GEORGE REEVES’ SUPERMAN: It Took Decades But I Finally Get What Made Him Great

A BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE…

The late George Reeves was born 106 years ago — Jan. 5, 1914 — and I think one of the reasons I never really cottoned to the Man of Steel as a kid was because of the actor’s 1950s Adventures of Superman.

Strange way to start a birthday tribute, I know, but please bear with me here.

See, I was 5 in 1972 and by then I was already hard-wired for Batman, thanks to the Adam West TV show, with its over the top, go-go DayGlo buzz.

Both programs were in syndication by that time, and to these young eyes – and, I surmise, millions of others – there was no comparison. Batman had a cool sidekick, fantastic villains, slick gadgets, turbo-charged vehicles and the greatest HQ in the history of mankind.

Superman? All his bad guys wore gray suits and fedoras – even when the episodes were in color – and his big hiding place was a secret closet where he hung his costume when it wasn’t under his own gray suit and fedora.

And besides, the Man of Steel didn’t even show up that much on his own show. You’d get 20 minutes of Clark Kent snooping around and 10 minutes of Superman saving the day – if even that, when you factor in commercial breaks.

Batman unlocked a whole world of comics and action figures and collecting for me – unleashing a near-lifetime of obsession and wonder. Superman, was just kind of … there.

Sure, he was Superman. I knew he was a big deal. But he just never moved me – on screen or on the page – until Christopher Reeve came along when I was almost 12. But even then, it was too late: As much as I loved 1978’s Superman: The Movie – and many of the comics ushered in by John Byrne’s reboot in the ’80s – I remained a Batmanophile, first and foremost: The Batmobile had left the Batcave, y’know?

OK, so fast-forward 48 years or so years from the days sitting cross-legged in front of the TV set. Really, to just a few months ago when my son, Sam, and I started watching the Kirk Alyn serials.

Now, the funny thing about Sam – who just turned 21, mind you — is that he’s not just a pretty devout Superman fan, he loves the Golden Age too. The Fleischer cartoons, the comics, the whole social-crusader sensibility. Everything.

His favorite T-shirt is this one from Anthony Durso’s Retropolis Tees:

Anyway, Sam and I watched the serials – I had never taken the time before — and I found myself really entertained by them. Alyn’s earnest Big Blue Boy Scout was upbeat and cheerful and his villains had some sizzle – in particular the kitschy Atom Man in the second series.

So naturally, I figured I’d keep going and really take a hard look at George Reeves’ Man of Steel – give him a genuine shot. I’m well aware of how beloved he is, so I wanted to see if maybe I’d misjudged him in the past.

Boy, had I.

Starting from the very beginning, I’ve been rolling through the Adventures of Superman, finally understanding what it was that so thrilled the generation of kids behind me:

First off, Reeves’ Kent isn’t a bore. He’s cool – and yes, the real star of the show. He’s no pushover, either. Rather, he’s equal parts smooth and ornery. He even shows a little flash with his very un-Clark-like pinky ring.

And when Superman shows up, you know he’s got the situation in hand, but it’s not always easy. This Man of Steel can punch out a thug or three but he can’t juggle planets. And he has to use his wits as much as his knuckles.

I particularly appreciate the sort of B-movie, noirish feel the early seasons have. They remind me of the best aspects of the old Charlie Chan movies – though both share in common a worldview that’s not always politically correct by modern standards.

Reeves and Season 1’s Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates

I haven’t even reached the color eps yet, but I’ve found the black-and-white installments equal parts charming, exciting and calming. (It drives my wife Wendy a little crazy, but I like to put the show on as I’m falling asleep at night. There’s something soothing about it all.)

I still wish the show had more high-octane villains, like, oh, Lex Luthor, but I also appreciate the two-fisted nature of these smaller-scope stories. They give us a Superman who is not only likeable but, dare I say, relatable: Clever with a rough edge, kind yet flinty.

I was recently invited to a gathering of Adventures of Superman fans based on some of the pieces I’ve run here at 13th Dimension. I was kind of surprised to get the invite but I guess it’s because I’ve helped keep the flame alive through various stories (see links below) even though I’ve never been all that enthusiastic about the show until now.

So, I look forward to that dinner and chatting with people who feel about the Adventures of Superman the way I feel about Batman ’66.

Because even though it took me almost 50 years, now I get it.

MORE

— Here’s the SUPERMAN ’55 Comic That DC Needs to Publish. Click here.

— GEORGE REEVES. An Appreciation, by Arlen Schumer. Click here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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8 Comments

  1. I’m a baby-boomer growing up watching this beloved tv series a zillion times.
    I always chuckle when he crashed through balsa wood-like walls or powder coated foam rock walls when there were doors a mere few feet away. We all knew he was invulnerable when he lets thugs shooting him in the chest while he rolled his eyes but why he then ducked when the shooter threw an empty gun at him, a natural reflex?

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  2. I saw the Superman TV show when I was in grade school and liked it because George Reeves was a believable Superman (even if I didn’t think a man could fly) and he was a great Clark Kent. When Batman came along, I was in college and too ‘sophisticated’ for the campy humor. I did watch it, of course, because it was Batman.

    i

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  3. Nice to see you come around, Dan. 😉 Seriously, I have always loved the George Reeves series. Even though Chris Reeve is MY Superman, in my mind, I assigned George as the Superman of Earth-Two. When the characters would meet in the comics, I would hear each actors voices. It made the whole experience that much more fun and engaging.

    But I think Reeves deserves a ton of credit for bringing a lot of nuance and reserved charm to his Superman. He even sometimes comes across as slightly annoyed for having to bail his coworkers out of jams, which makes him seem all the more human. It’s a great performance, season to season.

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  4. I grew up with the show in the 60s. It was only on sporadically in my area so I treasured every episode. I recall that, for a time, it was on in the morning and I had to leave for school midway through the show. ACK!

    The second season episode, “Panic in the Sky”, made quite an impression on this youngster and is, by far, the best of the series.

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    • John H., I agree with you that ”Panic in the sky” episode was a good because it had more special effects such as many different shots of him flying, etc. The other one called ”Superman and the Mole Men”, not only it was good because it was a rare two-part show, it also scare the shits of all kids (even adults).

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  5. Hey Dan
    For me in the early 70s there was a station I could get from Buffalo, WKBW, they had a mid afternoon weekday kids show called Commander Tom. He would alternate showing the 66 Batman & the George Reeves Superman. I totally enjoyed that show right from when I first saw it. George was perfect in the role for all the reasons you pointed out. You could see his Clark Kent easily becoming the Editor or Publisher of the Planet. He exuded confidence . Yes, I am guilty of using episodes of The Adventures of Superman as my “Ovaltine” at night too! Put in a DVD before bedtime. LOL!

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