Superman on Television
George ReevesReal name: George Keefer Brewer, George Bessolo
Character: Superman in Superman and the Mole Men (1951) and the Adventures of Superman TV Show (1952-56)
Birth Date: January 5, 1914
Birth Place: Woolstock, Iowa
Date of Death: June 16, 1959
Place of Death: Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California
Marital Status: Married Ellanora Needles (1940-1950); divorced, no children
George Reeves (1914-1959)
The Superman of Television
In the spring of 1913, Helen Lescher discovered that she was pregnant and married the father of the child, Don Brewer, later that year. George Keefer Brewer was born on January 5, 1914. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last and the Brewers divorced. Several years later, Helen Brewer married Frank Joseph Bessolo. The family moved to California and, in 1927, Frank adopted the 14 year old George giving him his last name. Sadly, this marriage did not last, either.
At the age of 18, George Bessolo began studying at the Pasadena Junior College and acting at the Pasadena Community Playhouse, eventually earning leading roles in several of the plays. After five years of theatre, Bessolo was approached to do films, and took several bit parts (Smashing the Money Ring, Return of Doctor X, 1939) before getting larger roles in Espionage Agent and The Monroe Doctrine. But it was decided that Bessolo was not a suitable name for a leading man and late in 1939, George Bessolo became George Reeves.
Young George Reeves got his big break when he was cast as Stuart Tarlton in Gone With The Wind in 1939. As small a part as it was, Reeves had the distinction of being the first man to speak in the film, and although he was incorrectly listed in the opening credits as playing the other twin, Brent Tarlton, Reeves on-screen presence and delivery of his lines was well-received in this major film. Of course everyone thought that this was just the beginning of a booming career and perhaps spurred by this success, George proposed to Ellanora Needles, a young actress he met at the Pasadena Playhouse and dated for two years, and was married on September 22, 1940.
Reeves' hope that his role in Gone With The Wind would lead to better roles, was complicated by his contract to Warners, Fox, and Paramount Studios through the 1940's. They placed him primarily in supporting roles ('Til We Meet Again, Pony Express Days (played Wild Bill Cody, 1940), The Strawberry Blond (1941), Blood And Sand (1941)). His next break would not come until 1943 when he landed the role of Lieutenant John Summers, the male lead in So Proudly We Hail!
Just as things were looking up, World War II escalated and George entered the Army Air Corps interrupting his career. In the service, he appeared on Broadway (Winged Victory), but was then used to make training films (Sex Hygiene (1943), Last Will and Testament of Tom Smith (1943)). After returning from the war, George had problems getting roles and went to New York to perform in live television, basically disappearing from Hollywood until 1947. In Hollywood, if your name isn't up in lights, it gets forgotten. When Reeves came back to California he found himself getting only small parts and roles in "B" movies (Jungle Jim (1948, starring Johnny Weismuller famous for his Tarzan films), The Adventures of Sir Galahad (1949), and Samson and Delilah (which starred Victor Mature and Hedy Lamar, 1949). To say that Reeves was disappointed that he never really broke into the "A" list of leading men would be an understatement and that frustration lead, in part, to his divorcing his wife after 9 years of marriage in 1950. Things did not look good, and, to George, things were about to get worse.
In 1950, on the heels of Superman And the Atom Man serial, plans for the Adventures of Superman television show began to take shape with Robert Maxwell producing and Whitney Ellsworth, a DC Editor, being asked to write the pilot. After much thought, the producers decided to first test the waters with a movie to make sure that the character would continue his success and build a momentum that would carry over to the small screen.
Part of that success would be finding the right actor to play Superman. The first person they turned to was Kirk Alyn. He was the obvious choice, having played the role in the two highly successful Superman serials. However, Alyn felt that he had become typecast as Superman and quickly rejected the idea, deciding to move on to other roles. A hasty search was made to find a new actor to play Superman and after many auditions, George Reeves was chosen for the part. At six-feet tall, and being a former boxer, Reeves fit the suit, and looked the part.
In the summer of 1951, filming of Superman and the Mole Men began on the back lot of a studio in Culver City, California and lasted all of twelve days. The movie was only 67 minutes long, but was a splendid combination of science fiction and heroics, giving George Reeves an opportunity to establish himself, and Superman. The story was really a social commentary. After a giant well had been dug deep into the earth, a subterranean race of small men came to the surface to stop the drilling. Their appearance scared the people in the local town and Superman arrived to quell their fears. The conflict between the people of the town and the Mole-Men basically looked at man's intolerance, and inhumanity, of things that were "different" and asked for tolerance, a message far ahead of it's time.
While Reeves did well as Superman, in many ways getting this role may have been the beginning of the end for George Reeves. In a 1988 interview, Phyllis Coates recalled Reeves inviting her into his dressing room prior to the filming of the series and making them a martini. He proposed a toast and said, "Well Phyllis, welcome to the bottom of the barrel." In 1950, television was considered just that. And while both needed the work, they were none too happy to be on television rather than in films. Obviously Reeves had already begun to drink heavily by this point and had began an open, torrid affair with Toni Mannix, wife of MGM executive Eddie Mannix, which would last until 1958.
At that time, Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane were the only members of the cast. Soon Jack Larson was chosen to play Jimmy Olsen and John Hamilton was selected to be Perry White. With those roles in place, production on the television series began immediately after the movie was completed, and two and a half months later, twenty-four episodes were filmed by the end of 1951. Superman and the Mole Men was then edited into a two-part episode, called "The Unknown People", to round out a twenty-six episode season. These shows were some of the first produced solely for syndication.
Superman and the Mole Men opened in theaters in November of 1951 and proved quite successful. The first group of half-hour episodes was not aired until late 1952, but they were also an immediate success and National Comics began plans for a second group of twenty-six Episodes.
However, by the time production resumed in the summer of 1953, a full two years had passed. Bob Maxwell had gone on to produce Lassie and was replaced by Whitney Ellsworth as producer and comic book editor Mort Weisinger as story editor. DC National Comics felt that while the first season was well done, it was too serious and hard-hitting for the younger fans. Ellsworth toned down the show by underplaying the violence and injecting more humor until many of the episodes were more for laughs than action. Anticipating these changes, Phyllis Coates decided to not return to the role of Lois Lane. Ellsworth then approached Noel Neill, who played the role in the 1948 and 1950 Superman serials to fill the void.
The production of the series became low budget. To save money, the actors wore the same costume all the time so that footage from different episodes could be re-used without having to worry about matching clothes, which irritated much of the cast. Viewers often noticed that the same flying sequences were used over and over, and sometimes seemed prolonged as a method to fill time. Special effects in the series were very limited, and were pared down to scenes where Superman crashed through a wall, bent a gun barrel or had bullets bounce from his chest.
In 1954, the shows began to be filmed in color and the remainder of the 57 episodes were filmed in this manner. At first television executives thought that this was strange, since color televisions were essentially unknown in 1954, and color broadcasts did not become commonplace until the mid-1960s. However, the idea came from sponsor Kelloggs, and Whitney Ellsworth was quite happy to move in that direction. Although episodes beginning with the 1954 season were filmed in color, except for a few feet of test film, no color prints were processed from those negatives until 1965. George got to see only a few minutes of himself in color.
While George Reeves played the heroic role of a Superman, a dark side began to emerge. In an interview with Phyllis Coates, she recalls that, "Every day at four o'clock George had open bar in his dressing room on the set. And nobody could stop him." That apparently caused some friction with production manager Barney Sarecki who deplored drinking on the set and felt that George's antics brought shooting to a halt whether they were ready to stop or not. Coates also recalled that Toni Mannix was usually with George when shooting wrapped, keeping up with Reeves, drink for drink. It was not uncommon for Reeves to host parties and card games at his home at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive in Beverly Hills which lasted late into the night. Reeves was also known to enjoy the nightlife of Los Angeles sometimes being seen with some very shady characters. In addition, Reeves continued his affair with Toni Mannix, whose husband, Eddie Mannix, was also said to have ties to the mob.
In 1953, Reeves appeared as Sergeant Maylon Stark in From Here To Eternity. His next film was Westward Ho The Wagons in 1956. By the time Superman ceased production in 1957, however, he had become the definitive Man of Steel and roles were becoming increasingly hard to find. After that Reeves never appeared in another film. In fact, Reeves actually reached a point of desperation where he was doing wrestling exhibitions, in his Superman uniform, to raise money, and obviously felt that he could go no lower.
In 1958, things started to turn up for Reeves. First, he ended his affair with Toni Mannix, however she was so disturbed by this that she began harassing Reeves to the point where he had to hire a lawyer to deal with the troubled woman. Later that year he met, and fell in love with, Lenore Lemmon. Then, in 1959, National and the producers of The Adventures of Superman decided to film another season's worth of shows to air in 1960. Reeves agreed to return to the series and was also tentatively scheduled to begin shooting a film in Spain. Perhaps optimistic at his new opportunities, Reeves proposed to Lenore Lemmon and they were to be married on June 19, 1959.
Unfortunately, none of this would ever become a reality. On the night of June 15, 1959, only days before the wedding, Reeves, Lemmon and two guests were drinking at the actor's home until. Reeves had been drinking heavily (a blood alcohol of 0.27) and was taking painkillers prescribed for injuries he sustained in a car accident. At about 1:15am, Reeves went upstairs to go to bed but moments later, a shot rang out. The group ran upstairs to find George Reeves naked, sprawled on his bed, a bullet hole in his right temple, dead. Official police reports have always ruled the death a suicide, however to this day there is an air of mystery surrounding Reeves' death.
The people in the house were quite intoxicated and weren't much help to the investigation even waiting over 30 minutes before calling the police. When the police did arrive, they found no sign of forced entry or a struggle. Police assumed that Reeves' depression, the high alcohol content in his blood, and the use of narcotics, made suicide a strong possibility.
However, Reeves' fingerprints were not found on the gun, and no powder burns were found on his head wound, or on his hands. The shell was found underneath his body and the gun between his feet making it difficult to see how he could have shot himself and fallen in that position. The fatal bullet was recovered from the ceiling but there were two other bullet holes found in the bedroom floor and those bullets were recovered from the living room below. Yet, only one bullet was missing from the gun's magazine. That suggests that either the other bullets were fired earlier or the bullets were replaced. After forty years, no one is completely certain who pulled the trigger of the Luger that killed George Reeves.
George Reeves is interred at the Mountain View Cemetery, Altadena, California, in the Pasadena Mausoleum, Sunrise Corridor.