Obituary: Alexander Salkind

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The Independent Online
"You'll believe a man can fly!" was the slogan dreamed up by the genius publicist Gordon Arnell for the film that could be said to have been the apogee of Alexander Salkind's career as a producer. For not only was Superman: the movie (1978) immensely popular with the public, it also swiftly became the most profitable film in the history of Warner Bros, spawning three sequels, creating a film star out of Christopher Reeve, and totally justifying Salkind's faith in developing a mere idea expounded to him by his own son Ilya, who loved the comic strips as a boy.

The scale of Superman was immense, and typified the combination of gut instinct, perseverance and understanding of cinematic scale that seemed to typify the best work of Salkind.

He liked to see himself as the last of a dying breed, a great international independent film producer, a regrettably small coterie that would include Alexander Korda and Sam Spiegel, Jewish refugees who cared more about movies than about the money needed to make them. Indeed, like these two giants, Salkind rarely had any personal funds, living well from budgets raised and the fees he paid himself. Like those two, Salkind respected talent, and was generous (sometimes over-generous) in paying for it: Marlon Brando's salary for playing Superman's real father was $3m for just 13 days work, although Brando himself showed his own generosity towards the Salkinds by granting an extra day of re-shooting without demanding more money. However, when Salkind wanted to use Brando footage in Superman II, Marlon nicked the idea totally. Mario (The Godfather) Puzo was paid $350,000 plus 5 per cent of the gross to develop the Superman comic strip into the film, and playing villain Lex Luthor enabled Gene Hackman to pocket $3m. Salkind knew how, and more importantly, where, to spend money. In Britain, both Pinewood and Twickenham studios have reason to be grateful to the Salkinds.

Alexander Salkind was the son of the noted film executive Michael Salkind, and spent his early years in Britain while his father dallied on movies with Garbo and Dietrich. Alex was actually born in Danzig, Germany (which became Gdansk, Poland), and retained an indeterminate accent throughout his life. He was educated in Berlin, but that soon became impossible for anyone of Russian-Jewish descent, and the Salkinds decamped to Latin America, where Alex followed his father into international co-production making his debut as a producer by packaging Il Moderno Barba Azul ("A Modern Bluebeard") in 1945, starring an unfortunate Buster Keaton, now on his uppers. In Mexico, Alexander Salkind found his wife, the flamboyant and eccentrically creative Berta Dominguez D, who would collaborate on the screenplays of his future productions, and in 1947, she gave birth to a son, Ilya, who Alex would train up to be his own producer.

After a protracted stay in both Cuba and Mexico, the Salkinds (as the industry came to know them) returned to Europe. Alex wheeled and dealed, and raised enough money in Paris to make two notable movies with two of the world's greatest directors, Orson Welles's The Trial (1962) and Abel Gance's Austerlitz (1959), both shown internationally in English, thus beginning a somewhat disturbing trend for commercial international casting and casual disregard for lip- synchronisation, but clearly establishing an early reputation for selecting both talent and subjects, not to mention a shrewd sense of potential commercial screen afterlife.

For Alexander Salkind the world was small: he made movies in London (Ballad In Blue, 1965, starring Ray Charles, directed by Paul Henreid), Mexico (Horst Buchholz in Cervantes, 1967), and in Spain (Light at the Edge of the World, teaming Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner, 1971), but was still himself living on the financial edge. These films weren't good, nor were they particularly successful. Indeed, Cervantes, in particular, was a catastrophe. In central Europe, Salkind returned to the Bluebeard theme with Richard Burton and a covey of contemporary cities in Edward Dmytryk's 1972 Bluebeard, and the same year produced Kill! with Jean Seberg and James Mason.

The seeds were being sown for raising future finance for a master-stroke, an all-star reworking of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, shot in Yugoslavia and financed by a source identified only as a parent company in Panama. Directed by Richard Lester, and cannily split into two features - thereby doubling the profits - The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (both 1974) with an all-star, but inexpensive, cast headed by Faye Dunaway, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Richard Chamberlain, were an international success, and brought prestige to the Salkinds by The Three Musketeers' being selected as the Royal Film of its year. Never one to waste resources, Salkind then filmed a version of The Prince and the Pauper on the same sets, with a similar cast and technicians and the same financial strategy. Not a hit, the film achieved cultural notoriety in America, where as Crossed Swords it became the last movie to play the Radio City Music Hall.

The seeds of Superman were sown. In a massive pre-sale campaign, the Salkinds virtually took over Cannes, with buzzing aeroplanes trailing the as-yet uncast movie. They wanted Robert Redford as the Man of Steel, but a mutually acceptable fee couldn't be found, and Paul Newman was next approached. Newman declined, and was then offered the Luthor role eventually played by Gene Hackman. Other stars approached to play Superman included Ryan O'Neal, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Kris Kristofferson, David Soul and even Clint Eastwood and the late Steve McQueen. Eventually the stage actor Christopher Reeve was selected and Reeve's sense of fun and irony, combined with a vigorous supervised body-building routine, proved to be ideal, and shrewd, casting by the Salkinds. After all, Reeve wasn't expensive, and the money could be spent elsewhere.

In searching for a director, the Salkinds simply looked to the top of the Variety top- grosser charts of the week their cash was finally in place, and took Richard Donner, whose The Omen (1976) was at number 1. In securing Donner, and especially his editor Stuart Baird, the Salkinds made the wisest of all decisions. Donner brought to Superman a style and a pace that justified the expense, and set an example that other super-hero movies have yet to live up to.

Superman was a hard act to follow, and after the Three Musketeers trick of splitting the footage into two movies, creating Superman II (1980), the Salkinds continued with Superman III (1983), Supergirl (1984), and Superboy, the television series, before franchising out Superman IV (1987) to the more downmarket Cannon.

In between Supergirl and the next venture, Santa Claus: the movie (1985), Alexander Salkind cross-collatorised a vanity project, an affectionate Valentine written by and starring his wife Berta, who played the female lead under the pseudonym of Cassandra Domenica opposite Tony Curtis in the charmingly anarchic Where Is Parsifal? (1985), an anti-capitalist plea for tolerance and understanding. A slight fable with an all-star cast, including Orson Welles, Peter Lawford, Donald Pleasance and Ron Moody, it was a movie which indicated that, underneath Salkind's steel grey hair and cultured, though seemingly rapacious, international manner, there beat the heart of a liberal humanitarian, egalitarian, and benevolent soul, epitomised by Curtis's Parsifal Katzenellenbogen, the inventor of sky-writing ("You'll believe a slogan can fly"). Nobody saw the movie.

Santa Claus was a disappointment, though the sets and score were impressive, but total disaster loomed with Christopher Columbus: the discovery (1992). Despite the tired presence of Brando as a seemingly absent-minded Torquemada, the film was shabby, under-funded, under-written (partly by Berta) and under-directed, and had the bad luck to clash with a Gerard Depardieu starring version of the same tale.

There was much litigation involved in Christopher Columbus, and both Alexander and Ilya spent time in court fighting over their losses. No stranger to litigation, Salkind was internationally known for taking Warner Bros to court over Superman, insisting they pay him an extra $15m for foreign distribution. Warners acquiesced to what effectively was a money hijack and both parties did well. But on Christopher Columbus the product was weak, the court case unbalanced, and almost resulted in Salkind's losing both passion and desire to produce. There were to be no more movies.

Alexander Salkind typified the public image of a film producer, and he lived the role to the hilt. Revelling and glorying in success, undismayed by failure, he succeeded in creating a producing dynasty, and a name that earned industry respect, if not public recognition. The background no longer exists to nurture such talent but, what Salkind possessed in his heart and soul, no film school could ever teach.

Alexander Salkind, film producer: born Danzig, Germany 2 June 1921; married Berta Dominguez D (one son); died Neuilly, France 8 March 1997.