A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Was Superman star George Reeves a suicide — or murder victim?

Dear Straight Dope:

My class has enjoyed reading the Straight Dope articles in our local paper (The Davis Enterprise). In particular we liked the one about earwigs and Europeans infecting Native Americans with smallpox.

My class asked me to ask you about the death of Steve Reeves, the actor who played Superman on TV. The class had three different stories and wanted to know which one is true: (1) Under the influence of some drug, he jumped off a building thinking he could really fly and fell to his death. (2) He was shot to death by someone else. (3) He shot himself to death. Also, they said there was some kind of "curse" on the actors who play Superman as both Christopher Reeve and Steve Reeves are examples. What's the Straight Dope?

To start with, it was GEORGE Reeves who played Superman on the 50s TV series. STEVE Reeves was the bodybuilder who played Hercules in a number of Italian-made cheapo adventure movies in the late 50s and early 60s. Let's not get them confused.

There are also several books for the dedicated: Serial to Cereal, by Gary Grossman; Speeding Bullet, by Jan Hendersen; and Hollywood Kryptonite: The Bulldog, the Lady, and the Death of Superman, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger.

George Reeves had a reasonably successful film career (including a small part in Gone with the Wind) when he took the role of Superman in Superman and the Mole Men, a feature film. The same cast was very quickly taken on for a television series, The Adventures of Superman, sponsored by Kellogg's cereal, which began airing late in 1952. The TV series was very successful and was renewed for six seasons. Although there was no color television in those days, this was one of the first TV series filmed in color, so when you see it nowadays, NO, it hasn't been "colorized," that's original.

When the series ended in 1957, George Reeves had a career problem. He was typecast, and it was difficult to find good roles.

In 1959, the producers of Adventures of Superman decided to film another season's worth of shows in 1960, so seemingly his career slump was over and he was feeling good about life. The year was shaping up to be a good one after a few rough years. He was hoping to shoot a film in Spain, and was to be married to Leonore Lemmon. The wedding date set for June 19, 1959. Then, in the early morning hours of June 16, 1959 — three days before the wedding — BLAM! His sudden death.

The coroner's report stated that he was killed by a single gunshot to the head. The official ruling was suicide. However, the rumors back then were the same as what your students are talking about now — he shot himself, he leaped off a building to see if he could fly, etc.

The suicide angle focused on how he had been typecast and couldn't get acting jobs. He was known to have been a party animal, and late night boozing was pretty common with his friends. He had been involved in a long-term romantic affair with Toni Mannix, the wife of Eddie Mannix, an MGM executive with alleged mob ties. Eddie Mannix was in ill health but knew about their relationship. Reeves broke off the relationship in 1958. Lemmon said that Toni Mannix harassed Reeves for months after the break-up, so much so that Reeves sought an attorney's advice.

The night of June 15, Reeves and Lemmon and a few other guests were drinking and partying at his home until after 1 AM. Reeves went up to bed, a shot rang out, and he was found dead, sprawled nude on his bed, with a bullet hole in his right temple. The death was ruled suicide, largely since the houseguests all said there was no other explanation, and there was no sign of an intruder or forced entry. The high alcohol content in Reeves' blood (.27, well above the intoxication point), combined with narcotics (he was taking painkillers for injuries in a car accident), made this plausible.

However, Reeves' mother and a few others thought the whole thing was suspicious and claimed Reeves was a victim of foul play. Thus, suspicions and questions started flying around, long before any internet to spawn conspiracy theories.

Jim Nolt, probably the world's expert on George Reeves, appeared on the 1995 TV show Unsolved Mysteries with Jack Larson dealing with the question of Reeves' death. Much of this information is taken from his website http://www.jimnolt.com/tac.htm.

The evidence (or lack of evidence) against suicide:

- No fingerprints were found on the gun.

- There were no powder burns on the head wound, which would imply the gun was held several inches from the head at the time it was fired, pretty unusual for a suicide.

- His hands were NOT tested for gunpowder residue, so that's no help one way or the other.

- The spent shell was found under his body.

- The gun was found between his feet.

- The police were not called for at least half an hour after the death (although probably so the houseguests could sober up and get their stories straight).

- The supposed "slump" was over. His friends agreed he was happier than had been in years, looking forward to his marriage and to another season of the popular TV show. Money wasn't a problem either; he got residuals from the reruns.

The common theories:

(1) Reeves was killed by Leonore Lemmon, in a fit of passion or argument … possibly over whether they would marry, but who knows. But why would the houseguests risk their own reputations to cover for her?

(2) Reeves was murdered by Toni or Eddie Mannix … or by a mob killer (hired by them?) who threatened everyone, so they kept quiet about what really happened.

(3) It really was a suicide, as reported at the time.

It's almost 40 years later, and frankly, the only people who might know ain't talking. Toni Mannix and Leonore Lemmon are both now deceased.

As to whether there's a curse on the role. … well, get real.

In Hollywoodland Ben Affleck stars as George Reeves in a film, which judging by the trailer seems to imply that he was murdered. It could be an interesting film, but I'm not sure if there's much basis to the film's theory or if someone's trying to make a quick buck off the life of a troubled man.

Jumblejim adds:

There will always be speculation regarding the true circumstances of George Reeves's death, and there are very interesting questions supporting the various theories. I have been researching a full-scale biography of Reeves for many, many years (while simultaneously starring in the odd TV series here and there), and while I began my research with a presumption of foul play, I long ago came to a thus far unshaken conviction that Reeves did in fact commit suicide.

A few pertinent facts: 2002 study reported in The Lancet showed that a person with a family history of even one suicide is 250% more likely to die by his or her own hand than someone with no family history of suicide at all. George Reeves had at least two suicides in his family (including the aunt from whom he got his middle name), and he had two prior unsuccessful attempts at suicide himself.

An inebriated person (Reeves's blood-alcohol content the night of his death was 2.5 times the legal limit) is ten times more likely to commit suicide than a sober person. A person with depression indicators is 30-to-90 times more likely to commit suicide than a non-depressive. An inebriated person with depression indicators is 300-to-900 times more likely to commit suicide than a sober person without depression indicators. (Source: National Institutes of Mental Health.). Reeves fit the 300-to-900 category.

Much of what has been purported as fact in this case is actually not fact, and that which is factual has quite often been misinterpreted by lay persons who rely on "common knowledge" instead of actual forensic fact. I'll try to lay out some of the evidence and convey the scientific interpretation in contrast to the lay presumption.

Multiple bullet holes in the room: True, two holes were found in the floor, in addition to the death slug lodged in the ceiling. According to Dr. Edwin Schneidman, one of the world's leading authorities on suicide (whom I interviewed), some forty percent of gunshot suicides are preceded days or even weeks ahead by what he terms "practice shots," in which the suicidal person attempts to work himself up to the act. Add to this the occasional (but not consistent) testimony by Reeves' girlfriend that SHE fired the shots several days before, and you cannot build a compelling case FOR suicide from this evidence. Reasonable doubt, yes, but a strong case, no.

No gunshot residue on Reeves' hand: Nowhere in the police or coroner's files is there any evidence that Reeves did not have gunshot residue on his hand. He was not tested for gunshot residue (a common omission in clear-cut suicides in 1959). Therefore no one knows whether such residue was there or not. You cannot build a case for or against suicide with gunshot residue evidence here, because there is no such evidence, one way or the other.

No powder burns on the skin: Popular belief has it that an absence of powder burns MUST mean a weapon was fired from some distance away. It means nothing of the kind. One homicide detective actually told me "When I see powder burns in an apparent suicide, I start thinking murder." In a contact wound, where the muzzle of a pistol is pressed against the skin, all or virtually all of the gunpowder is projected INTO the wound track and leaves little or no stippling on the external body. A pistol would have had to have been either in direct contact with the skin OR twenty or more feet away in order not to leave any evidence on the skin of burning powder. There is no point in Reeves's bedroom that is more than eight feet from a wall.

Location of the gun: The gun was found on the floor between Reeves' feet, where it might easily have fallen, since he was shot while seated on the edge of the bed. Forensic pathologist Dr. Linda Norton (well known for doing the Lee Harvey Oswald re-autopsy) told me that due to reflex action, suicide guns are found all over the place and little credence is given to where a gun lands. She went on to state that between the feet of a (formerly) seated victim is a most natural spot for a gun to land. The empty shell casing WAS found under the body, a most natural circumstance, since the most natural position for holding a pistol to one's temple is with the gun nearly upside-down. If you have doubts try this test: Without thinking about it, quickly point at your temple. If you're like most people, your little finger will be toward your front and your index finger will be toward your back. If you imagine that your hand is holding a pistol, you will see that the top of the imaginary pistol is facing behind you rather than toward the ceiling. Such a position would eject the cartridge down and to the rear of the victim, hitting the bed much more quickly than the body could fall. Again, according to Dr. Norton and dozens of criminalists I've interviewed, there's nothing unusual about finding a spent cartridge under a (formerly) seated victim.

The bullet was found in the ceiling: Continue with the imaginary gun pointed at your head. If you sit up straight, head erect, a bullet from that gun would pass through the temple and lodge most likely in the wall on the other side of you. However, imagine yourself so drunk you can barely sit upright (.27 blood/alcohol content, remember). Tilt your head to the right a little, "gun" still pointed at your temple. In this highly possible, perhaps highly likely position, a bullet traversing your temple would very likely lodge in the ceiling above your left side — precisely where the bullet that killed George Reeves was found.

No fingerprints found on the gun: The police report indicated that the gun was freshly oiled. Despite "common knowledge" to the contrary, a freshly oiled gun will NOT hold fingerprints. Fingerprints in even a thin coat of oil will dissipate just as they will in any other liquid. Prints are usually found when oil FROM THE FINGERS is deposited on a NON-oily surface. A wide variety of police officers and criminalists have been unanimous in providing this interpretation of the lack of fingerprints. (However, one detective DID suggest to me that sometimes a report indicating that no prints were found on a weapon was really a cover for the fact that a rookie patrolman had picked up the gun improperly and ruined whatever prints MIGHT have been there. There is nothing to suggest that this is what happened in the Reeves case. But either way, the lack of prints provides no meaningful evidence whatsoever as to who held the gun at the time of firing.)

Reeves supposedly was not depressed at the time: Well, who ya gonna believe? I've got scores of interviews with friends of Reeves who will tell you that he was depressed as hell. I've got a good number of interviews with friends who state that he was not depressed. But most of the "not depressed" statements come from friends who hadn't seen him in a long time. Most of the "depressed" statements come from friends who saw a lot of him in the last weeks. He even gave interviews in the last month of his life that strongly suggest depression.

He had just signed a new contract to do Superman again: According to an interview I had with Jack Larson, "Anyone who thinks another season of Superman wouldn't depress George didn't know George." Make of that what you will. I have no ax to grind, other than a dedication to the truth of the case. As I said, I began my work convinced that murder had happened. Cold, hard facts have prevented me from maintaining that belief.

As to Hollywoodland, I served as unpaid historical consultant on the film, and it's my belief that while it portrays with equal fairness the three major theories about Reeves's death, it does so in a way that is eminently fair and respectful of the man I've come to know in the many years of research. I had great trepidation prior to seeing the film, even in light of the dedication the filmmakers seemed to have for getting as many details right as dramatically possible. I was enormously relieved and pleased by the resultant film. I'm inordinately devoted to the defense of George Reeves's honor and memory, having reached a point where I know more about him than I know about my best friend or my father. I fervently believe that he would be pleased and honored by the respect he is shown in this film. And Ben Affleck does a job portraying him that is far superior to anything I expected. In some scenes, he looks remarkably like Reeves, and he caught precisely the vast charm for which Reeves is still remembered in Hollywood by those who knew him.

The original title was Truth, Justice and the American Way. Warner Bros. threatened to sue Focus Features if they used the slogan, and so it was changed to Hollywoodland. I have no idea why that title was chosen, but I find it interesting that one of Hollywood's other famous suicides was that of Peg Entwistle, who leaped to her death from one of the letters of the well-known Hollywood sign. Except that back in those days, the sign still represented not the town or the industry, but a real estate development. In those days, it read "Hollywoodland."

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