Superman may be nearly invincible, but some of the actors who’ve portrayed him have proved all too vulnerable. Christopher Reeve’s paralysis after a 1995 accident recalls another tragedy, almost four decades before, in the annals of the Man of Steel: the June 16, 1959, suicide of George Reeves, TV’s Superman from 1953 to ‘57.
A minor Hollywood actor in the ’30s and ’40s (Gone With the Wind), Reeves donned the red cape — and some physique-enhancing padding — for The Adventures of Superman shortly after playing the role in 1951’s B movie Superman and the Mole Men. The TV show was a hit — but with a downside. ”We were just fatally typed,” says Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen. ”You were a leper who had betrayed the studios by joining that new thing called television.” By the time of the show’s 1957 cancellation, Reeves’ film career had withered.
On a summer morning two years later, the struggling 45-year-old actor went into the bedroom of his home in L.A.’s Benedict Canyon and shot himself in the head while his fiancee, Lenore Lemmon, caroused downstairs with friends. News accounts depicted Reeves as having been despondent, but two additional bullet holes in the bedroom have long fueled an unconfirmed rumor of foul play.
These days the Superman franchise is more powerful than a locomotive — on TV (Saturday morning’s animated series and the once-hot Lois & Clark) and on screen (a new movie, directed by Tim Burton and starring Nicolas Cage as you-know-who, starts shooting this fall). And the original series was for years one of the most popular programs in syndication. Larson, now 64 and an accomplished librettist, regrets Reeves didn’t live to see the payoff. ”George once said he wished he had one adult fan,” he says. ”Well, now he’s got a lot.”
June 16, 1959
GUNSMOKE is TV’S top gun, leading a top-three posse of Westerns that includes Wagon Train and Have Gun Will Travel. Gunsmoke would marshal a 20-year run before cancellation in 1975. IN MOVIE THEATERS, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon get dolled up in Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like It Hot. During the production, Marilyn Monroe’s constant tardiness provokes Curtis to quip that kissing her is ”like kissing Hitler.” READERS fall in love with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, later a 1965 film starring heartthrob Omar Sharif. In the ’90s, Sharif, a casino mogul, has a South Korean cigarette named for him (”The taste of my cigarettes is very smooth, soft and sensual, just like my romantic life,” he boasts on the packet). AND IN THE REAL WORLD, three agencies report a tally of almost 530 cases of racial violence in the South after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation five years earlier.