Who Shot Superman?
By Cathy Schultz
Superman for me will always be Christopher Reeve, in those campy
but fun Superman films of the late 1970s and '80s. But for
baby-boomers, Superman was the granite-jawed actor George Reeves,
star of the enormously popular 1950s TV series, The Adventures
of Superman. Though the show got axed in 1958, it lived on for
decades in endless reruns. Its star, though, wasn't so fortunate.
George Reeves was found dead in the bedroom of his Los Angeles home
in June of 1959, shot through the head. Suicide, according to the
Or was it? Questions arose immediately about the hasty police assessment,
and continue to swirl today around the shooting. Certainly Reeves
struggled with being typecast -- he was so identifiable as the Man
of Steel that he was shut out of the serious film roles he craved
- - but was he depressed enough to kill himself? And what about
the presence of two other unexplained bullet holes in the floor
of his bedroom? And why did the police refuse to conduct a thorough
investigation? And what of Toni Mannix, Reeves's spurned and jealous
ex-lover? Could she -- or her husband -- have been responsible for
The new film Hollywoodland explores all of these questions
in a deliciously dark and ambiguous film noir. Ultimately, though,
it resists offering a definitive answer to the puzzle of who shot
Superman. Murder? Suicide? We're left to draw our own conclusions.
But here are answers to a few other niggling questions raised by
Q. Maybe I'm missing something, but why would Reeves be depressed
about being a TV star?
A. It is hard to fathom in this post-Friends era, when TV
stars can command a million dollars an episode, and segue easily
between roles in television and film. But television in the 1950s
was the place of last resort for serious actors. Not only was the
pay paltry but many shows locked their actors into contracts that
kept them from working on other projects. And the stigma attached
to television could linger long after the role ended.
Reeves was keenly aware of all this even before his show began
airing. A co-star recalled his toast to her on the first day of
shooting The Adventures of Superman: "Here's to the
bottom of the barrel, babe."
Q. Did Reeves's mother hire private detective Louis Simo (Adrien
Brody) to investigate Reeves's death?
A. No, Louis Simo is a fictional character, created as an amalgam
of Jerry Giesler, the Hollywood lawyer Reeves's mother actually
hired, and other investigators into Reeves's death.
Simo is shown in the film doggedly pursuing the truth even when
Helen Bessolo, Reeves's mother, loses interest. The reality is just
the opposite. Helen Bessolo never accepted the police verdict of
suicide. And even though Giesler dropped the case after a few months
(by some accounts because he began to suspect a Mafia connection
to Reeves's death) Bessolo continued for years to agitate for a
fuller investigation into her son's death.
Q. Was Reeves's affair with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane) fictionalized
A. No, they were together for almost ten years, and as shown in
the film, George Reeves was very much a kept man. Toni bought him
his house, his car, and paid virtually all of his bills. Co-stars
remembered her constant presence on the Superman set, where she
brought George his lunch every day, complete with a shaker of martinis.
But Toni was married, and to one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
Eddie Mannix was an ex-bouncer from New Jersey with underworld connections
and a job as an MGM vice-president. Yet despite his fearsome reputation,
Eddie didn't seem to mind Toni's relationship with Reeves, and friends
recalled odd double dates like the one shown in the film--Toni with
George, and Eddie with his mistress.
George Reeves ended the relationship with Toni when he fell for
socialite Leonore Lemmon in the fall of 1958. Though the film plays
it down, Toni became vicious after the break-up. She made constant
harassing calls to George, threatened to tell the press he was gay,
and talked to friends about trying to kill him. She even stole his
beloved dog and had him put to sleep. As for Eddie, George's desertion
of his wife apparently bothered him more than their affair had.
Q. What were those mysterious prayer cards Simo finds in Reeves's
A. Though never explained in the film, Toni Mannix brought those
Catholic prayer cards to Reeves's house. Jack Larson, Reeves's friend
and Superman co-star, accompanied Toni to Reeves's home a few days
after his death, where she nailed the cards over the bullet holes
in Reeves's bedroom floor, and covered them with a rug.
Q. Did Reeves's scenes in From Here to Eternity get
cut because preview audiences chanted "Superman!" on seeing
A. That's disputed. Fred Zinnemann, the film's director has insisted
that none of Reeves's scenes were cut from the film's final version.
But Jack Larson, Reeves's co-star, attended the film's preview in
Hollywood and recalled the audience shouting out "Superman!"
during Reeves's scenes. It broke Reeves's heart, according to Larson.
Q. Where can I find more information about George Reeves's
life and death?
A. Hollywood Kryptonite is a good read. Authors Sam Kashner
and Nancy Schoenberger argue that Toni Mannix used her husband's
connections to arrange a hit on her former lover. Perhaps. But as
Hollywoodland reminds us, uncovering the complete truth of
Reeves's death is a difficult task. Maybe it's a job for Superman.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D. is a history professor at
the University of St. Francis in Illinois and writes a syndicated
column on historical films.