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Hollywoodland (September 8, 2006)
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 police report.

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 Reeves's murder?

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 the film.

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 here?
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 bedroom?
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 him?
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.

Did George Reeves kill himself?

Or did his fiance shoot him?

Or his ex-lover?

Or maybe her husband?

© 2004 History in the Movies