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The central figure of a filmmaking dynasty, Alexander Salkind became one of the more high-profile international movie producers throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with his greatest success coming with the epic "Superman" (1978). Growing up in a Russian-Jewish family who had fled Europe as the start of WWII, a young Alexander joined father Mikhail Salkind on Latin American film productions like "Marina" (1945) before branching out on his own with the Buster Keaton entry "Boom in the Moon" (1945). Upon their return to Europe, the duo went on to produce larger efforts like "The Battle of Austerlitz" (1960) and "The Trial" (1963). With the addition of Salkind's only child, Ilya, to the family business, three generations of producing acumen came to bear on the swashbuckling hit "The Three Musketeers" (1973). That film and its equally successful sequel provided Salkind with a much needed hit and paved the way for their greatest triumph, "Superman" (1978), the superhero adventure that made an icon of its young star, Christopher Reeve. Despite the infamous firing of director Richard Donner, the sequel "Superman II" (1981) gave the Salkinds another box-office smash, although subsequent sequels and spin-offs from the franchise yielded increasingly diminished results. Sadly, the disastrous "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery" (1992) was the spirit-breaking end to the producer's career, a debacle that resulted in a bitter lawsuit filed against him by his own son. As accomplished as he was controversial, Salkind left an indelible mark upon the industry with a number of beloved films.
Alexander Salkind was born on June 2, 1921 in the Baltic seaport city-state formerly known as Freiestadt Danzig to Russian-Jewish parents Mikhail and Maria Salkind. Shortly afterward the family briefly relocated to Berlin, where Mikhail, a former attorney, became involved in the burgeoning film industry and produced the drama "Joyless Street" (1925), starring the then up-and-coming Greta Garbo. On the move once again, Salkind and his parents next landed in Paris, where Mikhail worked as a producer on such films as G.W. Pabst's "Don Quixote" (1933). With Nazi control spreading like a plague over Europe, the Salkind's fled France in 1942 on what Alexander later recalled was "one of the last, if not the last, boats to leave the country" Their next port of call found the nomadic family in Cuba. Forward-thinking and industrious, Salkind's father quickly snatched up distribution rights for films by the popular Latin American star Cantinflas. Seeing an opportunity in the South American market place, the senior Salkind next took the family to Mexico and entered the film production business, shrewdly adopting the name Miguel in the process. Work in the Mexican movie industry quickly became a family affair, with the younger Salkind assisting his father on the production of comedy-dramas like "Marina" (1945), although it would not be long before Alexander found himself ready to take on a project of his own.
Armed with the knowledge that came from a lifetime of watching his father work in the business, Salkind's first solo effort as a producer was on the science fiction comedy "Boom in the Moon" (1945). Looking for an American star that his meager budget could afford, Salkind offered the lead to Buster Keaton, the former silent screen icon whose career had fallen on hard times by the 1940s. Although not picked up by distributors in the U.S., the film sold well in virtually every other market and established Salkind as a producer in his own right. As an independent producer, Salkind went on to present such offerings as the musical comedy "The Daughter of the Regiment" (1953). Later returning to France, Salkind and his father co-produced larger scale productions like "The Battle of Austerlitz" (1960), a historical drama covering Napoleon's (Pierre Mondy) famous victory over Russo-Austrian forces. Budgeted at a then astonishing $3-4 million, "Austerlitz" boasted an all-star cast that included Claudia Cardinale, Leslie Caron, Jack Palance and Orson Welles. Another father-and-son production for the Salkinds included an ambitious adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel "The Trial" (1963), once again featuring Welles (who also wrote and directed) and starring Anthony Perkins as Joseph K, a man inexplicably arrested for an unspecified crime by a shadowy bureaucracy.
By the 1970s, Salkind's son, Ilya, was ready to join the family business that, for a time, would encompass three generations. Young Ilya's debut as a producer came alongside his father on "The Light at the Edge of the World" (1971), a pirate adventure based on a tale by Jules Verne and starring Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner. While the film performed reasonably well and put the Salkinds' account in the black, the next project Alexander's son brought to the table nearly did the company in. A modern day potboiler concerning drug smugglers and pornographers, "Kill" (1971) starred Stephen Boyd, Jean Seberg and James Mason. By all accounts, it held the ingredients for a modest hit. Instead, the ineptly-handled thriller proved to be a critical and commercial disaster. Financial relief and professional redemption came for Salkind and his young progeny with Richard Lester's big-budget spectacle "The Three Musketeers" (1973), featuring another all-star cast that included Michael York, Raquel Welch, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway and Charlton Heston. Originally intended as a three-hour epic, Alexander was shocked to discover midway through production that Lester had shot nearly five hours-worth of film. A quick rewrite was called for and the project suddenly became two movies. Not everyone was thrilled by Salkind's ingenuity, however. The producers soon received a complaint from Ms. Welch's attorney over their using her services for a second unauthorized film, rather than the contracted one. The result was a percentage of profits from the second film being given to the artists and what came to be known as the Screen Actors Guild's "Salkind Clause," which stated that an acting contract for a single film could not be extended into two separate productions without the consent of the performer.
In addition to being the Salkinds' biggest hit, "The Three Musketeers" also marked the end of an era for the filmmaking family when founding father Mikhail passed away shortly after the premiere of the hit movie. Following the release of "The Four Musketeers" (1975), Salkind and son busied themselves with projects like the Claude Chabrol bedroom comedy "Twist" (1976) and another star-studded period piece, "Crossed Swords" (1977), as they cast about for their next big success. Although initially baffled by Ilya's suggestion of adapting a certain comic book superhero - who, additionally, he had never heard of - into a feature film, Salkind was gradually convinced and the duo set about putting together one of the most ambitious genre pictures ever made. After years of development, script rewrites and a worldwide casting search that become the stuff of legend, the Salkinds at last unveiled the fantasy epic "Superman" (1978) to a giddily receptive public. Starring unknown actor Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel, Gene Hackman as supervillain Lex Luthor and, in the biggest casting coup of all, Marlon Brando as Superman's Kryptonian father, Jor-El, it was just the smash hit the producers had been banking on. In an effort to ensure getting the most bang for his buck, Alexander courted controversy once again when he withheld release of the film until Warner Bros. agreed to pay him an additional $15 million for international distribution costs. Although initially painted as an unethical opportunist for the maneuver, the resulting global revenue generated by the deal reaped financial rewards for Salkind and the studio alike.
As opposed to what had transpired on the "Musketeers" films, "Superman" had been planned as the first of two films from the very beginning, with the sequel filmed simultaneously. More negative press for the Salkinds arose after the producers, frustrated with what they viewed as Richard Donner's failure to stay on schedule and within his budget, fired the beloved director before filming for the sequel had been completed. Having already brought "Musketeers" director Lester on the set in the unofficial capacity of a producer at the height of tension, the Salkinds quickly hired him to complete "Superman II" (1981). More action-packed than the first entry, it wowed audiences and solidified Reeve's legacy as the Last Son of Krypton for an entire generation. Looking to continue and expand their lucrative franchise, Salkind and his heir later produced the campy "Superman III" (1983), featuring comedian Richard Pryor as a nebbish computer whiz, followed by the underwhelming spin-off "Supergirl" (1984), starring Helen Slater as the ersatz cousin of Clark Kent. Unfortunately, neither film was met with enthusiasm by audiences or critics. A non-Superman effort came with "Santa Clause - The Movie" (1985), a kid-friendly examination of the St. Nick mythos starring Dudley Moore and John Lithgow. Having sold their Superman rights to Cannon Films, the Salkinds later pursued the spin-off rights they still retained for a foray into television with "The Adventures of Superboy" (syndicated, 1988-1992). Although relatively successful, "Superboy" ended after a four-season run amidst legal wrangling between the Salkinds and WB parent company Time Warner.
Sadly, Salkind's last effort as a producer, "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery" (1992) was a profoundly bitter disappointment for the filmmaker. Besieged by misfortune almost from the start, the costly endeavor suffered one setback after another, including the loss of studio support, having to replace the director and lead actor at the last minute, and on-set troubles with none other than Marlon Brando, who demanded his $5 million paycheck upfront in addition to his own script revisions. Miraculously, the film - which, in addition to Brando as infamous Spanish inquisitor Torquemada, co-starred Tom Selleck as Spain's King Ferdinand - was completed, only to be received with critical derision and audience indifference at the box office. Adding insult to injury, Salkind was later sued by his own son over claims ranging from breach of contract, fraud and racketeering. Although the suit was later settled out of court, it left deep scars upon Salkind's relationship with his son and effectively ended his professional career. At one point during the litigation, a distraught Salkind lamented to a reporter, "I will probably never see my son or my four grandchildren again. And I know, after this, I will never make movies again." For all intents and purposes, he never did. After a period of illness, Alexander Salkind died of leukemia in a suburb of Paris in March 1997 at the age of 75.
By Bryce P. Coleman
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