Reeves, George: Everything You Need to Know

George Reeves was born George Keefer Brewer on January 5, 1914, in Iowa. His birth date is often given as April 5, 1914, because he was born less than nine months after his parents' wedding. His mother, Helen, even told Reeves himself the April 5 date, and it wasnt until he was an adult that he learned the truth. He was adopted by his stepfather, and changed his name to George Bessolo before he took George Reeves as his stage name.

An amateur boxer and musician while growing up in Pasadena, California, Reeves also trained as an actor at the Pasedena Playhouse. It was this vocation that became his calling. He made his stage debut in 1935, and went on to appear in multiple productions at the Playhouse over the next eighteen years.

One of his early theatrical performances caught the eye of a Hollywood talent scout, and in late 1938 he took the stage name of George Reeves, landing his first studio contract and film, the instant classic “Gone With the Wind,” in which he played Brent Tarleton.

The following years brought him more stage and film work, including starring opposite Claudette Colbert in 1943s “So Proudly We Hail!,” directed by his mentor Mark Sandrich. He served in WWII and was married to actress Ellanora Needles for a decade. Reeves journey to his most famous role coincided with seismic changes in the movie world and in the new medium of television. During and after WWII, the major movie studio system began to change because of competition from television; talent was less likely to be under seven-year contracts at the studios.

In 1950, without major studio work on the horizon, the actor agreed to play Clark Kent/Superman in a low-budget hour-long movie, Superman and the Mole-Men. Kirk Alyn, who had recently played the role(s) in a couple of movie serials, was priced out of a reprise for the feature, directed by Lee Sholem. Reeves, playing opposite Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, made such a strong impression on Sholem and the producers during the 12-day shoot that another, more long-term, stint as Superman was proffered.

So it was that in 1951 (the same year MGM studio general manager Edgar Eddie Mannix married his longtime mistress, Camille Toni Lanier, Reeves signed a low-paying but multi-year contract to star in a new syndicated half-hour television series, “Adventures of Superman.” The actor well knew the mindset that television was considered inferior to feature films. Yet he quickly achieved the fame that had eluded him in films, though not the fortune.

The show (several episodes of which were directed by Sholem) was the first television program about the exploits of the character that had been created for comic books in the 1930s and broke out as an international favorite at the end of that decade. The Man of Steel had then been portrayed on radio (from 1940 to 1951), in 17 animated shorts, and in the two movie serials. But with the television medium coming into its own, it was Reeves portrayal that most strongly imprinted the character on the worlds consciousness.

Filming on the show (with Jack Larson, as Jimmy Olsen, joining Reeves and Coates) began in July 1951, with 24 episodes produced. Laying the groundwork for the program, “Superman and the Mole-Men” was released theatrically at Thanksgiving 1951, and enjoyed a successful run. In 1952, Reeves landed a role in what would be his last major motion picture, Fred Zinnemann's “From Here to Eternity,” which swept the 1953 Oscars.

But once the Kelloggs-sponsored “Adventures of Superman” began airing in September 1952, it became an instant favorite; as appointment television for millions of children, it catapulted its leading man to household name status. One year later, Reeves (pictured in his dual role of Clark and Superman) was on the cover of TV Guide (the cover headline read George Reeves–Man and Superman); the Mole-Men feature had been cut up and aired as two additional episodes of the series; and another cycle of 26 half-hour episodes had begun filming (with Noel Neill, who had earlier starred as Lois Lane in the movie serials, succeeding Coates in the role).

The compressed production schedule and budget called for Reeves to film as many five episodes at once, and in as little as twelve working days. Additional 26-episode shoots took place at staggered intervals over the next few years, with the production switching to color film stock. The total number of shows (counting the Mole-Men segments) was 104; Reeves directed 3 of the episodes. All the while, a generation was tuning in to watch and re-watch Supermans heroics on behalf of truth, justice and the American way.

Reeves was contractually required to make personal appearances wearing the Superman costume, at which throngs of children would seek to test his invincibility, often physically. In an especially accurate gauge of just how much his characterization had impacted the popular culture, Reeves in 1957 made a special guest appearance on another phenomenally successful half-hour program, I Love Lucy. The episode uniting two of televisions earliest and biggest stars (entitled, in heroic team-up tradition, Lucy and Superman) centered on Little Rickys wish for Superman to come to his birthday party.

Reeves completed filming a new batch of 26 Superman episodes in November 1957 by which point the ABC network had commenced airing daily reruns of previous shows. This brought even more new viewers to the series, and further typecast the actor in the industrys eyes as Superman. The last new episode aired in syndication in April 1958, and preceding episodes also continued in rotation all around the world.

By the time the series first began airing, Reeves had already begun his long-term affair with Toni, a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. Toni had met her future husband, the general manager of the storied film studio MGM, when she appeared in the 1936 movie The Great Ziegfeld and became Eddies mistress. A former New Jersey gangster, Eddie had been a suspect in several murders, and was said to have maintained his mob connections long after he broke into Hollywood as a fixer. Kept on studio payrolls, fixers solved the problems of stars (i.e., hid their crimes, kept their secrets, covered up their scandals) by whatever means necessary to keep their names out of the press. The Mannixes marriage was an open and unconventional one, and Tonis ongoing arrangement with Reeves became a well-kept yet widely known Hollywood secret; out of respect and fear, the press, expertly held at bay by MGM publicity chief Howard Strickling, never exposed the relationship.

Toni was at least eight years older than Reeves, and although he was the celebrity, it was she who paid for his Benedict Canyon in the Hollywood Hills home and the lifestyle he enjoyed. But in mid-1958, Reeves left her for a younger woman, NYC socialite-turned-L.A. would-be starlet Leonore Lemmon, which devastated Toni and, therefore, upset Eddie.

With no film offers coming in and production on another cycle of 26 Adventures of Superman episodes planned but not yet underway, an unemployed Reeves was even considering an attempt at exhibition wrestling.

Lemmon, by now his fiance, held parties at his home. She was at one on the main floor of the house when, in the early morning hours of June 16, 1959, George Reeves died in his bedroom of a single gunshot wound. He was 45 years old.

It was instantly and widely reported that Reeves death was suicide, with a typecast and/or fading career theorized as the cause. Still, 10 days afterwards, on June 26, reportage surfaced of two more bullet holes being discovered by police who had pried up the carpet covering the floor where Reeves was found. These shots were fired from the same Luger automatic that killed him. One bullet had gone through the floor and lodged in the paneling of the living room downstairs; the other one was recovered from a ceiling beam. Only one cartridge case was found in the bedroom, however, and no fingerprints were found on the gun.

Leonore Lemmon claimed that she had fired a bullet into the ceiling beam weeks earlier to demonstrate to a friend just how loud a shot would be. The friend corroborated her story, and Lemmon immediately left Hollywood. Abandoning her intended career, she returned to New York. She died in 1990.

Reeves mother Helen Bessolo did not believe that her son had killed himself. She soon commissioned an investigation of her own, but an autopsy determined that the circumstances were consistent with suicide. Helen died in 1964.

Widowed by Eddie Mannix in 1963, Toni Mannix lived out the remainder of her years wealthily in Beverly Hills, and died in 1983.

Nearly 50 years after the fact, speculation continues to surround the death of George Reeves. The case remains one of Hollywoods most enduring unsolved mysteries, as well as one of the harshest instances of a gifted actors life and career being cut tragically short.

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