Christopher Reeve turned down a cameo as Superman because he didn't like where the franchise was heading.
Christopher Reeve, the first actor to play the Last Son of Krypton on the big screen, and arguably, still the best, was unhappy with the role after the disaster of Superman III, making it a bad time to ask him to cameo in a spinoff. Screenrant reports, based off of historical interviews with the late actor, that the studio behind Supergirl wanted to bring in Reeve’s Superman as a mentor to his younger Kryptonian cousin. Originally, in a move that would have taken a sledgehammer to established comics canon, Helen Slater’s Supergirl was to play Superman’s lover in Superman III.
The ill-fated Supergirl starred Faye Dunaway as a witch, essentially a generic villain that wanted possession of a Kryptonian artifact that landed on Earth. In the original script for the film, Dunaway would have cursed Christopher Reeve’s Superman, effectively writing him out of the movie until being saved by his cousin. Three months before production was scheduled to begin, Reeve backed out, even giving interviews after the film’s release stating that he was done playing Superman.
Following the overly comedic tone of Superman III, which focused more on Richard Pryor’s hacker and a plot used later in Office Space, the critical and fan reception of Christopher Reeve’s third outing as Superman was a flop, making half the total lifetime gross of Superman II. In order to get Reeve back for the fourth and final outing, Warner Bros. backed up the figurative dump truck of money and granted Reeve a measure of creative control over Superman IV. As noted philosopher Ted Dibase said, “Everybody’s got a price,” and in this case, that price was $6 million dollars.
That $6 million dollar payday was Christopher Reeve’s highest salary for any movie, dwarfing the paltry-by-comparison $250,000 he made for the original Superman. While the studio failed to get Superman to appear in Supergirl, they succeed in making Superman IV, which went on to lose even more money than the third entry, bringing in just under $16 million, and ending the character’s big-screen adventures for nearly 20 years. Despite the inglorious ending to the franchise, Reeve stated in 1994 that he would return for a fifth film, provided the story was good and the budget was high enough to make it into an event movie.
The next year, in 1995, Christopher Reeve was paralyzed as a result of a horse riding accident, ending his tenure as Superman, though he continued to act, direct, and produce up until his death in 2004. Since then, Supergirl made it to television as a cornerstone for the CW’s Arrowverse, including a Superman so successful in Tyler Hoechlin, that he now has his own series, Superman and Lois. For a while, the role of Superman was considered to be cursed, with the original actor, George Reeves, having been shot to death in 1959, Reeve being paralyzed, and then Lois & Clark star Dean Cain unable to break out of the typecast, a similar issue faced by Superman Returns star Brandon Routh.
No one can really blame Christopher Reeve for wanting to hang up Superman’s cape following the horrible third film, and really, who can blame the man for accepting a massive payday to come back? It’s unlikely that Reeve’s cameo appearance in Supergirl would have saved the film, which had much more severe issues beyond the lack of a mentor. For those interested in a non-Superman role of Reeve, check out Village of the Damned, also starring Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill, directed by John Carpenter, a terrific mid-90s horror flick and one of his last roles before becoming paralyzed.