Almost immediately following his debut in Action Comics, they started making Superman movies; beginning with George Reeves in the old serials, through Christopher Reeve’s four-film stint, Brandon Routh’s appearance, and Henry Cavill’s most recent turn (and presumably return, after Justice League), there are no shortage of Superman movies. While more relatively stable in tone and production than, say, the Batman film franchise, studios seem to struggle to find an audience for Superman movies. The Christopher Reeve era lasted almost a decade, from Superman to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and produced some of the most tonally resonant Superman moments, but since then, the character has been taken in a darker direction, finding murder to be a viable option and isolating himself from society rather than trying to revel in it.
But Superman goes on — he’s a cultural institution, and certainly there will be movies made about him in the future, even if there are decades without. Throughout all the hundreds of actors in these films, some of the side characters jump out as actors and actresses that make you go, “Hey, don’t I know them from somewhere…?” Check out this list of 16 actors that appeared in one of the Superman movies that might have snuck right past you!
16. TERENCE STAMP
General Zod has played a huge part in Superman mythology since his first appearance in the comics in 1961; a violent remnant of the worst part of Kal-El’s Kryptonian heritage, Zod is the dark, dictatorial reflection of what an unchecked Superman could become. First appearing briefly at the beginning of Superman when he is exiled to the Phantom Zone by Jor-El, and then returning from exile to star as the villain in Superman II, Terence Stamp put in two definitive performances as General Zod.
Since then, Zod has become a major plot point in the Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice; while Terence Stamp was the perfect Zod, his performance has been sidelined by Michael Shannon’s more intense portrayal.
15. KAL PENN
In 2006, several years after his turn as Kumar in Harold Kumar Go To White Castle, Kal Penn was making a name for himself as a much more serious actor. He appeared in a highly praised role in The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name, and in the following year, he would begin a two-year stint on House, before transitioning to an official position in the Obama White House.
But notably, Kal Penn also appeared in 2006 in Superman Returns as Stanford, one of Lex Luthor’s gang of tough guys who are able to beat the living snot out of Superman when he lands on one of the new, Kryptonite-infused land masses Lex Luthor had created. Penn’s character doesn’t get to do much aside from beat up Superman, but sometimes that’s all you really need.
14. NED BEATTY
Beatty has been working consistently since his debut in 1972’s Deliverance, a harrowing role in a gut-wrenching movie. Six years later, he was cast as Otis, the bumbling henchman of Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in Richard Donner’s Superman. Otis is a character who was created specifically for the movie by writers Mario Puzo and Tom Mankiewicz, and he is almost entirely present as a punching bag and errand boy for the buffoonish Luthor.
Beatty hasn’t appeared in a film since his performance as Lotso the bear in Toy Story 3, but his career has been long and storied; Otis appears as almost a footnote, especially as he only appeared in Superman and Superman II before being casually resurrected for an appearance in a single episode of Young Justice.
13. JIM BROADBENT
Broadbent plays an almost recognizable turn in Superman IV, almost precisely because he looks so normal. Playing an arms dealer specializing in just the kinds of nuclear weapons Lex Luthor might be interested in, he is slim and clean cut, whereas nowadays he tends toward more jolly grandfather roles, like Professor Horace Slughorn in the later Harry Potter movies.
The plot of Superman IV leans heavily on nuclear arms, so much so that the movie is less about Superman vs. Nuclear Man with Superman vs. Nukes being the subtext, as both those conflicts as actual text. Superman embarks on a quest of nuclear disarmament, and they not only make him fight an anthropomorphized concept of nuclear war, they make him destroy all the literal bombs. So while Broadbent’s cameo is fun, just a reminder that there is no movie more on-the-nose than Superman IV.
12. JON CRYER
Jon Cryer is most familiar to people as Charlie Sheen’s nebbish brother on Two and a Half Men, and for playing Duckie opposite Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. The year after Pretty in Pink, Cryer appeared in Superman IV as Lenny Luthor, Lex’s young nephew who breaks him out of prison. Together, they do all sorts of uncle-nephew bonding activities, like stealing some of Superman’s hair from a museum (what better place to keep it?), and creating a flawed clone powered by the sun, called Nuclear Man.
Eventually, Superman puts a stop to their nuclear plot, completes the world’s nuclear disarmament, and makes time to drop Lenny off at a Boys Town to be punished/raised by priests. His appearance in a single Superman movie that is widely remembered for being among the worst Superman movies (nay, worst movies full stop) is a guarantee to forget about him.
11. CHRISTOPHER MELONI
Christopher Meloni is probably best known for his turn as Detective Elliot Stabler on Law Order: Special Victims Unit, and perhaps most infamously for his role as fridge-humping camp chef Gene Jenkinson in the Wet Hot American Summer franchise. He plays more towards the Stabler side of his range in his appearance in Man of Steel as Colonel Nathan Hardy, one of the attachment of military traveling with Lois and Dr. Hamilton in the third act of the movie.
One of the movie’s more fun easter eggs is Hardy’s callsign — “Guardian,” most likely a reference to the DC Comics vigilante, who generally works in Suicide Slum with the Newsboy Legion. We most likely won’t get Meloni-as-Guardian, though, as James Olsen has recently taken on the suit, shield and mantle in the CW’s Supergirl.
10. PARKER POSEY
Superman Returns features a chrome-domed Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, and Parker Posey as his comic-relief moll, Kitty. Posey has done a little bit of everything in the film world, though she’s often associated with indie comedies, particularly Christopher Guest films. In the film, she uses her feminine wiles to distract Superman long enough for that dastardly villain Lex Luthor to steal a museum’s fragment of Kryptonite.
She makes it through the film to live to torment Luthor another day as they both make their escape. Posey’s particular brand of snarky fun would have been an excellent ingredient to liven up Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, to get them out of their respective dour moods, but alas, we have most likely seen the last of Kitty Kowalski.
9. MARIEL HEMINGWAY
The granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway, Mariel Hemingway began an acting career at the age of 14, with highly praised roles in Personal Best and Woody Allen’s Manhattan. She appears in Superman IV as Lacy Warfield, the daughter of the combative new owner of The Daily Planet, who wants nothing more than to get together with Clark Kent.
She becomes the coveted love interest of the Nuclear Man (a real King Kong/Fay Wray situation), and the focus of the movie becomes keeping a nuclear-powered villain at bay by giving him the beautiful woman that he lusts after. It’s… gross, and involves her being abandoned in space for awhile before Superman can get around to saving her. Hemingway has gone on to write several self-help books and memoirs, while continuing a consistent film career.
8. JOHN RATZENBERGER
Most familiar nowadays as the lucky charm of every Pixar production, John Ratzenberger first became beloved by the nation for playing the ultimate mailman, Cliff Clavin on Cheers. Alongside George Wendt’s Norm, the two barflies solidified a kind of trope for male camaraderie on television that has its roots somewhere along the lines of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.
Ratzenberger technically appears in two Superman movies that you probably forgot he was in — Superman and Superman II. The first two Superman movies were originally conceived as one long movie (the original Mario Puzo script clocked in at 550 pages), so while Ratzenberger appears as a missile operator at the end of Superman, he also appears as the same missile operator (but a different credit) in the beginning of Superman II.
7. KATE BOSWORTH
Superman Returns remains one of the more overlooked entries in the Superman filmography, falling much behind Superman and Superman II, not to mention the more recent Zack Snyder entries. Bosworth plays a Lois Lane who’s gotten angry with an absent Superman, but who’s channeled that anger into moving on with her life; she earns her Pulitzer with a piece entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.”
Her performance as Lois is stellar, portraying her as more settled down in terms of family and career, but also more restless for exactly the same reasons. Unfortunately, the movie itself surrounded some great performances with a slogging script, and an inaccessible concept — beginning the movie with an absent Superman, and never really adequately answering where he’d been. Surely it wouldn’t take the Man of Steel five years to fly to Krypton and back?
6. E.G. MARSHALL
When General Zod and his minions returned from their exile in the Phantom Zone to land on Earth, they made a beeline straight for the offices of the President of the United States of America, from which they could issue their bold demands against Superman. Infamously, after the President’s televised plea, Zod commands Superman to “kneel before Zod!” now immortalized as the closest to a catchphrase Zod has.
The President was played by E.G. Marshall, an actor whose biggest role to date had been as “Juror #4” in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. Marshall would later go on to several other memorable turns, particularly as the bug-phobic millionaire in Creepshow, and as Art, one of the troop of grandparents and relatives in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
5. RICHARD BRANSON
Superman Returns, somewhat confusingly, portrays the crash of a space shuttle towards the beginning of the film that very much mirror’s Superman’s original reveal of himself to humanity, saving a jet plane in Superman. As the shuttle barrels towards the planet, Superman is able to divert it and land it inside a baseball stadium (presumably the home of either the National League Metropolis Meteors or the American League Metropolis Monarchs).
The engineer on the careening space shuttle is none other than multi-billionaire Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Group. His cameo may be a wink and a nod at the fact that Virgin had launched Virgin Galactic in 2006, one of the early attempts at commercially viable, recreational space travel. Although, if this is any indicator of Virgin Galactic quality, maybe we all better stick to SpaceX.
4. RICHARD PRYOR
Superman III is in many ways the most purely “comic book”-y of the Salkind Superman movies, and surely some of that is due to Richard Pryor, who co-stars as a morally ambiguous computer programmer. Pryor’s character, Gus Gorman, is responsible for creating the flawed Kryptonite that caused Superman to turn into a flippant, selfish jerk — that is, until Superman got drunk, split into a bad half and a good half in a junkyard, and had the two sides fight to the death.
Like we said, Superman III will not be beaten in its campiness. Pryor’s presence may have shifted the movie towards a more comedic tone, with producers wanting to play to his strengths, but really all “comedic tone” means is that this is the movie where the supervillain’s motivation is to get revenge on Colombia for not giving him control of the world’s coffee supply.
3. EVA MARIE SAINT
This one is the biggest, film-nerdiest wink and a nod on this list. In Superman Returns, Eva Marie Saint plays Superman’s adopted mother Martha Kent, in a scene at the beginning of the film (Superman’s literal return from space). She appears only briefly, to give confidence to Superman as he returns to Metropolis after discovering his home planet was not alive, as he thought it might be. The joke here is that Saint’s first major starring role was in a little movie called On the Waterfront with an actor named Marlon Brando.
Brando, of course, played Superman’s father in Superman (and his digitized visage makes an appearance in Superman Returns, giving advice to Kal-El who passes it along to his own son). It’s a strange reunion across space and time in the Superman universe, but Bryan Singer still managed to bring Brando and Saint back together.
2. RICHARD SCHIFF
Schiff is best known as presidential speechwriter Toby Ziegler on Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, and he’s carved out a long and steady career in both film and television. What you may have forgotten in the publicity surrounding DC releasing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the upcoming Justice League, was that Schiff also portrayed Dr. Emil Hamilton in Man of Steel.
Dr. Hamilton featured heavily in pre-New 52 Superman comics as a scientific well of knowledge for the Man of Steel — any time something wonky started happening with Superman’s body (see: Electric Blue and Red Supermen), he went to Dr. Hamilton for answers. In Man of Steel, Dr. Hamilton is discovers what Zod’s terraforming machines are doing to the Earth and joins up with Lois and Col. Hardy to try and stop them.
1. AYELET ZURER
Zurer is an Israeli actress who has been famous in her home country for decades as an actress and comedienne. She first rose to prominence with American audiences with a part in Steven Spielberg’s Munich as the wife of Avner Kaufman, Eric Bana’s Mossad agent character; her casting as the female lead in the Da Vinci Code sequel, Angels and Demons shot her even further into stardom.
She is probably best known to comics fans at this point as Vanessa Marianna, the love interest of Wilson Fisk in Netflix’s Daredevil, but she appeared two years earlier as Lara Lor-Van, the mother of Kal-El, in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. She features prominently in the extra-long first act sequence that sets up Zod’s animosity towards Jor-El (and the House of El in general), but she still remains criminally underused.
Which of these did you remember? Let us know in the comments!