Gerard Christopher Superboy

The Superman actors who almost played the Man of Steel twice

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Apr 24, 2018, 2:00 PM EDT

We've grown up with Superman. We've followed his adventures in the comics and on screens small and large for a long, long time — 80 years, in fact. But no one has devoted as much thought to the Man of Steel (and to Superboy, too) as the many actors who've played him over the years, those who've donned the cape, tapped away at that Daily Planet typewriter, or found just the right tone for both Clark's and Kal-El's voice.

Over the course of this week we’re going to be talking a lot to the members of this elite group, including Brandon Routh (Superman Returns), Tom Welling (Smallville), and Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), plus several Supes from previous generations. These guys have a lot of memories and, as you'll see, a lot of stories, too.

Apparently, it's not enough to be Superman just once. Having caught the bug, you might want to repeat the experience — and not just in some sequel. Several of the actors who played Superman in one venue have auditioned to play the Man of Steel in another. Having a Super-history with the character would probably be a plus nowawdays (remember when the producers of Supergirl pushed to cast Smallville's Tom Welling as Kara's super cousin?), but in the past, it was a drawback for actors seeking a second shot at the cape.

Gerard Christopher, who played the title character in Superboy's second, third, and fourth (and final) season, tried to transition from Superboy to Superman. His show, despite having reached its 100th episode and still getting high ratings, was being canceled — just as young Clark Kent was emerging from young adulthood — to make way for a new show that featured a more adult Clark, called Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Christopher thought that since he had several seasons of experience with the character, a transition would be easy. "I was thinking," Christopher says, "that either they're going to like the fact that I did the character in a show that had 3.9 million households watching it every week, and they'll want to carry that forward, or they're not. It could have been the perfect handoff. I was ready to go."

He recalls telling the casting director, "You know, for the people who might not know my face, I'd rather just see if I can get the job over again. If it's okay with you, please tell them I'm just another candidate for the show, just like everybody else."

Also in contention for the Lois & Clark role were James Denton, who had auditioned via tape ("Long distance, it's tough to get cast that way") and Dean Cain, who would eventually land the part. Christopher had come up with a new take on the character, as an outgrowth of where he left him on Superboy, having now developed "an understated personal inner strength."

"He knew who he was by now. He wasn't this alien from Krypton trying to figure himself out anymore," Christopher says. "He knew what he was doing, what he was there for, what he was capable of. He wasn't as nice as Christopher Reeve's interpretation – he had this reserve. By the time I auditioned for Lois & Clark, Superman was comfortable with his strength and the horrible nature of how he came here."

Christopher says the Lois & Clark producers loved his take on the character. "They started clapping," he recalls. "They said, ‘Wow! You're the guy! We found you!'" So the actor assumed he had been cast. But then one of the producers asked an assistant for Christopher's resume, and he started to examine it.

"His face changed," Christopher says. "His jaw dropped a bit, like he was disappointed. He said, ‘You've done this already. I want someone who is new and fresh and who maybe hasn't acted a lot.'"

So that was that – Christopher walked out of the room, and two weeks later, Cain got a callback.

"In hindsight, what I should have done was sit there and talk to him about it," Christopher says. "I could have given him a cogent argument. Because the fact of the matter is, actors negotiate all the time. They're always lobbying for their jobs. So that was something I should have done, instead of surrendering and walking out the door. I don't know why I didn't fight for it. I had nothing to lose."

Christopher wasn't the only Superman who lost the chance for a second act. Another was David Wilson, who played the part in a 1975 TV version of the Broadway musical It's a Bird… It's a Plane… It's Superman. For that show, the blond actor had to dye his hair black, and the stripping process to return his hair to its original color afterwards ruined his chance to return to the role in Richard Donner's 1978 film.

"It turned my hair copper," Wilson says, laughing. "We're talking Iggy Pop, Ziggy Stardust copper. It was wild. I couldn't work for two years, because I'd walk into these meetings, and people would be like, ‘Whoa! What is with this guy?!' Donner wouldn't hire me because of the copper hair." But then, Wilson says, there was another, more familiar reason: "He didn't want anyone who'd done Superman before."