Originally written in 2016 for an anthology about American heroes that never appeared and first published online January 5, 2018:
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!
“Look! Up in the sky!” “It's a bird!” “It's a plane!”
Yes, it's Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!
Superman...who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!”
—Opening narration of The Adventures of Superman TV program (1952-1958)
According to legend, the house at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive in Los Angeles where actor George Reeves (born January 5, 1914) died of a gunshot wound to the head early in the morning of June 16, 1959, is haunted. The coroner had ruled the forty-five-year-old actor’s death a suicide, brought about by despondency over a failing career and too much alcohol. Reeves (born George Keefer Brewer, later Bessolo, after his mother’s remarriage) had some early success as a film actor beginning in 1939 when he was cast as one of the Tarleton Twins in the epic Gone With the Wind.
Reeves would eventually find himself starring with Claudette Colbert (the Sandra Bullock of her day) in Paramount’s So Proudly We Hail (1942), a war film made shortly before he was drafted into the real U.S. Army Air Force in 1943. The actor remained stateside, with duties that included appearing in both the Broadway and Hollywood film versions of Winged Victory, a USAAF production, and making training films.
The Hollywood he returned to after his discharge in 1945 was an industry town in transition, with fewer production companies making fewer films. Instead of appearing opposite such stars as Jimmy Cagney, Ronald Regan, and Merle Oberon as he once had, George was now starring in Saturday morning costumed serials, Westerns, TV anthology programs, and on radio.
He also signed to play the lead in a syndicated weekly kid half hour adventure program, The Adventures of Superman. Reeves took the role of Clark Kent/Superman—based on the DC comic book character as well as its predecessor radio program which aired from 1940 to 1951—in the low budget show for the paycheck, confident the pilot would never be sold. But in 1952, ABC picked up the show (shot as the theatrically released Superman and the Mole Men in 1951 and carved up into two half hour episodes) and he would spend the next six years, for one hundred and four episodes (plus a guest shot as himself in the costume on I Love Lucy and countless personal appearances at everything from Wild West shows to supermarket openings) as Superman.
The last few years of George Reeves’ life, some of which was dramatized (and fictionalized) in the 2006 film, Hollywoodland starring Ben Affleck as the actor, seemed somewhat sad and desperate. In 1953, already identified with the costume, he was cast in a minor role in From Here to Eternity, a big budget film highly anticipated for, among other things, a performance by crooner and actor Frank Sinatra who was also hoping for a comeback after his own career had hit the skids. Sinatra won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Legend has it that Reeves barely made it into the film when most of his part was excised after preview audiences began to excitedly whisper “Look, it’s Superman!” when he appeared on screen. He had been typecast out of serious acting.
A lot of people think weariness with his iconic but unfulfilling image as a kid show superhero and lack of work since the TV series had wrapped up production lead to George Reeves putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger that night of June 16. Others claim Reeves was anything but despondent, that his death was a homicide, likely accidental, possibly deliberate. They claimed he had everything to live for. He was engaged to be married and was in pre-production for a new season of twenty-nine episodes of Superman, several of which Reeves was scheduled to direct.
Whatever his state of mind, whoever pulled the trigger, the actor George Reeves died that night in the upstairs bedroom. The newspapers trumpeted headlines like “TV’s Superman Kills Self With Gun,” the irony of an actor playing a character billed as being “faster than a speeding bullet” dying by a gunshot wound lost on no one. But even in death “Superman” grabbed the headlines, relegating George to the small print beneath it, like Clark Kent’s byline on a Daily Planet story about Superman’s heroic deeds. George Reeves was still being typecast, postmortem.
Still, the headlines didn’t get it right. Superman couldn’t die, and George Reeves hasn’t been allowed to.
The whispers of conspiracy and cover-up began circulating almost immediately. Despite being only a player in the television ghetto, Reeves traveled in the loftier and often literally cutthroat circles of old Hollywood studio politics. His ex-girlfriend, the one he dumped for the socialite he was engaged to marry, was herself married to a powerful studio executive with connections to organized crime and a corrupt police department. The romantic entanglements and subsequent intrigues and forensics are easy enough to look up yourself but don’t, in the long run, matter. It was an unhappy end to a seemingly unfulfilled life. If 1579 Benedict Canyon Road is haunted, it’s no wonder his spirit can’t rest.
His ex-lover inherited the house after George’s death, but she had trouble keeping it rented. Tenants reported hearing strange noises from the late actor’s bedroom, including that of a single gunshot. The room would be found in unexplainable disarray, with pillows, sheets, and clothing strewn about or furniture moved. George himself would appear in the house or on the front lawn, sometimes in costume as Superman.
If his iconic role hadn’t been enough, the mystery surrounding his death and afterlife served to cement his place in American pop culture. Too bad he had to land in the part of it that worshipped the Hollywood necrocracy, that pantheon of the emotionally and physically wounded and the tragically dead or terribly mutilated. The ghost of George Reeves was condemned to drift alongside those of Jayne Mansfield, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, Elvis, and the rest of the tabloid spirits.
The Adventures of Superman lived on in syndication, five days a week, its one hundred and four episodes cycling endlessly in front of kids across America. Six or seven years after the last first-run episode aired in 1958, I was one of those kids who raced home from school so I could be in front of the TV for the opening glissando of the theme song, repeating those time-tested words along with the announcer. “Faster than a speeding bullet...!”
I knew that most of what I saw on television was a lie. No one I knew lived lives that came even close to those I saw on Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and the rest. Real kids weren’t that stupid, real moms that clueless, or real dads that goofy. And real families, if mine and those of my friends were any indication, never that happy.
But Superman wasn’t about squabbling siblings or kids trying to hide a broken vase from their folks. He was up to the serious business of fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. Of course, I knew Superman himself didn’t exist. He was just a character on a television show and in the comic books, but what he stood for was real enough. It was a message that resonated in the 1950s and early-1960s, when patriotism was in full bloom, when a kids’ pride in being an American was bolstered by the real-world superheroics of the NASA astronauts, even then riding rockets into outer space, where Superman himself had come from.
The message struck home with me. I was an unhappy kid in a dysfunctional home, but Superman gave me something to believe in, something to cling to. Truth, justice, and the American way.
I didn’t know at the time that the America Superman stood for was a white America. Not that Superman himself was prejudiced. In fact, he urged his young readers to remember “People are People,” the title of a one-page public service ad from the 1953 comic books. Superman admonishes a man who assumes that it was the white kid who had performed a heroic act. “Wait a minute!” Superman exclaims, “How do you know it wasn’t the other lad?” The man stammers helplessly, “Why--er...why--er...,” until Superman sets him straight: “Because of his color? As a matter of fact, he was the one! You just jumped to the conclusion because of a common prejudice!” The Man of Steel reminds us of an elementary truth, “That people are people, and should be judged as such, regardless of color or beliefs!”
The ad was for “Brotherhood Week, February 15-22...But the ideas behind it should be observed all year.”
Except, apparently, in the Metropolis of the television show and the comic books. Superman said in the ad that black lives mattered, but if you looked at the world around him, black lives were virtually non-existent, and those who did occasionally appear were usually played as stereotypes. I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York, but the schools I went to and the kids I played and mingled with were mixed. Still, I was a lower middle class white kid, and my experiences, most of my friends, and my consciousness were shaped by that.
I was one of the lucky unhappy kids. Thanks to Superman, I found escape with a community of likeminded friends. The show intensified my interest in comic books, leading me to make friends with other readers and discovering, through them, the wider world of comic book fandom. There were few Black comic book fans in fandom, at least that we encountered. The medium didn’t speak to the experiences of kids of color. Comic books didn’t have any role models for them, no characters that looked like them they could aspire to. And their experience of justice and the American way was vastly different than mine. Black comic book fans were as rare as black comic book characters.
I was nine or ten years old, too young to know about or understand the equal rights movement exploding around me while I was watching The Adventures of Superman. I didn’t wake up to reality until I was nearly thirteen years old. It was April 4, 1968, when the principal announced over the junior high school’s public address system that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Whatever simmering resentments that still bubbled under the surface exploded after Dr. King’s assassination. And there was no Superman to stop the bullet that took his life, no champion for truth, justice, and the American way to quell the violence or mend the destruction it left behind.
The consciousness-awakening slap for me was the change in attitudes of many of my Black friends and classmates. The very day he died, while we were kept in our seats in what was, essentially, lockdown until the school administration decided it was safe to let us all loose in the streets, there was a shift. The white kids were afraid to look the black kids in the eye and the black kids were talking quietly among themselves but looking at us like, oh, yeah, they’re not our friends.
I couldn’t understand how I had suddenly become a bad guy. And, more importantly, there was nothing I could have done about it anyway. I was an overweight, victimized schlemiel. I couldn’t stand up for myself, much less anybody else. I didn’t wish anybody harm and all I wanted was for the rest of the world to respond to me in kind. I never have been able to buy into religion, but on some level, I’ve always believed in karma.
Someone who worked in a store across from a low income housing project in Detroit that sold comic books in the early-1970s once told me that customers of all colors routinely picked up a fairly wide range of titles, a majority of his black customers also picked up The Hulk and Richie Rich, characters who are green or about as lily white as they come, but who, he surmised, represented power and wealth, which is, I suppose, just another shade of green, no matter your race. Comic books were struggling with offering Black readers characters they can relate and aspire to. Of those introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, the white creators and publishers of some even felt it necessary to label them: Black Lightning. Black Panther. Black Goliath. The black character I created in 1977 for the New Doom Patrol was called Tempest. He was one quarter of a team that also featured two women and a robot.
Today, there’s more and louder calls for diversity of every kind in comics. Some progress has been made, but there’s still a long way to go on all fronts. I see more and more Black fans at comic book conventions, some of my generation and a growing number of younger fans.
It came as a surprise to me one evening in July when I heard the opening narration from Adventures of Superman coming out of my TV, then tuned to MSNBC, and in a voice other than that of announcer Jackson Beck, who had recorded the original opener.
The speaker was Dallas police Chief David Brown, speaking in the aftermath of the July 7, 2016 ambush shootings of fourteen of his police officers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally, resulting in the death of five of them. Chief Brown is credited with heading up one of the most progressive police departments in the country, much less the South, a proponent of community policing and a champion of tolerance and human rights for victims and victimizers alike.
Chief Brown opened his comments with the words that can still give me goose bumps: “‘Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look, it’s a train, it’s a plane…it’s Superman.’”
Chief Brown, whose life includes a son lost to mental illness and violence and a younger brother killed in the line of duty as a cop said, “As a young child I ran home from school to hear that. So that I could see the reruns of the television series, Superman. I love superheroes because they are what I aspired to be when I grew up. They’re like cops. They’re like police officers. Superheroes. And cops are mission focused. Give us a job to do, we’ll focus on accomplishing the mission.”
Chief Brown, born in July of 1961, who watched the same ghost of George Reeves flicker across his TV a few years after I had, said, “We want to be Superman—we are the last to ask for help.”
David O’Neal Brown, the respected Black police chief of a major Southern city, ended his emotional remarks by reprising those famous words, changing out a fictional hero for the names of a quintet of real world fallen:
“Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look it's a train, it's a plane, no, it's Patricio Zamarripa. Look, it's Brent Thompson. Look, it's Michael Krol. Look, it's Lorne Ahrens. Look, it's Michael Smith.”
When Chief David and I were growing up, there was only one Superman. Kirk Alyn had played the role in a pair of movie serials (1948’s Superman and 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman), but those never showed up on TV and therefore didn’t exist as far as we were concerned. In the decades since, more than half a dozen actors have played the Man of Steel on TV and in movies, among which only the late Christopher Reeve stands among serious fans as a possible contender for the title of definitive Man of Steel. Reeve was great in the part, a steely blue-eyed Boy Scout who made the Spandex work, but for Chief Brown and the rest of my generation, there can be only one.
The episodes of The Adventures of Superman we watched those countless afternoons, me in Brooklyn, he in Dallas, more widely separated by our backgrounds than distance, inspired us both, me to flights of fancy as a writer, Chief Brown to become a cop, a real-life superhero.
But looking back on it, almost half a century later, I no longer believe we were running home to see Superman as much as we were to watch George Reeves as Superman. It’s impossible to envision another actor under that cape. Whether he hated the role or loved it, Reeves brought an idealistic, big brother warmth to Superman. Christopher Reeve may have made us believe a man could fly, but George Reeves made us believe a man could be a superman who could be trusted with all those powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. His calm, self-effacing heroic demeanor and his reassuring smile brought a decade of kids through Cold War fears, and he left behind a one hundred and four episode legacy for frightened, abused kids like me, and for kids who didn’t seem to be afraid of anything.
It’s Superman we wanted to be, but it was George Reeves who made us want to be him. I can’t say what goes on at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, whether George haunts the premises rearranging furniture and scaring away tenants, but I have lived with his gently smiling specter looking over my shoulder almost my entire life and he’s brought me nothing but comfort and hope.
Superman can change the course of mighty rivers but it’s beyond even his powers to change the ways of closed minds and hateful hearts. To those open to his message and example, however, there was nothing we couldn’t do, whether it was for a bullied white kid from Brooklyn to grow up to himself one day write the adventures of Superman, or a determined black kid from Dallas to follow Superman’s led to a decorated thirty-plus year career in law enforcement.
The comic book and film personas of “Superman” have changed countless times over the years, evolving with social mores and levels of audience sophistication, but “George Reeves’ Superman” remains frozen in its time and place. He was the last Superman to both play directly to the young and naïve and to cut to the heart of “truth, justice, and the American way.”
And that’s how, more than sixty-five years after kids first heard those words used to introduce a low budget, syndicated children’s TV program, the country heard them being invoked by an Black chief of police to honor five of his murdered police officers, Patricio Zamarripa, Brent Thompson, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith. I don’t know the race or religion of any of them, only that they all wore blue.
Just like Superman.
So maybe his ghost isn’t the only thing George Reeves left behind. I can’t speak to what it was in his Superman that appealed to Chief Brown. Call it hope. Call it inspiration or aspiration. For myself, whatever it is, I hope that part of George Reeves haunts me forever.