Actors Who Played 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 leapt 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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. .
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you want to learn more about Smallville, click on the links to read about the characters and actors to appear on the show.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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