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Actors Who Played Superman

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I'm an entertainment enthusiast with six years of experience as an online pop culture writer and an interest in superhero costumes.

Superman The Move Poster

Superman The Move Poster

Iconic Hero Superman

The Superman we know and love made his first appearance in the 1938 issue of Action Comics #1. His character would be responsible for creating the comic book superhero genre the world knows today. It should come as no surprise that he quickly leaped from the pages of comic books, into other artistic mediums. It only took 10 years before a live-action movie would bring The Man of Tomorrow to life. Since then, the world has been fascinated by The Last Son Of Krypton. Films and television shows have constantly released their vision of The Man Of Steel. Despite his dozens of nicknames, Kal-El’s story of an orphaned boy who crash-lands on Earth is instantly recognizable and has captivated audiences for generations.

Here are the actors who are best known for playing Superman on TV and film:

  • Kirk Alyn
  • George Reeves
  • Christopher Reeve
  • Dean Cain
  • Tom Welling
  • Brandon Routh
  • Henry Cavill

Kirk Alyn

Superman (1948): This 15 chapter, black and white serial adventure retells the origin of Superman. His major adversary throughout the series is a villain who goes by the name Spider Lady. She believes herself to be the Queen of the Underworld and Superman must stop her evil plans.

Atom Man vs. Superman (1950): In this 15 chapter sequel, audiences would see the first Lex Luthor to appear on screen. (The actor to play Lex, Lyle Talbot, would be used as the model for Luther’s face in the comics.) Lex Luthor is using the alias Atom Man and blackmailing Metropolis. Superman must stop him and his various devices designed to wreak havoc on the city.

The Actor

Kirk Alyn may not be the most well known actor to have taken on the role of Superman, but he was the first live action actor to take on the part. He started out as a vaudeville singer and dancer. He would have a string of bit parts in film, but did not get a lead role until he was cast as Clark Kent/Superman at the age of 37. The people from D.C. Comics thought he looked the part and soon cast him as the lead. The Superman serial is now considered one of the most successful serials of all time and its sequel, Atom Man vs Superman, became the highest grossing serial ever. However, Alyn only received credit for the role of Clark Kent. The studio didn’t want audiences to know who Superman was, so they credited Superman as playing himself. To help separate the roles, Kirk created two unique characters.

Kirk Alyn as Superman, Clark Kent

Kirk Alyn as Superman, Clark Kent

George Reeves

Superman and the Mole-Men (1951): This would be Superman’s first full length theatrical feature film. The story begins with Superman already being well known in the Metropolis. When Lois Lane and Clark Kent are sent to cover a story of the world’s deepest oil well, a bigger story develops. The drill exposes a race of small, glowing, furry people who dwell underground. These Mole-Men come up at night to explore the outside world and, through no fault of their own, create a panic. It is up to Superman to prevent the town and Mole-Men from hurting each other.

Adventures of Superman (1952-1958): Immediately after filming wrapped for Superman and the Mole-Men, production began for the first season of a Superman television show. The Adventures of Superman would run for 6 seasons, with a grand total of 104 episodes. These 30 minute episodes followed Clark Kent as he went about Metropolis working on stories for the Daily Planet. Of course, situations would arise that only Superman could handle.

The Actor

Kirk Alyn was originally asked to reprise his role as Superman, but he wanted too much money. George Reeves eventually took on the role after a lot of hesitation, because at the time T.V. was considered substandard acting work and it did not pay well. Reeves would win audiences over as the new Man of Steel and played the character well into his 40s, making him the oldest actor to perform as a live action Superman. His costume was padded to make him look bulkier, but Reeves was in incredible shape. He had to perform a lot of physical task for filming. Although he was reportedly depressed over being typecast as Superman, Reeves fully embrace his responsibilities. He made appearance as Superman on other televisions shows, commercials and public events. Reeves understood the important part he had as a role model to children; he quit smoking and was careful never to be seen with his girlfriends around young fans. Children also posed a risk, as they often tested his “invulnerability”. (One child even pulled a gun on him.)

George Reeves as Superman, Clark Kent

George Reeves as Superman, Clark Kent

Christopher Reeve

Superman: The Movie (1978): The origin of Kal-El is retold and one of Superman’s first challenges, after revealing himself to the world, is to stop the criminal mastermind Lex Luthor. In a plot only Luther could imagine, nuclear missiles are used to trigger an earthquake in California. .

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Superman II (1980): Immediately following the events of the first film, Clark Kent gives up his powers to be with his true love Lois Lane. At the same time Clark is rendered powerless, General Zod and two of his soldiers escape the Phantom Zone. They come to Earth and will not stop their reign of terror until the world learns to kneel before Zod!

Superman III (1983): A wealthy businessman exploits a computer programming genius, played by Richard Pryor, to achieve world economic dominance. They create a synthetic Kryptonite, but instead of killing Superman it turns him evil. Clark Kent and Superman must battle each other, before he can be of any use in the battle for truth and justice.

Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987): In an attempt to save Earth from a similar fate suffered by his home planet of Krypton, Superman vows to rid the world of its nuclear threat. Lex Luthor uses Superman’s actions as an opportunity to create a Nuclear Man, that is powerful enough to kill the Man of Steel once and for all.

The Actor

Lynn Stalmaster was responsible for casting Reeve. As the casting director of Superman, he put the unknown Christopher Reeve’s headshot and resume at the top of the pile three times and then pleaded to get Reeve an interview, after they kept throwing them out. When a meeting finally took place, Reeve’s was sent a 300 page script the next day (A lot of Superman II was shot at the same time as the first movie). Reeve went on a two month exercise regiment monitored by David Prowse (Darth Vader suit actor) and doubled his caloric intake, with more focus on protein, in order to avoid wearing a padded suit.

Reeve brought a new take to the character by retaining the strength of Superman and adding the gentle vulnerability that was now accepted in the modern man. Reeve had always planned on creating two separate characters for the role of Clark Kent/Superman, but it was after talking to the film’s creative consultant, Mankiewicz, that the character cemented itself. Mankiewicz told Reeve, “he was always, always playing Superman and that when he was Clark Kent, he was ‘playing Superman who was playing Clark Kent.’" Reeve’s performance won over critics and fans. Christopher Reeve had become Superman. He and the rest of the cast were disappointed to see Richard Donner leave the sequel, but Reeve’s has said Superman II was his favorite of the franchise. Superman III and IV had less critical and financial success. The producers turned the third installment into a Richard Pryor comedy and, although Reeve only did the fourth because he was given partial creative control, Cannon Films slashed the budget to only $17 million. The nuclear disarmament plot was Reeve’s idea, but with such a low budget the film was destined for failure.

Christopher Reeve as Superman, Clark Kent

Christopher Reeve as Superman, Clark Kent

Dean Cain

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997): This television show stuck close to the Superman mythology, but tried to reach a younger audience by having Clark be a twenty something from Generation X. Superman was always there to save the day, but Clark had a lot to learn about being an adult in the modern world. The show focused heavily on the crazy antics of Lois and Clark’s relationship. The updated format of this hour long show paid off and by season 3 they had 15 million viewers. Unfortunately, season 4 saw a significant drop in viewers and they were canceled after 87 episodes and never got a chance to shoot the fifth season as planned.

The Actor

Dean Cain did not start out as an actor. He was a free agent football player for the Buffalo Bills, but a knee injury during training camp took him out of the game before he could start. Dean then turned to acting, where he secured a string of small roles and commercials. Lois & Clark would be his first lead role.

Dean Cain as Superman, Clark Kent

Dean Cain as Superman, Clark Kent

Tom Welling

Smallville (2001-2011): This show was not about Superman, but Kal-El growing into the hero he was destined to become. The series begins with a Freshman Clark Kent and ends with him saving the world as Superman. Audiences got to see an awkward Clark Kent learn how to control his powers, discover the man he is and find a home on Earth. An hour long show about the man who would become Superman was a huge success. Smallville’s pilot episode had the highest rated debut in the WB’s history. With 218 episodes over 10 seasons; Smallville became the longest running North American science fiction series (nobody will ever beat Dr. Who) and the longest running comic book based show in T.V. history.

The Actor

Tom Welling started out as a model, but successfully made the transition to actor and quickly secured the role of a teenage Clark Kent. He went into a national audition and when calling his manager on the way back, was told he got the part. Welling was not a fan of the comics and stayed away from the source material, because the show was set before the events in the comics and he did not want them to influence his performance. Back in 2004, Tom Welling was considered for the big screen version being adapted. Alex Ross even had sketches of him in a Superman costume, so they could see what he would look like. Sadly, Tom Welling was never able to wear the famous blue and red costume. Legal issues prevented the network from showing Tom wearing the suit on national television. After 10 years, fans were disappointed in only getting to see Clark Kent opening his shirt to reveal the S and a blurry CGI Superman flying through space.

Tom Welling as Superman, Clark Kent

Tom Welling as Superman, Clark Kent

Brandon Routh

Superman Returns (2006): This reboot of the franchise picks up 5 years after the 1980 Superman II film. Superman returns to Earth after searching for his home planet of Krypton. He tries to put his personal life back together but finds Lois Lane engaged and the mother of a 5-year-old child. Luther is still enraged over being stopped from destroying California and now plans to create a new continent from Kryptonian crystals. This time his plan will wipe out the entire East Coast.

The Actor

After spending over a decade trying to relaunch the Superman franchise, an unknown Brandon Routh was cast as the Last Son of Krypton. The film’s director Bryan Singer cast Routh because he was “our collective memory of Superman” and Routh’s Midwestern roots gave him the "combination of vulnerability and confidence" Singer envisioned in the role. Routh was cast immediately following his meeting with Singer, but Routh did not find out till a couple of months later when the casting was made public.

Routh worked out and gained 22 lbs to look more like the Man of Steel. His performance was very similar to that of Christopher Reeve, but he was hopeful to add his own touches to the character. Routh’s contract had two more movies worked in, but the $270 million film only grossed $200 million domestically and all sequels were scrapped. He did beat out Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine as the Best Superhero” for the Spike TV Awards.

Brandon Routh as Superman, Clark Kent

Brandon Routh as Superman, Clark Kent

Henry Cavill

Man Of Steel (2013): The origin of Superman is once again retold. Upon Clark Kent learning he is a super powered extraterrestrial; he struggles with who his is, where he comes from and what’s his purpose on this alien planet he now calls home. He will have to discover this quickly, before Zod can conquer Earth.

The Actor

Henry Cavill would be the first British actor to play the Kryptonian American Superman. Unlike previous Supermen, who were relatively unknown actors, Cavill had a long list of solid credits. He had already been the lead in several films and was well known for his critically acclaimed work on Showtime’s series The Tudors.

Henry Cavill as Superman

Henry Cavill as Superman

The Superman Curse

You can’t talk about the different actors to have played Superman without discussing the Superman Curse. Actors are a superstitious bunch, from never saying Macbeth while in a theatre or making sure to say “break a leg” instead of “good luck”. The Superman Curse has been as much of an influence to an actor’s decision of taking on the iconic role, as the fear of being typecast. The legend comes from an eerie number of tragedies that have followed the actors who brought Superman to life in film and television. Below is the series of unfortunate events that have followed the Superman franchise.

George Reeves: The star of the Adventure of Superman television series was shot on June 16, 1959. This death occurred only days before his wedding and was ruled a suicide by the police department. However, his prints were not on the gun laying beside him and he had been having an affair with the wife of the MGM executive Eddie Mannix. The mystery of Reeves’ death started the rumors of the Superman Curse.

Bud Collyer: Collyer was the voice of Superman in the 1941-1943 cartoon and The New Adventures of Superman in 1966. Between Superman gigs, he created and hosted the popular game show To Tell The Truth. He died in 1969 of a circulatory ailment on the same day To Tell The Truth was put into syndication. This would have been a huge economic windfall for him.

Kirk Alyn: Kirk Alyn suffered from Alzheimer’s and died at the age of 88. As the first actor to play a live-action Superman, his curse was not a tragic death but being so closely associated with the role that he was unable to perform in anything besides commercial and voiceover work.

Christopher Reeve: Christopher Reeve was also so closely identified to his role of Superman in the late 70s and early 80s that he had difficulty acting in other films. However, it was Reeve being paralyzed on May 27, 1995 from falling off his horse in a cross-country equestrian riding event that helped reinforce the Superman Curse. This would lead to his eventual death from heart failure on October 10, 2004.

Christopher Reeve was a hero on an off the screen. Rather than letting his accident stop him, he fought on and never gave up the hope he would recover from his paralysis. He and his wife started the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. This organization’s mission is to cure spinal cord injuries and improving the life of people with paralysis. You can buy a pair of Superman Go Forward Tags by clicking on the link Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Shop. 100% of the profits go to the foundation. (Be warned, they are sold through Warner Brothers and you will be put on their mailing list.)


Did you like the actors performance as Superman?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Geekdom


Laura Smith from Pittsburgh, PA on June 12, 2014:

Exactly. They took everything I loved about his story and character and stripped it away. There was nothing fun about that movie.

Geekdom (author) on June 11, 2014:

Glad you are going to check out Smallville. It was my guilty tv. I loved it. I was disappointed in how they treated Man of Steel as well. The thing that makes Superman great (to me) is him being a god amongst men, yet keeping himself to a strict moral code.

Laura Smith from Pittsburgh, PA on June 11, 2014:

I've been meaning to check out, "Smallville" for years. After reading this, I'm going to have to get on it. I hated, "Man of Steel," and it has made me more unenthusiastic about seeing, "Batman vs. Superman" than the Affleck controversy. I miss the Christopher Reeve days, and I even liked "Superman Returns". Why can't they channel that tone again? Is the world so dark that it has made even Superman moody?

Geekdom (author) on June 15, 2013:

I am glad you gave a shout out to Dean Cain. It would be nice if he got more props as Superman. However, if you look at his credits he has worked more than most actors after his stint as The Man of Steel. Perhaps the lower profile has helped him have a better shot at his future acting opportunities.

EJ Lambert from Chicago, IL on June 14, 2013:

I really think Dean Cain is the forgotten man of this group. Welling, Reeve and Reeves are the mainstream guys while Cain lasted four seasons in Lois & Clark, which I thought got torpedoed when they removed John Shea as a regular. His Lex Luthor was second only to Michael Rosenbaum in Smallville. I genuinely think that show could've gone on way longer if the cast had stayed in place beyond the first season.

Geekdom (author) on June 13, 2013:

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

Mike Robbers from London on June 13, 2013:

Very interesting hub! Christopher Reeve's 'Superman' movies were the ones I firstly watched as a kid so he is probably more associated with the role than anyone else. The superman curse is also another strange and fascinating story. Many thanks for sharing.

Geekdom (author) on June 12, 2013:

Great points! And thanks, I love fatherhood.

Jayfort on June 12, 2013:

I was not offended in the slightest, my friend. Congrats on the little one! As a father of four and grandfather of five, I well understand the time constraints of a family man/woman!

Having grown up with the "Clark Kent as Superboy then Superman paradigm", I always saw Clark's teens as his on-the-job training for his future career. It showed us the influences of Jonathan and Martha as he grew, not just as a grown man.

One of the very few things I disliked about the Golden/Silver/Bronze Age Superman mythos was the deaths of the Kents. To me it felt like Clark was being kicked while he was already down from losing Jor-El and Lara.

Geekdom (author) on June 12, 2013:

Viorsutes, thank your for the engaging comment. I was planning on doing a separate V.O. hub in the future, but wanted to get the live action out before the Man of Steel movie release this weekend. I commented with Jayfort on my reasons for not including Superboy, but I loved his idea of creating a hub specifically on Superboy. It has been added to my Hub idea list.

I agree with the grammar comments and will be going back at a later time to fix it. I should never have skipped my usual editing process for the sake of getting a hub out on time. In the end if I am not show casing my abilities then I should not be publishing it.

Geekdom (author) on June 12, 2013:

Jayfort, I hope you did not take my reply as rude or that I was insulted by your comment. I have a three month old daughter and my time is very limited. This is why I am not getting hubs out as quickly and my replies are shorter. I am trying to maintain my Hubpages account with the little free time I have. I always appreciate your insightful comments and vast knowledge of older comics.

I was excited to get your Superboy hub idea. I excluded Superboy from this hub because of personal reasons. I never liked the idea of a young Clark Kent flying around as Superboy. For me it always negated the mystery of what was Superman doing when he disappeared for so long between childhood and manhood.

Jayfort on June 12, 2013:

Geek, I was not trying to be critical. As an older Superman fan (who no longer follows DC Comics), I see the older versions of Superboy and Superman as the same character (as they were created to be) and thus would like to see a Hub regarding them.

On a side note to the other Hubbers who have commented: When I notice grammar and technical errors I try to contact the Hubber via message or e-mail to them point out. Paul Harvey used to say that "Tact is the art of rubbing out someone's mistakes, not rubbing them in."

Vlorsutes from Ohio on June 11, 2013:

Though I agree with Jayfort that you did leave a few people out by not including the Superboys, I did find this to be a really enjoyable read. In addition, I feel that a number of the voice actors for the animated series' should have received mentions as well, since I feel that voice actors like George Newborn and Tim Daly helped shape Superman just as much in the eyes of fans as someone like Dean Cain did.

I do also have to agree with jimmyglaughlin's comment. There are a number of grammatical issues that you may want to take time and hammer out. Though your subject material is what brings someone to your hub to begin with, it's your grammar among other things that keeps the reader's attention

Geekdom (author) on June 11, 2013:

I purposely left out Superboy. I did not think of a follow hub with them, but that is a great idea.

Geekdom (author) on June 11, 2013:

I will not delete your comment, because it is honest feedback. I only remove spam. I know that I wrote this hub a lot quicker than I usually do, because I wanted to get it out before the movie came out. Thank you for reminding me to never sacrifice quality.

Jim Laughlin from Connecticut on June 11, 2013:

Good hub, I enjoyed reading about all the different actors who played Superman. But, I am sorry, and please do not be offended, but your grammar is atrocious. MANY mistakes, maybe review and make corrections and delete my comment. Sorry, again if I am out of line.

Jayfort on June 11, 2013:

Hey Geek!

What about Johnny Rockwell, John Haymes Newton, and Christopher Gerard? Not Super"men" but Super"boys", same character different age (literally!).

Hey, there's another Hub idea for you!


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