Obituary: Alexander Salkind

"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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss