The reputations of actor George Reeves and The Adventures of Superman have found themselves marred by scandal in the years following Reeves' 1959 suicide. However, what is often forgotten is the television series' (and Reeves') importance to not only the development of a generation of superhero fans, but the growth of the Superman fandom as a whole. Images from the simple television show still define the franchises' image, solidifying George Reeves, and in turn, "The Man of Steel" as an important part of American culture.
Actor George Reeves was not a newcomer to Hollywood when he first donned the iconic cape and tights. While his career spanned just twenty years, Reeves' filmography lists 80 roles from his screen debut in 1939 until his untimely death in 1959. The young actor found success early, landing a speaking part in the (now classic) film Gone With the Wind. The actor appears as Brent Tarleton, one of Scarlett's (Vivien Leigh) beaus before the outbreak of the Civil War.
From that point, Reeves' career took off and the actor continued working steadily. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he crossed genres with relative ease, appearing in war films, westerns, and even the occasional romance. Typecasting was not a struggle for him, but the rise to stardom was a slow one.
Reeves started the 1940s in small and often uncredited roles. However, as the decade wore on, he finally worked his way up the Hollywood ladder, landing bigger parts with each passing year. Reeves is rarely seen with top billing, but often seen alongside A-listers such as Bob Hope, Veronica Lake, and Johnny Weissmuller. With his career finally finding footing, Reeves showed no problems keeping busy, taking parts as they were offered to him.
In 1951, Reeves landed the role which would launch him into the next stage of his career. That year, he joined the cast of Superman and the Mole-Men. The 58-minute movie stars Reeves in his first outing as Superman (and his mild-mannered, alter ego Clark Kent). Interestingly, the outing is also billed as the first appearance of Superman (and of a DC character) in a feature-length film. Actor Kirk Alyn previously portrayed Superman in a number of theatrical serials in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Just a year later, plans were officially set in motion to bring The Man of Steel to TV. While television first began making waves in the 1920s, it wasn't until the 1950s when its popularity truly exploded. Suddenly, TVs were replacing radios as the primary source of in-home entertainment. As such, the face of the entertainment industry began to change.
Families were gathering around the television set as a unit. After all, there were only three channels competing for attention. For the first time, they could see Superman fly and watch as he rescued Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen from impending danger.
Not only were adults tuning into The Adventures of Superman, children were watching along with their parents. The post-World War II baby boom meant that a lot of children were coming of age in the 1950s. There were millions of kids watching television, and they were hungry for all the Superman they could get.
Advertisers were quick to pick up on this. In fact, The Adventures of Superman was sponsored by Kellogg's. Before long, the breakfast cereal titan incorporated the superhero series into a huge mass-marketing campaign. Not only would kids see Reeves in the series' weekly installments, but the actor started appearing in cereal commercials (along with co-stars Jack Larson and John Hamilton). They sat at the breakfast table, enjoying bowls of "Sugar Smacks" and "Sugar Frosted Flakes". They reminded viewers to "Pick some up, the next time you're at the store." Furthermore, boxes of Kellogg's cereal could also get kids their own Superman logo t-shirt or plastic Superman belt. While mass-marketing and cross-promotional tie-ins feel like a very contemporary phenomenon, the advertising surrounding The Adventures of Superman demonstrates the practice was alive and well even back in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, Superman also hit the toy industry with a vengeance during this period. Kids could get their own flying Superman toy or their own wearable Superman cape. While it's difficult to corroborate with news articles, a number of urban legends exist involving children jumping off roofs, imagining their Superman capes could make them fly. The accidents are said to have spurred Reeves to add an early version of the "Don't Try This at Home" warning to an episode of the show.
Reeves' Superman even crossed over to an episode of another legendary series. I Love Lucy aired from 1951 till 1957 on CBS. The episode, entitled "Lucy and Superman" follows Lucy's attempts to get Superman to stop by Little Ricky's birthday party. The superhero appears when he ends up rescuing Lucy as she attempts to climb through a window dressed as Superman.
The Adventures of Superman ended up running six seasons and an impressive 104 episodes. Reeves' Los Angeles Times obituary states, "It was estimated that the series drew an audience of 35 million each year, 48% of them adults..." The show demonstrated a strong staying power. Furthermore, the faithful fanbase actually fuelled talk of the show returning to the airwaves in 1959.
However, any hope for revival ended on June 15, 1959, when George Reeves is reported to have committed suicide in his home. The next day, newspapers ran with the strange and sordid story. The Los Angeles Times used the headline, "George Reeves, Superman of TV Kills Himself in His Home." Across the country, the New York Times proclaimed in large print, "George Reeves, TV Superman Commits Suicide at Coast Home." Both articles feature large pictures of Reeves in all his costumed Superman glory.
The years which followed shrouded the actor's death in mystery. Was it murder? While the obituaries avoid delving into those questions, they do jump into the still sordid details of the case. Both papers describe comments from Reeves' fiancée Lenore Lemmon, telling visitors that the actor was "...going upstairs to shoot himself." Upon more noise, she claims says, "He's opening the drawer to get the gun...." Once the shot rang out, she's reported to say, "See there! I told you."
The Los Angeles Times continues, analyzing the case with a graphic eye for detail: "(William) Bliss rushed into the room and found Reeves' nude body sprawled on the bed, a bullet hole through his head. A 9-mm German Luger was on the floor beneath his feet...." Had the actor been despondent? There is a general disagreement.
Contemporary sources fuel speculation that the actor was readying a new stage in his career. Could the actor have been murdered? However, the New York Times reports Reeves may have been despondent in his final days. The article states, "The series brought Mr. Reeves financial security — he was paid for each television showing — and the devotion of a vast audience of children. But friends said this had given him no fulfillment as an actor..." To make a long story short, he felt typecast, trapped and miserable in the role that brought such joy to so many.
In a 2006 New York Times article, "The (Tinsel) Town That Ate Superman," author Kristopher Tapley describes Reeves' death as a loss of innocence. To a generation of children, George Reeves was Superman. It's difficult to take in how such an iconic figure can fall so far so fast. However, when separating the series (and star George Reeves) from the sordid nature of his death, The Adventures of Superman can be credited for propelling the legendary superhero into a new generation.