The "Adventures of Superman" with George Reeves

18 March 2023
The "Adventures of Superman" TV series is a beloved classic that aired from 1952 to 1958, spanning six seasons and a total of 104 episodes. The show starred George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent, Phyllis Coates (and later, Noel Neill) as Lois Lane, Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, and John Hamilton as Perry White.

It followed after the Superman Radio show which was hugely popular.

The show was groundbreaking for its time, as it was the first live-action television series to feature Superman. The show's popularity soared, making Superman a household name in America and cementing the character's status as a cultural icon.

One of the key factors contributing to the show's success was George Reeves' portrayal of Superman. Reeves' performance was charismatic, confident, and charming, and he became the definitive face of Superman for generations of fans. He embodied both the heroic qualities of the character as well as the meek and mild-mannered persona of Clark Kent, creating a compelling contrast between the two identities.

Another key factor in the show's success was its production quality. The show's special effects, while primitive by today's standards, were groundbreaking for their time, and the show's writers were able to create thrilling stories that kept audiences engaged and eager to tune in each week.

The show also tackled important social issues of its time, such as racism, bigotry, and political corruption. This helped to give the show a sense of relevance and importance, and it made a positive impact on the way that audiences viewed these issues.

george reeves superman

The production of the 'Adventures of Superman'

In 1951, Robert L. Lippert, a B-movie producer and exhibitor from California, released a black-and-white film called Superman and the Mole Men, which starred George Reeves and Phyllis Coates and was directed by Lee Sholem, with a script by Robert Maxwell (as Richard Fielding). The film, which was shot in July of that year, served as a pilot for Adventures of Superman and led to the start of production for the first season in August/September. 

The show was not initially picked up, but was eventually sponsored by cereal manufacturer Kellogg's in September 1952, leading to the surprise success of the series. The first feature film was edited into a two-part story called "The Unknown People" and was eventually added to the syndication package of some stations in 1960.

After the first season was completed, Phyllis Coates did not return as Lois Lane due to other commitments. Noel Neill, who had previously played the character in the Columbia theatrical serials, replaced her for the remainder of the series. The core cast remained the same, with occasional appearances from Phillips Tead as Professor Pepperwinkle. The cast also appeared in Kellogg's commercials during the second season to promote the show, but Noel Neill was not included due to concerns about suggestive scenes.

The show was filmed like a movie serial, with the same costumes being worn throughout to expedite shooting schedules and save costs. Sets were often reused and scenic shortcuts were employed to further save money. The budget for the show was low, with each episode costing an average of $15,000 and the actors being paid $200 per episode. By the end of the series, George Reeves was making at least $2500 per episode, while the rest of the cast still made considerably less. The cast had to threaten to quit before receiving a $50 raise.

Reeves' Superman costume was originally brown, gray, and white so that it would appear appropriately on black-and-white film. The show was eventually filmed in color, beginning in 1954, but the number of episodes per season was reduced due to the added expense of filming in color. During the last 50 episodes, there was a lackadaisical attitude towards mistakes and flubbed lines, which was attributed to morale issues and salary disputes. Some scenes had to be used even if they contained mistakes, rather than going through the costly process of relighting the set and reshooting the scene.

The music of Adventures of Superman

The series' musical score was primarily sourced from stock music libraries, featuring adaptations of music from B-movies. For instance, the episode "Peril by Sea" utilized a cue also featured in Plan 9 from Outer Space. 

Additionally, the seventh variation of Miklos Rozsa's "Theme, Variations & Finale. Op. 13, from 1933" was used in the second season episodes "The Machine that Could Plot Crimes", "Jungle Devil", "The Clown Who Cried", and "The Golden Vulture". The only original music created for the show was the March played primarily during the credits, credited to studio music arranger Leon Klatzkin. However, it is uncertain if it was adapted from a previous, now lost, theme. 

The show's main theme was based on a triad that matched the three syllables in the character's name, a common approach in Superman music. Aside from the title theme, the musical cues varied in tone, ranging from serious to lighthearted and differed each season, except for the third season, where some cues were reused in multiple episodes. 

The cues were frequently used in similar "mood" moments, such as humor, apprehension, or fast action. The opening credits theme, also known as Superman's "leitmotif," was typically played when Superman was depicted flying or taking action, but not always.

John Williams was yet to enter the room...

How they made Superman fly in 1948

Although now considered simple, the "flying" effects on Adventures of Superman were advanced for the time. During the first season, Superman's flight was achieved using cables and wires, which were later replaced by a springboard designed by Thol "Si" Simonson.

The springboard was used for take-off scenes and allowed Reeves to run into frame and hit the out-of-frame device, which would boost him out of frame and onto padding. This gave the impression that Superman was taking off.

To simulate flight, footage of Reeves stretched out on a device operated on a counterweight was used, and this footage was combined with aerial footage on a back-projection screen or neutral background for the monochrome seasons. In the color episodes, a neutral cyclorama backing was used. Landings were achieved using various techniques, such as jumping off a ladder or holding an off-camera horizontal bar and swinging down into frame.

In some cases, the landing shots were accomplished using trampolines or airbags to cushion the actor's fall. Overall, the flying effects on Adventures of Superman were groundbreaking for their time and helped to establish the superhero genre in film and television.

Despite the technical limitations of the era, the show was able to create a sense of wonder and excitement in viewers through its use of innovative special effects and engaging storytelling. The flying effects, though simple by today's standards, were a key component of the show's success and contributed to its enduring popularity among audiences.

In addition to the flying effects, the show also featured other special effects such as explosions, gunshots, and car crashes. These effects were achieved through a combination of practical effects and optical compositing, with actors filmed separately and then combined with matte shots in post-production.

Overall, the production team on Adventures of Superman demonstrated a remarkable degree of creativity and ingenuity in their efforts to bring the world of Superman to life on the small screen. Despite the technical limitations of the time, they were able to create a compelling and memorable series that remains a classic of the genre to this day.

The aftermath of the show's cancellation = how the later cameos happened:

In 1958, a spin-off pilot called Superpup was created by producer Whitney Ellsworth but never aired. This pilot placed the Superman mythos in a world where dogs populated it, with live-action actors in dog-suits portraying canine versions of Superman and other characters. It was filmed on the Adventures of Superman sets and intended to capitalize on the success of its parent series.

Plans to continue Adventures of Superman in 1959 with two more years of episodes were disrupted by actor John Hamilton's death. Pierre Watkin was hired to replace Hamilton as "Perry White's brother" since he had played Perry White himself in the two Columbia serials and had guest-starred on the series before.

Even with the sudden death of the show's star, George Reeves, in June 1959, the producers didn't see it as the end of the series. They suggested the series could continue as "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen" with more focus on Jack Larson's character. He would play opposite a "Superman" who would be a composite of stock shots of George Reeves and a stunt double filmed from behind. However, Larson rejected the idea.

Another spin-off pilot, The Adventures of Superboy, was produced by Whitney Ellsworth in 1961. Johnny Rockwell starred as a young Clark Kent in Smallville, wearing a suit similar in design to George Reeves' suit. Although thirteen scripts were written, only the pilot was filmed.

In the 1978 film Superman, Noel Neill and her original 1948 Superman serial co-star, Kirk Alyn, had cameos as Lois Lane's parents. Their dialogue scene was cut for theatrical release but was included in its entirety when the film was broadcast on TV and later in the 2001 director's cut restoration. Neill and Jack Larson made guest appearances on the TV series Superboy in the episode "Paranoia" during the show's fourth season.

Larson had a guest appearance on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, playing an elder Jimmy Olsen, and was cast as a man-on-the-street in an American Express ad called The Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman. He participated in various conventions connected with Superman and provided commentaries for some of the episodes on the DVD releases during 2005 and 2006 and the 2006 documentary history of the Superman character, Look, Up in the Sky.

Robert Shayne received a recurring role as "Reggie," the blind newspaper vendor, in The Flash in 1990–91 because the producers knew about his Superman connection. Shayne was legally blind by that time.

Phyllis Coates played Lois Lane's mother in a 1993 episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman at the suggestion of Jim Beaver, a Lois & Clark guest star and George Reeves biographer. The Coates Orphanage in Metropolis, which appears in the Lois and Clark episode "Season's Greedings," is named for her.

Both Noel Neill and Jack Larson had minor roles in the 2006 movie Superman Returns. Neill played the multimillionaire wife of Lex Luthor, played by Kevin Spacey, who dies at the beginning of the film, leaving her entire inheritance to Luthor, while Larson played a bartender.

The Legacy of George Reeves to Superman

George Reeves left a lasting legacy as the first actor to portray Superman in a popular television series, and his work on the show continues to be celebrated by fans of the character to this day. However, his private life was plagued with personal struggles and tragedy, which also contributed to his legacy.

However, Reeves' personal life was less successful. He struggled with alcoholism and failed to find success as an actor outside of his role on Adventures of Superman. He also experienced heartbreak when his relationship with fellow actress Toni Mannix, who was married to a powerful Hollywood executive, came to a tragic end with Reeves' mysterious death.

Reeves' death, which was officially ruled a suicide, has been the subject of much speculation and controversy. Some believe that he was murdered, while others maintain that he took his own life. Whatever the truth, the circumstances of his death have added a layer of mystery to his legacy that continues to fascinate fans and researchers alike.

Despite the difficulties he faced in his personal life, George Reeves' portrayal of Superman remains an important and enduring contribution to popular culture. His legacy as an actor and as a tragic figure serves as a reminder of the complex and often difficult lives led by those in the public eye.

They turned George Reeve's life into a movie called Hollywoodland

"Hollywoodland" is a 2006 biographical film that focuses on the life and mysterious death of George Reeves, the actor who portrayed Superman in the 1950s TV series "Adventures of Superman." The film is directed by Allen Coulter and stars Ben Affleck as George Reeves, Adrien Brody as Louis Simo, and Diane Lane as Toni Mannix.

The film alternates between two storylines: Reeves' rise to fame as Superman and the investigation into his death. Reeves is portrayed as a struggling actor who is unable to break out of the shadow of his Superman persona. He is shown as having a complicated relationship with Toni Mannix, a powerful Hollywood socialite who is also the wife of Eddie Mannix, a studio executive. The investigation into Reeves' death is led by private detective Louis Simo, who initially believes that Reeves' death was a suicide, but begins to suspect foul play as he delves deeper into the case.

The film received mixed reviews, with some critics praising the performances of the cast, particularly Affleck's portrayal of Reeves, while others criticized the slow pace and lack of focus on Reeves' personal life. However, the film was widely praised for its attention to detail and its accurate depiction of 1950s Hollywood. "Hollywoodland" also sparked renewed interest in the circumstances surrounding Reeves' death and prompted a new investigation into the case.

Overall, "Hollywoodland" provides a nuanced and complex look at the life of George Reeves, exploring the personal struggles he faced as an actor and the unsolved mystery of his death. It also sheds light on the darker side of Hollywood in the 1950s, where power and influence often overshadowed justice and morality.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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