Interview with Jackson Beck

April 28, 1995

Jackson Beck

Introduction:

In 1995, mindful of the fact that so many of the people who had shaped the Superman character since his inception were dying off, I located Jackson Beck, narrator of the "Adventures of Superman" radio series, and conducted the following interview by phone. Mr. Beck graciously answered my questions, although later research indicated he was somewhat hazy on the exact dates of the beginning and end of the "Superman" radio series' broadcast history. Portions of this interview were used in an article I wrote for Jim Nolt's "The Adventures Continue" fanzine in 1995, titled "The Adventures that Preceded." Of particular interest is the story Beck tells of his having been best man at a wedding of TV's George Reeves--even though the two had never met!

I provide the full transcript here for the first time to readers of the Superman Homepage as a tribute to this great radio talent whose vocal skills did so much to convey the breathless wonder of the Superman character to broadcast audiences during the 1940's. Jackson Beck died Wednesday, July 28, in New York, at the age of 92.

-- Brian McKernan

Interview © Copyright 1995 by Brian McKernan



Jackson Beck

The Interview:

McKernan: You were involved in the Superman radio series for its entire run, is that correct?

Beck: No, not its entire run. It had been on some time before I got to it. But I started on it in about 1939. The man who had written prior to my coming aboard had also narrated it and it got to be too much so they had an audition and I got it.

McKernan: When did you start in radio?

Beck: 19...31.

McKernan: You were an established radio announcer, and what did you think of--

Beck: I was really more of an actor.

McKernan: Oh, okay.

Beck: But I did some announcing. The line's a fine line.

McKernan: So it's really from the acting that you gravitated into the announcing part.

Beck: Yes.

McKernan: When did the show end its radio run?

Beck: Oh. Uhhh, about--by that time it wasn't regularly on a network, we were transcribing it and had made a cartoon series--

McKernan: Right, in 1966. Or are you talking about the Fleischer cartoons.

Beck: No, no, Filmation.

McKernan: The Filmation series in 1966.

Beck: Whenever it was.

McKernan: Yeah.

McKernan: When did the Superman radio series go off the air?

Beck: Somewhere in the Fifties, or I think around '55, I'm not sure.

McKernan: I know it turned into a half-hour format in the late Forties, am I right? It was sort of a precursor to the television series.

Beck: Uhhh, well it really had nothing to do with that TV series.

McKernan: Right, with George Reeves, I mean.

Beck: Yeah, I know. It had nothing to do with that, really.

McKernan: Yeah.

Beck: Those were different companies, different times. And uhh, it had gone from 15 [minutes] to a half, to an hour three times a week, to a half hour once a week--at various times during its run. Toward the end it did that a couple of times and I guess when it went off it was a half-hour show. I'm not too sure, I don't remember, I don't live back there.

McKernan: That was a while ago, yeah.

Beck: It went off in about, uhh, I would think about '55. That became an impossibility; television was there and kids were glued to the box, we weren't doing too much. We made that Filmation series. You said the Filmation series was '66. You must've been on close to that because I don't remember that long a hiatus. I know we had to wait a long time because [Bud] Collyer was ill, when he got better we went ahead and did the Filmation stuff. But I don't think it was 11 years, so I may be wrong on when we went off. I really don't know...

McKernan: I know that Bernard Luber and Robert Maxwell--

Beck: Maxwell I knew very well.

McKernan: --went on to do the television series with George Reeves.

Beck: They did?

McKernan: Yeah. Maxwell and Luber produced the first 26 episodes of the TV series and--

Beck: Maxwell I knew very well, but I don't know Luber, he's unfamiliar to me.

McKernan: Right. Well, what was it like to do a live, five-times-a-week serial. It must have been incredibly demanding.

Beck: Well, that's the thing about radio and being in it at any length of time. And I had been around for a long time by that time. And so you took these things as a matter of course. It's just like going to work in a factory, you know what you're going to do. And you know what your character or characters is or are. And so you go in and you knock 'em off. It isn't the great strain after a while. It's a strain when you're new to the whole business of acting on a microphone and all that sort of thing. You get this kind of "My God! The whole world is listening to me!" and you quail, you know, you're overcome. But if you have any sense about you and any experience you don't think of that, you think of what you're reading and acting, and you go ahead and you do it. And that's what you're being paid for. So you're free of all that stress; there's nothing on your back. So you know it wasn't any great strain.

I'd done a lot of things before I got around to doing Superman. So you know it wasn't any stress and strain. I was pleased and excited at the fact that I'd been chosen to do it, and I went ahead--how long was I on? I guess, somehow I have the feeling, I was on...I think I joined it in 1942--no I think about 1939 I came on that thing. And I guess I had about 15 years on it, bring it to 1954.

McKernan: So you figure it lasted as long as 1954, then?

Beck: I'm pretty sure of that, in one form or another, either 15-minute or half hour, whether we went once a week or three times a week.

McKernan: Were you doing other radio shows at the same time?

Beck: Absolutely. Yes, I was doing other things. I really worked for [Robert] Maxwell, because he had a production company so I did that, and I did another radio show in the next studio...an air show...the war was on, so it was all connected with the war.

McKernan: Were these all done from the Mutual Studios on Broadway?

Beck: Yep. So I'd finish one show, go out the door, take ten steps, and be inside the next door's studio and the other show.

McKernan: Some of the names of the producers I have--George Lowther?

Beck: Yeah, he was the writer and director, and he's the one that I succeeded.

McKernan: Okay.

Beck: Then he just wrote it and directed it for a while, and then he left that and just wrote it. And Alan Ducovny came on.

McKernan: That's another name. Was Ducovny involved right up until the end?

Beck: Yes, he was. And Jessica Maxwell was there too, Bob's wife.

McKernan: What did she do?

Beck: Directed.

McKernan: So there were a number of different directors on the show?

Beck: Yeah, but they were all part of the same unit, they were all Bob Maxwell and DC Comics. So I mean that they all knew each other, they were all part of a little group. For a while one would do one thing and one would do the other.

McKernan: Right.

Beck: And sometimes they did both. Except that Jessica never wrote one of these things. But the others I think--and I don't know if Alan Ducovny did, either--but there were a staff of writers. Lowther was the only one who tried to do the whole thing by himself and it finally wore him down and it got to be too much and he had several shows to do, so he couldn't really pay attention. So he quit Superman and I came on as narrator, he directed for a while, and then he left that to do the show next door. All of this stuff came out of Maxwell's office over at DC.

McKernan: So Maxwell was a DC employee, basically?

Beck: No, he was an independent producer, but I think he had office space. He had his own production company, he did other projects too I'm sure.

McKernan: Did Maxwell's group do any other shows for DC?

Beck: Yeah, I'm trying to think of the name of this other show. I can remember the characters...ummm..."Tom Corbett Space Cadet," I think that was his, and then he went somewhere else.... I'm drawing a blank on it.

McKernan: Did you know Whitney Ellsworth, who produced the remained of the "Adventures of Superman" television series? Was he involved in the radio show?

Beck: I knew who he was, but I didn't know him personally. He was sort of a "back-office guy" at DC.

McKernan: Are there any episodes of the show that stick in your mind as most memorable ones?

Beck: You mean regular shows on other networks?

McKernan: No, I mean of the Superman series.

Beck: Oh, you mean individual shows?

McKernan: Individual, yeah, stories or what have you.

Beck: Let's go back to the social consciousness thing for a while--

McKernan: Right

Beck: --because we worked in very close cooperation with the Child Study Association--Josette Frank--and so everything went through them for clearance. And that is really where the influence came from to take up these socially relevant programs and the philosophy of that.

McKernan: Right.

Beck: Nothing went on the air without having passed through Child Study Association first. And they took--you're right--we took on things that hadn't really been touched, especially in juvenile radio.

McKernan: Right. It was very far ahead of its time.

Beck: Yes it was. But I think somebody saw it all coming. On the other hand it might have stirred up a lot too, you never know. It works both ways. But not everybody's a Boy Scout. And, uhh, but that is where the socially relevant--shall I call it--socially relevant slant originated.

McKernan: Was that just a thing that happened after the war?

Beck: No, I'd say that that had happened from the time that I got on the show, which was about '39.

McKernan: I have some articles from--I have an article from "Newsweek" from the late Forties--I guess about '46--and another one from "The New Republic" that indicated it sort of started around that time that these themes began. I don't imagine that other juvenile shows--

Beck: Entered much into this area.

McKernan: Yes. What did you think when you were involved in the show and they were doing this, this is pretty--uhh--enlightened broadcasting here.

Beck: Yes I did. But then I tell you that wasn't the dark ages. You know, people were socially conscious and socially aware, and being in the business that I'm in and doing what I do, I had a lot of contact with programming that sometimes was relevant to the social products that--social turmoil, the red scare, the anti-Semitism, the Ku Klux Klan, the whole damn thing, whatever you want to call it, there was a lot of that going on, and I don't know that other juvenile shows touched it, because I never had time to listen to those--I was on the air against them at the same time. I couldn't possibly sit down and listen to another show. But I know that we weighed on it very heavily from time to time. And I know if something happened it was incorporated into the script one way or another and dealt with.

McKernan: It was interesting that the television series never got into those areas. And television itself didn't become socially relevant until the mid- to late-Sixties. So you were a good 20 years ahead.

Beck: Yeah. We were. I don't recall ever any cartoon series that would have had any social problem or confrontation in the script, because that's not what a cartoon show is supposed to do. And I don't know, we were about the only one, nobody had guts enough to follow us.

McKernan: Right.

Beck: But there was a lot of turmoil in the industry. After all, it was 1950 that produced "Red Channels," so that didn't come up yesterday, that had been in the minds of somebody for a hell of a long time. And we had to deal with that, but I don't know that we ever confronted that directly.

McKernan: Now, Red Channels was the government blacklist of people?--

Beck: No, not the government at all. It was the right-wing, you know, people. And they enlisted a lot of actors, and everybody was suspect, and everybody was looking over your shoulder, and everybody was reporting everything he heard, and if he heard you say something he thought was out of line he'd report it.

There were newspapers here and magazines here that got knocked off the air, knocked off the newsstand. There was a great churning, you know, part of the red scare kind of thing. You know, there were a lot of left-wingers around, they had their own theaters, and so you know, anybody who did that couldn't do it without having a reaction occur, it's a fact of nature. If you itch you scratch. So these were things--you know I always took the broad view of this stuff. I figured it would all blow over because you must expect one action to promote a reaction. Sooner or later they'll get through with it. But what happened in the meantime was pretty grim for a lot of people.

McKernan: But certainly the show took an enlightened approach to a lot of things and--

Beck: We never touched that--

McKernan: Right, the red aspect.

Beck: Right.

McKernan: Do you remember any instances of being interrupted by bulletins? For instance, were you on the air the day of Pearl Harbor?

Beck: Seven o'clock in the morning.

McKernan: Okay, I'm 41 years old, born in '54.

Beck: My old man came in and woke me up and told me about it. And I was horrified. And I was doing Pathe News the night that Roosevelt went. And we had finished it, put it to bed. And I was in a cab, headed across 57th Street, and the driver had the radio on, and I heard this bulletin. And I said, "Turn around and take me back where you got me." And so I was there at Pathe half the night putting out the reel.

McKernan: Did you have to do the cutting?

Beck: No, I did the voice, I never did anything technical.

McKernan: They must have been happy to see you come back, knowing that they'd have to--

Beck: They put a call out for me immediately, but they knew very well that I'd come back and so would the other people who did voices on the reel. I don't know, Ed Dwight Wiest (SP?) shared the reel with me and somebody else who's name I don't remember. And we knew immediately if anything like this happened, being in the newspaper business, you know, you hear something happening, you run right to it. So we're the same kind of people.

So we went back there and worked all night patching together something that could go out the next day, a special. Because newsreels only were done Monday and Thursday, or something like that. Twice a week. And so we knew very well that this would be a special. We had to get it out and be in theaters as soon as possible.

McKernan: You should write a book, or maybe you have--I don't know.

Beck: I haven't, but I've done a lot of at-length interviews like six hours of stuff, which is at Columbia University, in the archives. The Congressional Record, for the Congressional Archives, another couple of universities; different interviews over a long period of time. Covers the whole thing. I'd like to write a book, to be more personal, but I need somebody to write with. Because I can't ask myself my own questions. And I don't know what would be interesting and what not.

You know, there are a lots of little stories and lots of big stories, you have to paint a picture of the society in which you lived at that time as well, but you also have to be technical...the actual--beast--whatever it is you're writing.

McKernan: Right. Good to have someone to bounce it off of, too.

Beck: "As told to," something like that.

McKernan: Are you from New York originally?

Beck: Yes, I am.

McKernan: You've been blessed with one of the greatest voices in the history of broadcasting. And I hear you today on Thompson's Water Seal and Kellogg's "shadow people."

Beck: And I also do Little Caesar's.

McKernan: How could I forget that one? And you did "National Lampoon Radio Hour" too, I remember.

Beck: I did a record for them, that was what went on the air.

McKernan: That was hilarious stuff.

Beck: I did it and I thought it was pretty lousy. I thought the humor was stretched.

McKernan: I appreciate all the time you're taking with this interview. Getting back to the Superman thing, you know Superman today we have "Lois and Clark" on Sunday night on ABC, it's a character that just keeps going and going. Did you have any idea when you first got involved that you'd be getting involved in a character that would seem to go on in various media for a long time?

Beck: No, not at all. Not at all. There were times I'd walk into studios, you know to work, and after we're finished somebody in the control room says, "Jack, would you do us a favor?" And I say, "What's that?" And I know what's coming. "Well, I've got a kid who still listens to Superman," or something. And I'll say "Don't worry, I'll do the whole thing and I'll use his name in it, you can take it home on tape and play it for him, and he can walk around and show it to his friends. All that sort of stuff. So, you know, I'm plastered with the name. I don't mind it a bit, it's done a helluva lot for me. Everybody wants to hear. There are lots of other things I've done, too. I was Bluto on Popeye for a long while, also known as Brutus.

McKernan: Were you Tony the Tiger?

Beck: No, I'm not Tony the Tiger, I used to do Frosted Flakes for them.

McKernan: I was always curious why they didn't have you do the intro voice-over for the George Reeves "Superman" TV series.

Beck: Ahh, it went by before I really had a shot at it. And I also wanted to do the other Superman thing, but I couldn't get in because they weren't doing that with a pattern. George Reeves--I'll tell you a story about him. I only met him once. I was best man at his wedding.

McKernan: Really, best man at his wedding?

Beck: And I never knew the guy. A friend of mine roomed with him. He called me up and said, "Jack, what are you doing Sunday afternoon?" And I said, "I don't know," so I called up my wife and said "Are we busy Sunday?" She said "No."

So I said "What's up?" And he said, "A friend of mine, my roommate, as a matter of fact, is getting married and we need a best man."

"What's wrong with you?" I asked.

"Well, I--for various reasons I can't do it," he said.

So I said "All right."

And he said, "Would your wife be, matron of honor?"

And I said "Sure, I guess so."

So he said, "Come down here, there's a place on Grammercy Park."

So we get there on Sunday, and we walk upstairs, I brought a bottle of champagne or something, and I get upstairs to this apartment on the top floor. Five floors up, it's absolutely empty except for a couple of sleeping bags, a couple of wooden chairs, and a table. And not much of a table. Typical starving actor's home. So I'm introduced to Mr. Reeves and to the blushing bride.

McKernan: Was this before he was Superman or after?

Beck: Well he was going to leave for the Coast the following day to do the picture ["Superman and the Mole Men"]. And so I said "It's nice to meet you," and so on and so forth, and that's just about where the conversation began and ended. And finally this minister--I don't know who he was or where they got him--he looked like a parody of what you'd think of in an old-time minister. He was a thin, grey man with a hat and a white shirt, and a black tie, and a black suit, more like an undertaker than not. And he had a bible in his hand and we were introduced to him. And then the ceremony took place. I signed all the papers, I had to sign the license, the witness, and all of that. And then I said, "Well, I brought the champagne, do you have four--five--glasses?" And they scurried around and finally found a couple of glasses and a couple of cups. So we all drank to the newlyweds, and my wife and I took off. The next day they flew to California to do Superman the picture. And that's the first and last time I ever saw George Reeves. I don't know where the hell he was from, I'd never heard of him before.

McKernan: What was his wife's name?

Beck: I don't know, I've no idea what her name was.

McKernan: So was it through Superman Inc. that they made that connection?

Beck: The picture?

McKernan: No, that they asked you. Was it because of the Superman connection that they had asked you to be his best man?

Beck: No, it's just that I was friends with his roommate.

McKernan: Oh, okay, so it was just totally coincidental, then?

Beck: Yeah.

McKernan: What was he like, was he a nice guy?

Beck: I don't know. I saw the guy all of a half an hour. That's all it took. We came there, we did the number, and we left.

McKernan: So that is fascinating. You were George Reeves' best man at his wedding.

Beck: That's right.

McKernan: And so this would be the early 1950's, then.

Beck: I don't even remember when it was. Whenever that first series of Superman came out is when it was.

McKernan: And he never stayed in touch after that, or anything?

Beck: No.

McKernan: Well, seems like kind of a strange story, huh?

Beck: Yeah. But if you're writing about Superman it's a little thing you can throw in.

McKernan: Thank you, I greatly appreciate it, it's a wonderful nugget--was he friendly at all?

Beck: Yes, of course, I was doing him a favor. He had to be friendly.

McKernan: Yeah. And he seemed like a nice enough guy.

Beck: Yeah, he looked like a nice guy. But I never knew him except for that one incident.

McKernan: That's fascinating. Do you ever have any contact with DC or National--or Superman organization to this day?

Beck: No I don't. Once in a while I call up Duke--Ducovny--because we were pretty good friends. But I don't even know now if he's dead or alive. I always say to myself, "Tonight why don't you call him up?" And once or twice I have, and it wasn't like it used to be, you can't go back again.

McKernan: Right, right. How did you get involved in the animated series, the Filmation show?

Beck: Well, somebody got the idea to do it, they wanted as many of the original voices--original in quotes--voices as they could get, and I was one of them. I went in there and did a couple of parts, that was the narration.

McKernan: Was that recorded in New York or L.A.?

Beck: It was, yeah.

McKernan: Now, the cast was Joan Alexander was Lois Lane?

Beck: Yup.

McKernan: Julian Noa was Perry White.

Beck: Yup.

McKernan: Bud Collyer, of course, was Clark Kent/Superman. Were there other actors that I'm forgetting here, I'm not mentioning?

Beck: Well there's a whole flock of them.

McKernan: But I guess some of them came and went, right?

Beck: Yeah, well, you'd be on as the principal heavy, and you might stay on a matter of months. On the other hand, you'd play a minor heavy, you'd get knocked off in a couple of weeks. And then there were other characters who came in and out all the time, you know, that were semi-, they were familiar to the audience but they weren't really.... You couldn't say you were part of the show except that you worked because these characters recurred every few weeks or months for a day or two at a time.

McKernan: You did some of those characters yourself, right? Heavies, bad guys?

Beck: Yeah, I did those, I did Beany the office boy, that was another one like Jimmy Olsen.

McKernan: Was he kind of a forerunner of Jimmy Olsen?

Beck: No, we worked together.

McKernan: Oh, Beany worked with Jimmy Olsen?

Beck: Jimmy Olsen was my boss, so to speak.

McKernan: Oh, okay.

Beck: I was just playing a stupid kid with a high voice. We worked together. I wasn't in every day. But I was handy. I did all sorts of characters for it.

McKernan: I remember reading that Jimmy Olsen was invented for the radio. And wasn't there an actor that preceded Collyer as Superman on the radio?

Beck: He was only ahead of him for about two or three transcribed shows when it was first done by Langworth, which was a firm you wouldn't know.

McKernan: Langworth, eh?

Beck: Yeah, Langley Wentworth--Langworth. Another guy named Mike Fitzmaurice did the show for the first two or three episodes.

McKernan: Interesting! Thanks very much for the interview.

Beck: My pleasure.