Ever since his debut in 1938 Superman has had many incarnations. He has been in comic books, graphic novels, radio shows, television shows and theatrical films. Today I want to focus on the live action portrayals of the Man of Steel in both film and television. Many actors have donned the red cape and the blue tights and soared into the sky. I will not be counting the portrayals of Superboy for I see him as a different character. Therefore this leaves out Tom Welling from Smallville for he only became Superman in the final episode of the final season. However, I will say he did a spectacular job throughout the run of the series. The reasons that spurred this article was the most recent Man of Steel movie where Henry Cavill played the dual role of Clark Kent/Superman. Although the film did very well and Henry, in particular, was excellent in the part, I have read on various message boards and through conversations with fans that Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the iconic character was still the favorite portrayal of many people. Although Man of Steel is my favorite Superman movie to date, I had to ask myself is Henry Cavill my favorite portrayal of Superman? So I did a little soul searching. The first portrayal of Superman on the big screen was by Kirk Alyn who played in 15 serial episodes of Superman between 1948 to 1950.
They were filmed in black and white on a shoe string budget. All portrayals of Superman flying were done in animation. Once Kirk Alyn jumped up an animated cartoon took over, obtained through the process of rotoscoping, until his feet landed once again on the earth. Noel Neill,who would later play Lois Lane in the Adventures of Superman, made her debut as the iconic love interest of Superman. I do not own this serial on DVD although I do plan to pick it up soon. My opinion is that Kirk Alyn did a very good job as Clark Kent but not as good as Superman. It wasn’t because of the lack of special effects either. Alyn just didn’t have that sense of power, authority and strength that the role needed. In 1952 the first Superman television came to the small screen after the success of Superman and the Mole Men had a theatrical release the year earlier. It amazes me how short some theatrical movies were back then. Superman and the Mole Men clocked in at just 67 minutes long! It starred George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane. Coates would reprise her role as Lois Lane but for only one season. After season one Noel Neill from the Kirk Alyn serials reprises her role of Lois Lane. A bit of trivia for those who complained that Amy Adams played Lois Lane as a strawberry-blonde instead of a brunette should remember that Neill played Lane as a fiery redhead! The first two seasons of the Adventures of Superman were filmed in black & white and were not only dark in looks but dark in tone.
This was not a show for children! Although you would not see much science fiction in this series, the majority of the shows consisted of Superman fighting organized crime. After the first two seasons the producers realized that children were watching the show, along with adults, and began to show more lighthearted shows along with their more serious fare. However, even the more serious shows never reached the level of seriousness that the first two seasons produced. Having foresight the producers also began shooting the show in color knowing that some day all TV shows will be in color and that these color episodes would be more valuable and could be shown for years to come. Although they were filmed in color from the third season onward they were not broadcast in color until 1965. George Reeves played Superman and Clark Kent virtually the same. Both were tough no nonsense types of characters. Even though the open monologue called Clark a “mild mannered reporter” he really was no such thing. Although in the later seasons they mentioned that Clark could be a bit of a Milquetoast we never really saw him act that way. For myself seeing a tough Clark Kent was a positive draw for me.
The supporting cast was also great and the chemistry between the actors is what helped make the show great. Along with Reeves and Niell, Jack Larson was the definitive Jimmy Olsen and John Hamilton internalized the gruff editor of the Daily Planet, Perry White. The show also featured a character, Inspector Henderson, that was not featured in the comics. He was brilliantly played by Robert Shayne. In the first season there seemed to be a very antagonistic relationship between Kent and Lane and Kent and Henderson. This added to the darkness of the tone of the series. r many the tough yet friendly portrayal of Superman by George Reeves was the way people measured the role for a long long time. Sadly George Reeves life came to an end in 1959 before he could film the last season of Superman. Was it murder or did he commit suicide? We may never know the truth. It would be 20 years until Superman was once again on the big screen. This time the actor to portray him was Christopher Reeve, no relation to George Reeves who did have an “s” on his name. Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman is legendary and iconic. He does seem to have walked off the pages of the silver era Superman comic books and onto the big screen. With the vast improvement of special effects in that 20 years you could really believe that a man could fly.