By Fred Bernstein
July 27, 1981 12:00 PM


(After Superman proposes marriage)


I don’t know what to say.


Just say you love me.

The Man of Steel never talked that way in the comics, but then, the comics weren’t written by David and Leslie Newman, the scenarists whose unabashedly romantic Superman II has made more money faster than any other new release. Yet love, not money, is their muse, though they made an appearance on the picket lines during the just-concluded 13-week strike by the Writers Guild of America. “The cops-and-robbers stuff was fun,” says Leslie, 41, “but the love scenes were our favorites. We cried when we wrote them.” Adds David, 44: “What’s on the screen is what we think is romantic.”

Though the Newmans share their Superman II billing with Mario Puzo, the movie that director Richard Lester brought to the screen was, David says, “98 percent ours.” And what a credit: In its first three weeks Superman II grossed $59 million, $13 million more than this summer’s other big hit, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a third of what has been pulled in by Superman, which the Newmans also wrote (with later contributions from Tom Mankiewicz).

The couple began work on Superman with a definite feel for their comic-book characters. Says Leslie: “I identify with Lois Lane because it’s possible to be madly in love with a guy and want to settle down, and still want to have a career.” Similarly, David admits to a kinship with Superman. “All of us are schizoid,” he says. “On Monday morning, we put on our Clark Kent faces and go off to work. On Friday, we pull open our shirts and there’s a big red S. Everybody thinks, ‘I look like a shlep, but if they knew the real me, they’d know I was super.’ ”

Leslie writes on an IBM Selectric in the Newmans’ apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park West, in the same building with Faye Dunaway and Richard Dreyfuss. David bangs away on an old manual in a tiny office on 57th Street, near the Russian Tea Room. They tried to write together at home but soon found “we drive each other crazy,” as David puts it. Besides, Leslie likes peace almost as much as David craves commotion. “I need noise and interruptions to work,” he says.

In scripting Superman II, which took five months, they outlined the scenes on some 60 index cards, then split up the jobs of writing and editing each part. In the end, they revised each other so many times that, says David, “we honestly can’t say who wrote what.” Leslie starts writing before 10 a.m. every day. Says David: “She is a distance runner. I’m a sprinter. I may do nothing for hours or days. Then, suddenly, I break all speed records. Eventually it evens out.”

The Newmans’ dissimilarities, David believes, “help keep things popping. There are as many broken plates and pounded fists in this marriage as in any other. But Leslie turns me on. If she didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.” Working together—at a distance—helps. Says Leslie: “We can both understand what the other is going through.”

They met in 1956, when she was a freshman and he a junior at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. David, whose father manufactured ladies’ sportswear, had had a “perfectly normal middle-class childhood” in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Leslie England, daughter of a Chicago jeweler, had “intellectual parents” who sent her to private schools. At Ann Arbor she was already “sort of” engaged when a friend showed her high school yearbook picture to David, who had just taken an off-campus apartment in the hopes of entertaining “a whole succession of hot numbers.” When the friend later introduced them, David invited Leslie over. “She never left,” he says with a smile. Laughs Leslie: “I am a whole succession of hot numbers.”

They wed two years later, and by the end of their first married summer, which they spent working as camp counselors, Leslie was pregnant with son Nathan, now 22 and employed in a publicist’s office. Seven years later Catherine arrived; she is now 16. Says David: “Having children young meant we could be kids with our kids.”

David’s first job was at Esquire, where he and friend Robert Benton, then the art director, invented the magazine’s annual Dubious Achievement Awards. Soon they were having off-hours discussions about movie ideas. The first one they sold, Bonnie and Clyde, won the New York Film Critics award for the best screenwriting of 1967 and got them a contract with Warner’s. Recalls David, just 30 at the time: “I thought it would go on like that forever.”

It didn’t. Their next film, There Was a Crooked Man, with Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda, was a dud, and David “wondered if we’d peaked too soon.” But later efforts with Benton produced What’s Up, Doc?, a profitable comedy written with Buck Henry, and the critically praised Western Bad Company. For the stage, Newman and Benton wrote some of Oh! Calcutta! and a less successful musical called Superman, which was suggested by Leslie after she read one of Nathan’s comics.

In those years, Leslie recalls, “people would say to me, ‘What do you do?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, nothing.’ ” But by the early ’70s she grew restless and started writing herself. She won critical huzzahs with Gathering Force, a novel about a young couple seeking self-realization, and soon hankered to team with David. Their first joint effort was The Crazy American Girl, a French film released only in Europe. But then came Superman, which firmly established the Newmans. Though Puzo was hired to write both Supermans—parts of which were filmed together to cut costs—his work was set aside as too “heavy,” and the Newmans wound up as the actual writers of both I and II. Says David happily: “Our income is leaping tall buildings in a single bound.” Having returned empty soda bottles for change in their pinch-penny Michigan days, the Newmans now command fees in the middle-six-figure range for screenplays.

On the other hand, they are now too busy to continue one of their favorite indulgences, spending summers in Saint-Tropez. But Leslie still finds time to pursue her passion for cooking in their professionally equipped kitchen. While David admits to “occasionally peeling a carrot,” he remains a TV sports freak. During the football season, says Leslie, “I don’t expect any conversation at all. I’m allowed to put lunch on the table and then leave the room quietly.”

The Newmans often see Superman star Christopher Reeve and his girlfriend, Gae Exton, and they frequently dine at Elaine’s, the Manhattan showbiz-literati eatery, with writer friends like Dan Greenburg and Bruce Jay Friedman. But as members of the Writers Guild they avoided meals—which could look like meetings—with producers and studio execs during the strike. Now they have more than a dozen projects to turn to. Some are solo efforts, like Letters to Michael, a film about a guy who advertises for a mate on subway posters, which David will direct as well as write, and The Shadow, a darkly romantic adaptation of the old radio series that Leslie has contracted to do for Universal.

Superman III, which the Newmans hope to start writing this week, will be their last of the series, but definitely not their final joint effort. Says David: “It’s lonely writing alone. Leslie’s the person I need to be complete.” Just like in the movies.