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In appreciation of Phyllis Coates, the Lois Lane you’ve never heard of

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Mar 27, 2018

The thing about iconic characters — the ones that are adapted again and again in various forms for decades — is that everyone has their favorite version. Comic book fans, in particular, have a glut of different iterations of the biggest heroes to choose from. Do you prefer Christian Bale’s Batman or Val Kilmer’s? Would you rather watch Heath Ledger’s Joker tear up Gotham or Jack Nicholson's? Maybe you prefer the animated versions and will hear only of Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly, and Susan Eisenberg as your DC Trinity. And what about Superman? Which camp do you fall into when it comes to the Man of Steel? If not Daly, then maybe you’re a Christopher Reeve fan. Perhaps Tom Welling’s young Clark Kent is more your speed. Henry Cavill? Or maybe you’re a purist and you’re all about George Reeves, or you kick it old school with Kirk Alyn.

Each one of these men brought something new and different to the character in whichever era they donned the primary colors, and each endeared himself to audiences in his own way. Of course, just as in the comic books, for every version of Superman, there is also a Lois Lane. And for every person staking claim to “their” Superman, there is someone with equal affinity for their own personal version of the Daily Planet’s ace reporter.

For me, that personal affinity resides pretty heavily with Erica Durance’s version appearing in Smallville during the mid/late '00s. She wasn’t my first (that was Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark) or even necessarily the best (an honor I generally give to Dana Delaney’s voiceover in the animated universe), but she was mine: just the right combination of snark and smarts and scrappy, headstrong willfulness. Plus, I got to watch Durance grow into the role, both the fictional portrayal and the character’s arc over seven seasons on the show, which helped to endear her even more.

Others have their own favorites, be it Margot Kidder’s version from the films of the late '70s and '80s, or Hatcher, or Delaney, or even Kate Bosworth or Amy Adams. Each of these women brought her own flavor of Lois to the screen, and each has earned her own spot in the canon, playing the character for years and imprinting herself in the hearts and minds of viewers. But there’s one woman whose portrayal of Lois often gets swept under the rug, overshadowed in many ways by the women who came after her and erased from the memories of many fans by the woman who replaced her.

Phyllis Coates played Lois Lane for only a single season in 1952’s The Adventures of Superman, the very first television series to bring the exploits of Superman and his friends at the Metropolis Daily Planet to the small screen. While she only appeared on the series for 24 of its more than 100 episodes, and was later replaced by Noel Neill in her own beloved version of the character, Coates’ portrayal of the intrepid reporter is not one you should sleep on. And, it should be noted, she is one of the only actresses to play the character and receive equal billing with star George Reeves (at Reeves' insistence. See? Allyship isn't actually that hard, people!).

You see, Coates’ version of Lois was unique, not just for television at the time but also for the character. When the series began filming in 1952, Lois Lane was going through some changes in the pages of Action Comics and Superman magazines. Gone was the no-nonsense reporter who broke the story of Superman in her very first issue. Instead, she had been replaced with a more demure Lois Lane, one who was far less concerned with snagging big stories and much more interested in snagging Superman, his secret identity, and his hand in marriage.

Coates’ Lois had far more in common with her comic book predecessor from the decade before. In Coates’ hands, Lois Lane barely cared about Superman’s availability, instead focusing on her career and the adventures that career could take her on. Coates’ Lois was a fast-talking, serious journalist with a nose for a story and a habit of getting herself into trouble, and while she would frequently find herself in need of rescue it wasn’t for lack of trying to save herself. Usually, it was because she was trying to help someone else.

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In just the first few episodes of the black-and-white series, Lois placed herself at the center of a mob trial, choosing to testify about stories she had written tackling the criminal organization. In the ninth episode of the show, Lois ended up trapped in a collapsed mine when, unsatisfied with the speed of efforts to rescue an old miner trapped in the tunnels, she chose to head off on her own to lend a hand. In what could be considered a moment typical of the character, Lois, aware that a group of criminals seeking to unmask the Man of Steel is utilizing mind control on his closest allies (and that she’s next on the list) ignores the warnings of Jimmy Olsen, saying, “Remember, Jim, I’m a newspaperwoman.” Clark was inside, after all, and he might need rescuing.

Coates was also known for being extremely physical, more than willing to get into the fray to make sure Lois put up a fight with anyone who dared try to take her captive. Often this meant fighting back with her razor-sharp wit, but surprisingly frequently it meant lashing out with hands as well. In the episode “A Night of Terror,” Lois’ vacation is interrupted when she stumbles upon a ring of smugglers at her resort attempting to traffic people over the border into Canada. Not only does Lois immediately fight back against the gunmen who threaten her life, but Coates famously got a little too close during the scene and got knocked out cold. That cut is the one that ended up in the episode, and you can see Coates drop to the ground in a manner a little too violent to be faked. After all that, Lois still manages to break free of her captors and summon help from Jimmy, Clark, and Superman, stopping the smuggling ring.

There's no denying that Coates’ Lois was a badass, especially for the early 1950s, when women were being encouraged back into their homes following the Second World War. So why is it that you don’t remember her? 

When The Adventures of Superman was first put into production, they didn’t have a sponsor or a network to carry the series. They shot the entire first season at a rapid pace in the hopes of landing a deal, but it would take a full year after they wrapped to secure one. Coates was one of the most consistently employed actresses in the business at the time, and when she got the call to come back she had to pass, as she had already signed on to another project. She was replaced by Noel Neill, who had played Lois in the serials from the late 1940s and who would go on to play a slightly warmer, more feminine version of the character for the remaining five seasons, becoming the face frequently associated with the Lois Lane of the era.

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Then, of course, there’s the fact that Coates quickly distanced herself from the role, fearing it would hurt her ability to land future acting gigs. She would eventually come to appreciate the legacy of Lois Lane when she agreed to appear as Lois’ mother in the final episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, lending herself to the tradition of previous Loises returning to play the newest Lois’ mother (Neill did this in the 1978 film, while Teri Hatcher did so on Smallville. Durance currently plays Kara Zor-El’s mother on Supergirl).

Phyllis Coates will probably never be anyone’s favorite Lois. She played the character so long ago and for such a short period of time that, for most fans, she’s barely a blip on the radar. But even in her brief stint on the other side of Lois’ pen, Coates brought a flavor all her own to one of the most famous reporters in television, film, and comics. And to that, we tip our newsboy caps.