Even after almost a half-century, the mystery surrounding the untimely death of actor George Reeves remained such a potent and fascinating piece of Hollywood legend - it had been the subject of countless articles, books, and one film, the neo-noir "Hollywoodland" (2006) - that one could easily forget that the man himself as well as his long time acting career prior to his demise. And though said career was dominated by his portrayal of the Man of Steel in the syndicated television series "Adventures of Superman" (1952-58), Reeves did enjoy a substantial career on stage and in film and television for almost 20 years.
Born George Keefer Brewster on Jan. 5, 1914 in Woolstock, IA, Reeves relocated to Pasadena, CA during his childhood, changing his surname to Bessolo after his stepfather adopted him. An amateur boxer and musician in his youth and early adulthood, Reeves also took to acting by studying at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse, where he would appear in numerous productions over the course of his career.
In true old school Tinseltown fashion, in 1938, Reeves was approached by a Hollywood agent who signed the handsome young man to a contract with Warner Bros. Pictures. Newly named George Reeves, he made his film debut the following year in a string of B-pictures. A major highlight among his early titles was in landing a brief supporting turn as Stuart Tarleton, one of Scarlett O'Hara's twin suitors in the opening scene of the monster hit classic, "Gone with the Wind" (1939). After this brief brush with greatness, however, it was back to the b-movies at Warner and Universal, where Reeves would often appear in uncredited roles - including one in the Ronald Reagan "Win one for the Gipper" classic, "Knute Rockne: All-American" (1940). For that reason, he alternated his film appearances with stage work at the Pasadena Playhouse. Eventually, more substantial parts came to Reeves; he appeared opposite James Cagney in "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941) and received the best notices of his career as Claudette Colbert's military suitor in the wartime melodrama "So Proudly We Hail" (1943). Reeves also married actress Ellanora Needles during this period, though the pair separated in 1950.
But service during WWII brought a halt to the momentum that Sgt. Reeves' career so desperately needed, and by the time he returned to civilian life in 1945, the roles were simply not available to him. Reeves found sporadic work in low-budget films and on the new medium of television, but it became apparent to him that his shot at stardom was slipping away as the years went by.
But his fortunes were about to change. In 1950, he replaced actor Kirk Alyn as Superman in an hour-long b-movie titled "Superman and the Mole Men" (1951). The film's producers were so impressed by Reeves' talent and bulked-out presence (he stood 6'1") that they signed him to a seven-year contract to play Superman in a television series in development. Episodes for the fledgling program were filmed throughout 1951 while Reeves shot the final substantial roles in his film career - turns in two Fritz Lang films, "Rancho Notorious" and "The Blue Gardenia," as well as a supporting (and uncredited) role as Sgt. Maylon Stark in Fred Zinneman's classic, "From Here to Eternity" (1953). Rumors abounded later that his small role in the latter Oscar-winning Best Picture was the result of the audiences' inability to see him as anyone but Superman at that time, but in reality, the role was simply a minor one (in some television prints, Reeves is missing entirely from the film).
Meanwhile, "Superman and the Mole Men" debuted to strong box office in theaters, and in September of 1952, Reeves found himself the focus of national attention when "Adventures of Superman" premiered on television, capturing the hearts and minds of young American viewers everywhere. A total of 104 episodes of the show were filmed, three of which were directed by Reeves. So ingrained was the role in the public's consciousness, that he also played the Man of Steel on a classic 1957 episode of "I Love Lucy" (CBS, 1951-57), and in "Stamp Day for Superman" (1954), a U.S. Department of Treasury film produced to promote government bonds. Reeves also made countless promotional appearances in his Superman costume, much to the delight of his adolescent fans.
And though Reeves did his utmost to respect his audience (to the extent that he would not be photographed while smoking or with any female companions), he spoke publicly about the detrimental effect that the role was having on his career. Reeves found it nearly impossible to find film or television roles due to the public's identification of him as Superman. Things got so bad, that for his final film performance in the 1956 B-western "Westward Ho the Wagons!," he was virtually disguised with a thick beard. His career problems began to spill over into other areas of his life - Reeves struggled with alcohol, and his salary for "Superman" - a paltry $2,500 per episode - forced him to seek money through low-rent promotional appearances and even wrestling matches (contrary to pop culture myth, Reeves was in good shape throughout the series' run, and frequently handled many of his own stunts).
But by 1959, Reeves' fortunes appeared to be on the upswing. He had stopped drinking and planned to marry again, this time to actress Lenore Lemmon. "Superman," which had run its course in 1958, was about to be revived for another two seasons starting in 1960. He had pulled out of a potentially devastating affair with Toni Mannix, the wife of high-powered Eddie Mannix, the general manager of MGM Studios (and reportedly, a former mobster), and had signed a five-picture deal with Paramount Pictures. Reportedly, Universal was also considering him for Alfred Hitchcock's upcoming film "Psycho" (1960), for which he would have played the role that eventually went to Martin Balsam.
But on the morning of June 16, 1959, Reeves retired to bed after a long evening with friends and shortly thereafter, reportedly shot himself in the head. The death was immediately considered a suicide due to his oft-stated career issues - though it was clear that Reeves was on the cusp of a comeback. Another theory was he killed himself to escape complications from a recent car accident. As time went on and schoolchildren recovered from the shocking idea that Superman would off himself, evidence to the refute the suicide explanation started coming to light - specifically, the fact that two additional bullets found in the room that had been fired from the same gun that killed Reeves. The new discovery gave rise to rumors that Reeves had been murdered at the behest of either disgruntled husband Eddie or the spurned Toni Mannix - who, incidentally, would be the recipient of Reeves' estate. But despite investigations by Reeves' mother, and vocal support for murder as the cause of Reeves' death by numerous authors and friends of Reeves (including his "Superman" co-stars Noel Neill and Jack Larson), no substantial evidence to support that theory came to light. It was a different time then - back when movie studios often held the upper hand with police departments who dared to run investigations into their money-making stars.
Even decades later, the suicide/murder of George Reeves remained one of Hollywood's most sensational unsolved mysteries. Enough that, in 2006, Reeves was reintroduced to a new generation of filmgoers with the release of "Hollywoodland" - a neo-noir film in which Ben Affleck portrayed Reeves and Adrien Brody starred as an L.A. reporter working overtime to cut through the controversies and conspiracies of the actor's mysterious, untimely demise.