Many baby boomers faced their first television tragedy in 1959, when the unthinkable happened: Superman killed himself.
No, it wasn’t a plot to the wildly popular “Adventures of Superman,” series that ran from 1952-58. George Reeves, who played the Man of Steel, was idolized by millions of kids. Reeves, 45, was found dead in his bedroom with a bullet wound in his head.
“TV’s Superman Kills Self” blared the front page headline in the New York Post and newspapers across the country on June 16, 1959.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Stu Sachs, head of The Villages TV Nostalgia Club. The club played a “Superman” episode Tuesday night to a packed room of about 250 members in the Eisenhower Recreation Center. “I knew, in real life, Superman couldn’t fly, but I never thought he would die,” Sachs added.
“I couldn’t understand why he died,” said Villager Ed Carr. “I remember hearing about his death and it seemed impossible. He was Superman.”
“George Reeves was so handsome,” said Villager Marian Drummond. “I think he was the best Superman of all. Then he died.”
“He was my Superman,” Villager Bob Schlenk said. “I was eight years old when he died. I couldn’t figure it out.”
Here is the famous introduction to the program:
During the presentation, Sachs talked about George Reeves’ acting career and also the controversy about his death.
Although it was ruled a suicide, stories persist that it was murder. Reeves was having an affair with the wife of a Hollywood film mogul and broke it off a few months before his death. When he died, Reeves was living with
a much younger woman.
The movie “Hollywoodland” (2006) tells the story of Reeve’s mysterious death. The cast included Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck and Diane Lane. Here is the trailer:
Whether it was suicide or murder – Reeves’ death just adds to the myth and mystery of Superman.
Today, we live in an age where Hollywood spectaculars based on comic book heroes rake in billions of dollars. Batman, Spider-man, the Justice League, X-Men, Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy are just a few characters who will soon be back on the big screen.
But in the 1950s, the adult public looked down on comic books and their characters. “The Adventures of Superman” helped change that perception.
Early on, the TV series had a dark, film-noir type flavor to many episodes that included murder, violence and shady characters. Later episodes were much more tame and comic.
Reeves, who had appeared in such major films as “Gone With the Wind,” “From Here to Eternity” and “The Blue Gardenia” was the star who made Superman alive. The cast also included Phyllis Coates — and later, Noel Neill — as Lois Lane; Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen and John Hamilton as Perry White.
“I think George Reeves was perfect for the role of Superman,” Sachs said. “He had the look and the presence of the character. He wasn’t a great actor, but he was OK.”
Marian Drummond was a Lois Lane fans. Phyllis Coates and Noel Neill played Lois as a tough, professional news reporter and independent woman.
“I loved Lois Lane,” Drummond said. “She was always chasing a story and getting in trouble. She wanted to marry Superman, but I wanted her to marry Clark Kent. I always wondered why she couldn’t figure out that Clark was really Superman. The only difference is Clark wore glasses.”
By the late ‘50s, Reeves was typecast as Superman and growing weary of the role. He sang on a television show with Tony Bennett. Reeves showed his comedic skills in a famous episode of “I Love Lucy.” He even wanted to try professional wrestling.
Here is a video of Reeves on “I Love Lucy”:
But no matter what he did, Reeves couldn’t shake the Superman label. Some described him as being “depressed” and drinking heavily before his death.
“Superman was no longer a challenge to him…. I know he enjoyed the role, but he used to say, ‘Here I am, wasting my life,’” actor Ben Weldon, who often appeared on the TV series, once said.
“It made me sick that George had died. He was Superman, and that was the show,” Jack Larson once said.
Now, Reeves has been gone for nearly six decades — but the television series lives on. And every episode begins with these words: “It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman.
“It was a great show and I’ve watched it all my life,” Stu Sachs said. “And I’m going to keep watching it.”