1978's "Superman" has always been revered, but over successive sequels, the franchise slowly made a joke out of its source material. And even though star Christopher Reeve wasn't too happy with the way the saga developed, his one and only "Saturday Night Live" appearance in 1985 proved he not only had a sense of humor but that he remained a star even as his career-making franchise deteriorated.
Richard Donner's original Superman film feels just as relevant today as it did back in the late '70s. James Gunn is currently working on his upcoming Superman movie, which, in the post-Snyderverse era, will hopefully re-establish the character as an upstanding paragon of morality, just as Donner's movie did back in the '70s. Back when the director was first contacted by producer Alexander Salkind, he would have to salvage a truly disastrous first script before coming on board. Forty-five years later, "Superman" remains a high point for the genre thanks to Donner's respect for the source material.
Unfortunately, after the director was booted from the franchise, the "Superman" sequels began to neglect that all-important reverence for the character, turning his films into light-hearted affairs that were increasingly panned. By 1985, there had been three entries — the most recent being 1983's "Superman III," which had failed to impress critics across the board. Co-starring comedian Richard Pryor for some reason, director Richard Lester's take on Superman sacrificed the heart of the first two installments for a slapstick comedy sensibility that simply didn't work.
After all that, you might forgive Reeve for wanting to keep the character that launched his career away from comedy. But when he came to host "SNL" in '85, he was more than willing to poke fun at Supes.
Reeve's 'Irresistible' Superman Sketch
A year and a half after "Superman III," and a full two years before the disaster that was "Superman IV," Christopher Reeve hosted "Saturday Night Live." And the Juilliard grad took to the sketch format like a pro, opening up proceedings with a skit that immediately poked fun at his most famous character. It saw Reeve — who did originally have some stiff competition for the role — bungle a Superman audition after proving himself incapable of catching bullets in his teeth or accurately aiming his heat vision. But that wasn't the only Superman-themed sketch in the show.
In his 1999 autobiography, "Still Me," Reeve recounted his experience at the "SNL" studio in 30 Rock, recalling how he had "never poked fun" at Superman, but had devised a sketch that he found "irresistible." The idea involved the actor playing an elderly Supes, who sits in a nursing home alongside one of Billy Crystal's old Jewish guy characters. As Reeve reminisces about his time as the Man Of Steel to an incredulous Crystal, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' nurse tends to the residents. As Reeve recalled it:
"I wore a bathrobe with the Superman costume underneath. The leotard was wrinkled and baggy, but the famous red-and-yellow 'S' was still featured prominently on my chest. Silver hair and bifocals completed the picture. As I talked about the old days I said, 'I used to be faster… faster than… uh…' Then Billy would finish the line. Then I'd go on, 'And I could leap… um… tall…' and the sentence would trail off."
Evidently, Reeve was quite taken with his own idea. It featured in the original broadcast but for some reason isn't part of the version currently available on Peacock, the streaming home of "SNL."
Reeve Was The Star
Christopher Reeve's contribution, though not one of the funniest "SNL" sketches, seemed to go down well with the audience, and the whole thing was carried by Billy Crystal, who managed to keep the energy up despite Reeve's slightly too convincing old man drawl. Interestingly, in his autobiography, the actor worried that "Superman with Alzheimer's may have been in poor taste," but was pleased with the audience's reaction once the sketch drew to a close:
"At the end of the sketch, the nurses and some other residents of the old-age home came out with a cake covered with candles and a big 'S' in the middle. They sang 'Happy Birthday, dear Superman,' kindly indulging an old man's delusion. Then Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the head nurse gently suggested (with a wink to the others), 'Now blow out your candles, Superman.' With a look of tremendous concentration, I drew in a breath and blasted the cake off the porch and across the studio. Blackout."
In a show that featured a Steven Wright stand-up set and arguably a better Superman sketch than the old folks home bit, Reeve's own creation wasn't necessarily a standout of the April 6th, 1985 broadcast. But the man himself was. He proved his acting chops were as sharp as ever, deftly performing as the various characters he was given and demonstrating that despite the poor reception for "Superman III," he was still a star. Not the best sketch writer, but a star nonetheless.
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