George Reeves Documentary
George Reeves: The Perils of a Superhero – Biography
His death at age 45 from a gunshot remains a polarizing issue, the official finding was suicide, but some believe he was murdered or the victim of an accidental shooting.
Reeves was born George Keefer Brewer in Woolstock, Iowa, the son of Don Brewer and Helen Lescher (his death certificate erroneously lists his birthplace as Kentucky). Reeves was born five months into their marriage (the reason Reeves’s mother subsequently claimed a false April birth date for her son, something he was unaware of until adulthood). They separated soon afterward and Helen moved back to her home at Galesburg, Illinois.
Later, Reeves’s mother moved to California to stay with her sister. There, Helen met and married Frank Bessolo. George’s father married Helen Schultz in 1925 and had children with her. Don Brewer apparently never saw his son again.
In 1927, Frank Bessolo adopted George as his own son, and the boy took on his new stepfather’s last name to become George Bessolo. Frank and Helen Bessolo’s marriage lasted fifteen years and ended in divorce while Reeves was away visiting relatives. His mother told Reeves that Frank had committed suicide. Reeves’s cousin, Catherine Chase, told biographer Jim Beaver that Reeves did not know for several years that Bessolo was still alive, nor that he was his stepfather and not his biological father.
George began acting and singing in high school and continued performing on stage as a student at Pasadena Junior College. He also boxed as a heavyweight in amateur matches until his mother Helen ordered him to stop, fearing his good looks might be damaged.
While studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, Reeves met his future wife, Ellanora Needles. They married on September 22, 1940, in San Gabriel, California, at the Church of Our Savior. They had no children and divorced ten years later.
Reeves’s film career began in 1939 when he was cast as Stuart Tarleton (incorrectly listed in the film’s credits as Brent Tarleton), one of Scarlett O’Hara‘s suitors in Gone with the Wind. It was a minor role but he and Fred Crane, both in brightly dyed red hair as “the Tarleton Twins,” were in the film’s opening scenes. Like Wilcox, Reeves was contracted to Warner Brothers soon after being cast. Warners changed his professional name to “George Reeves.” His Gone with the Wind screen credit reflects the change. Between the start of Gone With the Wind production and its release twelve months later, several films on his Warner Bros. contract were made and released, making Gone With the Wind his first film role, but his fifth film release.
George Reeves in Gone with the Wind
He starred in a number of two-reel short subjects and appeared in several B-pictures, including two with Ronald Reagan and three with James Cagney (Torrid Zone, The Fighting 69th, and The Strawberry Blonde). Warners loaned him to producer Alexander Kordato co-star with Merle Oberon in Lydia, a box-office failure. Released from his Warners contract, he signed a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox but was released after only a handful of films, one of which was the Charlie Chan movie Dead Men Tell. He freelanced, appearing in five Hopalong Cassidy westerns before director Mark Sandrich cast Reeves as Lieutenant John Summers opposite Claudette Colbert in So Proudly We Hail! (1942), a war drama for Paramount Pictures. He won critical acclaim for the role and garnered considerable publicity.
Reeves was drafted into the U.S. Army in early 1943. He was assigned to the U.S. Army Air Forces and performed in the USAAF’s Broadway show Winged Victory. The long Broadway run was followed by a national tour and a movie version. Reeves was then transferred to the Army Air Forces’ First Motion Picture Unit, where he made training films. He looked forward to working withSo Proudly We Hail! director Mark Sandrich. Sandrich felt that Reeves had the potential to become a major star, but Sandrich died in 1945. Reeves would later comment on the impact Sandrich’s death had on his film career.
Discharged at the war’s end, Reeves returned to Hollywood. However, many studios were slowing down their production schedules, and some production units had shut down completely. He appeared in a pair of outdoor thrillers with Ralph Byrd and in a Sam Katzman-produced serial, The Adventures of Sir Galahad. Reeves fit the rugged requirements of the roles and, with his retentive memory for dialogue, he did well under rushed production conditions. He was able to play against type and starred as a villainous gold hunter in a Johnny Weissmuller Jungle Jim film.
Separated from his wife (their divorce became final in 1950), Reeves moved to New York City in 1949. He performed on live television anthology programs as well as on radio and then returned to Hollywood in 1951 for a role in a Fritz Lang film, Rancho Notorious. Meanwhile, DC Comics was planning a television adaptation of its most famous character.
In 1953, Reeves played a minor character, Sergeant Maylon Stark, in the motion picture From Here To Eternity. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and gave Reeves a second motion picture appearance in a film that ultimately won the Oscar.
In June 1951, Reeves was offered the role of Superman in a new television series titled Adventures of Superman. He was initially reluctant to take the role because, like many actors of his time, he considered television unimportant and believed few would see his work. He received low pay and only for the weeks of production. The half-hour films were shot on tight schedules; at least two shows were made every six days. According to commentaries on the Adventures of Superman DVD sets, multiple scripts would be filmed simultaneously to take advantage of the standing sets, so that, e.g., all the “Perry White’s office” scenes for three or four episodes would be shot the same day and the various “apartment” scenes would be done consecutively.
Reeves’s career as Superman had begun with Superman and the Mole Men, a film intended both as a B-picture and as the pilot for the TV series. Immediately after completing it, Reeves and the crew began production of the first season’s episodes, all shot over 13 weeks in the summer of 1951. The series went on the air the following year, and Reeves was amazed at becoming a national celebrity. In 1952, the struggling ABC Network purchased the show for national broadcast, which gave him greater visibility.
The Superman cast members had restrictive contracts which prevented them from taking other work that might interfere with the series. Except for the second season, the Superman schedule was brief (13 shows shot two per week, a total of seven weeks out of a year), but all had a “30-day clause,” which meant that the producers could demand their exclusive services for a new season on four weeks’ notice. This prevented long-term work on major films with long schedules, stage plays which might lead to a lengthy run, or any other series work.
However, Reeves had earnings from personal appearances beyond his meager salary, and his affection for his young fans was genuine. Reeves took his role model status seriously, avoiding cigarettes where children could see him and eventually quitting smoking. He kept his private life discreet. Nevertheless, he had a romantic relationship with a married ex-showgirl eight years his senior, Toni Mannix, wife of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer general manager Eddie Mannix.
In the documentary Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, Jack Larson described how when he first met Reeves he told him that he enjoyed his performance in So Proudly We Hail! According to Larson, Reeves said that if Mark Sandrich had not died, he would not be there in “this monkey suit.” Larson said it was the only time he heard Reeves say anything negative about being Superman.
In between the first and second seasons of Superman, Reeves got sporadic acting assignments in one-shot TV anthology programs and in two feature films, Forever Female (1953) and Fritz Lang‘s The Blue Gardenia (1953). But by the time the series was airing nationwide, Reeves found himself so associated with Superman and Clark Kent that it was difficult for him to find other roles. An untrue but often-repeated story suggests that he was upset when his scenes as Sergeant Maylon Stark in the classic film From Here to Eternity were cut after a preview audience kept yelling “There’s Superman!” whenever he appeared on screen. Eternity director Fred Zinnemann, the screenwriter Daniel Taradash, and others have maintained that every scene written for Reeves’s character was shot and included as part of the released film. Zinnemann has also asserted that there were no post-release cuts, nor was there even a preview screening. Everything in the first production draft of the script is still present in the final product seen since 1953.
With Toni Mannix, Reeves worked tirelessly to raise money to fight myasthenia gravis. He served as national chairman for the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation in 1955. During the second season, Reeves appeared in a short film for the Treasury Department, Stamp Day for Superman, in which he caught the villains and told children why they should invest in government savings stamps.
In the 104 episodes of the show, Reeves got along well with his costars. Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen, recalled that Reeves enjoyed playing practical jokes on the crew and cast. Reeves insisted his original Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates, be given equal billing in the credits. He also stood by Robert Shayne (who played Police Inspector William “Bill” Henderson) when Shayne was subpoenaed by FBI agents on the set of Superman. (Shayne’s political activism in the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s was used by his embittered ex-wife as an excuse to label him a Communist, although Shayne had never been a Communist Party member. When Coates was replaced by Noel Neill (who had played Lois Lane in the Kirk Alyn serials), Reeves defended her nervousness on her first day when he felt that the director was being too harsh with her. On the other hand, he liked to stand outside camera range, mugging at the other cast members to see if he could break them up. According to Larson, Reeves took on-set photos with his Minox and handed out prints. By all accounts, there was strong camaraderie among the show’s actors.
After two seasons, Reeves was dissatisfied with the one-dimensional role and low salary. Now 40 years old, he wished to quit and move on with his career. The producers looked elsewhere for a new star, allegedly contacting Kirk Alyn, the actor who had first portrayed Superman in the original movie serials and who had initially refused to play the role on television. Alyn turned them down again.
Reeves established his own production company and conceived a TV adventure series, Port of Entry, which would be shot on location in Hawaii and Mexico, writing the pilot script himself. However, Superman producers offered him a salary increase and he returned to the series. He was reportedly making $5,000 per week, but only while the show was in production (about eight weeks each year). As for Port of Entry, Reeves was never able to gain financing for the project, and the show was never made.
In 1957, the producers considered a theatrical film, Superman and the Secret Planet. A script was commissioned from David Chantler, who had written many of the TV scripts. In 1959, however, negotiations began for a renewal of the series, with 26 episodes scheduled to go into production. (John Hamilton, who had played Perry White, died in 1958, so the former film-serial Perry White Pierre Watkin was to replace him.)
By mid 1959, contracts were signed, costumes refitted, and new teleplay writers assigned. Noel Neill was quoted as saying that the cast of Superman was ready to do a new series of the still-popular show. Producers reportedly promised Reeves that the new programs would be as serious and action-packed as the first season, guaranteed him creative input, and slated him to direct several of the new shows as he had done with the final three episodes of the 1957 season. In the documentary Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, Neill remembered that Reeves was excited to go back to work. Jack Larson, however, told biographer Beaver: “Anyone who thought another season of Superman would make George Reeves happy didn’t know George.”
Attempting to showcase his versatility, Reeves sang on the Tony Bennett show in August 1956. He appeared on I Love Lucy (Episode #165, Lucy Meets Superman”) in 1956 as Superman. Character actor Ben Welden had acted with Reeves in the Warner Bros. days and frequently guest-starred on Superman. He said, “After the I Love Lucy show, Superman was no longer a challenge to him…. I know he enjoyed the role, but he used to say, ‘Here I am, wasting my life.” His good friend Bill Walsh, a producer at Disney Studios, gave Reeves a prominent role in Westward Ho, the Wagons! (1956), in which Reeves wore a beard and mustache. It was to be his final feature film appearance.
Reeves, Noel Neill, Natividad Vacío, Gene LeBell, and a trio of musicians toured with a public appearance show from 1957 onward. The stage show was a gigantic hit for the excited children who got to see their hero in person, though apparently not a huge moneymaker for Reeves. The first half of the show was a Superman sketch in which Reeves and Neill performed with LeBell as a villain called “Mr. Kryptonite” who captured Lois Lane. Kent then rushed offstage to return as Superman, who came to the rescue and fought with the bad guy. The second half of the show was Reeves out of costume and as himself, singing and accompanying himself on the guitar. Vacio and Neill accompanied him in duets.
Reeves and Toni Mannix split in 1958 and Reeves announced his engagement to society playgirl Leonore Lemmon. He complained to friends, columnists, and his mother of his financial problems. He received royalties from syndication of the Superman show, but these were insubstantial, particularly in view of his lifestyle. Under these circumstances, the planned revival ofSuperman was apparently a small lifeline. Reeves had also hoped to direct a low-budget science-fiction film written by a friend from his Pasadena Playhouse days, and he had discussed the project with his first Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates, the previous year. However, Reeves and his partner failed to find financing and the film was never made. There was another Superman stage show scheduled for July and a planned stage tour of Australia. Reeves had options for making a living, but those options apparently all involved playing Superman again.
Jack Larson and Noel Neill both remembered Reeves as a noble Southern gentleman (even though he was from Iowa) with a sign on his dressing room door that said “Honest George, the people’s friend.” After Reeves had been made a “Kentucky Colonel” during a publicity trip in the South, the sign on his dressing room door was replaced with a new one that read Honest George, also known as Col. Reeves created by the show’s prop department. A photo of a smiling Reeves and the sign appear in Gary Grossman’s book about the show.
According to the Los Angeles Police Department report, between approximately 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. on June 16, 1959, George Reeves died of a gunshot wound to his head in the upstairs bedroom at his home in Benedict Canyon. The police arrived within the hour. Present in the house at the time of the incident were Leonore Lemmon (who had been Reeves’s fiancee at the time), William Bliss, writer Richard Condon, and Carol Van Ronkel, who lived a few blocks away with her husband, screenwriter Rip Van Ronkel.
According to these witnesses, Lemmon and Reeves had been dining and drinking earlier in the evening in the company of writer Condon, who was ghostwriting an autobiography of prizefighter Archie Moore. Reeves and Lemmon had had an argument at the restaurant in front of Condon, and the three of them returned home. However, Lemmon stated in news interviews with Reeves’s biographer Jim Beaver that she and Reeves had not accompanied friends to the restaurant but rather to wrestling matches. Contemporaneous news items indicate that Reeves’s friend Gene LeBell was wrestling that night—yet LeBell’s own recollections are that he did not see Reeves after a workout session earlier in the day. In any event, Reeves went to bed, but sometime near midnight an impromptu party began when Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel arrived. Reeves angrily came downstairs and complained about the noise. After blowing off steam, he stayed with the guests for a while, had a drink, and then retired upstairs again in a bad mood.
The guests later heard a single gunshot from upstairs. Bliss ran upstairs into Reeves’s bedroom and found him lying across the bed dead, his naked body facing upward and his feet on the floor. It is believed that this corroborated Reeves’s sitting position on the edge of the bed when he allegedly shot himself, after which his body fell back on the bed and the 9 mm Luger pistol fell between his feet.
Dubious statements from the witnesses that were made to the police and the press essentially agree. Neither Leonore Lemmon nor even other guests who were at the scene made any apology for their delay in calling the police after hearing the fatal gunshot that killed Reeves; the shock of the death, the lateness of the hour, and their state of intoxication were given as reasons for the delay. Police said that all of the witnesses present were extremely inebriated and that coherent stories were very difficult to obtain from them.
In contemporary news articles, Lemmon attributed Reeves’s alleged suicide to depression caused by his “failed career” and inability to find more work. The report made by the Los Angeles Police states, “[Reeves was]… depressed because he couldn’t get the sort of parts he wanted.” Newspapers and wire-service reports possibly misquoted LAPD Sergeant V.A. Peterson as saying: “Miss Lemmon blurted, ‘He’s probably going to go shoot himself.’ A noise was heard upstairs. She continued, ‘He’s opening a drawer to get the gun.’ A shot was heard. ‘See there—I told you so!'”‘ However, this statement may have been embellished by journalists. Lemmon and her friends were downstairs at the time the shot was fired, with music playing downstairs. It would have been nearly impossible to hear a drawer opening in the upstairs bedroom through the music. Lemmon later claimed that she had never said anything so specific but rather had made an offhand remark along the lines of “Oh, he’ll probably go shoot himself now.”
While the official story given by Lemmon to the police placed her in the living room with party guests at the time of the shooting, statements from Fred Crane, who was Reeves’s friend and colleague from “Gone With The Wind,” put Leonore Lemmon either inside or in direct proximity to Reeves’s bedroom—minimally as a witness to the shooting. According to Crane, Bill Bliss had told Millicent Trent that after the shot rang out and while Bliss was having a drink, Leonore Lemmon came downstairs and said, “Tell them I was down here, tell them I was down here!” In an interview with Carl Glass, Crane expanded on this: “It needed to be said and that is the way I heard it from Millie as it was told to her by Bill Bliss. Janet Bliss and Millie were very close friends. I met Millie at Bill and Janet’s house up in Benedict Canyon on Easton Drive. We lived on the same street.”
Dubious witness statements and the examination of the crime scene by the Los Angeles Police led to the official inquiry conclusion that Reeves’s death was a suicide. Reeves’ will, dated 1956, bequeathed his entire estate to Toni Mannix, much to Lemmon’s surprise and devastation. Her statement to the press read, “Toni got a house for charity, and I got a broken heart,” referring to the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation.
Reeves is interred at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena, California. In 1985, he was posthumously named one of the honorees by DC Comics in the company’s 50th anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great.
Many people have refused to believe that George Reeves would kill himself and have pointed out that no gunpowder from the gun’s discharge was found on the actor’s skin, leading them to believe that the weapon would therefore have to have been held several inches away from his head when it was fired; however, forensic professionals say that gunpowder tattooing is left only when the weapon is not in contact with the skin, while Reeves’s skull fracture pattern shows that it was a contact wound. Followers of the case also point to the absence of fingerprints on the gun and of gunshot-residue testing on the actor’s hands as evidence in support of one theory or another. Police, however, found the gun too thickly coated in oil to hold fingerprints, and gunshot-residue testing was not commonly performed by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1959.
Reeves’s incredulous mother, Helen Bessolo, employed attorney Jerry Giesler and the Nick Harris Detective Agency. Their operatives included a fledgling detective named Milo Speriglio, who would later falsely claim to have been the primary investigator. A cremation of Reeves’s body was postponed. No substantial new evidence was ever uncovered, but Reeves’s mother never accepted the conclusion that her son had committed suicide. She also publicly denied that her son planned to marry Leonore Lemmon because he had never told her. However, he had allegedly announced the engagement to his friends and occasionally called her “my wife.”
A later article quoted “pallbearers” at Reeves’s funeral (actors Alan Ladd and Gig Young) as saying that Reeves was not the type to commit suicide. However, neither of these men actually served as a pallbearer, and only one, Young, was a friend of Reeves. “Anti-suicide” proponents argue that Reeves would have no desire to end his life with so many prospects in sight.
In the partially fictional Reeves biography Hollywood Kryptonite, Reeves is murdered by order of Toni Mannix as punishment for their breakup. This is illustrated as a potential scenario in Hollywoodland, with the blame more clearly leveled at Eddie Mannix than at Toni, although the film ultimately suggests the death was a suicide. However, the authors of Hollywood Kryptonite were forced to create a “hit man” to make the plot of their book work, though there was no proof of such a hit man.
In the Grossman book, Jack Larson was quoted as having accepted that it was suicide. Although he suggested in a 1982Entertainment Tonight/This Weekend interview that he had momentarily questioned the verdict based on a friend’s comment, he has stated publicly on several occasions that he always believed that Reeves had killed himself and that quotations implying that he ever believed otherwise were either in error or falsified. “Jack and I never really tried to get anyone to re-open George’s death,” Noel Neill said. “I am not aware of anyone who wanted George dead. I never said I thought George was murdered. I just don’t know what happened. All I know is that George always seemed happy to me, and I saw him two days before he died and he was still happy then.”
Hollywoodland dramatizes the investigation of Reeves’s death. The movie stars Ben Affleck as Reeves and Adrien Brody as fictional investigator Louis Simo, suggested by real-life detective Milo Speriglio. The movie shows three possible scenarios for Reeves’s death: being killed semi-accidentally by Lemmon, being murdered by an unnamed hitman under orders from Eddie Mannix, and, finally, committing suicide.
Toni Mannix suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for years and died in 1983. In 1999, following the resurrection of the Reeves case by TV shows Unsolved Mysteries and Mysteries and Scandals, Los Angeles publicist Edward Lozzi claimed that Toni Mannix had confessed to a Catholic priest in Lozzi’s presence that she was responsible for having George Reeves killed. Lozzi made the claim on TV tabloid shows, including Extra, Inside Edition, and Court TV. In the wake of Hollywoodland’s publicity in 2006, Mr. Lozzi repeated his story to the tabloid The Globe and to the LA Times, where the statement was disputed by Jack Larson. Larson stated that facts he knew from his close friendship with Toni Mannix precluded Lozzi’s story from being true. According to Lozzi, he lived with and then visited the elderly Mannix from 1979 to 1982 and on at least a half-dozen occasions he called a priest when Mrs. Mannix feared death and wanted to confess her sins. Mannix suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and senile dementia, but Lozzi insists that her “confession” was made during a period of lucidity in Mannix’s home before she was moved from her house to a hospital. Mannix lived in a hospital suite for the last several years of her life, having donated a large portion of her estate a priori to the hospital in exchange for perpetual care. Lozzi also told of Tuesday night prayer sessions that Toni Mannix conducted with him and others at an altar shrine to George Reeves that she had built in her home. Lozzi stated, “During these prayer sessions she prayed loudly and trance-like to Reeves and God, and without confessing yet, asked them for forgiveness.” Lozzi’s claim, however, is unsupported by independent evidence.