared on screen at all in that film, and Jor-El would've ended up appearing as a sentient green bagel.

Donner Was Warned About How Brando 'Loves To Talk'

When he was hired to make "Superman," Richard Donner was still relatively new to feature filmmaking, having made three theatrical films prior (including the big horror hit, "The Omen," in 1976) and a handful of TV movies. However, he'd directed over 100 episodes of series television, so he was no stranger to working with actors.

Yet Donner's experience with Marlon Brando was to be unlike any experience he'd had previously. Having heard of Brando's reputation, Donner called a friend before meeting the actor: Jay Kanter, an agent and studio executive. As Donner recalled in 2016, he asked Kanter for hints about where Brando's head might be in terms of playing Jor-El, and Kanter replied, "He's going to want to play it like a green suitcase." When Donner asked for clarification, Kanter explained that Brando "hates to work and he loves money, so if he can talk you into the fact that people on Krypton look like green suitcases and you only photograph green suitcases, he'll get paid just to do the voiceover. That's the way his mind works."

For more help, Donner reached out to fellow director Francis Ford Coppola, who had been instrumental in bringing Brando's career out of a slump by casting him in 1972's "The Godfather." Coppola explained how Brando had "a brilliant mind. But he loves to talk. Keep him talking, and he'll talk himself out of any problem." Clearly, Donner's work was cut out for him.

Brando Lunged, And Donner Deftly Parried

As Donner describes it, meeting Marlon Brando was intimidating on a number of levels. The director found that during the meeting "it was hard to talk, because this is Marlon Brando!" Talk is indeed what Brando did, speaking to Donner, Tom Mankiewicz (who was credited as "Creative Consultant," but was really a key screenwriter on the film), and producer Ilya Salkind for hours.

Finally, when Brando was ready to talk about playing Jor-El in "Superman," he dropped a bombshell on Donner and his team -- but the shrewd director came prepared. As Donner recalled to The Hollywood Reporter:

"[Brando] said, "Why don't I play this like a bagel?" I was ready for him to say "a green suitcase" and he said "bagel." He said, "How do we know what the people on Krypton looked like?" He had good logic. He said, "Maybe they looked like bagels up there in those days?" I said, "Jeez, Marlon, let me tell you something." He'd just told us the story about a kid [and how smart he was] and I said, "It's 1939. There isn't a kid in the world that doesn't know what Jor-El looks like, and he looks like Marlon Brando." And he looked at me and smiled [and said], "I talk too much, don't I?" He said, "OK. Show me the wardrobe."

Brando Read His Lines On Camera

While Donner successfully got Brando to commit to appearing on camera in "Superman," the actor still manipulated his way into doing the least work possible under the guise of attempting to experiment with the craft of acting. As Donner explained, "We had to put his dialogue on other actors' chests. He would say, 'I don't want to read it like I've read it before a bunch of times. The first time I read it, it'll be honest.'" 

So when you see this moving speech by Jor-El to little Kal-El before the baby is launched into the void of space, remember that Brando is reading all of those lines, surreptitiously placed around the set.

Yet Brando's performance completely works, proving it was worth it for Donner and the "Superman" production to put up with the actor's wacky ideas. Although, the notion of his casting being "worth it" may change depending on who you're talking to: According to Variety, Brando was paid $3.7 million and an incredible 11.75% of the backend for just 13 days of work, with his total screen time ending up lasting less than 20 minutes.

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