Thursday, July 7, 2016

Remembering TV's First Superman, George Reeves

For many people my age or a bit older, George Reeves was our introduction to Superman on the screen. Reeves was an established journeyman actor with starring roles in various low budget films and a few supporting roles in major productions such as Gone With The Wind and From Here to Eternity. 

When casting began for The Adventures of Superman television show in 1951, Reeves was offered the title role because of his rugged good looks and muscular build. He was also known for a retentive memory that allowed him to memorize scripts easily amid rushed film production schedules typical of the "B" movies he made his living in.

Reeves was able to deliver a good performance in shoots of that nature, where retakes were frowned upon because of the extra cost. Superman was not going to be a big-budget series, and he knew he could handle the show‘s demands for minimal reshoots easily because he was used to working under such conditions. Figuring the show would be good for a year or two of steady income, Reeves accepted the part.

No one knew the series would end up running for seven seasons, least of all George Reeves. By the final year or so, he was bored with the show and tired from the long workdays. His hair was thinner and going gray, and his physique was growing soft with age. The show had deteriorated and become a weekly vehicle for formulaic scripts bordering on the silly, and was a far cry from the rather dark tone of many early episodes.

After The Adventures of Superman wrapped up in 1958, Reeves found himself unable to obtain new work. He had been typecast, and the few offers that came his way were for foolish, cheap productions that revolved around the Superman character.

Still, he enjoyed the fame the series had brought him,  and began working on some motion picture concepts that he hoped to direct and star in if he could get a studio's interest. Reeves was running out of money. He enjoyed living lavishly and spent freely despite his dwindling bank account. However, he was informed of a possible revival of the show, and was grudgingly receptive to the idea of donning the cape again in order to have an income.

On the night of June 15, 1959, Reeves and his fiance were entertaining guests at his home in Benedict Canyon. Everyone was extremely intoxicated by the wee hours of June 16, when Reeves excused himself to go to bed.

Soon after he went upstairs, the people downstairs heard a single gunshot from above. They found the actor face-up on the bed, dead, with a bullet wound to the temple.

Rumors soon began flying about regarding the circumstances of Reeve's death. He was known to have a habit of hanging out in nightclubs with rather unsavory characters, and had in fact been having an affair with the girlfriend of a reputed mobster. The tabloids implied his death was a "hit" ordered by the irate crook. Still other stories said he had become delusional and actually leaped from a building in an attempt to fly. The coroner eventually ruled the death a suicide.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Reeves was under great stress due to his money problems and inability to get serious acting work. Shortly before his death, he was also involved in a minor car accident that injured his back. His doctor prescribed painkillers. Reeves was known to mix them with another painkiller - booze - a dangerous combination.

The sad but mundane reality is that in all likelihood, Reeves killed himself while in a fit of depression amplified by alcohol and pills. Alas, the only villains to be had were his own inner demons.

This post originally appeared as part of my Moldy Photos collection on Google+.

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