Superman actors

13 Superman actors remember the highs, lows and craziest parts of playing the Man of Steel

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Apr 18, 2018, 2:30 PM EDT

We've grown up with Superman. We've followed his adventures in the comics and on screens small and large for a long, long time — 80 years, in fact. But no one has devoted as much thought to the Man of Steel (and to Superboy, too) as the many actors who've played him over the years, those who've donned the cape, tapped away at that Daily Planet typewriter, or found just the right tone for both Clark's and Kal-El's voice.

Over the course of this week we're going to be talking a lot to the members of this elite group, including Brandon Routh (Superman Returns), Tom Welling (Smallville), and Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), plus several Supes from previous generations. These guys have a lot of memories and, as you'll see, a lot of stories, too.

Here each Superman looks back on how he got cast, the pressure he felt in the role, what it was like on set, and what he thinks about the role all these years later.

John Rockwell, The Adventures of Superboy

John Rockwell Superboy

I heard they were casting for The Adventures of Superboy, so I went over to the producer’s office, and Whitney Ellsworth, who had produced The Adventures of Superman, was playing gin rummy with the head of the studio. I said, "Whichever one wins, either one of you, I want to play the winner." I was very cocky then, because I used to play gin a lot. And I was very, very good.

So I ended up playing with Whitney, and I told him, "You don’t have to look any further. I can fly." Just to shock him. I knew I had the job after that. I was already athletic – I did tumbling, gymnastics, diving – so I thought this was something I could be very good at. I could dive over 20 people. I won the game, and I won a screen test, and they tested me for four or five different girls for Lana. They fitted me at Western Costume for a gray-and-brown suit, because we shot in black and white.

They had me go to a voice coach, because I had a Pennsylvania accent at the time. I didn’t feel any pressure about playing the part. I never even thought about it that way. Whitney would tell me about George Reeves, and how people would come up and ask for autographs. George was very friendly with all the people, and Whitney was telling me to be the same way. "That’s your fanbase. You want to keep them happy."

I did all my own stunts. They suspended me on wires. I remember using a springboard a lot. I ran to the camera placed on the ground and dive over it with a springboard. And I trained my dog, in case we could use him on the show. I had noticed that in the comics, Superboy had a dog, Superpup, and I was training my dog to do almost anything anyway. I trained him to jump from a window and I’d catch him. He’d ride on the back of a motorcycle with me, holding onto my shoulders. If he let go, he’d be a dead dog. He would have been very excited to do the show.

I had a great contract, $50,000 a show, and we were going to do two shows a week. Whitney had about 13 episodes scripted, ready to shoot. He thought it would take off and do well. But then we ran into political problems with the sponsors, because The Adventures of Superman was still on the air in syndication. Whitney had a screening for potential sponsors, and Wheaties offered to sponsor the show, but then Kellogg’s fought it. Kellogg’s was the sponsor for Superman, and they wouldn’t let Wheaties sponsor Superboy. Even though they were both shows by Whitney! So that was a strange thing. I figured there was nothing we could do about it. They recycled some of the scripts from the show back into the Superboy comics.

David Wilson, It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman

Superman Musical

A producer named Norman Twain picked up the rights to the Broadway show, It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman, for ABC, for a block of late-night shows that ABC promoted. This was a production that was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek take on Superman, kind of like the Batman TV series with Adam West. Bob Holiday had starred in the Broadway show, but they were looking for a new actor. I went to see these guys, and the first thing they said was, "Can you take off your shirt?"

We had a great cast – Lesley Ann Warren, Loretta Swit – but I don’t know how Norman got them to do this thing, or how much they got paid, because I didn't. I was getting bupkis. It was an invisible budget. I couldn’t see it. We didn’t have a lot of time to shoot, and the sets were like cardboard cutouts. I think it showed Superman in a different light, with a different approach, and I think that’s what we needed at that time.

And it was the first time you ever saw a kind of vulnerability in Superman. My thing was, this kid was basically an orphan, he had all those insecurities of being abandoned, of being thrown away. Christopher Reeve took a bunch of my bits that I had done, including how I used two different voices for Clark and Superman. I used a different, lower register when I was Superman.

Lesley Ann Warren invited Bette Midler to come to the screening, and Bette hated it. She hated it! Which gave me heart. I thought, "If she hates it, it must be okay." The show wasn’t aired until 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, which was not a good timeslot. That’s about the only time I know it got a network broadcast. But it piqued the interest in Superman again, and Ilya Salkind went and picked up the whole franchise.

Jeff East, Superman

Superman Jeff East

They’d never been able to get Superman right until Richard Donner’s film version of it. They called my agent, and they wouldn’t tell him what the project was. It was all very vague. And when I got to the meeting, Richard Donner, [executive producer] Ilya Salkind, [producer] Pierre Spengler, [casting director] Lynn Stalmaster were all there, and I didn’t know who they were. They handed me a script that was like three feet thick, written by Mario Puzo.

So I went in the other room and read this script, and I walked back into the room, and I said, "What part are you considering me for?" And Donner said, "Superman." And I go, "Well, do I have to wear a cape? Because I’m not going to wear a cape." And he goes, "Oh, that’s hilarious! You don’t have to worry about wearing a cape. We’re talking about the young teenage Clark Kent for you." So I said, "Oh! Okay." He goes, "Do you have a passport?" I said, "Yes. Why?" He said, "Because you’re flying to London tomorrow. I just hired you."

So for the next year, I was wearing a false nose and a false wig – I have naturally curly dark blond hair – to look like Christopher Reeve. I didn’t feel any pressure at all. People would say, "You know how important this is?" and I would say, "I guess."

There was nothing to compare it to, because they had never done anything about young Superman before. It took two weeks to shoot the train sequence, because they had never done a stunt like that before, where somebody outran a train. How do you get an actor to outrun a train at full power? You got to find the right location, the right rig, the right crane, the right wires, the right harness. We practiced for two weeks, and I was like, "You guys are killing me!" By the end, my muscles were so torn, it was insane.

It was a real effect, but the thing that people don’t know is that they do it backwards – and then they run the film forwards. I was never actually in danger, except for one shot, where I accidentally turned into the road where the crossing was, and got swung into the train. One of our stunt coordinators grabbed me to keep me from getting killed by the train. So that was real. I really did jump in front of that goddamned train.

A year later, after I did the movie, Christopher Reeve dubbed over my voice. They never told me that was going to happen. Never. I didn’t know until the premiere. And I understand. I totally understand. My voice is a little bit deeper. But they should have at least discussed it with me. It’s a film that shows there’s a human level in Superman, that he’s not always so super all the time. Donner wanted to make everything seem as real as f***, and I think he pulled it off. That’s why the film made such a big impact on everybody, and for good reason.

Beau Weaver, animated Superman; John Newton, The Adventures of Superboy

Beau Weaver: They decided to bring back a Superman cartoon series to coincide with the 50th anniversary, since there had not been an animated series since the early 1970s. They said they were going to do a bunch of promotion, but they didn’t. They didn’t do any promotion at all, and that’s one of the reasons Superman only lasted one season. 

Animation would later drive culture versus just reflect culture – like Ralph Bakshi, Ren and Stimpy – but that was not the case at this time. The series we did was in the vein of the ones done in the 1940s. Instead of selecting a director, they had auditions for directors, and they asked each director to do their own casting. So Michael Bell brought me in, and his initial notes to me were, “I want to go against type.” We traditionally hear the role of Superman voiced by a big voice, so we want the resonance and gravitas, but we want to play against that the way Christopher Reeve did. When he was Superman, he was not vocally in presence or attitude how he was as Clark Kent. Mike said, “Let’s have Chris Reeves be the template.” 

So that’s what I did, and I won the role – but Mike did not win the role of director, so it was a little bit awkward, because I was not their original choice of Superman. And after that, they told me, “Dude, you got to butch it up.” “Really? I thought that was the whole idea, going against type.” “Let’s kick it up a notch. We need Superman to be a little more super.”

John Newton: When I got the role on Superboy, the CBS series, stepping into that character was a big responsibility for me, even if I wasn’t ready for it. I was really young, like 22, but I think emotionally I was even younger than that. I was kind of a punk. At the time, the Salkinds – Alexander and Ilya Salkind – didn’t have the rights to Superman. If they had, they would have called it Young Superman, or The Adventures of Young Superman, so they reverted to the comic Superboy, and brought that character to life. Being a reporter at his college newspaper put him right in the middle of the action.

This was the late 1980s, so it was a period of overindulgence and capitalism at its extreme, you know? It was all about me, me, me. How much money can I make or amass? Think Wall Street – that reflected the times. But even still, there was something in that era about rising above, can we do more for others, because Superman isn’t helping himself. My Superboy was a little insecure, a little unsure of himself, just like any other teenager in college.

When I screen-tested, they had me put on Christopher Reeve’s actual costume. It was intimidating. I went out of my way to avoid, "Oh, he’s just doing Christopher Reeve." I did 26 episodes on the show, and they used tiny wires that weren’t visible on camera for the stunt, and that made it not as safe. Now, of course, they use bigger wires. There were a lot of safety concerns, but that was one of the reasons I was steadfast about asking for a raise, which they had promised me. They said, "No, we don’t have the money," and then I said, "Well, I’m not coming back without it."

And then I got this traffic violation, because I was driving in reverse on private property, because I’ve been to racing school and I’m an exceptionally skilled precision driver, and they tried to use that against me. I was a punk and I made decisions that were not especially representing the character. So I was like, "Fine. I’m not coming back."

In retrospect, I don’t regret what happened, but I regret my behavior. Somebody put up on Wikipedia that it was a DUI. I’ve never gotten a DUI in my life. I’ve never been arrested. It was reckless driving on private property, nobody was endangered, and the DMV ended up dropping the ticket. It’s absurd that the story spread as if it were a DUI. I was like, "How did that happen?" But that’s the thing about the Internet. People can type in whatever they want. Somebody wrote on my IMDb page that I was doing pornography because I couldn’t get any work as an actor! Whatever. What are you going to do?

Gerard Christopher, The Adventures of Superboy

Gerard Christopher Superboy

The actor who played Superboy before me on Superboy, I’ve never seen that guy act. There’s nothing that he could offer me that’s positive, so my attitude was, I’m not going to look at anything he did. He got fired in 1988, and they brought me on in 1989.

And if you remember, that was during Ronald Reagan’s push to liberalize the Soviet Union, which was paramount in people’s minds. It was controlling the news cycle. I had a meeting with Ilya Salkind, the producer of the show, and he had this amazing office with corkboard all over the wall because he was paranoid that people would be listening to him. I was in the costume, and I was standing in front of his desk, and he said, "You know, the show was previously in the tank, the ratings were horrible, people want to cancel it, but we can revive it with a new characterization. The fate of the show is in your hands. If that sounds like pressure, consider yourself pressured."

Okay, thanks a lot. DC Comics had an iron hand in everything, so we had really onerous script approval processes. But in 1989, the Tim Burton Batman movie came out, and it was a little dark. I thought, "Wow. How can we use this to make our show a little more interesting?" Because at first, the stories for Superboy were provincial. Here you have a guy who is supposed to have all these powers, and all he is doing is local stuff in a small town? That just seemed ridiculous. I started thinking, "Look at what’s going on in the world. If Superboy has all this power, wouldn’t he have a bigger reach? Bigger thoughts? The president of the United States would be calling him up. He’d probably have a cabinet position in the White House." So I was pushing for that to happen with the show in the third season.

I got to write an episode called "Wishful Armageddon," where there was this guy who was a demonic power trying to use Superboy to bring the Soviet Union and the United States to war, to cause the termination of the world. It was a biblical character who was allegedly condemned to walk the earth until the end of time, so everyone he loves, they die, and the only way to end this cycle of misery is to bring about the end of the world. He’s trying to bring this nuclear exchange to make that happen. So we experimented with going darker.

We made it to our 100th episode, and we were hoping that we were going to continue on past that, because the ratings were good. But unfortunately, we got squashed at the end by Warner Bros., because they wanted to do Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, so they refused to approve any more of our scripts. Why couldn’t the two shows coexist? I don’t know. But that was the end of our show.

Dean Cain, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

Lois and Clark- Teri Hatcher and Dean Cain as Lois Lane and Superman

Courtesy of ABC

It’s funny, because if you look at Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and if you look at what’s going on now, with the #MeToo movement, Teri Hatcher was already a really strong, empowered woman as Lois Lane back then. She was the lead of the show, and the show was about a relationship, a light romance, and it just happened to be that he was Superman. Clark was really the character, and Superman the disguise, which was a different take.

I was 26, and I got the call, "They’re doing this new Superman thing, and the producers are going to start seeing actors tomorrow, and they’re interested in having you come in." I was the first person they saw, and it was [creator] Deborah Joy LeVine, Robert Butler, somebody manning the camera, and I said, "Good morning, I read the script last night, and I think I may have kind of a different take on it." I read it, they said, "Great, thanks!" and that was it! Normally you hear something right away, but I didn’t hear anything.

Weeks go by. I just thought, "Okay, I didn’t get it." Then I was at a party, and my buddy said, "Hey, this girl works for Warner Brothers casting, and she says you’re really high on their list for Superman." "What? I thought that was gone." And then over the next couple of days, I started to get phone calls that it was time to go back in, pairing you up with different Lois Lanes and some Jimmy Olsens.

There were two of us for Clark Kent/Superman, and the other Superman was Kevin Sorbo. I was like, "All right, he’s blond, so I’ve got a good shot at this." I had a mullet when I started, let’s be honest. Business up front, party in the back! But they slicked hair back for Superman, and kept it more natural for Clark – maybe because of the way my hair went? Maybe because of the way we switched the characters? I didn’t take a lot of time with the old hair.

The costume was daunting, because it was just tights. I thought, "Oh my gosh, that’s it?!" It didn’t have the "S" on it. I was just praying that people would accept me as Superman, because I had never been the lead character of a show before, and to play a character that big? That well known? I was just hoping that people would like me and not denigrate me or crush me. I always played him with an extra sense of confidence, because he always knew the answers, for the most part.

The end of the show, that wasn’t meant to be the end of the show. We were picked up for Season 5, but then Teri got pregnant in between and wasn’t able to work. And so we were canceled. I would love it if Lois & Clark could be revived. I have some fun ideas about what I’d like to see happen, if we revisit these characters 25 years later. A lot of actors will try to distance themselves from a character, but I have always embraced playing the character, being part of the universe. Right now I’m Supergirl’s adoptive father, Jeremiah Danvers. If in 10 years I play Jor-El or some grandfather figure, I’m cool with that, too.

Tim Daly, Superman: The Animated Series

Tim Daly

Credit: Getty Images

In 1996, things were pretty stable, as I recall. For me personally, life couldn’t have been better. I was on the TV show Wings, I was living in L.A., and it was a happy time for me and my family. But when I was doing the voice for Superman: The Animated Series, I was pretty oblivious, and I regret this actually, to how important the character was. I just thought I was doing something for kids to watch on Saturday mornings.

Andrea Romano, the director, sort of guided me, and she said they didn’t want anything over the top. They liked my voice as it was. The only thing I might have done differently was that when Superman was confronting a villain, my voice might have gone lower, a little more intense. And Clark might have been higher, a little more eager. So I was just really relaxed about the whole thing!

George Newbern, animated Justice League;
Tom Welling, Smallville

George Newbern Superman

Credit: Getty Images

George Newbern: Tim Daly was doing the voice of Superman in the animated series Justice League, and then he became unavailable. I got the call to audition to replace Tim Daly, and it was myself, Tate Donovan, and a couple of other guys going in. They called the next day, and I got it. It’s so random, because I go on these auditions all the time, and 98 percent of the time you don’t get it. I wasn’t at all familiar with Tim’s version, because I was not watching the animated series at the time.

My biggest reference was Christopher Reeve — we were in a movie once together, and it was only four or five years after Superman, and that’s what he was famous for, and I think it kind of bugged him a little bit: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, Superman, Superman, Superman. But at a certain point, I realized it’s better to be known for something than nothing at all."

I didn’t think about the voice too hard, except to accentuate what I thought Superman’s take would be – sort of an earnest, conversational, familiar tone. I felt like the register of my voice was a little too high. I’m a singer, I’m a tenor, so my voice is high. I thought, "What if they made a mistake in casting me?"

I felt the pressure of trying to keep his voice lower. And actually, the first season I did it, they pitched my voice down, just to make it more traditional. Within the year, my voice naturally went to a lower register, and they didn’t have to do that anymore. My natural speaking voice just went lower after doing Justice League for so long. I’ve been doing the voice of Superman in various animated ventures for, what, 17 years? I keep coming back for the games, the one-off movies.

And during the time that I’ve done him, I think, in general, our culture has become more coarse. Kids are more hardened now. They’re exposed to more things, and they’re less likely to be impressed by some things. And they’ve made superheroes a lot more cheeky. A lot more R-rated material has crept in. Clearly, Superman is a mythic figure, but he embodies everything that a lot of people aspire to. My voice gets me recognized all the time, and it takes people by surprise. They’re not thinking about it, and then they go, "Wait! Oh my God. Are you Superman?"

Tom Welling

Tom Welling Smallville

I don’t think we made any connection between Superman and 9/11. I remember when that happened, and going to work that day on Smallville, and the sense of confusion, as far as what had happened, and what was going on in the world. I don’t remember there ever being a conversation about using the show as a voice, or having any sort of agenda, other than the story we were trying to tell about this character. We had a "no tights, no flights" rule to literally keep the character grounded.

His sense of isolation, his lack of an idea of who he’s supposed to be and what he’s supposed to do with these abilities that he has, that was the whole journey, the hero’s journey, of the character. And we called them abilities, because we kind of had an unspoken rule that we wouldn’t call them powers. It just wasn’t the right way to think about it, because it wasn’t about a guy flying around in a cape, but a boy trying to figure out who he is. So any sense of alienation was helpful, because here you have a teenage boy who’s trying to figure out what his role is, in the world, in the universe.

I think the idea of keeping it simple and full of heart was one of the main positives. Having Christopher Reeve on the show, he was just such a phenomenal person. There was a specialness to being there with him, and talking with him. He told me some funny stories about being on set on Superman, and how they would try to figure out how he would fly, and he’d be crashing into walls.

From a technological standpoint, with visual effects, we were able to bring things that you had only seen on film to a television show. That helped us accomplish a lot. We went from having Blackberry beepers at the beginning of the decade to iPhones at the end, and social media was starting to take off. That was a different tool, which I’m still getting used to! There was no Facebook when we started.

Brandon Routh, Superman Returns

Brandon Routh Superman Returns

Credit: Warner Bros.

I was cast in 2004, and Superman was the biggest enterprise in my life. It was a seven-month process from initially meeting about it to actually getting cast. I did a screen test for McG in a Stan Winston-designed suit, and it was all latex foam. People often ask, "What was it like when you first got into the Superman suit?", and the answer is that I got in this bizarre suit, and then had to wait my turn to do a screen test, so I was sitting in this little green room waiting area by myself, reading a newspaper or magazine. And just thinking, "What a bizarre world am I in, that this is happening?!"

I read with Sophia Bush, and it was a very different script. But halfway through the first round, it looked like it had fallen apart. I was devastated. And then there were murmurings of Bryan Singer coming on to direct, and then I eventually had a meeting with him, and the ball started rolling again. At my second screen test for Superman Returns, I showed up, and a behind-the-scenes film crew was there, shooting everything. And they started talking to me about things that seemed, not pre-ordained, but like the decision had already been made about me? So I was a little shocked. It boosted my confidence, even if my suit this time was a Superman T-shirt with a red sheet as a makeshift cape on my back!

I see Superman in Superman Returns largely as a savior figure, a Christ-like figure, one who is lost and feeling like he doesn’t fit in, but still has a role to play, and has to work on his own self-identity and self-confidence. He shows his humanity more than we’ve maybe seen before. So what I focused on was what it would be like to be the most enlightened being on earth – a lot of thinking, a lot of meditating. I tried to build that into his physicality, to have him be flowing and move without effort. For a 24-year-old, that was very challenging, but I did my best!

I don’t think I felt any impostor syndrome going in. If anything, I felt impostor syndrome going out. And that’s probably closely related to the fact that we never made a sequel to Superman Returns. It was maybe more of an emotional experience than some people wanted – they wanted more fighting and fisticuffs. We were involved with fighting Iraq, it was the Bush presidency, and we were also coming into a time in cinema history where effects were bigger, and people wanted to see that action and explosions and bigger-than-life stuff.

Now we’ve come to a point where we’ve seen so much of that, we’ve become overloaded, and we want more story. We’re circling back to that area. Maybe Superman Returns was a little before its time! My son, who is 5, wants to believe in the magic, even though we’ve talked about the green screen and the wires: "But you can really fly! You’re really strong." And I fly him around the house and do superhero fights. He’s the Flash. I think he’s a bigger fan of the Flash than Superman.

James Denton, All-Star Superman

I was at the end of my run on Desperate Housewives, and I was a voiceover virgin. They wanted the Superman for All-Star Superman to be different, which is why they didn’t use a voiceover guy. They wanted someone a lot more vulnerable, because Superman is dying. I didn’t ask how much they would pay me when they offered me the job. I just said yes, and then I realized afterward that I had taken the job without asking that. I don’t know why an actor would pass on the opportunity.

My reference points were George Reeves, because that version was on TV as reruns when I was a kid, and Christopher Reeve. My Superman wasn’t a giant, muscular, deep-voiced guy. He was more of an Everyman, and I had to put Clark Kent in that, because there was a lot of dropping things and stumbling. There’s a voiceover trick with apples that I never knew. You take a bite of green apple, and it dries out your mouth a bit, because if you have saliva in your mouth, you get a popping sound and lip-smacking.

Teri Hatcher, my wife on Desperate Housewives, got a real kick out of that fact that I was now Superman, since she had played Lois Lane, and she still thinks of herself a little bit as Lois Lane. That was a weird twist of fate.

Daniel DiMaggio, Supergirl

Daniel DiMaggio Supergirl

I was like 11 years old, and I was probably in sixth grade, my first year of middle school. It was like taking another spring break, to be on Kal-El on Supergirl. I don’t remember auditioning. But once I got the gig, I felt like they spent more time on the curl of my hair than anything else, like 20 or 30 minutes? It was an honor to pull off the curl.

I got a suit, and it was like putting on a glove. It was fit to perfection. And it had a chest plate. I was proud, because I could pop a Superman chest. When I wore that suit, my posture changed. The main note they gave me was to lighten up – "you’re Superman, not Batman" — because the scene was a dream flashback, like virtual reality. It was really cool how it all came together.

On my last day on set, the cast all broke out into singing Broadway numbers around me, and that was pretty special. Kids at school made fun of me for it, and imitated my "Hey, Kara!" But I was like, "I got this gig, and you didn’t." I’m one of a few people who’ve ever gotten to play Superman, and it’s really cool to be part of this group. That lasts forever.