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George Reeves (January 5, 1914 – June 16, 1959) was an American actor, best known for his role as Superman in the 1950s television program Adventures of Superman and his untimely death at the age of 45.
Reeves was born George Keefer Brewer in Woolstock, Iowa, the son of Don Brewer and Helen Lescher. (His death certificate erroneously lists his birthplace as Kentucky.) George was born five months into their marriage. They separated soon afterward, and Helen moved back home to Galesburg, Illinois.
Later, George's mother moved to California to stay with her sister. There, Helen met and married Frank Bessolo. George's father married Helen Schultz in 1925 and had children with her. Don Brewer made no attempt to see his son George again.
In 1927, Frank Bessolo adopted George as his own son, and the boy took on his new stepfather's last name to become George Bessolo. Helen's marriage to Frank lasted fifteen years and ended in divorce while George was away visiting relatives. Helen told George that Frank had committed suicide. Reeves's cousin, Catherine Chase, told biographer Jim Beaver that George did not know for several years that Bessolo was still alive nor that he was his stepfather, not his biological father.
George began acting and singing in high school and continued performing on stage as a student at Pasadena Junior College. He also boxed as a heavyweight in amateur matches until his mother Helen ordered him to stop, fearing his good looks might be damaged.
Accepted by the Pasadena Playhouse, Reeves had prominent roles. His film career began in 1939, when he was cast as Stuart Tarleton (incorrectly credited as Brent Tarleton), one of Vivien Leigh's suitors in Gone with the Wind. It was a minor role, but he and Fred Crane, both in brightly dyed red hair as "the Tarleton Twins," were in the film's opening scenes. He was contracted to Warner Bros. at the time, and the actor's professional name became "George Reeves" and his GWTW screen credit reflects the change. He married actress Ellanora Needles in 1940, but had no children with her during their nine-year marriage.
He starred in a number of two-reel short subjects and appeared in several B-pictures, including two with Ronald Reagan and three with James Cagney (Torrid Zone, The Fighting 69th, and The Strawberry Blonde). Warners loaned him to producer Alexander Korda to co-star with Merle Oberon in Lydia, a box-office failure. Released from his Warners contract, he signed a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox but was released after only a handful of films. He freelanced, appearing in five Hopalong Cassidy westerns before director Mark Sandrich cast Reeves as Lieutenant John Summers opposite Claudette Colbert in So Proudly We Hail! (1942), a war drama for Paramount Pictures. He won critical acclaim for the role and garnered considerable publicity.
Reeves was drafted into the U.S. Army 17 months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In late 1943, he was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces and assigned to the Broadway show Winged Victory, produced by and for the Army Air Forces. A long Broadway run followed, as well as a national tour and a movie version of the play. Reeves was later transferred to the Army Air Forces' First Motion Picture Unit, where he made training films. He looked forward to working with his So Proudly We Hail! director Mark Sandrich again. Sandrich apparently felt that Reeves had the potential to become a major star; however, Sandrich died while Reeves was still in uniform. In later years, Reeves would ruefully recall the impact Sandrich's death had on his career.
When Reeves returned for more film work, many movie studios were slowing down their production schedules, while many production units had been shut down completely. He took work where he could, including a pair of outdoor thrillers with Ralph Byrd, and a Sam Katzman-produced serial, The Adventures of Sir Galahad. These postwar pictures were not star vehicles; Reeves simply fit the rugged requirements of the roles and, with his retentive memory for dialogue, he could do well under rushed production conditions. In addition, he was able to play against type and starred as a villainous gold hunter in a Johnny Weismuller Jungle Jim film, which for a B-movie was an average success at the box office.
In the autumn of 1949, Reeves (whose divorce had recently become final) decided on a change and moved to New York City. While there, he performed on several live television anthology programs, as well as on radio. Reeves returned to Hollywood on April 10, 1951, specifically for a role in a Fritz Lang film, Rancho Notorious. Meanwhile, DC Comics was planning an adaptation of its most famous character.
In June 1951, Reeves was offered the role of Superman in a Adventures of Superman |television series. He was initially reluctant to take the role because, like many actors of his time, he considered television to be unimportant and believed that few would see his work. He worked for low pay, even as the star, and was only paid during the weeks of production. The half-hour films were shot on tight schedules: at least two shows every six days. According to various commentaries on the Adventures of Superman DVD sets, multiple scripts would be filmed simultaneously to take advantage of the standing sets, so all the "Perry White's office" scenes for three or four episodes would be shot the same day, all the various "apartment" scenes done consecutively, and so on.
George Reeves's career as Superman began with Superman and the Mole Men, a film designed as both a theatrical B-picture and a pilot for the TV series. Immediately after completing this short feature, Reeves and the crew began production of the first season's episodes, shot over 13 weeks during the summer of 1951. The series began airing during 1952-53, and Reeves was astonished when he became a national celebrity. In 1957, the struggling ABC Network picked up the show for national broadcast, which gave him and the rest of the cast even greater visibility.
The Superman cast had restrictive contracts preventing them from taking other acting jobs that might interfere with the series. The Superman schedule was brief (13 shows shot two per week, a total of seven weeks out of a year), but they all had a "30-day clause," which meant that the producers could demand their exclusive services for a new season on four weeks' notice. This prevented long-term employment on major films with long schedules, stage plays which might lead to a lengthy run, or other series work.
Reeves did not resent doing personal appearances as Superman, since these paid money beyond his meager salary, and his affection for young fans was genuine. However, small children often poked, punched, or kicked the "Man of Steel" to see if he really was invulnerable. Reeves nonetheless took his role model status seriously, avoiding cigarettes where children could see him, eventually quitting smoking altogether, and keeping his private life discreet. Nonetheless, in 1951 he had begun a romantic relationship with a married ex-showgirl eight years his senior, Toni Mannix, wife of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer general manager Eddie Mannix.
In the documentary Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, Jack Larson remarked about how when he first met Reeves, he told Reeves that he enjoyed Reeves's performance in So Proudly We Hail! and according to Larson, Reeves said that if Mark Sandrich, the film's director, hadn't died while Reeves was off fighting in the war, then he wouldn't be here in "this monkey suit". Larson said it was the only time he ever heard Reeves say anything negative about being Superman.
With Toni Mannix, Reeves worked tirelessly to raise money to fight myasthenia gravis. He served as national chairman for the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation in 1955. During the second season, Reeves appeared in a short film for the US Treasury Department, Stamp Day for Superman, in which he caught some crooks and told kids why they should invest in government savings stamps.
Over the course of the 104 episodes, Reeves often showed gentlemanly behavior to his fellow actors. Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen, remembered that he enjoyed playing practical jokes on the crew and cast, as depicted during a scene in the biopic Hollywoodland. He insisted that his original Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates, be given equal billing in the credits in the first season. He also stood by Robert Shayne (who played Police Inspector William "Bill" Henderson) when Shayne was subpoenaed by FBI agents on the set of Superman. (Shayne's political activism in the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s was used by his embittered ex-wife as an excuse to label him a Communist, though Shayne had never been a Communist Party member.) When Coates was replaced by Noel Neill (who had played Lois Lane in the Kirk Alyn serials), Reeves quietly defended her nervousness on her first day when he felt that the director was being too harsh with her. On the other hand, he delighted in standing outside camera range, mugging at the other cast members to see whether he could break them up. According to Jack Larson, he took on-set photos with his Minox and handed out prints. By all accounts, there was a strong camaraderie among the principal actors.
After two seasons, Reeves expressed dissatisfaction with the one-dimensional role and the low salary. Now 40 years old, he wished to quit the show and move on with his career. The producers of the show looked elsewhere for a new lead actor, allegedly contacting Kirk Alyn, the actor who had first portrayed Superman in the two original movie serials and who had initially refused to play the role on television. Alyn allegedly turned them down again.
Reeves established his own production company and conceived a TV adventure series, Port of Entry, which would be shot on location in Hawaii and Mexico, writing the pilot script himself. However, Superman producers offered him a salary increase and he returned to the role. He was making a substantial sum for the time, reportedly $5,000 per week, but only while the show was in production (about eight weeks each year). As for Port of Entry, Reeves was never able to interest a financing producer for the project and the film was never made.
In 1957, a theatrical film was considered by the producers, Superman and the Secret Planet, and a script commissioned from David Chantler, who had written many of the TV scripts. Instead, in 1959, negotiations began for a renewal of the series, 26 episodes scheduled to go into production in the fall. (John Hamilton, who had played Perry White, died in 1958, so former serial Perry White Pierre Watkin was brought on to replace him as the newspaper's editor.)
By mid-1959, contracts were signed, costumes were re-fitted, and new teleplays writers assigned. Noel Neill was quoted as saying that the cast of Superman was ready to do a new series of the still-popular show. Producers reportedly promised Reeves that the new programs would be as serious and action-packed as the first season, guaranteed him creative input, and slated him to direct several of the new shows, as he had the final three episodes of the 1957 season. In the documentary Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, Neill remembered that Reeves was excited to go back to work. Jack Larson, however, told biographer Beaver that "Anyone who thought another season of Superman would make George Reeves happy didn't know George."
In between the first and second seasons of Superman, Reeves got sporadic acting assignments in one-shot TV anthology programs and in two feature films, Forever Female (1953) and Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia (1953). But by the time the series was airing nationwide, Reeves found himself so associated with Superman and Clark Kent that it was difficult for him to find other roles. A false but often-repeated story suggests that he was upset when his scenes as Sergeant Maylon Stark in the classic film From Here to Eternity were cut after a preview audience kept yelling "There's Superman!" whenever he appeared on screen. Eternity director Fred Zinnemann, the screenwriter Daniel Taradash and others have maintained that every scene written for Reeves's character was shot and included as part of the released film. Zinnemann has also asserted that there were no post-release cuts, nor was there even a preview screening. Everything in the first production draft of the script is still present in the final product seen since 1953.
Attempting to showcase his versatility, Reeves sang on the Tony Bennett show in August, 1956.He appeared memorably on I Love Lucy (Episode #165, Lucy Meets Superman," in 1956) as Superman. Character actor Ben Welden had acted with Reeves in the Warner Bros. days and frequently guest-starred on Superman. He said, "After I Love Lucy Show, Superman was no longer a challenge to him.... I know he enjoyed the role, but he used to say, 'Here I am, wasting my life.'" His good friend Bill Walsh, a producer at Disney Studios, gave Reeves a prominent role in Westward Ho the Wagons (1956), in which Reeves wore a beard and mustache. It was to be his final feature film appearance.
Reeves, Noel Neill, Natividad Vacio, Gene LeBell, and a trio of musicians toured with a public appearance show from 1957 onward. The stage show was a gigantic hit for the excited children who got to see their hero in person, though apparently not a huge moneymaker for Reeves. The first half of the show was a Superman sketch in which Reeves and Neill performed with LeBell as a villain called "Mr. Kryptonite", who captured Lois. Kent then rushed offstage to return as Superman, who came to the rescue and fought ("wrestled") with the bad guy. The second half of the show was Reeves out of costume and as himself, singing and accompanying himself on the guitar. Vacio and Neill accompanied him in duets.
Reeves broke up with Toni Mannix in 1958 and announced his engagement to society playgirl Leonore Lemmon. He complained to friends, columnists, and his mother of his financial problems. He received royalties from syndication of the Superman show, but these were insubstantial, particularly in view of his lifestyle. Under these circumstances, the planned revival of Superman was apparently a small lifeline. Reeves had also hoped to direct a low-budget science-fiction film, written by a friend from his Pasadena Playhouse days, and he had discussed the project with his first Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates, the previous year. However, Reeves and his partner failed to find financing and the film was never made. There was another Superman stage show scheduled for July, and a planned stage tour of Australia. Reeves had options for making a living, but those options apparently all involved playing Superman again.
Jack Larson and Noel Neill both remembered Reeves as a noble Southern gentlemen with a sign on his dressing room door that said Honest George, the people's friend. After Reeves had been made an "honorary Colonel" during a publicity trip in the South, the sign on his dressing room door was replaced with a new one which read, Honest George, also known as "Col. Reeves," created by the show's prop department. A photo of a smiling Reeves and the sign appear in Gary Grossman's book about the show.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department report, between approximately 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. on June 16, 1959, George Reeves died of a gunshot wound to the head in the upstairs bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home. He was 45 years old.
Police arrived within the hour. Present in the house at the time of death were Leonore Lemmon, William Bliss, writer Robert Condon, and Carol Van Ronkel, who lived a few blocks away with her husband, screenwriter Rip Van Ronkel.
According to all the witnesses, Lemmon and Reeves had been dining and drinking earlier in the evening in the company of writer Condon, who was ghostwriting an autobiography of prizefighter Archie Moore. Reeves and Lemmon argued at the restaurant and the trio returned home. However, Lemmon stated in interviews with Reeves's biographer Jim Beaver that she and Reeves had not accompanied friends dining and drinking, but to wrestling matches. Contemporary news items indicate that Reeves's friend Gene LeBell was wrestling that night -- yet LeBell's own recollections are that he did not see Reeves after a workout session earlier in the day. In any event, Reeves went to bed, but some time near midnight, an impromptu party began when Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel arrived. Reeves angrily came downstairs and complained about the noise. After blowing off steam, he stayed with the guests for a while, had a drink, then retired upstairs again in a bad mood.
The house guests later heard a single gunshot. Bliss ran into Reeves's bedroom and found George Reeves dead, lying across his bed, naked and face-up, his feet on the floor. This position has been attributed to Reeves sitting on the edge of the bed when he shot himself, after which his body fell back on the bed and the 9mm Luger pistol fell between his feet.
Statements made to police and the press essentially agree. Neither Lemmon nor the other witnesses made any apology for their delay in calling the police after hearing the gunshot, but the shock of the death, the lateness of the hour, and their state of intoxication were given as reasons for the delay. Police said that all of the witnesses present were extremely inebriated, and that their coherent stories were very difficult to obtain.
In contemporary news articles, Lemmon attributed Reeves's apparent suicide to depression caused by his "failed career" and inability to find more work. The police report states, "[Reeves was]... depressed because he couldn't get the sort of parts he wanted." Newspapers and wire-service reports frequently misquoted LAPD Sergeant V.A. Peterson, as quoting Lemmon: "Miss Lemmon blurted, 'He's probably going to go shoot himself.' A noise was heard upstairs. She continued, 'He's opening a drawer to get the gun.' A shot was heard. 'See, I told you so.'"' However, this statement may have been embellished by journalists. Lemmon and her friends were downstairs at the time of the shot with music playing. It would be nearly impossible to hear a drawer opening in the upstairs bedroom. Lemmon later claimed that she'd never said anything so specific, but rather had made an offhand remark along the lines of "Oh, he'll probably go shoot himself now."
Witness statements and examination of the crime scene led to the conclusion that the death was self-inflicted. A more extensive official inquiry concluded that the death was indeed suicide. Reeves's will, dated 1956, bequeathed his entire estate to Toni Mannix, much to Lemmon's surprise and devastation. Her statement to the press read, "Toni got a house for charity, and I got a broken heart", referring to the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation.
A popular urban legend states that Reeves died because he believed that he had acquired Superman's powers and killed himself trying to fly.
He is interred at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena, California.
Many people at the time, and many more in later years, have refused to believe the idea that George Reeves would kill himself. Laymen have commented on the fact that no powder stippling from the gun's discharge was found on the actor's skin, leading them to believe that the weapon would therefore have to have been held several inches from the head upon firing. In reality, forensic professionals concur that powder stippling is left on the skin only when the weapon is held several inches from the skin, while a contact wound (which skull fracture patterns clearly reveal Reeves's wound to be) results in the powder being propelled into the interior wound track. Followers of the case also point to the absence of fingerprints on the gun and of gunshot-residue testing on actor's hands as evidence in support of one theory or another. Police however found the gun too thickly coated in oil to hold fingerprints, and gunshot-residue testing was not commonly performed by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1959; thus, no inferences can be drawn in support of any theory from these elements separately.
Reeves's incredulous mother, Helen Bessolo, employed attorney Jerry Geisler and the Nick Harris Detective Agency. Their operatives included a fledgling detective named Milo Speriglio, who would later falsely claim to have been the primary investigator. A cremation of Reeves's body was postponed. No substantial new evidence was ever uncovered, but Reeves's mother never accepted the conclusion that her son had committed suicide. Notably, she also publicly denied that her son planned to marry Leonore Lemmon, since he had never told her. However, he had announced this to any number of friends and strangers, even referring to her on occasions as "my wife".
An after-the-fact article quoted "pallbearers" at Reeves's funeral (actors Alan Ladd and Gig Young) as not believing that Reeves was the "type" who would kill himself. However, neither of these men actually served as pallbearers, and only one, Young, was a friend of Reeves. "Anti-suicide" proponents argue that Reeves would have no desire to end his life with so many prospects in sight.
The central thesis of the partially-fictionalized Reeves biography Hollywood Kryptonite states as fact that Reeves was murdered by order of Toni Mannix as punishment for their breakup. This is illustrated as a potential scenario in Hollywoodland, with the blame more clearly leveled at Eddie Mannix than at Toni, although the film ultimately suggests the death was a suicide. However, the authors of Hollywood Kryptonite were forced to create a "hit man" to make the plot of their book work, and no such person appears to have ever existed.
Both Noel Neill and Jack Larson maintained that Reeves's death was mysterious. In the Grossman book, Larson was quoted as having accepted that it was suicide. Although he suggested in a 1982 Entertainment Tonight/This Weekend interview that he had had a momentary slight questioning of the verdict based on a comment from a friend near the time of the interview, he has stated publicly on several occasions that he always believed that Reeves had taken his own life and that quotations implying that he ever believed otherwise were either in error or deliberately falsified. "Jack and I never really tried to get anyone to re-open George's death," Neill said. "I am not aware of anyone who wanted George dead. I never said I thought George was murdered. I just don't know what happened. All I know is that George always seemed happy to me, and I saw him two days before he died and he was still happy then."
Hollywoodland dramatizes the investigation of Reeves's death. The movie stars Ben Affleck as Reeves and Adrien Brody as fictional investigator Louis Simo, suggested by real-life detective Milo Speriglio. The movie shows three versions of his death: killed semi-accidentally by Lemmon, murdered by an unnamed hitman under orders from Eddie Mannix, and finally, suicide.
Toni Mannix suffered from Alzheimer's disease for years and died in 1983. In 1999, following the resurrection of the Reeves case by TV shows Unsolved Mysteries and Mysteries and Scandals, Los Angeles publicist Edward Lozzi claimed that Toni Mannix had confessed to a Catholic priest in Lozzi's presence that she was responsible for having George Reeves killed. Lozzi made the claim on TV tabloid shows including Extra, Inside Edition, and Court TV. In the wake of Hollywoodland's publicity in 2006, Mr. Lozzi repeated his story to the tabloid The Globe and to the LA Times, where the statement was refuted by Jack Larson. Larson stated that facts he knew from his close friendship with Toni Mannix precluded Lozzi's story from being true. According to Lozzi, he lived with and then visited the elderly Mannix from 1979 to 1982, and that on at least a half-dozen occasions he would call a priest when Mrs. Mannix feared death and wanted to confess her sins. Mannix suffered from Alzheimer's disease and senile dementia, but Lozzi insists that her "confession" was made during a period of lucidity in Mannix's home before she was moved from her house to a hospital. Mannix lived in a hospital suite for the last several of years of her life, having donated a large portion of her estate a priori to the hospital in exchange for perpetual care. Lozzi also told of Tuesday night prayer sessions that Toni Mannix conducted with him and others at an altar shrine to George Reeves which she had built in her home. Lozzi stated, "During these prayer sessions she prayed loudly and trance-like to Reeves and God, and without confessing yet, asked them for forgiveness." Lozzi's claim, however, is unsupported by independent evidence.