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June 15, 2006   

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Meet Superman!

Prem Panicker in Los Angeles

It is easy enough to see why Brandon Routh walked into cape and costume -- the six foot three, blue-eyed actor's resemblance to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman is uncanny. It is not as easy though to fathom why Warner Brothers would peg its summer tent pole to the fortunes of an unknown actor with zero box office credibility.

Way back in 1976, when director Richard Donner began work on Superman: The Movie, the film that was to establish the superhero's canon, he was spoilt for choice: Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Bronson, Paul Newman and Bruce Jenner were among those tested, and considered, for the part.

Donner, however, insisted on casting a cinema virgin -- and picked relatively unknown stage actor Christopher Reeve to wear the cape. Contemplating the dilemma facing his successor, director Bryan Singer, today, Donner explains the rationale: 'Whoever plays Superman has got to bring to life the son of Jor-El. He has to bring reality and purity to the character. He has got to evolve into a superhero. If in any way he is tainted with past references, that would be a major mistake -- and I think Bryan faced the same conundrum. The moment you associate the actor with any other role, you lose the character. To make a man fly and to make you believe he can, it had to be an unknown then, and I think today it is even more true.'

Singer was looking for an actor who could embody the qualities of three characters -- Kal-El, Clark Kent and Superman -- rolled into one; someone who could handle the physical and emotional demands of the role; who would be a worthy successor to Reeve and who was young enough to grow not just into this film, but into the franchise itself, as Reeve did with the original film and its sequels.

"However daunting that task may have been to fill the boots of Christopher Reeve, the actor to play Superman couldn't have the baggage of being a movie star," says Singer. "I needed someone who represented and looked like the collective memory we all have of Superman."

Months after the search began in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia, someone stumbled on the audition tape of an undiscovered actor who had auditioned for a previous Superman film in development at Warner Bros Pictures -- and Singer saw what he was looking for, over and above an uncanny physical resemblance to the character in the Donner film.

"Just talking to him, I got a sense of his mid-Western upbringing and all the classic ideals that come from that sort of childhood, which are the same kinds of ideals Superman embodies," Singer says. "Then, of course, there is his physical presence. He looks like he walked off a page in the comic book. Pretty much at that point, he became my first and only choice because I felt confident he could handle all three roles -- Kal-El, Clark Kent and Superman."

The Des Moines, Iowa, USA native (who, incidentally, was raised about 100 miles south of Woolstock, home of American television's original Superman, George Reeves) was a high school athlete who swam and played soccer, and starred in several theatrical productions. He attended the University of Iowa for one year before heading to Hollywood to pursue acting.

Routh's credits include a 1999 episode of the short-lived television sitcom Odd Man Out, an appearance on Gilmore Girls in 2000, steady appearances on the daytime televsion drama One Life to Live (2001-2002) and guest starring roles on the crime television drama Cold Case, Will & Grace and the brief-lived Oliver Beene. Excerpts from an interview:

Design: Uday Kuckian

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