While watching MAN OF STEEL, the new Superman movie, I could not help but think of some of the other actors who have played the beloved superhero across the decades both on TV and in the movies. One of them was of course George Reeves, whom Baby Boomers will know as the actor cast as the title character and his alter-ego, Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, in THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, the iconic 1950s television series. These days, George Reeves-- who is not to be confused with Christopher Reeve-- is remembered not so much as a 1950s television star but as a tabloid tragedy. That is because, on June 16, 1959, Reeves, who was 45-years-old, was found shot to death in his Hollywood home.
At the time, youngsters who had been weaned on the Superman series were subjected to a harsh dose of reality. The Man of Steel-- or at least the actor who played him-- was not invulnerable.
The fate of George Reeves comes to mind not just because of the new Superman movie or the telling of his story in HOLLYWOODLAND, a screen biopic which dates from 2006. But I will note that what is so intriguing about HOLLYWOODLAND is that it is an exploration of what it means to be famous in America, and the impact of that fame on one’s sense of self and sense of identity. HOLLYWOODLAND works as a biting depiction of movie industry powerbrokers as slimy manipulators and thugs, and Ben Affleck gives what then was a career-resurrecting performance as George Reeves.
What is so intriguing here is that, by all accounts, George Reeves was a serious actor. This certainly is evident as you watch him in some of his better film roles: for example, in SO PROUDLY WE HAIL, a World War II-era drama spotlighting the sacrifices of military nurses, Reeves exudes a certain star power as the romantic interest of the character played by Claudette Colbert.
But these roles came before he played Superman. Reportedly, Reeves deeply resented being typecast as the Man of Steel. He also reportedly was involved in a longtime affair with the wife of Eddie Mannix, a powerful MGM executive. For decades, some have speculated that Reeves’ death was neither accident nor suicide but murder. But what I keep going back to here is the psyche of George Reeves: Who he was; what he achieved; and why he apparently was disgruntled.
Playing Superman made him famous. Playing Superman won him a steady paycheck. In 1952, he earned the then-tidy sum of $2,500 a week. But Reeves was not content. His salary and his fame were no consolation for playing what he felt was a demeaning and insignificant role in a cheaply-made children’s TV show.
A number of years ago I interviewed Kirk Alyn, the actor who played Superman in SUPERMAN and ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN, a pair of serials screened in movie theaters in 1948 and 1950. Alyn expressed to me his still-simmering disappointment over losing the role in the TV series to George Reeves. Such, I guess, reflects on the fragile egos of actors. It seemed as if Alyn could not acknowledge the negative impact that being cast as Superman had on the career and, indeed, the life of George Reeves.
And regarding Reeves: Even though he had enjoyed some success pre-SUPERMAN, he is portrayed in HOLLYWOODLAND as being flustered over his inability to win major stardom as a leading man. Then, his one-note role as Superman typecast him and likely would have completely killed off his career had he not died.
One only can hope for a far-better fate for Henry Cavill, the young actor who does acquit himself nicely playing Superman in MAN OF STEEL.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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