George Reeves: The Strange, Lonely Death of TV’s Superman

Last week’s blog concerned the murder of actor Sal Mineo by pizza deliveryman turned mugger Lionel Williams. Keeping with the Hollywood theme, this week’s case is the death of actor George Reeves, known to millions as television’s Superman. On June 16, 1959, Reeves died from a single gunshot wound in the bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home. Authorities ruled it a suicide, but was it?

George Reeves

Born George Keefer Brewer in Woolstock, Iowa in 1914, the boy who would become Superman moved around a lot. By the time he was a young teenager, he and his mother had moved to Pasadena, California so she could be near her sister. The acting bug bit George first in high school then at Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College).

George Reeves when he wasn't Superman
George Reeves when he wasn’t Superman

George Reeves, Actor

Reeves’ first film role was a small part in a very big film. He played Stuart Tarleton, one of the young men competing for Scarlett O’Hara’s attentions at the beginning of Gone With the Wind. Before that classic film’s release, Warner Brothers signed him to a contract. But after several mediocre pictures, he and the studio mutually agreed to part ways. Next, he signed with Twentieth Century-Fox. Fox released him after only a few films. After that, he freelanced, looking for work in the westerns that were popular at the time.

Fred Crane (L) and George Reeves (R) as the Tarleton twins vie for the attentions of Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O''Hara in Gone With the Wind.
Fred Crane (L) and George Reeves (R) as the Tarleton twins vie for the attentions of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O”Hara in Gone With the Wind.

By the early 1940s, though, Reeves had appeared in over thirty films, and it looked like his career was taking off. But in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. After the war, finding work became difficult. Acting jobs that paid less and less were farther and farther apart.

The Adventures of Superman

Reeves was offered the title role in a new television series, The Adventures of Superman, in June 1951. Like many actors in that era, he looked down on television as unimportant, inferior to films. Nevertheless, he took the role. The series had a very tight shooting schedule, filming the thirteen episodes for a season in seven weeks. But Reeves’ and the other actors’ contracts were such that it was impossible to take other acting roles.

George Reeves in costume as Superman
George Reeves in costume as Superman

Reeves supplemented his income by making personal appearances. He genuinely liked his young fans and took his status as a role model seriously. For one thing, he avoided smoking where children could see him (he eventually quit smoking altogether). He was also discrete in his private life. It turns out, there were plenty of reasons to be discrete.

Superman mobbed by his fans
Superman mobbed by his fans

The Secret Life of George Reeves

Shortly before The Adventures of Superman launched in 1951, Reeves began an affair with former showgirl Toni Mannix. Toni had recently married MGM vice president and general fixer Eddie Mannix. Supposedly, Mannix gave his blessing to his new wife’s affair.

Toni and Eddie Mannix
Toni and Eddie Mannix

Reeves and Toni broke up in 1958. Reeves then announced his engagement to society playgirl Leonore Lemmon. Leonore (her real name was Lenore) was younger than Reeves and considerably younger than Toni, who was eight years Reeves’ senior. Tony, as one might imagine, was less than amused.

Leonore Lemmon in 1941 (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Leonore Lemmon in 1941 (Bettmann/CORBIS)

The Death of George Reeves

In the summer of 1959, plans for a new season of The Adventures of Superman were in the works. Reeves was tired of the role, but the public so identified him with it he had trouble finding other work. Some friends said he was depressed while others vigorously disputed that claim.

The house where Superman died, 1579 Benedict Canyon Road, Los Angeles (Author's photo)
The house where Superman died, 1579 Benedict Canyon Road, Los Angeles (Author’s photo)

On the evening of June 16, 1959, Reeves and Leonore were out to dinner with another person. The two had an argument and returned to Reeves’ home on Benedict Canyon Drive (Toni bought the house for him). Reeves went upstairs to bed. Meanwhile two more people dropped in on Leonore and a small party broke out, Reeves came downstairs to complain about the noise, but ended up having a drink with Leonore and the guests. Shortly after he returned to his upstairs bedroom, the people downstairs heard a single gunshot. One of the guests, Bill Bliss, went upstairs and found Reeves lying across the bed on his back with his feet under the floor. A 9mm Luger pistol was on the floor nearby.

Suicide or—?

Police didn’t receive a call until nearly an hour later. When they arrived at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, they found four intoxicated people downstairs and a dead George Reeves upstairs. The witnesses all told approximately the same story, but was that because they’d taken an hour to get it straight?

A pensive George Reeves sits on the porch of his Benedict Canyon home shortly before his death
A pensive George Reeves sits on the porch of his Benedict Canyon home shortly before his death

Leonore loudly proclaimed that Reeves had killed himself. She said he was depressed over his finances and inability to break out of the Superman mold. But several some things argued against the suicide theory. For one, there were no fingerprints on the gun. Had a heavy coating of gun oil prevented police from obtaining prints or had someone wiped it clean? Then there was the lack of powder burns. However, the autopsy explained that the gun had been in contact with Reeves’ skin, which would have prevented powder stippling around the wound. And there was the rumor that Leonore hadn’t been downstairs as she claimed, but in or near the bedroom when the shot was fired.

Epilogue

Authorities ruled the death a suicide, although some refused to believe it. Reeves’ friend and fellow actor Rory Calhoun famously said, “No one in Hollywood believed the suicide story.” Since there were no witnesses present, there is no way to know for sure whether it was suicide, accident, or murder.

You can read more about George Reeves’ death in Hollywood Kryptonite by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger.

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