Nov 09, 2022 I Brent Swancer

The Mysterious Death of the Original Superman

Hollywood is all about glamour and bright lights and fame, but it also often holds a dark underbelly. Besides all of the lavish lifestyles and all of the opulence and coverage fame can bring there are often strange cases of the weird and the macabre going on behind the scenes, and such tales draw to them even more attention precisely because of this. One very well-known and tragic case orbits a man who was the first to truly embody the role of Superman, and whose death has been to this day been surrounded by mystery, intrigue, scandal, and conspiracy theories. 

Born on January 5, 1914 as George Keefer Brewer, the American actor George Reeves had an early start in performing, acting and singing in high school before reaching out beyond. He found it was what he truly wanted to do with his life, and so in 1935 he arrived in California as a nobody with stars in his eyes and big dreams for breaking into the movie industry, as so many before him had done. He studied acting at the revered Pasadena Playhouse, where he performed in dozens of plays, in the meantime looking for any roles he could find. His stage performances soon caught the attention of casting agent Maxwell Arnow, who offered him a role in the movie Gone with the Wind as one of the main character Scarlett O'Hara's many suitors. It was a rather small role, but it got his foot in the door, and from there his career in Hollywood would begin to take off.

At first things didn’t go very smoothly for Reeves. Despite the fact that Gone with the Wind would go on to win an Oscar and being contracted to Warner Brothers, the deluge of offers he was expecting from casting directors didn’t come. He starred in a string of B-movies, but at this time he was far from the leading man he had wanted to become and they did little to advance his career. His contract with Warner Brothers would eventually dissolve, after which he signed on with Twentieth Century-Fox, where he appeared in a handful of films that mostly flopped before being released from his contract. After this things began to look up for him when he managed to snag steady work starring in five Hopalong Cassidy westerns, after which he was cast as Lieutenant John Summers opposite Claudette Colbert in a war drama for Paramount Pictures titled So Proudly We Hail! (1942), which nabbed him a contract with the studio for two films a year. It seemed as if his acting career was starting to heat up a bit, but then World War II came and his plans were derailed.

George Reeves

In 1943, Reeves was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces, but even though he was going off to war, he nevertheless continued to do what he truly loved. He performed in the USAAF's Broadway show Winged Victory, which would go on to have a long Broadway run and even be made into a movie, after which he went on to make training films for the Army Air Forces' First Motion Picture Unit. When the war ended and he was discharged, Reeves headed back to Tinseltown to try his hand at acting once again, but he soon discovered that the movie industry had become stagnant, with many studios toning down their release schedules or going out of business altogether, and roles few and far between. The war had sucked much of the life out of the film industry, leaving it reeling and trying to find its feet again. He made some sporadic appearances in minor movies and low-budget serials, but finding acting work was turning into a grueling uphill battle, the roles drying up and paying less, to the point that he had to take a second job digging cesspools. At the time his marriage was also falling apart and the dire situation caused Reeves to give up on Hollywood and move to New York in 1949.

There he would focus more on television roles in live television anthology programs and try to put Hollywood behind him, but he would be called back in 1951 to star in a Fritz Lang film, Rancho Notorious, before managing to luck into the role of Sergeant Maylon Stark, in From Here to Eternity, which would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was a minor role, but appearing in another award-winning film definitely looked good on his resume. Then, in 1951 he would be offered the role that would define the rest of his career, catapult him to stardom, and make him a household name.

In June 1951, Reeves was offered the role of Superman in a new television series titled Adventures of Superman, which was predicted to be very popular and a big success. It seemed like a dream come true, but Reeves was actually quite reluctant to take the part at first. At the time television was just starting to become ubiquitous in American households, and it was still seen as an inferior medium to film and actors who played TV parts seen as more lowbrow and irrelevant. Reeves was afraid that appearing on the show would hurt his chances of ever becoming a movie leading man, and he was also afraid that appearing in a show aimed at younger audiences would typecast him forevermore. However, in the end money talks, and with few prospects for film roles on the horizon he took the offer out of desperation.

When Adventures of Superman first aired it became an immediate sensation. It was incredibly popular, and Reeves was taken aback by how fast it launched him into the stratosphere of stardom, making him a household name practically overnight. Although the role of Superman had been played by Bud Collyer, who had voiced the Man of Steel on the radio from 1940 to 1951, and Kirk Alyn had played the role in two 15-part movie serials that ended in 1950, the popularity of the new show would make Reeves the real face of Superman in the minds of many, and he was soon being touted as the “Original Superman.” He would go on to appear in 104 episodes over the next 6 years, as well as making numerous personal appearances in costume as the Man of Steel, but he also realized that the fears he had had when taking on the role were completely warranted.

Over his years playing Superman, Reeves also appeared in a few other films, but it quickly became apparent that his popularity on the show did not translate to ticket sales for movies. People just weren’t interested in seeing him be anyone other than Superman, and indeed to many Reeves WAS Superman. The two had become inextricably linked in the public consciousness, and Reeves found it hard to find any success in playing any other role other than Superman. This, combined with his relatively low pay for the show and the restrictive contract he was on that demanded nearly all of his time and intruded on other commitments, caused him to try and quit the show after three seasons but the studio offered him more money and he stayed aboard. In the meantime, Reeves had started his own production company to create a show called Port of Entry, but he was unable to ever get the financing he needed to get it made, partly because no one wanted to see him as anyone other than Superman, the specter of the character still looming over him. 

Reeves continued to try to break out of the mold of Superman, appearing in Westward Ho the Wagons! (1956) sporting a beard and moustache, as well as singing on the Tony Bennett show and appearing on the I Love Lucy show, pretty much anything to distance himself from Superman. As this was going on, his woes penetrated into his personal life as well. He had an extramarital affair with ex-showgirl Toni Mannix, who was at the time married to a notorious fixer for MGM Studios by the name of Eddie Mannix, after which he announced his engagement to socialite Leonore Lemmon, which infuriated Mannix so much that she allegedly took to stalking and harassing the couple. Reeves continued to try his hand at acting, writing, and directing, but after the run of Adventures of Superman ended he found little success and he was pretty much broke, causing him to spiral into depression and begin drinking heavily. Yet even darker days were ahead for the failed movie star. 

On the evening of June 15, 1959, just days before his planned marriage to Lemmon, Reeves and Lemmon went out on the town and came home at around 11 p.m. They were apparently pretty drunk at the time, and although Reeves went up to go to bed, his fiancé invited over friends Carol Van Ronkel and William Bliss to have some drinks and keep the party going, and also present was writer Robert Condon. According to reports by those present, Reeves came down to ask them to be quiet, after which he had one more drink and went back upstairs to bed at sometime between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. At the time he was reportedly quite inebriated, in fact they all were. Lemmon then apparently and rather eerily allegedly mentioned that he was probably going to shoot himself, then there was a sound heard and she remarked that it was the drawer opening, and after this there was a loud shot, to which she apparently responded that he had done it. When they went to go see what had happened, Reeves was sprawled out dead from a single gunshot wound to the head. From here the story gets rather murky.

At first police quickly came to the conclusion that it was an obvious suicide, driven by Reeves’ failure to find fame as a movie leading man and his personal and financial woes. To them, it was an open and shut case, but others were not so sure. For one, there were some odd details that did not quite add up. Reeves was found spread out on the floor naked, which even considering that he was drunk was out of character for him. There was also the fact that no fingerprints were recovered from the gun and no gunpowder residue was found on Reeves' hands. Adding to the intrigue was that the forensic evidence did not match witness statements. Although everyone there reported that only one shot had been heard, police found not only the bullet that had killed Reeves lodged in the ceiling, but also two additional bullets embedded in the bedroom floor, all of which had been fired from the same gun. There was also found a series of bruises of unknown origin about the head and body, although what possible relation these had to the shooting was unknown. It certainly did all seem rather strange and at odds with the official stance that it had been a suicide, but it would get more ominous still. 

Although the official statement given to the police explained that all of the witnesses had been in the living room at the time of the shooting, Reeves’ friend Fred Crane claimed otherwise. Although he had not been physically present at the time, Crane claimed that he had heard from Bliss that when the shot had rung out Leonore Lemmon had actually been upstairs, and that she had come downstairs and said, “Tell them I was down here, tell them I was down here!” This is particularly sinister considering that, although they were scheduled to be married, Reeves and Lemmon had a rather stormy relationship and reportedly constantly got drunk and argued. This is all further fueled by the fact that there was a full 45-minute delay between when the shot rang out and when police were called in, and on top of all of this the police allegedly bungled the crime scene investigation, failing to take photos of it properly and not thoroughly dusting the entire room for fingerprints. Nevertheless, despite this testimony and the weird clues, police were satisfied that Reeves had committed suicide and the case was considered closed. There was never any investigation into possible foul play, despite opposition from Reeves’ family and friends, and officially that was that.

As all of this was going on, the news of Reeves’ death was rocking Hollywood and taking the nation by storm. It was major news at the time, and people were debating whether it was really a suicide or not. According to many within the film industry the whole thing was shady as hell, and no one seriously believed that Reeves had killed himself. So if this wasn’t a suicide, then what happened? One of the main theories was that Mannix’s husband Eddie Mannix had had him killed. It was widely rumored that Mannix had mob connections, and the idea was that he had ordered a hit on Reeves for sleeping with his wife. There is even the idea that the police had been bought off and were in on it, covering the hit up with a generated suicide story. Another theory was that Toni Mannix had killed him herself. After all, she had harassed Reeves to the point that he had had a restraining order put on her, so maybe her jealousy over his engagement to Lemmon had pushed her over the edge. Then there is the idea that it was Lemmon who had killed him in order to get out the marriage to a man she allegedly did not get along with very well. Ironically, Reeves left everything in his will to Toni Mannix, possibly because he had not gotten around to changing it or possibly out of spite, we’ll never know.

After his death, Reeves would be immortalized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, and in 1985 he was posthumously named one of the honorees by DC Comics in the company's 50th anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great. The 2006 film Hollywoodland also dramatizes the events surrounding Reeves’ death, with Ben Affleck playing the role of George Reeves. He retains his legacy by still being considered the original Superman, credited with making the character mainstream, which is perhaps not what he would have wanted to be remembered for. He also likely would not have wanted to be remembered for his strange death, which has loomed over him ever since. To this day the mysterious death of George Reeves remains controversial, yet despite all of the theories and intrigue it remains officially a suicide. What really happened that fateful night?  We will probably never know for sure, it remains one of the most pervasive mysteries in Hollywood history, and ultimately it is tragic that Reeves was not as bulletproof as his screen alter-ego. 

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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