Search the Site
Reeves was born George Keefer Brewer in Woolstock, Iowa, the son of Don Brewer and Helen Lescher. George's parents divorced and his mother remarried. In 1927, Frank Bessolo his mother's next husband adopted George as his own son, and the boy took on his new stepfather's last name to become George Bessolo.
Helen's marriage to Frank lasted fifteen years and ended in divorce while George was away visiting relatives. Helen told George that Frank had committed suicide. Reeves's cousin, Catherine Chase, told biographer Jim Beaver that George did not know for several years that Bessolo was still alive nor that he had been his stepfather and not his birth father.
His film career began in 1939 when he was cast as Stuart Tarleton (although incorrectly listed as Brent Tarleton), one of Vivien Leigh's two suitors in Gone with the Wind. It was a minor role, but he and Fred Crane, both in dyed bright red hair as "the Tarleton Twins," were in the film's opening scenes. He was contracted to Warner Bros. at the time, and the actor's professional name became "George Reeves" and his GWTW screen credit reflects the change. He married actress Ellanora Needles in 1940, but had no children with her during their nine-year marriage.
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 Korda to 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. He freelanced, appearing in five Hopalong Cassidy westerns, before director Mark Sandrich cast Reeves as Lieutenant John Summers in So Proudly We Hail! (1942), a war drama, opposite Claudette Colbert, for Paramount Pictures. He won critical acclaim for the role and garnered considerable publicity.
Reeves was drafted into the U.S. Army 17 months after Pearl Harbor. In late 1943, he was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces and assigned to the Broadway show Winged Victory, produced by and for the Army Air Forces. A long Broadway run followed, as well as a national tour and a movie version of the play. Reeves was later transferred to the Army Air Forces' First Motion Picture Unit, where he made training films. He looked forward to working with his So Proudly We Hail! director Mark Sandrich again. Sandrich apparently felt that Reeves had the potential to become a major star; however, Sandrich died while Reeves was still in uniform. In later years, Reeves would sadly recall the impact Sandrich's death had on his career commenting once that had he been alive he would not be in this monkey suit referring to the Superman costume. This was according to Jimmy Olsen actor Jack Larson. Larson said it was the only time he ever heard Reeves say anything negative about being Superman.
When Reeves returned for more film work, many movie studios were slowing down their production schedules, while many production units had been shut down completely. He took work where he could, including a pair of outdoor thrillers with Ralph Byrd, and a Sam Katzman-produced serial, The Adventures of Sir Galahad. These postwar pictures were not star vehicles; Reeves simply fit the rugged requirements of the roles and, with his retentive memory for dialogue, he could function well under rushed production conditions. In addition, he was able to play against type and starred as a villainous gold hunter in a Johnny Weismuller Jungle Jim film, which for a B-movie was an average success at the box office.
In June 1951, Reeves was offered the role of
Superman in a television series. He was initially reluctant to take
the role because, like many actors of his time, he considered
television to be unimportant and believed that few would see his work.
He worked for low pay even as the star, and was only paid during the
weeks of production. The half-hour films were shot on tight schedules:
at least two shows every six days. According to various commentaries
on the Adventures of Superman DVD sets, multiple scripts would be
filmed simultaneously to take advantage of the standing sets, so all
the "Perry White's office" scenes for three or four episodes would be
shot the same day, all the various "apartment" scenes done
consecutively, and so on.
George Reeves's career as Superman began with a film designed as both a theatrical B-picture and a pilot for the TV series, Superman and the Mole Men. Immediately after completing this short feature, Reeves and the crew began production of the first season's episodes, shot over 13 weeks during the summer of 1951. The series began airing during 1952-53, and Reeves was astonished when he became a national celebrity. In 1957, the struggling ABC Network picked up the show for national broadcast, which gave him and the rest of the cast even greater visibility.
Reeves did many appearances as Superman, but this caused some problems for him as small children often poked, punched, or kicked him to see if he really was invulnerable. Reeves nonetheless took his role model status seriously, avoiding cigarettes where children could see him, eventually quitting smoking altogether, and keeping his private life discreet.
After two seasons, Reeves expressed dissatisfaction with the one-dimensional role and the low salary. Now at 40 years old, he wished to quit the show and move on with his career. The producers of the show looked elsewhere for a new lead actor, allegedly contacting Kirk Alyn, the actor who had first portrayed Superman in the two original movie serials and who had initially refused to play the role on television. Alyn allegedly 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 role. He was making a substantial sum for the time,
reportedly $5,000 per week, but only while the show was in production
(about eight weeks each year).
In 1957, a theatrical film was considered by the producers, Superman and the Secret Planet, and a script commissioned from David Chantler, who had written many of the TV scripts. Instead, in 1959, negotiations began for a renewal of the series, 26 episodes scheduled to go into production in the fall. (John Hamilton had played Perry White, but he had died in 1958, so former serial Perry White Pierre Watkin was brought on to replace him as the newspaper's editor.)
By mid-1959, contracts were signed, costumes were re-fitted, and new teleplays 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 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 that "Anyone who thought another season of Superman would make George Reeves happy didn't know George."
An often told story suggests that George Reeves was upset when his scenes were cut as Sergeant Maylon Stark in the classic film From Here to Eternity 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' 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 ever since 1953.
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 the head in the upstairs
bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home. He was 45 years old. Controversy
surrounds his death till this day as many fans of George Reeves refuse
to believe he would commit suicide. A movie was even made in recent
Affleck that addresses the mystery surrounding Reeves' death.
TV Guide and Superman movie poster
George Reeves with Lucille Ball