In honor of Superman’s 75th anniversary and the June 14th premiere of Zac Snyder’s Man of Steel, Fante’s Inferno honors the iconic character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with a spotlight on The Men Who Were Superman.
Part I: 1940-1958
When I first sat down to write this post, I didn’t expect to find more than five or six actors over the last 75 years that have played Superman. But upon further review the list ended up much longer when you include radio, animation, TV specials, etc. IMDB lists 175 appearances of Superman (live action and voice over) on film, TV and radio, and that number increases to 219 when you include video games and archive footage. So I’ve decided to concentrate primarily on the actors that have played Superman/Clark Kent in the feature films and serials, with a couple of notable exceptions.
This name may not stand out among the more famous actors we’ve known to play Superman, but Ray Middleton is technically the first actor to play Superman on film even if it was in a home movie. Middleton had a long career as an actor in film, TV and theater, but it was his public appearance in the classic Golden Age Superman costume for “Superman Day” on July 3, 1940 at the World’s Fair in New York that places him on this list. An attendee at the event took the 16mm footage below.
The Adventures of Superman Radio Serial (1940-1951), Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons (1941-1942), The New Adventures of Superman (1966)
When I began my research for this post, I instinctively began with Kirk Alyn, the first actor to portray Superman in the live action serials. But I was quickly reminded that Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons from 1941 preceded the serials on the big screen by seven years. Actor Bud Collyer was the voice of Clark Kent/Superman in those animated classics as well as The Adventures of Superman radio serial from 1940-1951 (Collyer’s first broadcast as Superman/Clark Kent in the radio serial preceded Middleton’s World’s Fair appearance by several months). While his dialogue was sparse in the Fleischer cartoons, Collyer’s voice brought charm to Clark Kent and strength to Superman. He would later voice the role again in the animated The New Adventures of Superman (1966-1970) and several other DC superhero cartoons.
Superman (1948), Atom-Man vs. Superman (1950)
Kirk Alyn was the first actor to play Superman in a live action film production with 1948’s Superman serials and 1950’s Atom-Man vs. Superman. He declined the role in The Adventures of Superman TV series, but in 1978 Alyn had a special cameo appearance in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie as Lois Lane’s father General Sam Lane opposite Noell Neil (Lois Lane from The Adventures of Superman) as young Lois’ mother.
Superman and the Mole Men (1951), The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
For many, George Reeves will always be Superman, and Superman will always be George Reeves. He wore the costume for six years during The Adventures of Superman’s run on TV in the 50’s until his untimely death in 1959. Other notable roles in his career include Stuart Tartleton in Gone With The Wind (1939) and Sgt. Maylon Stark in From Here to Eternity (1953). Even though I was born in the early 70’s, George Reeves was actually the first actor I had seen in the role of Superman. I had been introduced to The Adventures of Superman in reruns prior to Christopher Reeves’ turn as Superman in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978).
Coming up in Part II of The Men Who Were Superman: Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill.