The mysterious and tragic death of Adventures of Superman actor George Reeves is a case that continues to perplex Hollywood some 60 years later. The television star became a household name when he nabbed the lead role of the very popular caped superhero in the popular series in 1951, the very first and one of the best superhero TV shows, with Reeves attracting the attention and fame he had so desperately desired on the silver screen. Reeves was a hero and inspiration to children across the country, and despite being deeply admired the performer was frustrated with his career trajectory and wished to achieve more prominent parts in cinematic productions.
His quest to become a respected and revered leading man came to a tragic end on June 16, 1959, when he was found dead in his bedroom from a gunshot wound to the head. Reeves was just 45 years old at the time of his mysterious death, and both those close to him and the media were sent into a tailspin when it came to the events leading up to his untimely demise. Though the LAPD declared his death a suicide, the facts pertaining to that doomed June night remain questionable and downright baffling. Having portrayed the invincible Superman, fans were shocked to realize George Reeves was not indestructible like his counterpart. Let’s take a closer look at the Superman scandal that rocked Hollywood.
A Hollywood Hopeful
George Reeves set out for Tinseltown in 1935 with stars in his eyes, his dreams and aspirations of becoming a silver screen leading man propelling him forward as he studied acting at the revered Pasadena Playhouse. The earnest student would go on to perform in dozens of plays while at the historic arts school before attracting the attention of casting director Maxwell Arnow, who was famous for having discovered cinema legends like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Reeves would go on to nab his first credited screen role in the 1939 Hollywood classical romance Gone With the Wind, in which he played the small part of Brent Tarleton, one of the many suitors vying for the attention of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara.
Despite appearing in the groundbreaking, Oscar-winning picture, the actor was unable to land any prominent roles, instead starring in several lackluster B-movies such as The Fighting 69th and The Strawberry Blonde, both of which failed to advance his career. After finding steady work in five Hopalong Cassidy westerns and starring alongside Veronica Lake in So Proudly We Hail !, Reeves decided to put his cinema career on hold to enlist in the US Army. He would go on to perform in the USAAF’s Broadway show Winged Victory and later helped make training films for the Army Air Forces’ First Motion Picture Unit.
An Underwhelming Return
After being discharged at the end of World War II, Reeves returned to Hollywood to discover that the movie-making business had slowed down on their production schedules while others were completely shut down, making landing a role a difficult and constant uphill battle. His acting jobs soon became few and far between, with the aspiring star getting paid less and less for each appearance; Reeves headlined the low-budget 1949 serial The Adventures of Sir Galahad before being cast against type as a scheming, villainous gold hunter in Jungle Jim and later Jungle Goddess. After having to take a second job digging cesspools to counteract his struggling film career, Reeves moved to New York City in 1949 following his separation from his wife in hopes of greener pastures.
Frustrated by a lack of prominent roles and opportunities, Reeves set his sights on the small screen and found work on live television anthology programs, returning to Hollywood in 1951 to appear in the Marlene Dietrich-led western Rancho Notorious. His saving grace came that same year when the struggling star was offered the lead role of Superman in the new television series Adventures of Superman; Reeves was reluctant to take the role due to many actors at the time believing TV work was inferior and unimportant compared to film. He nonetheless relented and took on the iconic character, his life being forever changed with the decision.
The Success of Superman
George Reeves went on to become a household name by starring in the first television series to feature the titular comic book hero in 1952’s Adventures of Superman, with the actor first donning the iconic cape and tights for the pseudo-pilot and black-and-white movie Superman and the Mole Men. The success of the program surprised the cast members, with Reeves achieving fame on the small screen that he had long aspired for in the pictures (and arguably being responsible for the many Superman movies in the future) the downside of his time on the show meant that he was unable to take on any other work that would conflict with the schedule of Adventures of Superman.
This led to Reeves becoming frustrated and dissatisfied with his career trajectory and the one-dimensional role, though he was ultimately given a salary raise and remained with the series. Not only was his professional life a source of conflicting feelings, so was the star’s private life; Reeves ended his extramarital affair with ex-showgirl Toni Mannix in 1958 and announced his commitment to socialite Leonore Lemmon. Mannix was infuriated by the decision and reportedly harrassed the new couple, causing Reeves to file a restraining order against his former flame.
Adventures of Superman went on to run for six seasons and produce 104 episodes, and though the show helped establish Reeves as a leading performer he also found himself typecast due to the role. He was insecure over the attention the series brought him, believing most of his fan base were children which he rightfully felt would affect any potential film opportunities. While he made appearances in I Love Lucy and From Here to Eternity, by the time of his mysterious death in 1959 Reeves was an out-of-work actor of two years.
The Death that Stunned Hollywood
On the night of June 16, 1959, George Reeves was found dead in his bedroom from a gunshot wound to the head in his Benedict Canyon home, while his fiancée Lemmon was downstairs hosting a party. Those in attendance at the small, impromptu gathering were writer Robert Condon, William Bliss and neighbor Carol Van Ronkel, with Reeves’ former Gone With The Wind colleague and friend Fred Crane having left earlier in the evening. The details regarding his death remain fuzzy, as the statements the guests gave the Los Angeles Police Department were conflicting; Reeves allegedly retired for the night and at one point came downstairs to complain about the noise, had a quick drink and retreated back to his room in an irritated mood.
Upon returning to his bedroom, a shot rang out between 1:30 and 2:00 am, with Bliss discovering the actor’s body sprawled out naked on the bed with a fatal wound to the head. When the LAPD arrived, Lemmon and her guests were extremely inebriated and barely coherent, but they all were in agreement that Reeves had taken his own life. According to his fiancee, Reeves was depressed over the state of his career and his inability to find steady work, with the Los Angeles Police report stating, “[Reeves was]… depressed because he could not get the sort of parts he wanted. ” Despite the law and public’s quick acceptance that the star died by suicide, the details surrounding his death are not that cut and dry.
Suspicions Plague the Legacy of Reeves
There were many dubious findings regarding the death of George Reeves, many of which caused both those close to the actor and the media itself to question the events of that fatal night. No fingerprints were found on the gun, and there was no gunpowder residue found on Reeves’ hands. There were also three bullet holes found in the bedroom, with the bullet that killed Reeves having been recovered from the ceiling, though the witnesses all agreed that they only heard one gunshot go off that evening.
According to the LAPD, there was no sign of forced entry or evidence that another person had been in the room with Reeves, and it has also been alleged that the police did not take photos of the crime scene or properly dust the room for fingerprints upon inspection. Numerous newspapers and wire-service reports quoted LAPD Sergeant VA Peterson having said, “Miss Lemmon blurted, ‘He’s probably going to go shoot himself.’ A noise was heard upstairs. She continued, ‘He’s opening a drawer to get the gun.’ A shot was heard. ‘See there — I told you so!’ “Lemmon was supposedly placed downstairs at the time of the crime, though it took her almost 45 minutes to alert the actor of the actor’s death.
Reeves’ mother Helen Bessolo did not believe her son took his own life and thought the ruling was premature, so she retained attorney Jerry Giesler to investigate the case as a possible homicide. After a month of digging, Giesler did not discover any evidence contradicting the LAPD and the explanation that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted remained intact. Reeves was interred at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena, California, and in 1960 he was awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame for his television contributions.
Theories and Controversy Persists
Though the death of America’s Superman George Reeves occurred over sixty years ago, fascination and intrigue regarding the television star’s death still runs rampant. After the official cause of death was reported, actors like Gig Young and Alan Ladd were skeptical of the ruling, while Reeves’ friend Rory Calhoun once told a reporter, “No one in Hollywood believed the suicide story.” Despite Lemmon’s claims that the actor was depressed over his stagnant career, it is interesting to note that Adventures of Superman was actually due to return to the small screen in 1960 with Reeves reprising the titular role.
His co-star Phyllis Coates never believed that he killed himself, and reportedly claimed that his ex-girlfriend Toni Mannix called her after George had died and told her he had been murdered, long before news of his death was released. Other theories speculate that MGM vice president Eddie Mannix (Toni’s husband) had Reeves killed for their past affair, with the bigwig allegedly having ties with the Mafia. Lemmon herself would go on to give many conflicting accounts of the evening, causing suspicion to fall upon her due to her changing stories and stormy relationship with Reeves.
Speculation and conspiracy theories continue to plague the legacy of George Reeves and his puzzling death, and Tinseltown remains fascinated by the mysterious and tragic occurrence. The 2006 film Hollywoodland dramatizes the events surrounding Reeves’ death, with Ben Affleck taking on the role of the fallen superhero. Even after all these years, what truly happened that fateful June night in 1959 remains a controversy shrouded in mystery, and the death of Superman will forever be a cryptic case.