By PHILIP MARSH
Originally published in the January 2010 print edition of Autograph.
Superman was first created in 1932 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They were two Jewish boys in Cleveland, Ohio, nerdy and powerless, poor and dreaming. It was the Great Depression and World War II was looming on the horizon. And what these boys dreamed of was a superman: a man strong enough to defend the powerless, with x-ray vision that laid open the imposing metropolitan landscape, and with a character unblemished by fear, doubt or jealousy. Even Superman’s Kryptonian name, “Kal-El,” echoes the Hebrew for: “voice of God.” But Superman is also Clark Kent: the nerdy, bumbling, glasses-wearing guy that people can relate to. Both Siegel and Shuster agree on this point: Superman was a kind of wish fulfillment for the normal guy, the Clark Kent, which is exactly what made him so popular.
In 1938, Superman appeared on the cover of the first issue of Action Comics, put out by a new company, Detective Comics, which was forged in an attempt to forestall the bankruptcy of National Allied Publications. But Superman became much more than a way to avert bankruptcy. Detective Comics became DC Comics and the term “super hero” was born into the national consciousness. Superman marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Comics. Radio serials, television programs, films, newspaper strips and video games followed, so that today, so many actors have played superman in one medium or another, that it’s a virtual collector’s paradise.
Clayton ‘Bud’‘ Collyer (1908-1969)
Originally named Clayton Johnson Heermance, Jr., ‘Bud’ Collyer was born in New York City, attended law school, and had no idea he would become Superman’s iconic voice in the popular 1940s radio drama, The Adventures of Superman. After law school, Clayton led a Clark Kent existence as a clerk before making it big in broadcasting, playing Superman to Joan Alexander’s constantly-in-trouble Lois Lane. Collyer voiced both Clark Kent and Superman, conveying the transition between them with the famous phrase: “This looks like a job…for Superman!” On the words, “for Superman,” his voice dropped an entire octave. The show began on WOR in 1940, and ran from 1942 to 1949 on Mutual. In October 1949, it changed to ABC, until March, 1951 when the show ended.
Collyer’s Johnny Hancock goes for $25, but a signed photo should be around $80.
Kirk Alyn (1910-1999)
Kirk Alyn was originally a NYC-based stage actor and dancer. In fact, it was Kirk Alyn’s ballet training that gave him the grace Columbia Pictures producer Sam Katzman wanted for the 1948 Superman 15-part film serial. Alyn didn’t move like anyone else, any of the body-builders or muscle men they tried out. He moved like it was easy, and that’s exactly, Katzman decided, how Superman should move.
Stunt man Jack Ingram broke his leg jumping off a building during filming, so the decision was made to have Alyn do his own stunts. “There were several times when they forgot I was an actor,” Alyn said in an interview with Superman.nu, “when they thought I really was Superman. In one bit, I was supposed to run into a flaming building, pick up these two people and carry them off to safety. Well, I picked each one up in a different arm. We did a couple of takes, but for one reason or another, they had to shoot the scene several times. After a while, our director, Spencer Bennet, came over to me and said, ‘That was good, Kirk, except I saw the veins in your neck puff out a little bit. You seem to be straining.’ ‘Damn it, Spence,’ I said, ‘this is about the eighth time we’ve shot this scene. You try to carry real people eight times. They’re not dummies, you know.’ He got totally flustered. ‘Oh, jeez. You’re not supposed to carry the real people! Where are the mannequins? Bring out the dummies!’”
After, the original Superman serial, Alyn went on to play Superman in Atom Man vs. Superman in 1950, and then filled the title role in 1952’s Blackhawk, another Columbia Pictures superhero serial that still has die hard fans today. Try as he might to break free, Alyn was stuck a hero: typecasting kept him from other exciting and challenging film roles. After turning down the TV version of Superman, which then went to George Reeves, Alyn was unable to get any other film assignments, and so returned to Broadway, where he continued to work for the rest of his career.
Kirk Alyn’s signature can be found for around $20, while signed photos fetch in the mid-$40 range.
George Reeves (1914-1959)
Originally an Olympic boxer, Reeves began his film career in 1939 with a small part in Gone With the Wind. More small parts came his way, and when Reeves’ was drafted in 1943, the Army put him to work making training videos. Then the role of a lifetime came along, disguised as a bad B-movie. Reeves was approached to play Superman in Superman and the Mole Men, a film intended both as a B-picture and as the pilot for a TV series. When the series went on the air in 1952, Reeves became an overnight national celebrity.
Reeves loved his fans and took his job as a role model seriously, even giving up smoking to keep kids from picking up the habit. But the contracts had all been negotiated before the show’s colossal success, and the one thing Reeves didn’t get from the series was money. After the series ended, Reeves went through a period of financial hardship and difficulty finding other roles. Test audiences would point at him whenever he came on screen, no matter what part he played, saying, “Look, it’s Superman!” Then, in 1959, things were looking up: a new Superman series with a renegotiated contract was on the horizon and Reeves was engaged to playgirl Leonore Lemmon. Which is why Reeves’ suicide, one June night in 1959, took the world by surprise.
To this day, conspiracy theories about Reeves’ death abound. Some say he committed suicide, some that his fiancé Lemmon accidentally killed him, others that he was murdered by a hit man hired by ex-lover Toni Mannix, wife of MGM studio head Eddie Mannix. There were irregularities in the case: though Reeves was believed to have shot himself in the head, the bullet casing was found under his body and the angle of the wound suggested that it could not have been self-inflicted. Despite further police inquiry, a host of books on the subject, and the 2006 biopic, Hollywoodland, starring Ben Affleck as Reeves, no convincing theory has come to the fore and Reeves’ death remains a mystery.
Reeves’ autograph is rare, valued at $700 even on a card. A signed picture can fetch up to $3,000. Tricia Eaton at RRAuction.com says, “George Reeves autographs are rare, especially on photos. Any celebrity that passes before their time is usually rare and collectable. But his iconic role as Superman, coupled with the mystery surrounding his death, really increases the desirability.”
Christopher Reeve (1952-2004)
It’s impossible to think of Superman without thinking of Christopher Reeve. When he was admitted to the advanced program at Julliard (the only other student admitted that year was Robin Williams), actor John Houseman had some special advice for him. He said: “Mr. Reeve, it is terribly important that you become a serious classical actor. Unless, of course, they offer you a shitload of money to do something else.”
Which is precisely what happened. Reeve starred in Superman I-IV. When he was first offered the part, Reeve was surprised: he was a self-described “skinny WASP.” The producers assured him they could pad the suit with fake muscles, but Reeve would have no such thing: he trained with David Prowse, the famous body-builder who played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, and managed to gain 30 pounds of solid muscle in just two months.
As with Kirk Alyn and George Reeves, Reeve had problems finding roles after his four-film tour as Superman. He turned down parts in big-budget action flicks in search of more demanding material, ultimately leading his career to bottom out.
While his acting career stalled, Reeve’s life took off—he became a serious equestrian, built his own sailboat and sailed from Chesapeake to Nova Scotia. He had become a serious aviator and used his plane to take government officials and journalists over areas of environmental damage to spread awareness. And in 1987, when 77 actors in Chile were threatened with execution by then dictator Augusto Pinochet, Reeve flew to Chile and organized a protest march that saved their lives. He was, in a word, Superman.
Then in 1995, Reeve’s horse balked at a jump in competition, throwing Reeve and fracturing his neck, rendering him a quadriplegic. But Reeve took recovery just as seriously as he took everything else, spending the rest of his life campaigning for spinal injuries, endowing research centers, raising awareness and advocating for more adventurous and experimental treatment programs. Of Christopher Reeve, UC Irvine said, “In the years following his injury, Christopher did more to promote research on spinal cord injury and other neurological disorders than any other person before or since.” He also returned to Hollywood, both acting and directing. He starred in the 1998 re-make of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. While filming a scene in which the hero begins to choke to death, Reeve, for maximum effect, insisted on having his breathing tube cut.
By 2004, Reeve had begun to heal: he could move some of his fingers, open his arms, and was able to register heat and cold on his legs. But on October 10, 2004, Reeve died of heart failure, due to an allergic reaction to antibiotics taken for a systemic infection. It is hard to keep from imagining what he could have gone on to do if he had lived.
Reeve was a wonderful signer and good to his fans, so signatures are plentiful and signed photos go for as low as $230, with stand alone signatures available for $150.
Dean Cain (1966- )
Malibu-raised Dean Cain was originally a professional football player for the Buffalo Bills, when he suffered a career ending knee injury during training camp. The sudden end to his athletic career stunned Cain and he turned to his second love: Hollywood. No, he didn’t want to star on the silver screen: he wanted to write. Cain began taking commercial work to fund his fledgling career as a screenwriter, but the commercials led to appearances on well known shows like Beverly Hills 90210.
When ABC decided to revamp the story of Superman for a smart, tongue-in-cheek television series, they turned to Cain. The new series, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-97) made use of the new, revised Superman legend written by John Bryne and Marv Wolfman. Goodbye, bumbling Clark Kent; Hello, dashing reporter. Instead of a timid guy called to heroic action, Cain played Clark Kent as a Superman who was deliberately pulling his punches. For the first time in Superman history, Lois Lane carried on a romance with both Clark Kent and Superman, which in turn led her to discover Clark Kent’s real identity. The new series thrived for the first few seasons and then gradually petered out, leaving Cain to a successful career as a writer and producer.
Cain is partnered with Celebrity Authentics, a company which works with celebrities to offer guaranteed authentic items with photo-documented proof. Cain signed photos can be purchased through their website starting at $95.
Brandon Routh (1979- )
Warner Bros. spent over a decade developing a plan to revamp the Superman film franchise and had designs on many big stars to don the cape. But director Bryan Singer insisted that an unknown actor be cast in the part, just as Christopher Reeve had been cast in the earlier films. Routh was the embodiment of “our collective memory of Superman,” said Singer, with a “combination of vulnerability and confidence.” Routh, a former model and soap actor, had often been told he resembled Christopher Reeve, and was in fact signed by his agent on that very premise.
Superman Returns was a tremendous box office success, grossing $200 million in the U.S. Though Routh signed on for two potential sequels, the studio does not appear to be moving forward. Routh does attend some conventions, but doesn’t sign through the mail. He has also partnered with Celebrity Authentics and signed photos can be bought
through their website for $120.
Supermen of the Future
There is one more Superman. An upcoming issue will focus on Tom Wellington in Smallville. Renewed for its ninth season this past February, the WB series focuses on Superman’s boyhood in the fictional Smallville.
Every man who has played Superman has brought something special to the role and as America keeps evolving, so does our favorite superhero. There will be more Supermen in our future and many more opportunities to collect the Man of Steel.