The dark side of George Reeves' Superman

It's understandable if you're operating in a cloud of mild confusion. There was Steve Reeves, a bodybuilder who went on to star in a series of inexpensive (but highly successful) Italian sword-and-sandal films, twice as Hercules, never as Superman. There was Christopher Reeve, classmate of Robin Williams at Julliard, who bulked up nicely to play Superman in a series of four films beginning in the 1970s. And then there was George Reeves, who also played Superman, but in the 1950s TV series.

Like Reeve (as in Christopher), Reeves (as in George), born in 1914 in Iowa (per Biography), started out as an actor. He was acting in Pasadena when he was 21, and scored his first film role in Gone with the Wind in 1939. The part was small, though he had lines and enough screen time to make an impression. Warner Bros. gave him a new name (he was born George Brewer) and a contract. He didn't really click until his performance opposite Claudette Colbert in So Proudly We Hail in 1943. He followed that up by joining the Army and acting in a number of training films. He landed a small part on Broadway, performed in a touring company, returned to California, and made a string of low-budget, embarrassing films like Jungle Goddess before the dawn of 1951.

'Welcome to the bottom of the barrel'

That was when Reeves (perhaps reluctantly) signed on as the title character for the TV series The Adventures of Superman. The series debuted in syndication in 1952 and Reeves found fame, if not fortune. Perhaps even infamy. As shooting began, writes Closer Weekly, he said to co-star Phyllis Coates (Lois Lane), "Welcome to the bottom of the barrel." Later, however, he was able to at least occasionally look on the bright side; he told one interviewer, "We even try, in our scripts, to give gentle messages of tolerance and to stress that a man's color and race and religious beliefs should be respected."

Some actors are delighted at an opportunity for the steady paycheck a TV series offers. Others want to stretch and expand and fear being type-cast. And while typecasting can work to an actor's advantage — no matter the role, John Wayne played John Wayne, and quite effectively, too — others see it as the death of a career. Apparently that's how Reeves felt, too. Not without good reason. He had a part in the major film From Here to Eternity, but preview audiences would shout "Superman!" when he appeared on screen, and the film was re-cut, eliminating almost all of his part, as well as his screen credit. It was the end of his film career.

Reeves found himself unemployable when 'Superman' was canceled

There were 104 episodes of The Adventures of Superman before the cancellation ax fell in 1958. Reeves found himself unemployable. His personal life took a turn for the worse — a long-term affair with another man's common-law wife ended badly; he finally filed a restraining order against her. As Wired phrased it, "As the '50s came to a close, he was culturally popular on the outside and artistically miserable on the inside."

He was known to take a drink or three, as evidenced by the party in his home on June 16, 1959. He left the group early to go to bed, came down to complain, returned to bed, and there was a gunshot. As The Guardian reports, it took 45 minutes for the guests to inform the police that Reeves was upstairs in bed, naked, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. His blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit. Was he despondent and suicidal? Or murdered? The investigation was perfunctory at best, the evidence was tampered with, and nobody ever explained the bruises on his face and body. Officially, the case remains unsolved. George Reeves was dead at 45. Jim Beaver, writing a biography of Reeves, told Closer, "there are a lot of talented people who can't do what he did in that role, and that is to connect on a personal level with the audience. And I think that is his legacy."