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

Dear Cecil:

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?

Cecil replies:

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.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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