There’s a new Superman in theatres starting in just three weeks, and since at press time I have yet to see Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL and evaluate the latest Kal-El, Henry Cavill, for myself, I haven’t really got much to say about him. However, being that, like everyone else, I’ve got Superman on the brain right about now, I thought we’d take a look a back at all the past Supermen, TV and movie alike, and see how they stack up to the new kid in town.
The first man to play the Man of Steel was Bud Collyer, a journeyman radio announcer and actor in radio dramas who took on the dual role of Clark Kent and Superman in THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN for the Mutual radio network in 1940, only two years after Superman’s debut. Collyer was the originator of the distinctive sound for Clark’s and Superman’s voices, with his Kent being a mid-range tenor voice, then shifting to a gravelly baritone for Superman : “This looks like a job for Superman!” Sometimes the shift was too distinct, with Superman’s voice being so deep it was practically flat and inflectionless.
Still, Collyer’s performance on the radio show was a popular one, and a lucrative one for Collyer, who remained in the role on the radio for more than 10 years, before finally turning the role over to another actor, Michael Fitzmaurice, for the series’ final year in 1951. Collyer became so identified with the role that for years, any vocal performance of Superman seemed to go to him by default. And this despite the fact that for years, Collyer received no credit for the part. However, they dared not replace him. On those occasions when Collyer would leave for vacation, the radio producers would find ways to explain his absences and focus on the supporting cast. In fact, Kryptonite was created for just such a reason, allowing another actor to whimper out Superman’s Kryptonite-induced moans of pain while Collyer was presumably sunning himself on a beach somewhere.
Regardless, for decades, if you needed Superman’s voice, the call went out: hire Bud Collyer. Next to do so in 1941 were the Fleischer Studios’ Superman theatrical animated shorts for Paramount Pictures, which utilized Collyer’s vocal talents for all 17 cartoons.
And over two decades later, the Filmation animation studio would once again call on Collyer to reprise the role for a series of Saturday-morning cartoon series, namely THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN in 1966, THE SUPERMAN/AQUAMAN HOUR OF ADVENTURE in 1967 and THE BATMAN/SUPERMAN HOUR in 1968.
By the ’60s, Collyer’s already gruff Superman voice had gotten even more gravelly, but he still remained the go-to man for the job until his death in 1969.
Audience first saw a live-action Superman in 1948 in the person of Kirk Alyn, who played the role in two 12-part Saturday-afternoon theatrical serials: SUPERMAN and its 1950 successor ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN. Alyn was very fresh-faced and innocent-looking in 1948, and while his Superman suit was clearly padded to attempt to give him a bit more muscle mass, he cut a striking figure as Superman, particularly with the trademark jet-black hair and spit-curl.
Alyn’s Clark Kent was less impressive, not from any specific deficiency as much as simply being a little blah. Although one could make the argument that the mild-mannered Kent should be a little blah, his distinctly different-from-Superman characterization of Kent wasn’t all that appealing.
Audiences were also disappointed in Kirk Alyn’s flying. That is, they didn’t get to see any. In a budget-conscious move, rather than rigging the actor with wires, when Alyn as Superman leapt into the air to take flight, his figure would shift to an animated cartoon superimposed onto the real-world landscape. It’s an odd-looking result — not necessarily bad, just a little off-putting. Still, audiences would have to wait for their next Superman to see the Man of Steel really fly for the first time. As for Alyn, he and his SUPERMAN co-star Noel Neill made a return appearance in a brief cameo in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE as Lois Lane’s parents. Alyn passed away in 1999.
The actor who really made the role his own first donned the cape and tights in 1951, for the feature film SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN. George Reeves took on the dual part of Superman and Clark Kent for the movie, which was for all intents and purposes little more than a pilot for the already-in-the-works syndicated television series THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which made its debut in the fall of 1952, running for six years, until Reeves’ untimely and mysterious death in 1958.
Reeves was an immediately charming presence on camera, coming off as instantly likable either as Clark or Superman. He also brought a real physicality to the role that the more slight Kirk Alyn had lacked.
More than anything, George Reeves’s portrayal of the part was all about confidence. His Superman really looked as if he enjoyed being Superman.
He’d be flying around with this big-cheese-eating grin on his face, or making with an almost dismissive smirk as the bullets bounced off his chest (just before performing the de rigeur snatch of the revolver and crushing it in his hand). Watch him as he busts through a brick wall — he’s practically giddy.
As much as I enjoyed Reeves as Superman, his Clark Kent was the real star of the show. No longer the nebbishy milksop, there to act as Lois Lane’s doormat, Reeves’ Kent was a hard-boiled investigative reporter, quick with a quip and every bit a match for Lois. When I think of the series, I think of Reeves’s Kent behind his desk at the Daily Planet, his feet up on the desk and his fedora rakishly cocked back on his head, winking to the camera. Even in the staid 1950s, George Reeves made Superman cool.
The series remained a success as long as it was on the air (especially with its switch to color in 1955), and a seventh season was about to go into production when the shocking news broke of George Reeves’ death by gunshot wound, declared a suicide by the LAPD.
Although the common story is that Reeves was despondent over being typecast as Superman, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to the contrary, with some of Reeves’s friends saying he was looking forward to getting back to work and even considering making a transition to directing. Further muddying the issue is the fact that there were no fingerprints found on the gun that killed Reeves. There have been all kinds of rumors about Reeves having a relationship with a woman with ties to organized crime, and the facts about the murder investigation certainly raise some questions (Why weren’t the police called for over half an hour after his death? Why weren’t his hands checked for gunpowder residue at autopsy?), but it’s unlikely any answers will ever be forthcoming at this late date. Luckily, thanks to the magic of DVD, we still have Reeves’ work to enjoy as a legacy. By my estimation, there are only two really defining performances of Superman, and Reeves’ is one of them.
For most of the 1970s, kids of my generation had only one voice of Superman, and we never even knew his name. From 1973 through 1985, on such series as SUPER FRIENDS, CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS, SUPER FRIENDS: LEGENDARY SUPER POWERS and SUPER POWERS: GALACTIC GUARDIANS, a man named Danny Dark provided that distinctive rich baritone for Superman, the voice that to this day still sounds “right” for the Man of Steel.
Dark spent most of his career as an announcer, with his highest-profile gig other than SUPERFRIENDS being his lengthy stint as the “official voice” of NBC throughout the late 1970s and ’80s. Danny Dark’s performance of Superman had a reliable, paternalistic quality that lent the character that sense of utter dependability and stability that the character needed, even when faced with some of the most nonsensical and downright goofy plotlines that the series would place him in.
Dark passed away from a pulmonary hemorrhage in 2004, but for millions of kids growing up in the ’70s and countless new fans still watching on video, he’s still what Superman sounds like.
The next man to wear the cape was, in my humble opinion, the absolute best, the personification of what Superman should be, and still stands as the benchmark to measure all Superman performances by, either before or since. Of course, I’m talking about Christopher Reeve.
The Julliard-trained Reeve landed the part in Richard Donner’s epic 1978 blockbuster SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE after Donner and the producers came to the realization that the superstars of the day like James Caan and Robert Redford (both of whom were considered for the role) simply wouldn’t be believable in the part, not because they weren’t good enough actors, but because the audience wouldn’t be able to make the necessary disconnect and “buy” them as a guy flying around in a cape and tights. The decision to go with an unknown (and more significantly, with Reeve) was the single biggest component in the success of the movie, as Reeve’s sincere, grounded and heartfelt performance served as an anchor for both the fantastic feats of super-powered derring-do and the lighter, more comedic moments courtesy of Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty. Reeve plays a slightly restrained Superman — polite, courteous, friendly, yet always reserved, as if he’s all too aware of the power at his disposal, and his responsibility to use it wisely. And yet, when pushed to the brink, Reeve’s Superman is steely and intimidating, as seen in his exchanges with Luthor in SUPERMAN and General Zod in SUPERMAN II.
Some have criticized Reeve’s Clark Kent as being too nerdy and clumsy, but for me, his performance as the powerless, mortal Superman in SUPERMAN II validates his Kent, highlighting the lengths to which Superman is going to protect his identity, sublimating his true self to a ludicrous and embarrassing degree, all for the greater good.
And for sheer dramatic gravitas, the moment in SUPERMAN when a heartbroken Kal-El cradles the lifeless body of Lois Lane in his arms — show me better acting than that in a more “serious” move, ’cause I’d like to see it.
The other strength of Reeve’s performance is, like George Reeves (no relation between the two men, by the way), in his physicality in the role. Not only is Reeve in good enough condition here to always look great in the none-too-forgiving costume, but his willingness to commit completely to the part, particularly in the films’ breakthrough flying scenes, cement his place as the most convincing screen Superman.
When Reeve angles his body to bank during flight or extends a foot for a gentle landing, it’s nearly impossible not to be convinced. To borrow a catch-phrase, if you believe a man can fly, it’s only because Christopher Reeve makes you believe.
The rest of Reeve’s story is known to everyone. Two more substandard SUPERMAN films as part of a respectable if never again quite so spectacular career (with the classic SOMEWHERE IN TIME standing as another highlight), followed by a senseless equestrian accident that robbed him of his mobility, but never his dignity. The final phase of Reeve’s life stands as a lesson in courage, never giving up in the face of terrible, debilitating circumstance, and championing the cause of research into paralysis treatment, with notable success, until his death in 2004 from heart failure. Thanks to Christopher Reeve’s endless supply of bravery and resolve, what could have been nothing more than the cheapest sort of bitter irony instead became a testament to the best potential within all of us. It’s undoubtedly been said before, but Reeve was more of a superman to his last days than he ever was on the silver screen.
The year 1988 saw a brand-new animated Superman on television, with a new Saturday-morning series on CBS, following the lead of the newly revised comic books from DC, complete with the new billionaire version of Lex Luthor.
The series, with Beau Weaver in the role of Clark Kent/Superman only lasted one season and didn’t make much of a splash. Weaver would later take on the role of Reed Richards in the MARVEL ACTION HOUR Fantastic Four animated series.
Also in 1988 came the premiere of SUPERBOY, a new live-action syndicated series from the Salkinds, the producers of the SUPERMAN films. Taking on the role of young Kal-El was John Haymes Newton in the series’ first season, followed by Gerard Christopher in seasons two through four. The series began atrociously, with poor scripts, substandard visual effects and a limp, unmotivated performance by Newton, who never showed that charismatic spark that Reeves, Reeve or even Alyn demonstrated.
The series improved dramatically in its second season, thanks to a transfusion of new talent in the writing room, many of whom were longtime comic-book writers like Cary Bates, Mike Carlin and Andy Helfer. Also showing up more often were supervillains, as opposed to the crime bosses and thugs from the series’ first season, and the budgets necessary to more adequately bring them to life. But most responsible for the series’ turnaround was new Superboy Gerard Christopher, brought in as a replacement for Newton, who was holding out for more money. Christopher seemed to take the role more seriously, his Clark Kent was more likable and approachable, and he just had that ineffable quality as Superboy that Newton lacked — either you buy him in the suit or you don’t, and Christopher carried himself like a Superman.
The Man of Steel returned to prime-time television in 1993 with the ABC premiere of LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, which rethought the concept as primarily a romantic comedy, with a little superheroic action sprinkled on top to keep the kids and fanboys interested. The series premiered to strong success, thanks primarily to the undeniable charisma and chemistry of its leads, Dean Cain as Clark/Superman and Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane.
Cain made for an excellent Clark Kent, and his college athlete’s physique certainly allowed him to pull off the Super-suit, but I never quite connected with his Superman in the same way I did Reeves or Reeve. I don’t know if it was the slicked-straight-back hair or what, but he just never looked like Superman to me.
And lord knows the wildly uneven (but usually just poor) quality of the scripts didn’t help. Maybe if he’d had better material to work with, I’d be more on board, but as it was, Cain doesn’t quite measure up.
A far superior Superman graced television screens in fall 1996; namely, SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES from Warner Animation, with the Man of Steel voiced by Tim Daly, best known from his starring role on the sitcom WINGS.
Much like the series’ producers, Daly seemed to be taking George Reeves as a model for his performance, as he tended to play Clark Kent as an assertive, take-charge reporter, without a hint of “mild-manneredness” in sight. Daly’s Superman was also right on the money, combining George Reeves’ toughness with Christopher Reeve’s sincerity. It’s a great performance, one that Daly only improves on over the course of the series.
The next two men who would be Supermen both made their debut in 2001, only a few weeks apart. First to hit the screen was Tom Welling, playing the teenaged Clark Kent in the WB’s new hit series SMALLVILLE. Although Welling has never donned the cape and tights (and according to the series’ producers, never will), he certainly anchors that series with the necessary strength and likability.
Personally, I’m hoping the final shot in the series will be the long-awaited sight of Welling’s Clark Kent finally wearing the red and blue.
Also taking on the role for the first time in 2001 was George Newbern, who would voice the Man of Steel for the next five years on Cartoon Network’s JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED.
(Sitcom watchers may remember Newbern as Rachel’s boyfriend Danny with the overly affectionate sister on FRIENDS.) Newbern got a bad rap from fans of the SUPERMAN series early on, unfavorably comparing his performance to that of Daly’s, but to be fair, problems with the Superman character on JL can more accurately be placed at the feet of the producers, who had difficulties early on finding ways to use Superman in a team dynamic. As the series matured, Newbern brought a tougher edge to the character than even Daly had, while still retaining the humanity that Daly had brought to the part, particularly in standout episodes like FOR THE MAN WHO HAS EVERYTHING, in which Newbern got to play both the devastation of losing the home and family he’d always dreamed of, and the white-hot rage of getting his hands on the evil bastard who put him through it.
And finally, the most recent man to wear the red and blue was Brandon Routh in Bryan Singer’s 2006 offering SUPERMAN RETURNS, a well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing love letter to Richard Donner’s film, which left audience underwhelmed thanks to a poorly cast Lois Lane in Kate Bosworth, as well as the bewildering decision to introduce the notion of a super-son for Superman and Lois, which sets up Superman as something of a deadbeat dad (not to mention the problems of Superman’s son killing people, which no one seemed to be all that concerned about.
As for Routh, he delivers a rather slavish impersonation of Christopher Reeve’s interpretation of the roles of both Superman and Clark Kent, but without the instantly likeable charisma that made Reeve’s performance so memorable. Could Routh have been able to portray a proper Superman if he hadn’t been hidebound by Singer’s determination to re-create the Donner film? It’s possible, but thanks to SUPERMAN RETURNS’ weak reception, we’ll never really know.
So what will Henry Cavill bring to the role? We’ll all find out soon. See you at the theatre.