The Death of George Reeves (Superman)


George Reeves (not to be confused with that other fine actor Christopher Reeve) [1] was the very embodiment of Superman to a legion of 1950s Superman enthusiasts. It therefore came as a shock when sometime between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. June 16, 1959, in the upstairs bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home, 45 year old Reeves, “Man of Steel,” died of a gunshot wound to the head.

The police ruled it was suicide, others believe it was murder.

George Reeves, born George Keefer Brewer January 5, 1914, was the only child of a failed marriage between his mother Helen Lescher and his father Don Brewer. Following its dissolution his mother moved to California and re-married, George taking the last name of his new father Bessolo who adopted him as his own. Fifteen years later, following the failure of this second marriage, Helen told George that Bessolo had committed suicide. It wasn't untill adulthood that Reeves was to find out that the man he had called dad was his stepfather not his biological father and was still alive.

George assumed the professional name “Reeves” while under contract to Warner Brothers as is reflected in the Gone with the Wind screen credits (he had a minor part as one of the Tarleton twins).

There followed further roles for Warners mostly in “B” pictures and eventually the termination of his contract. After being picked up by Twentieth Century Fox, then dropped again, he freelanced in a number of low budget films before winning critical acclaim for his role in So Proudly We Hail! the (1943) Paramount Pictures blockbuster.

Early that same year Reeves was drafted and assigned to the U.S. Army Air Forces, performing in the moral boosting Broadway show Winged Victory. Later he was transferred to the Army Air Forces' First Motion Picture Unit where along with the likes of Ronald Regan, Clark Gable and De Forest Kelly he made training/recruiting films.

After the war it was “B” movies, radio and live television. Then in 1951 Reeves was offered the role that would both define him and make him a national celebrity “Superman,” first in a movie Superman and the Mole Men then in a new television program, the Adventures of Superman.

A question often asked is, did Reeves feel demeaned/ type-cast by his role as television’s Superman, the belief that it was beneath him perhaps a cause for depression and eventual suicide? The answer seems to be contradictory depending on the source:

In a 1988 interview Phyllis Coates (the first Lois Lane) recalled being invited into Reeves’ dressing room prior to the begining of production. After making them a martini, he proposed a toast and said, “Well Phyllis welcome to the bottom of the barrel.” The perception being, at least as far as Reeves was concerned, that he’d hit rock bottom. Not only wasn’t he movie “A” list material, he wasn’t even “B” list material. He’d been relegated to television.

Jack Larson, Jimmy Olson in the series, stated that upon first meeting Reeves he told him how much he enjoyed his performance in “So Proudly We Hail!” Reeves reply, that if Mark Sandrich (the producer and director of the movie) hadn’t died, he wouldn’t be there in this “monkey suit” was according to Larson the only time he ever heard Reeves say anything disparaging about being Superman.

A story circulating at the time, that he was upset about his scenes in From Here to Eternity being cut after preview audiences laughed and yelled “There’s Superman!” are apparently false.

He purportedly took his status as a role model seriously (he avoided smoking in public and eventually quit) and his affection for his millions of young fans was apparently genuine.

Jack Larson and Noel Neil (the second Lois Lane) had nothing but praise for Reeves, citing his sense of humor and his gentlemanly behavior to fellow actors (a sign on his dressing room door apparently read Honest George, the people’s friend).

There was a darker side to Reeves, however, and his private life included a torrid and open relationship with Toni Mannix an ex-showgirl, eight years his senior, married to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s general manager Eddie Mannix (allegedly George and Toni indulged in some hard drinking, each afternoon when the show wrapped and around town often in the company of some shady characters, [2] while Eddie was said to have ties to the mob).

In 1958 Reeves broke up with Toni (following which there were allegations of harassment even death threats) and announced his engagement to Leonore Lemmon a well liked, if wild, society playgirl.

Reeve's last night, depending on whose version of events one accepts, is one of argument and anger. According to the witnesses Lemmon and Reeves at dinner with writer Robert Condon got into an argument, the three returning from the restaurant to Reeve’s home the actor in a bad mood retiring to his bedroom. Around midnight with the arrival of two new guests (William Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel) and a corresponding increase in noise, a tired and still irate Reeves came back down. After blowing off some steam he had a drink then returned to his room.

A short time later the guests heard a single shot. Bliss after entering the bedroom found Reeves dead, lying across the bed, naked and on his back, his feet on the floor a Luger between them.

Some time was to pass before the police were called, a fact attributed to the lateness of the hour, the shock of the event, and the intoxication of the guests (the police stated that the guests were both inebriated and incoherent).

Lemmon later stated Reeve's apparent suicide was a result of depression and a failed career. Reeve’s will, dated 1956, left everything to Toni Mannix, a fact which both surprised and devastated Lemmon (they were to be married June 16).

"Anti-suicide" proponents argue that Reeves would have had no desire to end his life with so many prospects in the works (the Adventures of Superman was to resume filming, the revamped show to air in 1960 with Reeves promised creative input and a chance to direct, a second Superman stage show was scheduled [the first had been a resounding success] a stage tour of Australia and a movie to be shot in Spain possibilities).
 
Advocates for murder pointed out an absence of finger prints on the gun. The police, however, pointed out that the physical condition of the weapon (it was coated in oil) made finding prints impossible.

The fatal bullet was found in the ceiling, but two bullet holes were also found in the floor the bullets recovered from the living room below. Only one round was missing from the gun’s chamber.

Reeves’s mother never accepted that it was suicide even going so far as to hire a detective agency and delay the cremation of her son's body, but no new evidence was ever brought to light.

Jack Larson believed it was suicide.

Noel Neil stated she knew of no one who wanted Reeves dead and that he always appeared happy to her.

The movie Hollywoodland starring Ben Affleck offers three versions of the actor's death, semi-accidental by Lemmon, murdered by Eddie Mannix, or suicide.

Edward Lozzi, a Los Angles publicist, claimed that Toni Mannix had confessed to a Catholic priest that she was responsible (this refuted by Larson who had close ties to Mannix).

The official LAPD police report ruled the death a suicide.

A popular urban legend of the time (considered ridiculous by those that knew him) states that Reeves died because he believed that he had acquired Superman's powers and killed himself trying to fly.

George Reeves is interred at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum, Altadena, California.


[1] Christopher Reeve was injured on May 27, 1995, while horseback riding, suffering a cervical spinal injury which paralyzed him from the neck down. On October 10, 2004, while being treated for a systematic infection called sepsis he fell into a coma before dying of heart failure. His doctor believes cause of death was an adverse reaction to the antibiotics being used. Mr. Reeve was 52 years old.

[2] By way of contrast, however, the couple were also heavily involved with the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America (MGFA) volunteering their time to bring awareness of the ravages of this terrible neuromuscular disease (Reeves even served as MGFA's national chairman in 1955).





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