Inside the Mysterious Death of George Reeves, the Original Superman
The death of the original Superman is one of those American mysteries that may never quite add up. The story the people there tell that night is full of holes, the evidence baffling and badly treated. The characters involved range from colorful to drunken to suspicious, and by now have kept any secrets they may be hiding in their graves.
In the early morning hours of June 16, 1959, George Reeves, who was the first to make the superhero an icon when he played the title role in the inaugural TV series, was found dead in his bedroom, naked with a bullet to the head.
As the tragedy unfolded, his fiancée and three guests were partying downstairs, while his wife-to-be reportedly narrated the action upstairs. “He’s going up to shoot himself,” her insensitive speech began after Reeves left the room. After hearing a gunshot, they waited 45 minutes before calling the police.
The death was soon labeled a suicide, but some of those close to the actor believed that there was no way he would have committed suicide. Their suspicions were not fully fueled by grief and denial – the evidence was puzzling. Like an optical illusion, the details from one angle clearly show a man who made a tragic decision in a moment of need. But for another, George Reeves’ death looks a lot like murder.
Things didn’t go well behind the scenes in Metropolis
‘Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to jump over tall buildings in one go! To look! In the air! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” The iconic intro broke through in American households on September 19, 1952.
Reeves was 38 when he first disguised his shaggy All-American looks that were more Clark Kent than “strange visitor from another planet” in a caped costume. Over six years and 104 episodes, the actor smiled wide in pictures, fists planted on the hips in the famous Superman power pose, and appeared to promote the hit television show, including a guest spot in costume on I love Lucy. (The punch line: “Ricardo, do you mean to say you’ve been married to her for 15 years? … And they call me Superman!”)
His work on the show would earn him fame as the “Original Superman,” even if that wasn’t technically true. Three years before the first episode aired, Kirk Alyn had played the part in a 15-part film series. But it was Reeves who brought the flying Man of Steel to widespread popularity, at least on screen.
But things weren’t going well behind the scenes in Metropolis. Being tapped to play a famous superhero may be considered the pinnacle of an acting career these days, but Reeves agreed to the role out of desperation.
The Iowa-born actor got his big break when he was hired in 1939 to play one of Scarlett O’Hara’s suitors. Gone with the wind. After that, he had a series of B-list movies and slowly worked his way up to leading man status when bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. A little over a year after the war started, Reeves was drafted.
Like so many men of his generation, the war has derailed his life plans. Returning unscathed, he struggled from then on to get his career back on track. Hollywood was recovering from the war, but slowly, and Reeves wasn’t the only actor trying to make up for lost time with a newfound dedication to dreams that were still alive but suddenly even further out of reach. The roles just didn’t come his way.
It was during this fallow period that he was approached about playing the role that would come to define his life. Reeves knew the show could potentially be popular, but it was almost because of that that he was reluctant to take it on. First, TV had just become ubiquitous in households across the country, but television as a medium was still seen as the little younger sibling of the high art of cinema.
But more importantly, The Adventures of Superman was mainly marketed to a younger audience. Rather than being seen as the handsome superhero who had proven himself to be a leading man, Reeves feared the role would make him the kids’ lover forever. Superman in the eyes of the world and casting directors.
His fears were well founded.
“The producers wouldn’t give me a job. They looked at me once and said it was impossible.”
— George Reeves
Reeves spoke out about these difficulties in a 1958 Evening star article with the candid title “No Work for Superman.” When asked why he took on the part, he simply said, “I was hungry.” But after six years, he struggled to advance his career. “The producers didn’t want to give me a job. They looked at me once and said it was impossible.”
The problems weren’t just career frustration. While Reeves may have been famous as Superman, the role didn’t make him a whole lot of money. The actors were poorly paid, and even after Reeves got a raise after trying to leave the show after three seasons, he found himself struggling for money, unable to get the roles he really wanted, and taxed for time. given the all-consuming nature of his Superman obligations.
After his death, some said it was a deep depression and frustration with his career that led to the night in question. But his business manager and mother, among others, said that while he was disappointed in the turn of events, his feelings were not strong enough to declare a suicide. “It doesn’t suit my George to do such a thing,” his mother told the press.
It’s impossible to ever know what really goes on in someone’s head, especially during a night of heavy drinking, but it seemed Reeves was taking steps to resolve his situation. Following the path so many women have traveled in Hollywood history, Reeves turned to directing, producing and writing when he couldn’t get the roles he wanted. He worked on creating a fulfilling career for himself. He directed the last 13 episodes of the series and told the Evening star that he was ‘eager to do more’.
But it wasn’t just Reeves’ career that took a dramatic turn. His personal life wasn’t just red carpets and champagne.
After breaking up with his wife, Reeves had a three-year affair with actress Toni Mannix, who was married to a notorious fixer for MGM Studios. Eddie Mannix was not only a Hollywood heavyweight, he was also rumored to have connections to the mafia. In a wild turn of events, the alleged problem with this situation wasn’t the affair itself – rejected husband Eddie had his own contacts outside of marriage and reportedly had no problem with his wife’s relationship with Reeves. The problem was that Reeves ended up breaking Toni’s heart when he canceled on starting a relationship with the woman who would become his fiancée, Lenore Lemmon. Eddie wasn’t happy when his wife wasn’t happy.
As for Reeves, you have to wonder if he was sorry. While he and Lemmon would marry just a few days after his death, Lemmon is said to have soured him after realizing the older Superman wasn’t quite the fraught Hollywood player she thought he was. Their relationship was full of booze and bickering. After his death, it was revealed that he left everything to Toni, which could have been a mistake given he and Lemmon had only been together for six months, or it could have been a big middle finger.
And that was the scene set on June 15, 1959. In typical fashion, Reeves and Lemmon went out for a drunken night on the town. They came home around 11 p.m. A few hours later, Carol Van Ronkel and William Bliss stopped by for a drink. Lemmon and writer Robert Condon, who was staying at the house, were more than happy to entertain the group, but Reeves was already in bed and was not happy with the noise downstairs. According to the statements to the police (statements that were no doubt unclear), Reeves came down to ask them to be quiet, they convinced him to stay for a drink, then he stomped back upstairs.
It was then that Lemmon’s actions got really weird. “He’s going up to shoot himself,” she is said to have said. There was a sound: “Look, he’s opening the drawer to get the gun.” Then a shot: “I told you, he shot himself.”
Forty-five minutes later, the police were called. It may have seemed like an open and closed case: man found upstairs, gun on the ground, a single gunshot wound to his head. Witnesses in the house who behaved a little strangely but heard everything.
But there were a few details that weren’t quite right. First, Reeves was found naked. There’s no doubt that he had a few libations that night, but even drunkens the imagination that someone would undress before committing suicide. Police also found two gunshot holes in the carpet and ceiling that they traced to Reeves’ head wound, but witnesses claimed to have heard only one shot that night. And then there were the bruises and other marks on Reeves’ body.
“Reeves’ mother hired a powerful attorney to get the case reopened, but he quickly dropped his new client for unknown reasons.”
All the conspiracy theories surrounding Reeves’ death would eventually be played out on the big screen in 2006 Hollywoodland, but they come down to three scenarios. First, Reeves committed suicide. Two, Eddie Mannix killed the actor in revenge for upset his wife. Finally, there is the betrothed. This theory goes that Lemmon was drunk and unhappy that night and shot her husband-to-be. The 45-minute delay to get help, in this scenario, was the time it took for her and her house guests to cover up the murder.
Despite the questions that persist to this day, no real investigation has ever been launched. Reeves’ mother hired a powerful attorney to get the case reopened, but he quickly dropped his new client for unknown reasons.
Superman was dead and no heroes came to save the day. While this may have been the last act before George Reeves’ Superman, it was the first act in what would become one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the role. Reeves’ death was the first in what would become a series of tragedies surrounding the role, in what would come to be known as the Superman Curse.