by Robert Gillis
Originally published in The Foxboro Reporter 6/1999 and revised for the Boston City Paper 11/2006
The recent release of the film “Hollywoodland” has cast new light and brought new interest in the unsolved death of George Reeves, star of the 1950s series, “Adventures of Superman.” He died before I was born, but I knew him well, and I regret his passing.
His death was officially classified a suicide — Reeves was despondent over not being able to find work after the series was canceled, having been typecast as the man of steel — but there have been lingering questions about his death for over four decades. Despite the intriguing events presented in the film, there is still no definitive answer and the mystery of what really happened that night has never been solved.
Recently I completed a book chronicling Reeve’s life and death called “Hollywood Kryptonite.” The author’s conclusions are self-admittedly their own. But many of the interviews with Reeve’s friends and family and their revelations and insights were extremely interesting because they caused me to look at my boyhood hero in a new light.
Reading about the man I only knew as a “strange visitor from another planet” brought to light how human the actor George Reeve’s was, and (surprisingly) how much he resented playing Superman.
I never knew, for example, about his excessive drinking on the set — he drank heavily. It never showed on camera and he always put in the day’s work, but it was there. His mother could be tough on him, and they were estranged for years. Divorced, he shared his bed with a married woman who paid all his bills. Reeves was very much a “kept” man who loved to live the Hollywood party scene.
But he was not a stereotypical Hollywood bad boy, and most friends referred to him as a “nice guy.” He was, by all accounts just a good man depressed about being unable to find serious acting work after being typecast.
The Superman series, although successful, was the death-toll for Reeves’ serious acting career. The man who’d played in “Gone with the Wind” and other notable films had his part cut from the epic “From Here to Eternity” when the preview audience shouted, “Superman!” when they saw him on the screen.
He was a man who’d been trying so hard to have a serious acting career, doing what he loved, reduced to performing what he called a “kiddy” show. A promising career cut short because Hollywood casting agents couldn’t see past the guy in the red cape.
His depression intensified after the series was canceled and he couldn’t find work. But even through his unhappiness and desperation, things began to turn around. He’d met a new love and was planning to marry. Then there were possible directing jobs. Then “Superman” was about to be renewed and a new season had been ordered.
And suddenly, he was dead.
Shot to death in his own bedroom.
There are many unanswered questions and conflicting versions about that night so long ago. The circumstances of Reeves’ death will probably always remain a mystery.
While Reeves died a full six years before I was born, I knew him well, through the magic of reruns. Like every kid my age, I was glued to the TV set each afternoon as I watched my hero battle the bad guys and free Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen from whatever danger they were facing, allowing plenty of time for Superman to change back to Clark Kent and give the viewing audience that tell-tale wink at the end of the show.
Long before the Christopher Reeve movies, Dean Cain TV show, and the Brandon Routh Superman Returns film, it was George Reeves who made us believe a man could fly. Sure, the special effects (then state of the art) are considered cheesy today, and the stories over the run of the series degraded into kiddy shows, but forty years later the show has undeniable magic.
Reading about Reeves from an adult viewpoint, and seeing the film, I have gained a new understanding of my childhood hero. He hasn’t disappointed me. But for all the happiness he brought to me (and to millions of other kids) I wish he himself could have been happier.
While I can still watch those old Superman shows these days and enjoy them for nostalgia sake, I now look at them differently. I see Superman flying across the screen and I think of the all-too human guy who hated the role he was playing, never once suspecting the positive impact he would have on generations to come.
George Reeves inarguably brought joy and became a hero-figure to millions of kids over the last four and a half decades. For so many he was the ultimate father figure — wise, kind, loving, protective. He hated it, but it’s his legacy.
Our heroes often turn out to be all-too human. But they are still heroes. George Reeves will always be one of mine.