It’s a debate that has divided Superman fans for 40 years and counting: was the Man of Steel a murderer before he snapped General Zod’s neck in Zack Snyder’s hotly debated 2013 blockbuster Man of Steel? For evidence of his killing ways, viewers frequently cite the final moments of Superman II, which premiered in U.S. theaters on June 19, 1981 and became that year’s third-highest-grossing movie.
In the theatrical version of the sequel to Richard Donner’s 1978 comic book classic, Christoper Reeve’s Last Son of Krypton, Kal-El, faces off against the galaxy’s only other surviving Kryptonians — aspiring despot Zod (Terrence Stamp), his accomplice Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the strong, silent Non (Jack O’Halloran) — in the first superhero vs. supervillain brawl to ever grace the big screen. After alternately dishing out and taking punishment, Superman tricks the trio into losing their yellow sun-given powers, and then stands by while they plunge into the deep ice crevices in his arctic Fortress of Solitude.
Case closed, right? Not quite: as Jack O’Halloran tells Yahoo Entertainment, Donner filmed an extra scene that confirmed all three villains survived and were carted off to a terrestrial prison instead of the Phantom Zone. “We shot an ending where they bring us out and put us in a police car and take us off to jail,” the actor and former heavyweight boxer says now, exonerating Superman of his supposed crime.
But that consequential story beat was cut from both the theatrical version — which was completed by Richard Lester after Donner departed the film under acrimonious circumstances — as well as Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, the 2006 version of the movie that reconstituted his original vision. Fortunately, Zod, Ursa and Non’s survival is canonized via a deleted scene that’s included among the DVD bonus features, and viewable on YouTube. The three villains are glimpsed being escorted to an “Arctic Patrol” police car, as Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor tries to talk his way out of a return trip to jail.
O’Halloran, for one, regrets that some viewers have spent 40 years believing that Superman killed his fellow Kryptonians, and takes a pointed dig at Man of Steel for further perpetuating that impression. “The beauty of Superman and Superman II is the fact that Superman wasn’t flying around killing villains,” he argues. “He was putting them in jail — there was an American way of law and order about it. That’s what’s wrong with the movies they did afterwards: they got darker and darker and darker. Those first two films still stand up all these years later, you know?”
According to O’Halloran, Donner had other reasons for wanting Zod and his cronies to survive besides the “law and order” of it all. When he was first hired by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to bring Superman to the big screen in a giant back-to-back production, the director supposedly envisioned a grand epic that would have spanned multiple movies. “He wanted to do 10 of them,” O’Halloran claims. “It would have been a whole different franchise.”
And somewhere along the way, Stamp, Douglas and O’Halloran would have returned to go another round with Reeve. “We were supposed to come back, because they carted us off to jail,” the actor notes, blaming Lester for blocking off that particular story avenue. “That was the way Lester wanted to end it. The Salkinds owed him a movie, and it was cheaper for them to let him do Superman III rather than Donner. That was a bad mistake.” (The Lester-directed Superman III flew into theaters in 1983, and was immediately met with lukewarm reviews and mediocre box office.)
But O’Halloran hasn’t given up hope that Non may one day fly again, and even has a script ready to go should Warner Bros. decide to revisit the Superman universe that Donner started. (DC Comics is already doing that via its new Superman ’78 title.) “There’s another planet on the other side of the galaxy that’s a sister planet to Krypton, but they’re more advanced in their technology,” he teases of the set-up for his sequel, which he hopes would feature Reeve’s voice and likeness alongside his Superman II co-stars. (Reeve died in 2004, nine years after a horse-riding accident left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.)
“They come into the prison where the three villains are being held and change them mentally so they become cohorts of Superman," O'Halloran continues. "Now Superman has this little army to fight all of these outer space things that are coming to Earth. We could have a lot of fun with that, and if you could bring Christopher and the three of us back as holograms the audience would go crazy."
Whatever the future holds for Non, O'Halloran's place in Superman fandom is assured. In honor of Superman II’s fortieth anniversary, he shared some tales from the set, including his off-screen fight with Reeve and the acting lessons he learned from Marlon Brando.
The Superman vs. Non brawl you didn’t see
Before his final, non-fatal plunge into the Fortress of Solitude’s many crevices, Non went toe-to-toe and fist-to-fist with Superman in the streets of Metropolis. Behind the camera, O’Halloran also had a heated confrontation with Reeve… and that time he walked away the winner. Reflecting on the incident now, the actor says that the story behind their run-in — which happened early on during the Superman’s production at Pinewood Studios in England — has been “blown out of proportion” over the years. But O’Halloran makes it clear that Reeve had a steep learning curve that was, in part, responsible for their backstage clash. “Christopher was very naïve: Superman was the first big movie ever did, and his problem was that he had to be Superman day and night,” he recalls.
The origins of their disagreement started during one of those nights, when Reeve was out to dinner at a London restaurant where O’Halloran was good friends with the owner. “Christopher started shooting his mouth off about me: where I came from in New York and who my father was — things he really shouldn’t have been talking about.” (In his 2011 book, Family Legacy, O’Halloran claimed to be the illegitimate son of Mafia hitman Albert Anastasia.) Word of Reeve’s comments got back to his co-star, and O’Halloran wasted little time setting the record straight. “The next morning, I went to work and said: ‘Christopher, we have to have a conversation,’ and I took him into a room by ourselves.”
According to O’Halloran, Reeve was apologetic for talking out of turn during their private chat. But as soon as he was back on set around other people, he slipped into Superman mode. “He said, ‘You can’t talk to me that way!’” remembers the actor, who had faced off against fighters like Cleveland Williams and George Foreman during his boxing days. What happened next played out in full view of the cast and crew. “I threw Christopher against a wall, and I was ready to smack him right in the mouth. But Richard Donner jumped up in my ear and said, ‘Jack, not in the face! Don’t hit him in the face!’ That cracked me up, so I dropped him to the floor instead. Then I just looked at him and said: ‘You don’t know how lucky you are kid.’ And I walked away.”
Far from causing any lasting damage, O’Halloran says that he and Reeve patched up their relationship within a couple of days after their near-fight. “We never became best friends or anything, but we worked together very well. There was never a problem after that, just that one disagreement on the day. I mean, if you work with someone for over three years you’ve going to have a disagreement about something!” To this day, O’Halloran credits Reeve as the main reason why both Superman and Superman II flew to the top of the box-office charts. “He changed from Clark Kent to Superman extremely well, and portrayed both characters brilliantly. He did a really great job, no two ways about that. He’s still the best Superman we’ve ever had.”
Bonding with Brando
Because Christopher Reeve was an unknown when he landed the role of Superman, the Salkinds had to surround him with famous faces in order to secure enough financing to make two movies at the same time. So the producers shelled out millions of dollars to attract proven stars like Gene Hackman as Luthor, Jackie Cooper as Perry White, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane… and Marlon Brando as Superman's father, Jor-El. The Hollywood icon was paid nearly $4 million for 13 days of shooting — a lucrative deal that paved the way for other movie star mega-paydays, from Jack Nicholson in Batman to Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy. (In contrast, Reeve only earned $250,000 for playing the title character.)
But Brando famously wasn’t impressed by the scope of the production or the size of his paycheck. O’Halloran confirms the longstanding stories that the Oscar winner refused to learn his lines, preferring to read his dialogue off of cue cards hidden around the set. “One day, I went down to the set to watch him shoot, and he had cue cards everywhere,” O’Halloran says, laughing. “I asked him, ‘What’s with the cue cards? Are you that bored with acting?’ And he said, “No, no. I started that on Mutiny On the Bounty because I don’t want the camera to make it look like I memorize lines. I want to look like I’m taking them out of the air.’ And then he sat down and recited a couple verses of Shakespeare word for word. When he was done, he looked at me and said: ‘This you must know word for word. This other s*** — piece of cake.’ Brando was a trip.”
Along with Hackman, Brando was one of the few actors who completely severed ties with the production after Donner was replaced by Lester. In Brando’s case, he was also in a legal dispute with the Salkinds over royalties from the first Superman, which eventually led the producers to excise his already-filmed Superman II scenes from the theatrical cut. Instead, Susanna York — who played Kal-El’s mother, Lara — returned to Pinewood to re-shoot those pivotal moments. “How do you cut Marlon Brando out of a movie?” O’Halloran says now, still baffled by Brando's omission. “They shot all of his scenes, but didn’t want to pay him the points. And Gene Hackman never came back to shoot Superman II. For a couple of scenes they had to us a stunt double for him, and you only see his back.”
It’s been a hard day’s shoot
While Richard Lester’s involvement in Superman II has earned him plenty of fan ire over the decades, it should be noted that the British filmmaker holds a key place in film history as the director of such era-defining classics as A Hard Day’s Night, Petulia and Robin and Marian. But his particular working methods didn’t click with the Superman cast, at least in comparison to Donner.
“Lester was the kind of guy that would shoot a lot of footage, and then take all of it into the editing room and create something,” O’Halloran says, recalling the opening sequence at the Eiffel Tower where Superman foils a terrorist plot. “It was raining like hell that day, but if you look at the scene in the movie, it looks like the sun is shining even though the cops are getting drops on their shirts and the windshield wipers on the cars are going. That’s because Lester just shot the scene in the rain instead of waiting for a sunny day, and then took it into the editing room and fixed it. That’s the kind of s*** he did, you know?”
Lester’s involvement with the Superman films grew out of his previous collaboration with the Salkinds: 1973’s The Three Musketeers and 1974’s The Four Musketeers, which were also filmed as one big production. The producers brought him onto Superman as a second unit director, who also doubled as the go-between for Donner and the producing team, who were increasingly not on speaking terms. O’Halloran says that Donner had completed many of the major action sequences seen in Superman II by the time he was officially replaced in the director’s chair.
“Donner filmed us blowing all those cars down the street, and destroying the Daily Planet [building] and all that stuff. When Lester came aboard, he had to re-shoot things because a director had to have shot at least 50 percent of a movie to get his name on the film.” O’Halloran says that many of Superman II’s more overtly comic moments represent Lester’s main contribution to the production after Donner departed. “He put too much comedy in the movie — the Donner cut is much better in my eyes.”
Getting the band back together
Despite the behind the scenes turmoil, O'Halloran thinks that both versions of Superman II hold up as classic comic book movie fare. "We set a lot of precedents with that movie, and broke a lot of technology rules. It made icons out of all of us, and we had a lot of fun making it." That's why he's eager to reunite with his fellow Kryptonian villains for his alternate version of Superman III. "Sarah was brilliant, and Terrence is one of the great English actors to ever live. It's funny, he had been this great young actor, but then got kind of screwed up and went to India. He cleaned up his whole act and came back a different person, and Superman was the first movie he did like that. I had a lot of fun with him."
For his part, O'Halloran has continued to act in movies and regularly appears on the convention circuit. "People came up to me all the time to ask questions, and when I answer them, they say: 'Oh my god, you can actually talk!'" he says, laughing. "I must have sold that character pretty well." And he's got big plans for Non in his Superman sequel pitch. "When Donner and I initially discussed the character, he told me that Non was a scientist that they lobotomized, which is why he couldn't speak. Somebody had to relate to the children in the audience, so I played Non like a child, and it worked pretty well. But in my script, maybe Non could speak this time. He'd say, ‘Zod — kneel before Non!’"
Superman II is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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