LOS ANGELES — On June 17, 1959, millions of American youngsters were devastated by the news: Superman was dead.
George Reeves, whose work as TV’s Man of Steel would set the Superman screen standard for decades, died in his Benedict Canyon home from a gunshot to the head. The coroner ruled it suicide. The new film “Hollywoodland,” which opens Friday, suggests Reeves might have been murdered.
Ben Affleck portrays Reeves, Diane Lane is his rich mistress, Bob Hoskins is her studio-boss husband and Adrien Brody is a third-rate private eye trying to prove it was murder.
Considering the drama that surrounded Reeves’ life and death, it’s surprising that Hollywood hasn’t explored his saga until now.
Reeves was born George Bessolo on April 6, 1914, in Woodstock, Iowa. At the age of 15 he moved to Southern California, where the tall, solidly built teenager became a championship wrestler on the Pasadena City College team.
His first film role was auspicious: he was cast as one of the Tarleton twins in the opening scenes of the 1939 film classic, “Gone With the Wind.” His new name was listed at the bottom of the credits: George Reeves.
Reeves’ film career was gaining momentum when he was drafted into the Army. After World War II ended, he struggled through minor roles in “A” pictures and leads in “B” films. When he could find no film work at all, he supported himself by digging septic tanks.
From big-screen washout to Superman
During a dull stretch in his career, Reeves agreed to star in a “Superman” TV series. It was filmed on the cheap, with the actors sometimes working on five different episodes in a day.
The syndicated “The Adventures of Superman” proved a surprise hit, however, attracting both adult and child audiences. “I even got a letter from the Emperor of Japan telling me how much he enjoyed the series,” Reeves once said.
The actor made 100 episodes as the character who was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive.” He was earning $2,500 a show, good money for a non-network series. But there was a downside.
He learned that studios were loath to hire TV stars. He managed to land a small role in 1953’s “From Here to Eternity,” but that was all.
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Reeves, who had married and divorced in the early 1940s, was having an affair with Toni Mannix, a former “Ziegfeld Follies” beauty who was married to Eddie Mannix, a former bouncer who became a powerful executive at MGM. Mannix was aware of his wife’s affair but didn’t intervene; he had his own mistress.
Toni Mannix lavished gifts on her lover, including his house, furnishings, car and elegant wardrobe. The largesse failed to improve his spirits, which grew increasingly worse as acting jobs eluded him. In a blow to Mrs. Mannix, Reeves announced his engagement to Lenore Lemmon, a twice-married New Yorker.
Late on the night of June 16, 1959, Reeves and Lemmon were drinking with two friends in the living room of his house. “I’m tired; I’m going to bed,” Reeves said, and he disappeared upstairs. A few moments later came the crack of a 30-calibre Luger. Reeves, 45, was dead.
There was talk in Hollywood that someone else may have shot Reeves, who had bequeathed his house, car and wardrobe to Toni Mannix.
But the Los Angeles County Coroner’s report said, “the position of Reeves’ body on the bed, the angle of the bullet’s path and the autopsy findings all point to suicide.”
Except for devoted “Superman” fans, the matter of Reeves’ death dropped off the radar until 1995, when the NBC series “Unsolved Mysteries” presented a segment, “Who Killed Superman?” Alternatives to suicide were suggested but not pursued.
In 2000, ABC’s “20/20” offered its own take on the Reeves matter, suggesting that the jilted Toni Mannix might have sought revenge.
And now we have “Hollywoodland,” which advances the notion that Eddie Mannix, angered by Reeves’ rejection of his wife, might have hired a hit man as revenge.
“Mannix was a tough guy,” observes the film’s director, Allen Coulter. “With that toughness came a reputation for ruthlessness.”
Coulter, who has directed episodes of “The Sopranos” and “Sex in the City” but never a feature film, considered “all kinds of names” for the role of George Reeves before choosing Affleck, whose own career was in a downswing.
“Ben was the right age,” the director explained, “and he had a kind of Hollywood glamour about him. I thought for 30 seconds before deciding on him.”
“Hollywoodland” has the look of the film capital in the 1950s, vintage cars and all. But Coulter admitted, “We shot six weeks in Toronto and two weeks in Los Angeles.”
Hollywood's glamour days behind it
In a joint interview with co-star Diane Lane, Adrien Brody observed, “Hollywood was more glamorous in the 1950s than it is today.”
“Back then, there was some preservation of dignity. Royalty was really royalty,” added Lane, Oscar nominee as best actress in the 2002 film “Unfaithful.”
Unlike Affleck, Lane had to audition for the role of Reeves’ lover and financial supporter.
“Once I realized all the things that went wrong in his life, I was very grateful to be part of his story,” she said. “I think she loved him.”
Brody, who won the Oscar for best actor in 2002’s “The Pianist,” commented that in the 1950s there was a new style of acting, exemplified by method actors Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando and others from the Actors Studio.
“There was a new system, and George Reeves was caught in the middle,” he said. “He didn’t fit in anymore.”
Brody’s character is mostly fictional, though in real life Reeves’ mother did hire a private eye to look into his death.
“I got to play this middle-class guy who wants to be big stuff,” Brody remarked. “He was similar in aspirations to George (Reeves). They both wanted respect, to be more successful. The big catalyst is his realization that he hasn’t really cared about much, other than himself. That opened him up to being more self-aware.”
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