A look at Superman in Film and TV Part 1

Richard Donner with a Superman figure on the wall behind him

In December of 1978 something happened in the film world that had never happened before: the birth of the Superhero film. It’s fair to say that in ’78, Richard Donnor’s Superman: The Movie brought comic books to the highest medium outside of literature. It has long been credited as the film that set the bar for every Superhero adaptation that has come since and it set the bar very high. Until then superheroes had been the laughing-stock of live action film and television. They were seen as campy and witty but Superman: The Movie changed that.

Superman had a long history on television before coming to the big screen. It started out as a cartoon done by the legendary Max Fleischer, then it was adapted in a live action serial starring Kirk Alyn. The serials eventually moved to the brand new medium of television with the Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves.

George Reeve donning his Superman costume

The series was a smash hit especially among the young children who had found a hero they could look up and believe in. The show ran for six seasons and was one of the first to use the brand new colour format. Finally Superman could be seen in the red and blue just like his comic book form. Even though the Superman role made him well-known, actor George Reeves hated playing the character though he never let onto the public or his friends. His good friend Jack Larson remembered him only ever saying one negative thing and that was if someone who Reeves knew hadn’t died he wouldn’t be standing in that monkey suit. Nevertheless Reeves endured during the time, he took his new-found role model like status seriously – he gave up smoking in public so if any of his fans saw him they wouldn’t copy him. But tragedy was about to strike.

On the morning of June 16th 1959 the world awoke to the news that Superman had died. George Reeves took his own life because he no longer could see a way to work without playing Superman. His death led to a great controversy, friends claimed that he was not the type to kill himself. There was also a theory that he was murdered and it was staged to look like suicide because of his affair with a studio executive’s wife. Nothing was ever proved. But the Man of Steel wouldn’t be seen again in live action until 1978.

Not the heroic death that the comic foretold, but George Reeve's death was untimely too

It’s ironic that the people who put America’s most symbolic superhero were not even American. The father and son producing team of Hungarian Alexander Salkind and his Mexican son Ilya along with producing partner Pierre Spengler purchased the rights from DC for the Superman franchise. They wasted no time on the project hiring The Godfather writer Mario Puzo to draft a script for not one but two Superman movies to be filmed back to back. With Puzo on board it gave the project credibility but trouble was just around the corner…

Keep an eye out for Part 2 coming out in the following weeks.


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