Watching Superman Fly

“Superman don’t need no seatbelt.”

Muhammad Ali.

I am enjoying my early morning cup of coffee and, as I sit here and contemplate the day ahead, I am thinking about Superman and how devoid of a truly inspirational leader our society and world truly are. Thoughts of Superman take me back to my childhood.

My childhood was a creative environment and experience.  I count myself lucky, for that. On one occasion, I was allowed to sit in the Director’s chair!  This chair was made of light wood and was foldable.  It had black material for the seat and the back rest was of the same black material but with one difference; in bold white capital letters, the word ‘DIRECTOR’.  This was no ordinary chair.  Here, in what had been called the ‘007 Stage’; the largest stage of its kind in the world back then, in 1977/8, this chair was nothing short of a throne!

The Director was more than a King.  He was God.  Everyone understood that.  His name was Richard Donner. In spite of the “If you sit in that chair you will be….” variety of scary stories that were told to me while I sat there, the cast and crew of this magical film production would rub my head fondly as they walked by, and they would make comments about how talented my dad was.  These comments would fill me with pride.

A woman appeared next to me at one point.  She sat beside me and she was dressed in a light yellow suit.  She told me that her name was Wendy and she also recounted how much she loved working with my dad, how amazing he was at his job and how safe she felt working alongside him for he, like her, was a consummate professional.  She told me that sandwiches would be coming to me shortly and that I was about to watch a little bit of movie history being made.  Wendy got up and walked away; calling back to me something about how a few other children would be joining me and that I was to protect the Director’s chair at all costs!

The lighting changed.  The area that I was in, and the few children who came and sat near me, were plunged into darkness.  All of the film cameras, the vast lengths of cables and much of the equipment and the crew that were managing it, were rendered invisible.  Silence fell upon the whole area and we all knew well that not a word, not a movement, nothing must make a sound.

I looked across at the main stage scene.  In front of me, spread out on the floor, was the side of a massive skyscraper!  It was surreal.  From right to left I could see row upon row of office windows as the skyscraper laid flat; just the depth of the windows and a slight area behind (under) them.  I looked along the expanse of the scene before me and moved my eyes to the left.  There, I saw some of the crew adjusting something very odd.  It was one half, from nose to tailfin, of a bright red helicopter!  It was being wedged into place at a peculiar angle; as if teetering on the edge of the skyscraper rooftop.  All of this, laid completely horizontally on the floor.

The lights suddenly came on again and a crew member brought me, and the other children, a big tray of sandwiches which we all hungrily accepted and grabbed in our excitement.  My dad appeared from nearby.  He was dressed in a way that made me smile with pride; apart from the black wig that had been glued to his otherwise bald head, which made me laugh!   His bright outfit stood out like a beacon and the effect of it was fascinating, for I could see the studio crew all just looking at him, in awe.  They were as in awe of the outfit as they were of my dad.  This costume was incredibly famous and represented childhood dreams, hope and respect.  That said, it was very odd; just so unlike anything or anyone else.

“I’m going on now”, my dad said to me in his commanding voice, “Don’t worry when you see what happens, I’ll be fine.  We know what we are doing.  Enjoy it.”

With that, he walked off and then some of the children nearby asked me “Is that your dad?” and said “Wow.”

The lights went off again and across the stage the lighting was set to represent night time and street lights.  There were lights on along what was supposed to be the top of this horizontal building and there were lights on in the half-helicopter.  A huge fan was switched on and this created a wind that blew up the building (or right to left as if toward the half-helicopter).  I looked to the right and suddenly saw something utterly fantastic.  It was my dad, high on a wire; the red cape of his iconic costume flapping in the breeze caused by the enormous fan.  My dad was positioned at what would be the bottom of the building, if it were to be stood upright.

Then, activity to my left.  I saw Wendy get into position; she two was on a wire with her hands holding onto a black tag or rope, of some sort, that was coming from within the half-helicopter.  Wendy’s skirt and hair were being buffeted by the wind of the fan.  The crew retreated in synchronised movement and I saw Richard Donner move and yell “Okay,…. ACTION”.

Unexpectedly, the movie’s genius theme tune played in the background and suddenly my heart      leapt as a shocking noise filled the stage; Wendy was screaming!  My heart was in my mouth and the children I was with all gasped in shock at what we thought was something going wrong.  Suddenly, the half-helicopter shook and shook and, as Wendy screamed, the half-helicopter moved and slid along to the right.  If the building was stood up vertically, this would be seen as the helicopter slipping over the edge of the rooftop and about to fall.

Then, another shocking movement and more screams as Wendy let go of the black tag and was thrust away from the half-helicopter, screaming and flailing as she moved speedily along the wires from the left, to the right of the scene.  On film, this would be seen as Wendy falling from the top of the building towards an inevitable death on the street floor at the foot of the building.  I was mesmerised and I could feel my heart pounding.

Then, a movement from the right, as my dad, in his bright red cape that was billowed by the wind of the fan, shot from right to left, along the wires.  He had an arm outstretched in front of him pointing in the direction of Wendy as the two hurtled toward each other from different directions. Wendy was heading toward my dad, feet first and my dad was headed toward Wendy, who was still screaming; the blue of his outfit and the red of the cape and boots making a stunning and unforgettable scene.

On film, we would see Wendy falling from the helicopter and then losing her grip on the black seat belt, falling toward her death.  We would then see the iconic moment that my dad would fly from the street floor, up into the air to catch Wendy and save her.

In the moment that my dad and Wendy met each other in mid air in a dramatic embrace, on these wires, we witnessed the iconic screen moment when Lois Lane was falling to her death, to be caught in mid-air and saved by Superman!

Within moments, with another sudden shock, the half-helicopter moved along the wires toward my dad and Wendy.  My dad had Wendy in his arm and he reached out and grabbed the leg of the helicopter, as it almost hit them.  He saved the helicopter, too.  The scene ended with my dad, Wendy and the helicopter moving back to the rooftop of the skyscraper, where safety would be found.

My dad was Christopher Reeve’s stunt-man (known as stunt-double), there were a few covering different specialities, and Wendy Leach was the stunt-woman for Margot Kidder.  The photo above is of my dad and the wonderful Wendy Leach on that very day.  In the movie scene, when you cannot see the faces of Superman and Lois Lane, it is my dad and Wendy.

Superman saved Lois Lane for the first time and I was there to witness it in person. This utterly magical moment has remained etched in my memory ever since. My heart burst with pride as Richard Donner called the end of the scene and literally everyone; seemingly hundreds of people on this massive stage, gave a most rapturous applause to my dad and Wendy. I am feeling choked up with tears as I type this surreal and magical memory of this remarkable day at Pinewood Studios.

Here’s a video clip of my dad, with stunt woman Wendy Leach, as they practised flying on wires. (This is an excerpt from a video posted on YouTube by the film makers. I will add the name of the video, shortly).

Here is another iconic scene, showing my dad again in another heroic act of Superman’s.

Fortunately, Mr. Donner never did anything awful to me for sitting in his Director’s chair.  He simply came over to me and told me that my dad was “…one of the best Stunt-Men (he) had ever worked with.” and he too then gave my head a rub and went on with his day.

My dad, sadly, passed away in 2002 at the age of sixty-eight; having worked right up to the months just before he died of cancer.  I was just thirty years old at the time and I hope, by sharing this memory, it keeps a part of my dad’s wonderful career achievements alive.

I was saddened by the tragic accident that so cruelly injured Christopher Reeve. He was astounding as Superman. I was also shocked upon hearing of the sad death of Margot Kidder, in 2018. To me, she was the archetypal Lois Lane. Margot Kidder was a political activist but she had a range of personal problems that she spoke openly about, in her life. In 1990 she was involved in a serious car accident, which left her partially paralysed and a wheelchair user and, as was widely reported later in the 1990’s, Margot Kidder was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. In spite of her many acting successes and her later personal difficulties, Margot Kidder is best known for playing Lois Lane, alongside Christopher Reeve’s Superman. These two were such extraordinary talents and heroes to a whole generation and it is bewildering to imagine how physically impaired they both became, in real life.

My dad went on to make further Superman films. Here is a photo of my dad flying, with Wendy Leach clinging on to him, as the three arch super-villains in Superman 2, take Lois and Lex Luthor to find Superman at his ice crystal ‘house’. You may imagine the awe upon my face as I watched my dad and these talented performers at their work; their art, their craft.

(c) Deano Parsons. 2021.

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