This is the seventh installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
On June 16, 1959, George Reeves was entertaining a few friends with at his home with his live-in girlfriend Leonore Lemon. At some point during the night Reeves went upstairs, saying he was going to bed, and was never seen alive again.
Reeves was found to have suffered a gunshot wound to the head, a wound that would officially be found to have been self inflicted. The official story would be that TV’s Superman had committed suicide. It is an official story that would forever be doubted and the incident would become one of America’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
After filming had wrapped on what would end up being the final season of “The Adventures of Superman,” John Hamilton, who had played Perry White, had died of a heart attack at the age of 71. The show was planning on returning for a seventh season and Pierre Watkin, who had previously played the part of Perry White for the Superman serials, was tapped to take over the role.
While George Reeves had made no secret of his disappointment in the direction his career had gone, he had made peace with the Superman character long before his death. According to friends of the actor, he was excited about returning for another season of Superman. Reeves had wanted to retire from acting and transition into directing. He was in the planning stages of directing a science fiction film that had been written by a friend of his, and although the funding for that film never materialized Reeves had struck a deal with the producers of the Superman television series to direct some episodes.
With Reeves’ sudden and tragic death, the future of the series was in doubt. While they had recast Lois Lane and were intending to recast Perry White for the coming year, the producers were unwilling to recast Superman. George Reeves had become entirely too identified with the role and audiences would never have accepted another. Talk quickly began to circulate around spin-offs.
At first, the idea of Jack Larson starring in a series based on the “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” comics was tossed around before ultimately being rejected. Next, producers thought they could do a sort of live action cartoon with “The Adventures of Super Pup.” A pilot was produced, using little people in dog costumes and filmed on the Superman sets, but this too was ultimately rejected.
The following year, one final attempt was made at producing a spin-off of Superman. This time, the show would focus on Superman’s teenage years in “The Adventures of Superboy.” Johhny Rockwell was cast as Superboy with Bunny Henning cast to play Lana Lang. Although Super Pup, like Superman, had been filmed in color, Superboy was filmed in black and white.
The story for the pilot was based on “The Saddest Boy in Smallville,” from “Superboy” issue #88. In the end, 12 scripts had been written but only the pilot had been produced. By 1961 it was clear that it had been too long and interest in a revival or a spin-off of “The Adventures of Superman” had waned. Superman would not see live action again for almost twenty years (well, there was a TV musical in 1975, but we try not to count that…).
Los Angeles Police Department Death Report, June 26, 1959.
“Actor Commits Suicide”. Sarasota Journal. June 17, 1959. p. 14.
New York Post, June 17, 1959.
Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman.