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Before being cast as the beautiful yet deadly Ursa in the first two Superman movies, actress Sarah Douglas wasn’t too familiar with the mythos of the iconic DC Comics character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In fact, she confesses she didn’t even know who Lois Lane was.
“I’ve learned since then, don’t worry. I’ve been well-educated by all the fans,” Douglas tells SYFY WIRE, laughing. “I knew who Superman was, but it wasn’t a big deal back in the mid-1970s in England... I [auditioned] completely blind, which is good because they probably thought I was cold and aloof [two of Ursa’s characteristics], but I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. I was shooting The People That Time Forgot when they were casting Superman, so I was in the Canary Islands. I wasn’t caught up in all the hoopla for finding Ursa, which I have since heard.”
In the Richard Donner Superman movies, Ursa, General Zod (Terence Stamp), and Non (Jack O’Halloran) are three criminals whom Jor-El (Marlon Brando) sentenced to the Phantom Zone prior to the destruction of Krypton. Years later, during the events of Superman II, Superman (Christopher Reeve) inadvertently freed the trio from their Phantom Zone prison when throwing a nuclear bomb into space. Gaining superpowers, the three sought to conquer Earth, while at the same time Superman gave up his powers to be with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). The Man of Steel eventually regained his powers and battled the trio of villains in a spectacular action sequence that was ground-breaking for its time.
But, despite Superman’s legendary battle with Zod, Non, and Ursa, Douglas remembers her time on set with Brando the most.
“[Brando] was my go-to super-star,” Douglas recalls. “There was no question about the fact that he had an aura around him. He was exceptionally charismatic.”
According to Douglas, Brando was “very easy to be around,” and she got some firsthand experience with some of his more, let’s just say, intriguing ways of acting.
“I asked him about the intensity of his look, where his eyes narrowed... He said, ‘No, no, no. I’m not digging deep. I don’t have my eyeglasses on, so I can’t read the [cue cards],’” Douglas says. “When he was squinting and looking so intense, he’s actually searching for the words on the cards behind your head... There was no question about the fact he didn’t learn his lines at all, which I found fascinating because he still was extraordinary. Even reading the lines, he was just amazing.”
The biggest fight from the first two Superman films wasn’t the Man of Steel versus Ura, Zod, or Lex Luthor, however. There was some infamous behind-the-scenes drama with 1980’s Superman II. Midway through filming, Richard Lester replaced Donner as director. In interviews, Donner claimed he was fired because he butted heads with producers Alexander Salkind and his son Ilya.
However, according to the Salkinds, Donner demanded producer Pierre Spengler be fired. The two reportedly fought about going over-budget and over-schedule often on the set of 1978’s Superman — to the point where Donner felt he couldn’t work with Spengler anymore. Along with the Salkinds, Spengler was one of the original people who initiated the Superman movies. The Salkinds did not feel they could let him go and decided to move forward without Donner.
This angered both Reeve and Kidder. Brando, Gene Hackman, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, and E.G. Marshall didn’t return when the film was reshot under Lester, who had to reshoot a vast majority to gain a sole director credit rather than film the remainder of Donner’s version. The scenes with Jor-El and Superman were reshot with Lara (Susannah York), Superman’s mother, instead. Lester filmed any scenes involving Hackman's Lex Luthor by replacing the missing actor with a lookalike and a voice double.
At the time, Douglas was unaware of this strife. Donner was shooting Superman and Superman II back-to-back. However, he had completed the majority of Superman II and needed to focus on Superman in order to have it ready by its release date. These efforts to get the first movie over the finish line didn’t require Douglas, who was off for several months before returning to complete Superman II. Upon her return, Lester was at the helm, not Donner.
“I didn’t have an opinion at the time because I didn’t understand where he’d gone,” remembers Douglas. “All I cared about at the time was what a brilliant experience to have a totally different director. Scenes I shot once with Richard Donner, I reshot with Richard Lester in a completely different way — it was all wonderful. But I didn’t understand the politics and I wasn’t privy to the politics.”
Perhaps the fact that she didn’t know about the full extent of the director drama at the time is why Douglas was the only cast member who went on a press tour promoting the movie.
“[The studio] didn’t want to risk any cast members spilling the beans because nobody knew what happened behind-the-scenes with Donner. There was no question that Christopher and Margot were furious about it — I know Valerie was — and they would’ve spoken about it at the first opportunity… They just wanted someone to sell the film, which is what I did,” she explains, although Douglas has a more informed opinion on the Donner/Lester controversy today.
“I think it’s terrible. I love Donner,” she says. “I think it was a tragedy what happened. The fact that he was able to release that DVD because he had so much stuff — [the “Donner Cut” of Superman II was released in 2006] — how tragic is that?”
Despite the Donner/Lester situation, Superman II grossed $190 million at the box office. And, despite all the confusion and turmoil behind the scenes, one thing was never in doubt: Christopher Reeve is, for many, the perfect Superman.
“There’s no doubt he’s the definitive Superman. There’s no doubt about it at all. There’s a lot that’s been said about Christopher from different places. I certainly had the most wonderful experience with him,” Douglas says. “He was absolute perfection. He got it down brilliantly. He was very much like Clark Kent — that’s how he was to me. He was a regular, nice guy and very polite — ‘Yes, ma’am/No, ma’am’ — that sort of guy. I never got the feeling I was with Superman when I was around him.”
“They can never replace him,” adds O’Halloran, who played Douglas’ fellow Phantom Zone escapee, Non. In O’Halloran’s view, Donner was Reeve’s yellow sun.
“[Donner] brought something out of him that [Reeve] never did again,” he says. “It was his first big picture. He listened to Donner, and Donner got quite a performance out of him as both Superman and Clark Kent that no one will touch. He had a great look, but he listened to Donner. Every other picture you see Chris in, he’s stiff or he’s this or that. He really flew under Donner.”
These days, Douglas doesn’t mind being remembered as Ursa, though it wasn’t always this way. For 20 years after Superman II, she was offered similar roles as a “leather-clad dominatrix/wicked queen type,” which she wanted to avoid.
When speaking to people in the movie industry about her experiences as an actress — which include Conan the Destroyer, Netflix’s A Christmas Prince movies, V: The Final Battle, Falcon Crest, Magnum, P.I., Murder, She Wrote, Babylon 5, and numerous voiceover roles — everything kept coming back to Ursa.
“Suddenly, I realized it’s not such a bad thing and I started to embrace it much more,” she says. “I did struggle with my image with Ursa — the fact that it didn’t feel like me, it didn’t look like me for lots of reasons... However, when I started going to conventions and saw the outpouring of love people had for these characters, how it’s changed so many people’s lives, and how it’s meant so much to them, and how you affected them... It’s wonderful! Here I am 40 years later, talking about Superman. How lucky am I? It’s been wonderful.”