11 Things You Might Not Know About Dick Tracy

Tribune Media Services
Tribune Media Services

Created by Chester Gould in 1931, Dick Tracy has proven to be one of the most enduring comic strips of all time. With a square-jawed detective protagonist and his rogues gallery of cosmetically-unfortunate villains, Tracy has become a kind of shorthand for brilliant and dogged investigative work. Check out some things you might have missed about the strip’s history, how readers reacted to a villain's death, and what stopped Bruce Campbell from playing him in a TV series.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED PLAINCLOTHES TRACY.

After taking art correspondence courses as a teenager, Pawnee, Oklahoma native Chester Gould decided that one way to get rich would be to create a comic strip that would be syndicated all over the country. Early attempts like Radio Cats were “strictly stinkeroo,” he recalled. Eventually, Gould—who had moved to Chicago—decided that in order to stand out he’d need to craft a strip that was serious in tone, a contrast to the comedic strips of the era. Drawing on his distaste for mob figure Al Capone, Gould created Plainclothes Tracy, about a detective disrupting the criminal underworld. Joe Patterson, who co-edited the Chicago Tribune, liked the idea but thought “Dick Tracy” would be a better name because "Dick" was what people called detectives. The strip debuted on October 4, 1931 and has been running ever since.

2. IT DEPICTED THE FIRST COMIC STRIP MURDER.

Strips of the early 20th century were almost exclusively humorous in nature; even police were depicted as slightly buffoonish. Dick Tracy may have been the first attempt at a serious serialized drama on the funny pages. When Patterson accepted the pitch, he suggested to Gould that Tracy become a detective as a result of crime hitting close to home. Patterson’s idea was for Tracy to be so upset by the murder of his girlfriend’s father that he goes to the police to join the force. Gould agreed, and Tess Truehart’s dad, Jeremiah, became an early comic strip casualty, shot dead by robbers who had forced their way into his deli. “I let poor Jeremiah have it right through the heart,” Gould later said.

3. THE STRIP WAS CRITICIZED FOR BEING TOO VIOLENT.

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Even people unfamiliar with Dick Tracy have at least some passing knowledge of its colorful library of villains: Pruneface, Flyface, the Mole, Flattop, the Brow. Fearing readers might tire of villains, Gould killed them off with regularity—and in some astonishingly violent ways. The Brow was impaled on a flagpole; a rabid dog attacked one, while another was scalded to death in a Turkish bath. Gould responded to criticism that the strip sometimes went too far by arguing that police work is “the most bloody and miserable on Earth … any policeman on night duty sees far more blood than I have ever put in my strip.”

4. GOULD IMMERSED HIMSELF IN POLICE TECHNIQUES.

While much of Tracy was sensational in nature—few actual cops relied on video watches or almost exclusively hunted disfigured crooks—Gould still wanted to portray police work as accurately as he could. The artist took courses in ballistics, fingerprinting, forensics, and other procedural techniques to remain current on the latest investigative tools.

5. READERS TOOK THE DEATH OF VILLAIN FLATTOP VERY SERIOUSLY.

A flat-headed criminal, Flattop spent several weeks in 1944 facing off against Tracy before a Gould-ish ugly death by drowning and an unceremonious burial in a field. He was a charming killer, though, and readers took his demise to heart. According to Life, Gould got telegrams from people offering to “claim” his body, and the strip’s syndicate offices received several floral arrangements and sympathy cards. Fans in Middletown, Connecticut even held a wake. Gould later admitted he “got so fond of that little moron” that he delayed his death. Tracy goons typically had 10 weeks of life in them. Flattop earned 11.

6. HE WENT TO THE MOON.

iStock

Despite its grounded depictions of police work, Gould wasn’t above inserting a bit of comic frivolity into his strip. At the height of the Space Race in the 1960s, Gould began a series where Tracy’s police force devised a method of traveling to the moon to battle space crime. Somewhat derisively known as the “moon period,” Tracy spent time in outer space and his son, Dick Tracy Jr., married an alien named Moon Maid. Newspapers even held Moon Maid lookalike contests to find women who resembled the character, minus her antennae.

7. HE ONCE GREW A MUSTACHE.

As reactionary as the strip had been to 1960s politics, Gould doubled down in the 1970s. Hoping to contemporize the square Tracy for hipper audiences, the artist depicted the detective with sideburns and a mustache. He even gained a new partner: “Groovy” Grove, a with-it detective.

8. HE COOPERATED WITH THE REAL FBI TO SOLVE REAL CASES.

In a rare instance of fictional law enforcement getting involved in real cases, in 1999 the FBI worked with the then-current Dick Tracy creative team of Mike Kilian and Dick Locher to publicize real criminals in the strip. (Gould died in 1985.) Top 10 Most Wanted fugitives were profiled in the hopes someone might recognize them. In 2002, the strip depicted actual missing children and advised readers to contact the authorities if they had any information.

9. HE ALMOST GOT A DIVORCE.

Tracy spent 18 years engaged to Tess Trueheart before finally marrying her in 1949. After 45 years of wedded bliss, the couple nearly got a divorce in 1994: Tess was apparently fed up with Tracy’s long hours and unwavering commitment to law enforcement and served him with papers. Deemed a publicity stunt, the couple reconciled after taking a vacation.

10. HE FOUND THE MISSING LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE.

Little Orphan Annie ended its comic strip run in 2010 with the title character believed missing in Guatemala. Since both characters are owned by Tribune Media Services, it was only fitting that Dick Tracy was summoned to find her. The detective began his search in mid-2014, eventually finding Annie being held on a private island that September.

11. BRUCE CAMPBELL WANTED TO PLAY HIM IN A 1990S TV SERIES.

Getty Images

Gould’s creation has been ported over to several other mediums, including radio, comic books, and television. His most notable adaptation came via Warren Beatty, who directed and starred in 1990’s live-action Dick Tracy. The film was a modest hit, which may have emboldened Disney to support actor Bruce Campbell’s desire to launch a Tracy TV series in the 1990s. The Ash vs. Evil Dead star believed he could pull off a “convincing, if slightly snarky” Tracy. Unfortunately, his ambition was suffocated by Beatty, who has controlled screen rights to the character since the 1980s and doesn’t appear to be interested in backing any other Tracy-related projects.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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16 Super Facts About Superman

Christopher Reeve stars in Superman (1978).
Christopher Reeve stars in Superman (1978).
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Today, comic book movies are ubiquitous. But this blockbuster clash of comic book titans might never have happened if not for the success of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978).

In the 1970s, superhero movies were an untested gamble. To make Superman, a trio of ambitious producers teamed up with a talented director, a great cast, and an unprecedented special effects team to create something unlike anything anyone had ever seen on the big screen before. The result was a storied, often tense, filmmaking experience. To celebrate the Man of Steel, let’s look at some facts about his first blockbuster.

1. Superman began production without a studio behind it.

When producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind first got the idea to make a film based on the Superman comic book, they started cobbling together financing for the production, but had no distributor. Eventually, they were able to convince Warner Bros. to take on U.S. distribution rights, but under what’s known as a “negative pickup” deal, meaning that the studio wasn’t actually required to help fund the movie. The burden was on the Salkinds to make the picture appealing to the studio, so the financial risk was massive.

2. Superman's original director had to drop out when they decided to shoot in England.

The Salkinds considered several directors, including Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) and William Friedkin (The Exorcist) to helm the production, but ultimately decided on Guy Hamilton, who was best known at the time for directing James Bond films like 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun. Hamilton took the job, and the production planned to shoot in Rome. When it became clear that it would actually be cheaper to move the shoot to England, a problem arose: Hamilton was an English “tax exile,” meaning he could only be the United Kingdom for 60 days out of each year. Because the production was likely to take longer than that, Hamilton had to drop out, and the search for a new director began.

3. Richard Donner accepted the Superman directing job while on the toilet.

Desperate to find a new director, the Salkinds turned to Richard Donner, who was riding high after the success of The Omen (1976). According to Donner, he was actually sitting on the toilet when he got the call from Alexander Salkind offering him the chance to shoot Superman and Superman II back-to-back.

“I’m making Superman. I don’t have a director and I’ll pay you a million dollars,” Salkind said.

“A million dollars! That was like saying ‘I’ll give you all the tea in China,’” Donner recalled. Donner agreed to see the script, which would present its own set of challenges.

4. The original Superman script was 500 pages long ... and Richard Donner hated it.

When the Salkinds began the project, they wanted a high-profile writer to boost the film’s profile, and decided on The Godfather author Mario Puzo. After spending some time with editors and DC Comics to familiarize himself with Superman lore, Puzo got to work and produced a massive script spanning two films and 500 pages. The script was later rewritten by David and Leslie Newman and Robert Benton. When Donner joined the film, which Alexander Salkind had assured him was “perfect,” he demanded rewrites.

“It was disparaging,” Donner recalled. “It was just gratuitous action. I’m reading this thing and Superman’s looking for Lex Luthor in Metropolis, and he’s looking for every bald head in the city. And then he flies down and taps a guy on the shoulder and it’s [Kojak’s] Telly Savalas, who hands him a lollipop and says, ‘Who loves ya, baby?’

“I was brought up on Superman as a kid. There was a whole point in my life where I read Superman. So when I was finished with it, I was like, ‘Man, if they make this movie, they are destroying the legend of Superman.’ I wanted to do it just to defend him.”

To “defend” Superman, Donner called in his friend Tom Mankiewicz (Live and Let Die), and the two began reshaping the story.

5. Marlon Brando wanted to play Superman's Jor-El "like a bagel."

Marlon Brando in Superman (1980).Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

To further boost the film’s profile, the Salkinds went after major stars for key supporting roles, and pursued Marlon Brando for the role of Superman’s father, Jor-El. Donner, Mankiewicz, and Ilya Salkind flew to Brando’s Los Angeles home to meet with him. Before he met the actor, Donner asked famed Hollywood agent Jay Kanter for any negotiating hints, at which point he learned that Brando was going to attempt to do as little work as possible.

“And he said, ‘He's going to want play it like a green suitcase.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It means he hates to work and he loves money, so if he can talk you into the fact that the people on Krypton look like green suitcases and you only photograph green suitcases, he'll get paid just to do the voiceover. That’s the way his mind works.’ I said, ‘F*ck,’ and then I called Francis Coppola. He said, ‘He’s brilliant. He's got a brilliant mind. But he loves to talk. Keep him talking, and he'll talk himself out of any problem,’” Donner recalled.

When the director actually met with Brando, the actor proposed that he played Jor-El not as a green suitcase, but as a “bagel.” Brando reasoned that no one knows what the people on Krypton look like, but that Jor-El would know what people on Earth look like, and would therefore make his son look human so he could blend in. Mankiewicz even recalled that, at one point, Brando pitched the idea that maybe Kryptonians don’t even talk. They simply make electronic sounds that are translated through subtitles. Fighting to secure his star, Donner invoked Superman’s long comic book history.

“I said, ‘Jeez, Marlon, let me tell you something.’ He’d just told us the story about a kid [and how smart he was] and I said, ‘It's 1939. There isn't a kid in the world that doesn't know what Jor-El looks like, and he looks like Marlon Brando.’ And he looked at me and smiled [and said], ‘I talk too much, don't I?’ He said, ‘OK. Show me the wardrobe.’”

Brando was paid $4 million to play Jor-El, a massive sum for only a few scenes.

6. Every major star of the day was seemingly considered for Superman's title role.

In order to secure the rights to adapt the comic book, the Salkinds had to bow to certain demands from DC Comics, and the publisher ultimately sent along a list of “approved” actors who were allowed to play Superman. The list was far-reaching, and basically included every major star of the time. Among the names on the list: Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Muhammad Ali.

7. Richard Donner wanted to cast an unknown actor as Superman.

The Salkinds, hoping to land a major movie star in the title role, offered Superman to Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who both turned it down. The Salkinds also booked a meeting between Donner and Sylvester Stallone, who was hot at the time because of Rocky.

“I tried to be nice and say, ‘This is wrong,’” Donner said.

Believing that a movie star in Superman’s costume wouldn’t be believable, because audiences would only see the movie star and not the character, Donner lobbied hard for an unknown. He eventually found his man in Christopher Reeve, who impressed the director with his theater work.

8. Christopher Reeve gained nearly 50 pounds to play Superman.

Though he was impressed by Reeve’s acting ability, and believed he had the right face to be Superman, Donner was concerned about the actor’s size. Superman had to be muscular and really fill out the costume, and at the time they, met Reeve was 6’5” and weighed only 170 pounds. Donner was skeptical, but Reeve assured him that he’d been muscular before and could be muscular again.

“Before I went into acting, I was a real jock,” Reeve said. “I’ve lost 50 pounds. I can put it on.”

To help Reeve get into shape, the production turned to bodybuilder David Prowse (best known in film as the man in the Darth Vader costume for the original Star Wars trilogy), and asked him to put as much muscle on Reeve as he could in the span of about six weeks. According to Prowse, Reeve weighed about 212 pounds when he started production.

9. Margot Kidder's clumsiness won her the role of Lois Lane in Superman.

Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in Superman (1978).Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

For the role of Lois Lane, several actresses—including Lesley Ann Warren and Anne Archer—were considered, but Margot Kidder ultimately won the role by simply being herself.

“When I met her in the casting office, she tripped coming in and I just fell in love with her,” Donner said. “It was perfect, this clumsy [behavior]. She was one of the few [actresses] we flew to London to test with Chris. Anne Archer [also tested]. But they were magic together.”

To compound Kidder’s clumsy, silly side even further, an eye injury meant that she had to act without contact lenses one day. Donner was so charmed by the way it made Lois bump into things and widen her eyes that he made sure Kidder continued to play the role without her contacts.

“There was a law after that: every morning people had to come to me and make sure she didn't have her contacts in, and that she would act without her contacts. It just made her wonderful.”

10. The original Perry White was replaced just days before shooting on Superman began.

For the role of Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet, Donner cast legendary character actor Keenan Wynn, but almost immediately after his arrival in London for shooting, Wynn had a heart attack. Desperate to find an actor in time to keep the production on schedule, Donner and Mankiewicz made a list of possible names, and just made calls until someone answered the phone. Jackie Cooper picked up, and ended up playing the character all the way through 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

11. Superman's Kryptonian costumes couldn't be touched by bare hands.

For the scenes on Krypton, costume designer Yvonne Blake wanted costumes that reflected some kind of “energy,” and ultimately decided to craft the suits from material traditionally used on movie screens “made out of miniscule balls of glass.” The glowing effect the material produced was fantastic, but because of its delicate nature, the crew could only touch it while wearing cotton gloves.

“Any time the material was touched by hand it would lose its reflective quality,” Blake said.

12. The movie's crew cried when Superman flew for the first time.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in making Superman was creating a convincing special effect that would allow Superman to fly. Donner was adamant that old, crude methods of flying on camera (like the ones used in the Superman TV series) could not be used. It had to feel authentic, and that meant the special effects team had to essentially invent new methods of onscreen flight. Finally, optics expert Zoran Perisic designed a system that used two zoom lenses interacting with each other to create a flight effect.

“Christopher Reeve would be basically in one place, on a pole arm … that you don’t see, and all he does is sort of make the moves, and it’s the camera and the projector that make him look like he comes straight up,” Perisic said.

According to Donner, crew members actually cried the first time they saw Reeve take flight.

13. The Superman production was chaotic.

The Salkinds’ plan was always for two Superman films to be shot simultaneously, but because of the immense number of sets and effects needed to achieve that, Donner had to break the filming up into manageable pieces. To make it all work, seven different shooting units were filming at the same time, with Donner driving back and forth between them on a golf cart.

“I had a bunch of these handheld radios in my golf cart and I would get a call from production and they would say ‘Get over to stage blah blah. They’re doing the tests. We’re ready to shoot,’” Donner recalled. “I’d go over there and go back and shoot the principals, and then get a new setup that would take hours, because it was so vast.”

14. Donner and the Salkinds constantly fought over Superman's budget.

As production on both films continued, tension developed between Donner, the Salkinds, and producer Pierre Spengler. Donner was attempting an unprecedented comic book movie feat, and according to him, the producers constantly urged him to spend less while never actually telling him what he was allowed to spend. The Salkinds always claimed the film was over schedule and over budget, while Donner claims that he never actually had a schedule or a budget.

“They’d say, ‘You can’t do this,’ but I would have no alternative and they wouldn’t show me the budget. They never ever told me what the budget was. I had no idea what I was spending. I was making a movie and they wouldn’t tell me the budget,” Donner said. “So there was no way I knew what I was spending. Sometimes I’d authorize something and nothing would be there; they would just arbitrarily cancel it. They didn’t want anyone to know where that money went, I guess.”

15. Superman's ending was actually stolen from Superman II.

Christopher Reeve stars in Superman (1978).Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

As production went on, Superman was helped out by increased financial support from Warner Bros., as studio executives grew more and more impressed with footage they received from Donner. According to Mankiewicz, their favorite effect was the scene in which Superman flies into space and begins reversing Earth’s rotation in order to turn back time. Because the studio was determined to make Superman a hit, they wanted this dazzling effect to be the climax of the film. The problem was that the footage was intended to be the end of Superman II.

According to Mankiewicz, the original ending of Superman involved the Man of Steel throwing a nuclear missile into space, at which point it would collide with the Phantom Zone prison containing General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his acolytes, freeing them and setting up the sequel. Well, because Warner Bros. was convinced there wouldn’t be a sequel if Superman didn’t work, they lobbied for Superman to reverse time to end the film, and Mankiewicz and Donner made it work.

“We talked and talked and finally we stole it from Superman II and figured when we finished that, we would have come up with a new ending,” Donner said.

16. Due to increasing tensions, Richard Donner didn't complete Superman II.

As Donner continued to fight with Spengler and the Salkinds over budget and scheduling issues, the Salkinds drafted director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night) to act as a “go-between” for both parties. Lester assured Donner that he was there to help, and Donner requested that Lester have no part in the actual production of the films.

After Superman was released to massive success in December of 1978, Spengler encountered Variety columnist Army Archerd at a Christmas party, and assured him that, though there had been tension, he was proud of Donner’s Superman work and looked forward to working with him on the sequel. Archerd then contacted Donner and told him what Spengler had said. Donner’s response was “If he’s on [Superman II]—I’m not.”

“The Salkinds are very loyal people,” Spengler said. “I’d been there from the outset, and if the gentleman (Donner) didn’t want to work with me, then we had to find someone to replace the gentleman.”

The Salkinds then turned to “go-between” Lester, and hired him to finish Superman II. Lester reshot, and sometimes even rewrote, portions of the film (Mankiewicz, loyal to Donner, refused to return to work on the script).

“They hastily rewrote a lot of scenes with Chris and I,” Kidder said.

Decades later, Donner’s previously shot footage for the film was restored and re-edited into Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, and previously unused footage of Brando as Jor-El was incorporated into Bryan Singer’s sequel to Superman II, Superman Returns (2006).

Additional Sources:
You Will Believe: The Cinematic Saga of Superman (2006)
Taking Flight: The Development of Superman (2001)
Making Superman: Filming The Legend (2001)

This story has been updated for 2020.