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On this date in history...
May 21,1951: Bernard Luber and Robert Maxwell formed a company to produce television films. Their initial entry was the
From Larry Tye, author of Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero
It was 1951, and Superman’s owners were hell-bent to make a splash in the new and untested land of television. There was just one problem: whom to sign up as the Man of Steel for this most up-close medium. Producer Robert Maxwell and director Tommy Carr screened nearly two hundred candidates. Most made their living as actors, although some were full-time musclemen. Nearly all, Carr said, “appeared to have a serious deficiency in their chromosome count.” So thorough – and perhaps so frustrating – was their search that the executives stopped by the Mr. America contest in Los Angeles. One choice they never seriously considered, despite his later claims, was Kirk Alyn, who had done well enough for the serials but had neither the acting skills nor the looks around which to build a Superman TV series. The search ended the day a barrel-chested B-movie actor named George Reeves showed up on the studio lot.
Maxwell’s co-producer had recognized George in a Los Angeles restaurant, seeming “rather forlorn,” and suggested he come in for a tryout. He did, the next morning, and “from that moment on he was my first choice,” said Tommy Carr. “He looked like Superman with that jaw of his. Kirk had the long neck and fine features, but although I like Kirk very much, he never looked the Superman Reeves did.” His tough-guy demeanor was no put-on. Standing six-foot-two and carrying 195 pounds, Reeves had been a light-heavyweight boxing champ in college and could have gone further if he hadn’t broken his nose seven times and his mother hadn’t made him step out of the ring. It wasn’t the first or the last time she would interfere. A headstrong and self-focused girl from Illinois, Helen Lescher had eloped with pharmacist Don Brewer in Iowa in 1914 and within five months they had a son, George Keefer Brewer. The marriage didn’t last and George didn’t learn about his real father or his real birthday until he was into his twenties. Helen altered his date of birth to make it look like she was married when he was conceived. She hid his father’s fate, telling George he had committed suicide, until Brewer turned up one day. His second name – George Lescher Bessolo – and Helen’s second marriage wouldn’t last long, either.
After giving up boxing George landed a job at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, which was more to his mother’s liking. It was then that he learned to act and that nearby movie executives got to see what he could do. They liked him enough to give him the modest role of Stuart Tarleton, one of Scarlett O’Hara’s suitors and half of the Tarleton twins, in the 1939 blockbuster Gone with the Wind. Even before the film came out, George had been signed by another studio, Warner Bros., where Jack Warner pushed him to change his name to one he felt would look better on movie theater marquees: Reeves. George didn’t see his name in lights for anything but lesser films but he did land minor roles alongside major actors. In the 1949 Samson and Delilah, Victor Mature was Samson and George was a wounded messenger, while that same year in Bob Hope’s The Great Lover, George was a gambler killed in the first three minutes. Between acting jobs he dug cesspools at the rate of $100 a hole.
When the offer came in 1951 to play the TV Superman, George was torn. He had barely heard of the Man of Steel, knew that the $600 a week he was offered was a pittance, and realized that the chance of getting a real acting job would be harder once the movie studios saw him playing a comic book character or any role in a medium that Hollywood disdained. Yet he needed the money and, as his agent advised, there was a slim chance that the new show would even be broadcast and a slimmer that one anyone in Hollywood would notice. Television, after all, was in its infancy, with the nation just witnessing the first-ever coast-to-coast broadcast in the form of a speech by President Harry Truman. “Take the money and run,” George’s agent said. Reluctantly, George did. “I’ve played about every part you can think of. Why not Superman?” he told a friend. To his Lois Lane co-star he confided, the first time he met her, “Well, babe, this is it: the bottom of the barrel.”
The TV series opened the way every Superman project did, with a creation story. It welcomed back old fans of the comics and radio productions and introduced new ones to the narrative. The opening narration was word-for-word the same as in the radio series, which isn’t surprising since Maxwell oversaw both. On Krypton, Jor-El, Superman’s father, tried and failed to convince the ruling council that its planet was about to be sucked into the sun, then he sent his infant son rocketing to Earth. Here, a young Clark Kent watched his powers slowly surface the way they did in the Superboy comic books, and he heard his mother explain, when he was twelve, why he could see through rocks and do other things that set him apart. His adoptive parents were the Sarah and Eben Kent dreamed up by novelist George Lowther and brought back to life on the radio. The storyline was familiar, but TV added a decidedly new kick to the myth. Here was Superman in real life, and he was sturdier and more steadfast than what kids had pictured from the cartoons, imagined on the radio, or seen at the big-screen serials. Here, finally, was a flesh-and-blood Superman worthy of the hero Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had introduced to the world in 1938.
The pace of filming was frenetic, with just twelve days to complete each batch of five half-hour episodes. That meant working from seven in the morning until dusk six days a week, with no time for retakes. George (and the whole undertaking) was saved by his photographic mind which let him memorize the twenty-four pages of dialogue that came his way every day. Scenes were shot in blocks. Monday might be Daily Planet sequences. Tuesday all eyes would on the gangsters in their boxy suits and rumpled fedoras. It drove the actors mad, reading lines without knowing the context of the story or even which story it was. The newspaper never had a newsroom – that would have required too many desks and extras – just cramped private offices. Other money-saving precepts: No need for more than two gangsters, limit crowd scenes to the opening one where everyone was looking skyward, and make sure the actors never changed clothes so stock scenes could be spliced in anywhere. Clark stayed in his gray double-breasted suit with padded shoulders. Jimmy wore out his sweater and bowtie. Lois had one hat, one suit, and one set of earrings. On Krypton, Jor-El used Buster Crabbe’s old shirt from the Flash Gordon serial while other ruling council members recycled costumes from Captain Marvel and Captain America movies. So what if they were the competition? What mattered to the Superman team as with most other TV crews back then was being on budget, which was just $18,500 per episode, or barely enough for a single set in a B picture.
Special effects also were done on the cheap. The bullets that bounced off George were blanks and the revolvers he bent were made of soft lead. With a mere $175 budgeted for each episode’s flying, it is not surprising that George took another spill. It was the pulley that gave way this time. “That’s enough of that,” he announced after he dusted himself off. “Peter Pan can fly with wires, but not Superman!” In another episode George was set to burst into a room. The cast had rigged a door of balsa wood held up by two-by-fours, but they forgot to take out the extra lumber. “George came running up the stairs right into the frame,” recalled Lee Sholem, who directed that show. “The balsa wood barely gave way because George bounced off the heavy wood, and fell to the floor – unconscious.” George wasn’t the only one taking his knocks. Playing Lois, Phyllis Coates, who prided herself on adlibbing rather than following a script, moved closer than called for to a thug she was confronting and “he decked me! I was knocked out cold, and they sent me home – that left me a little black-and-blue, but I was back at work the next day.” A knockout blow was no reason to stop filming; the director reshot the scene before Lois’s face started to swell.
Just getting dressed was a challenge for Superman. George’s costume came in two gray-and-brown wool pieces that he dubbed the “monkey suit.” It had to be sewn into place on him every day, which meant standing still for an hour and suffering the indignity of having clothespins hold his suit together when the sewing didn’t. “What is a man my age doing running around in my underwear?” he would mumble as his personal dresser worked on him. There was a silk cape, too, along with rubber latex padding that he wore under his shirt to lift his sloped shoulders and thrust out his chest. Altogether the outfit weighed twenty pounds and the materials in it gave him a rash. Imagine battling villains effortlessly with that on, under hot studio lights, with no air conditioning in the heat of a Los Angeles summer. No wonder he never smiled as Superman.
But it worked. It worked because fans wanted to be fooled, and because of the way George turned to the camera and made it clear he knew they knew his secret, even if Lois, Jimmy, and Perry didn’t. This Superman had a dignity and self-assurance that projected even better on an intimate TV screen than it had in the movies. George just had it somehow. He called himself Honest George, The People’s Friend – the same kind of homespun language Jerry and Joe used for their creation – and he suspended his own doubts the way he wanted viewers to. He looked not just like a guy who could make gangsters cringe, but who believed in the righteousness of his hero’s cause. His smile could melt an iceberg. His cold stare and puffed-out chest could bring a mob to its knees. Sure, his acting was workmanlike, but it won him generations of fans. Today, when those now grown-up fans call to mind their carefree youth, they think of his TV Adventures of Superman, and when they envision Superman himself, it is George Reeves they see.
TAC's review of Superman: The High-Flying History Of American's Most Enduring Hero.
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