GEORGE REEVES--TV's FIRST SUPERMAN
By Wolf Forrest
It's been observed that there are three pictorial icons that are ubiquitously recognized around the world--the Coca-Cola logo, Mickey Mouse, and the Superman shield. Superman is the youngest of the three, although he turns 75 this month, and has had to play catch-up since his birth. He came into a world where Europe was gravid with war. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created him as an adjunct to Action Comics in June of 1938. That issue is now one of the most valuable comics in the world. Shortly thereafter, his exploits were found on the radio, voiced by future game show host Bud Collyer. His popularity continued to grow, and in 1941, the Fleischer brothers, creator of the animated versions of Popeye and Betty Boop, produced 17 cartoon shorts for movie theaters, and wartime saw Superman battling Nazis and Japanese as well as flying robots, dinosaurs, volcanoes, and magnetic telescopes, with Collyer continuing to provide a voice to the Man of Steel. By 1948, Superman was in theaters again, this time in chapterized serials staring Kirk Alyn as the caped hero.
He didn't fly in the beginning---his airborne acrobatics were a product of leaping, as evidenced by the voice-over in both the beginning of the Fleischer cartoons and the tv show which hit the airwaves in 1953, after the success of a feature film called "Superman and the Mole Men"--"able to leap tall buildings in a single bound"--when George Reeves was called upon to fill the red boots. The Kirk Alyn serials used animation to depict Superman's aerial exploits. The low-tech effects available to the tv show was a wire harness, similar to the one used by Mary Martin as Peter Pan, then a platform was used to support Reeves when the harness broke during a stunt, and a springboard was used to show his takeoffs--but it was the first time that audiences saw him fly!
What makes Superman different from other superheroes, and Reeves different from other actors who played him? He's an orphan, having been sent to Earth in a rocket when his home planet Krypton exploded, and has made it his mission to protect his adopted planet from harm. An added tragic component of this is that he continues to be haunted by his home planet--as fragments of deadly Kryptonite, it's the only thing that can hurt him.
His values come from the midwestern sensibilities of his new parents, the Kents. His powers, specifically his super-strength, come from the energy of our yellow sun (Krypton had a red sun), so there's no need to depict him as overly muscle-bound. Reeves had the right combination physically, and his charm, cleft chin and boyish grin aren't nearly as apparent in the other actors who played Superman.
Two memorable episodes illustrate the compassion that Reeves exuded as Superman. In "Panic in the Sky", the Man of Steel saves his adopted planet from destruction by an approaching asteroid, and develops amnesia--risking the revelation of his secret identity in the process. The other, "Around the World with Superman," shows Reeves using his x-ray vision to guide an operation that will restore sight to a little girl, then taking her on a memorable round-the-world trip in his arms as he flies over various famous landmarks.
The comic series bearing the Superman name did not change significantly in the 1950s, and continued long after Reeves' sudden death on June 16, 1959, perhaps benefitting from the association. It wasn't until the late 60s when a new team of writers and artists significantly changed the look of Superman that the connection between the comic hero and the tv star began to erode. Still, the reruns on television continued to keep Reeves identified as Superman until the Christopher Reeve version in 1978. By then, nearly two generations of Superman fans had invested solely in the George Reeves icon.
It has been said that the death of innocence for the baby boomers--the death of Camelot--occurred at the JFK assassination. I maintain it was the sudden, shocking death of George Reeves which stopped kids dead in their tracks. If Superman could die, what else was possible? On more than one public appearance, Reeves had to deal with kids testing out his super-powers--one little boy even brought a loaded pistol to validate his Kryptonian invulnerability.
Television typecast Reeves, and may have been a factor in his depression after the show ended in 1957, although he directed the last three episodes of the show and was moving in that direction. Of the six seasons, the last four were shot in color, although few homes in America had color tv in the mid 1950s. The producers were thinking about the future, specifically syndication, and how right they were. The combination of Reeves' acting and warmth, terrific theme music, good supporting cast, and above average special effects put the shows a quantum leap over everything else that was being done at the time.
So, did Reeves die by accident, suicide, or murder? There's compelling evidence for all three scenarios. The film HOLLYWOODLAND doesn't answer those questions, and several books on the subject don't solve the mystery either. Yes, Christopher Reeve also died a premature and tragic death, but it was the suddenness of George Reeves' demise that pushed his memory into mythic status.
Wolf Forrest has been a freelance artist and writer for over thirty years. His articles and illustrations have appeared in such places as MIDNIGHT MARQUEE, CINEFANTASTIQUE, BACKYARD BUGWATCHING, and THE WASHINGTON POST. He is currently working on a pop-up book based on the film NOSFERATU.