History of the Superman Portrayals - Part 1

Tue, August 14th, 2012 at 7:58am PDT | Updated: August 14th, 2012 at 12:11pm

TV/Film
Alan Kistler, Guest Contributor

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In 2013, Superman will return to the big screen in "Man of Steel," directed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill in the leading role. Many are discussing how this portrayal of Superman should be done and what version of Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, works for today's audience.

With this in mind, CBR News presents the first of a two-part feature examining Superman's past and the many actors who brought the Man of Tomorrow to life through film, television, animation and radio.

Story continues below

BUD COLLYER

Bud Collyer reading about the character he portrayed for 30 years

In 1940, nearly two full years after Superman debuted in "Action Comics" issue #1, Ray Middleton dressed up as Superman for the New York World's Fair. In the same year, Bud Collyer brought the character to life for audiences across the nation in the radio plays of "The Adventures of Superman." The radio show was highly successful and lasted for many years, making the hero from Krypton a household name before he was ever seen in a cartoon or on television.

In the medium of radio, Clark Kent became the star more than the colorfully clad crime-fighter. Listeners followed Clark's exploits as he daringly chased down stories. Collyer's Clark Kent was polite and affable, a nice guy who would soothe things over with a joke or a compliment and whose genuine eagerness to help was obvious. In several stories, characters were impressed by Clark Kent's fearlessness with taking chances, such as climbing out on the wing of a plane while in flight in order to deal with an icing situation. Clark himself never really acknowledged being fearless or heroic and you could practically hear him shrug when people praised him. This was in keeping with early years of Superman's comic book adventures, where Lois seemed to be the only one who didn't respect Clark as a reporter with guts, mainly because he wasn't willing to answer any challenges to a fight.

In the radio shows, Superman was a much more clandestine figure, seen briefly by some and whose full activities were often known only to the readers. As time went on, he got more and more air time, but Clark was still the main protagonist, only becoming his costumed alter ego when a situation he couldn't handle otherwise arose. Concerning Superman's personality, Collyer's version was generally good-natured but certainly not above trash-talking or threatening criminals with painful fates. Like his portrayal of Clark, this was very true to the comics of the time.

Ray Middleton portrayed Superman at the 1940 New York World's Fair

One interesting change from the comics was Superman's upbringing. In the radio series, the baby from Krypton is sent away on a rocket and then lands on Earth as a fully grown man, fluent in English and ready to become protector of his newly adopted home. Wishing to blend in, he takes the name "Clark Kent" that a boy named Jimmy suggests for his alias and then goes off to become a newspaper reporter so he'll know of danger and disaster right when it happens.

Since listeners couldn't see Clark become Superman, it was important that they know clearly when the change had occurred. Bud Collyer was a trained singer and actually moved his voice into a different octave to distinguish between Clark and Superman, often making the very effective vocal transformation while saying the iconic line: "This looks like a job for Superman!"

Collyer also lent his voice to the original "Superman" cartoon serials that began appearing in theaters in 1941, originally produced by the Fleischer brothers. In these short cartoons, Clark was often barely seen before transforming into his alter ego and spending the rest of the adventure in costume, only returning at the end usually to congratulate Lois on covering a fantastic story and/or remark how Superman seemed to have taken an interest in her. As such, while Collyer's Superman remained the same, his Clark no longer had a noticeably different voice or much characterization.

Collyer was so beloved as Superman that some stories took his birthday and gave it to the Man of Steel: June 18th. In one comic, the hero explained that he considered June 10th (the day he landed on Earth) to be Superman's birthday and June 18th (the day he was legally adopted by the Kents) to be Clark Kent's birthday. Modern comics, however, tend to favor the idea of editor Julius Schwartz, who said that Superman landed on Earth on February 29.

Collyer was recruited to reprise the role of Clark/Superman for the Filmation cartoon "The New Adventures of Superman," which aired from 1966-1970. Collyer's performance changed slightly to better reflect how the Man of Tomorrow was portrayed during the late 1960s in DC Comics. Superman was now friendlier and more of a big brother. The cartoon also had adventures featuring a younger Clark acting as Superboy back in Smallville. This teenage version of Clark was voiced by Bob Hastings, who also played Archie Andrews on the NBC Radio Network, Beany of "Beany and Cecil," and Commissioner Gordon in the 1990s on Fox's "Batman: The Animated Series."

KIRK ALYN

Kirk Alyn played the Man of Steel -- but went uncredited -- in Columbia Pictures' film serials

Starting in 1948, Superman was featured in a 15-part film serial from Columbia Pictures. Screened during movie matinées, it followed the classic cliffhanger formula. Similar to Collyer's radio show and cartoons, it was targeted primarily for children.

37-year-old actor Kirk Alyn starred in the titular role but was uncredited. To maintain the illusion, the screen only said that the serials starred Superman, not an actor playing the part (though Alyn's name appeared on promotional materials). The actor was given a gray and brown suit since those colors photographed better on the black and white film. Superman's flight was achieved by replacing the actor with a cartoon figure who then soared through the sky.

Alyn's Clark Kent was an almost absurdly pleasant person. He wore a perpetual smile on his face, whether he was putting up with his editor's shouting fits or teasing Lois with witty remarks. He seemed to be a relatively laid back guy, interested in everyone he met and happy to converse. After overhearing Lois refer to him as a rat since he had scooped her on a story, he introduced himself to her in person for the first time and smiled as he joked, "I'm the rat."

Superman, by contrast, was a no nonsense sort most of the time. Many times when he appeared, Superman didn't say a word beyond "Are you all right?" He did his job and then flew off again. This was a tough guy who didn't see much need for chit-chat except in certain cases such as when the U.S. government asked to speak with him about matters of security. Even then, the Man of Tomorrow was polite enough to ask if it were appropriate for him to know state secrets. Along with this change in attitude, Alyn slicked back his hair and used very relaxed body language as Clark Kent, having his hair hang loose and walking with more confidence as Superman. His Kent business suit was a little large on him, giving a different impression of his weight and stature than how he appeared when in costume (a trick the comic book version of Clark has used several times as well).

In 1950, Alyn reprised the role in another serialized adventure "Atom Man VS. Superman." This time, the hero fought Lex Luthor AKA the Atom Man. Luthor was played by Lyle Talbot, who shared Alyn's love of cooking. The two actors spent time together exchanging recipes when not shooting. In this series, Superman's flight was achieved with smoke and wind machines.

GEORGE REEVES

George Reeves played the title role in "The Adventures of Superman"

In 1951, the first theatrical film starring Superman debuted. The story was under an hour in length and was shot over the course of twelve days. This film, "Superman and the Mole Men," was made as a pilot for the upcoming TV show "The Adventures of Superman."

Kirk Alyn was offered the lead role for "Superman and the Mole Men" and the TV series if it came about, but he turned it down. The studio then brought in 37-year-old actor and US Army vet George Reeves, deciding the film would be a good test to see if audiences would buy into him as the new Superman. The pilot was deemed a success and the new TV series began airing the following year. Similar to the previous adaptations, this was geared primarily toward children.

Reeves played Superman as a much more affable figure than Alyn and Collyer. His version was not just a guy who saved people, he was also their friend. He smiled often and greeted friends and officials politely. He took on a stern attitude with criminals. In many ways, he seemed like a big brother or a fatherly figure to the kids watching at home.

Reeves played Clark Kent almost exactly the same way. Clark might've been more prone to teasing than Superman, but otherwise it was very clearly the same person. His body language, voice, disposition and slicked back hair didn't change between identities. This Superman seemed able to fool people entirely thanks to a change of clothes and a pair of large glasses.

But again, we must remember the target demographic was children and many of them loved Reeves as Superman. Adventures ranged from crime thrillers to ridiculous capers and Reeves often spoke about his enjoyment of the character and how much it meant to kids, even if the show did bring frustrations later on. Reeves even made sure he was no longer seen smoking in public or that he was witnessed doing anything that might lessen the image of Superman in a child's mind if they heard about it.

IT'S A BIRD, IT'S A PLANE, IT'S A... SHUSH!

Actor Bob Hollday played Superman in the 1966 musical

Some might be unaware the folks who brought us "Bye Bye Birdie" wrote a Broadway musical starring the Man of Steel. The play, entitled "It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman!", was released in 1966 at the Alvin Theatre. It was a very campy musical played for laughs. Actor Bob Holiday played Clark Kent as a somewhat mopey nerd, wearing clothes that didn't quite fit and a loose necktie. A singer like Collyer, he made sure Clark and Superman had somewhat different voices.

The play's version of Superman acted as a smiling, confident hero, completely comfortable with (and often expecting) compliments from those he defended. Though when he was by himself, he was prone to doubt and sullen introspection. But by the end of the play, he got over this and engaged in a trash-talking song as he took down a room full of thugs, happily saying he was thankful for the exercise and at one point pausing to consider how he could go for a T-bone steak later. No, we're not kidding.

The production received many positive receives but closed after 129 performances. It received a few Tony nominations and one of the songs, "You've Got Possibilities," wound up getting some success in nightclubs and in commercials.

Ma and Pa Kent find Clark's rocket in a televised version of the musical

Seven years later, Superman started appearing in cartoons again. 1973 saw the debut of the "Super Friends" cartoon, with Danny Dark voicing the Man of Steel. Dark continued voicing the role until 1986 in several cartoons that spun out of "Super Friends" including "Challenge of the Super Friends" and "The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians." Dark's Superman was very much an imitation of George Reeves, a moral superhero who also seemed like he could be your dad.

A TV-special based on this short-lived musical was later broadcast in 1975, with David Wilson as Clark/Superman and Leslie Anne Warren as Lois Lane. Wilson's performance was very similar to Holiday's. A few years later, this version of Superman was overshadowed by a new film production directed by Richard Donner.

CHRISTOPHER REEVE

Christopher Reeve played perhaps the most memorable version of Superman

When Richard Donner ("Goonies," "Lethal Waepon") was hired to direct "Superman: The Movie," there were two things he wanted changed. He didn't want the film to be as campy as its producers originally intended and he didn't want to cast a recognizable movie star as Clark Kent, believing that audiences would only see a famous face playing as Superman rather than actually allowing themselves to see the character and believe in him.

24-year-old actor Christopher Reeve auditioned for the part. Reeve researched the comics and cared very much about getting Superman right. Reeve followed a similar idea to George Reeve's, that Superman was a friendly and obviously moral person. But he downplayed the bravado and gruffness. Reeve saw Superman as a volunteer hero, one who helped and protected without hesitation but who did not see himself as an authority figure and had no desire to be Earth's big brother. He also believed that while Clark felt like an outsider looking for his place in his teenage years, he felt very comfortable calling Earth his home by the time he was an adult and ready to begin his life in Metropolis.

As Reeve later said in a documentary, "[Superman] has all these powers but he's got the kind of maturity, or he's got the innocence really, to look at the world very, very simply. And that's what makes him so different. When he says, 'I'm here to fight for truth, justice and the American way,' everybody goes 'snicker, cough!' But he's not kidding!"

At the audition, Reeve wore a thick blue sweater in order to give the impression that he had a larger frame, fearful that his skinny physique would lose him the part. Donner was "stunned" by his test performance, but producers were concerned he was both too young and too thin to convincingly play the hero. After over 200 other auditions and a desperate search that even included testing producer Ilya Salkind's dentist, Donner kept looking back at Reeve and had him come in again. After seeing another test of him in the costume, the director and producers were convinced Christopher Reeve had the perfect mix of earnestness, authority and amiability to play both Superman and Clark Kent convincingly.

The producers still felt Reeve's thin physique meant fake muscles would have to be sewn into a special costume, but the actor insisted he would bulk up in time. After undergoing training from David Prowse (Darth Vader), Reeve went from 170 to 212 lbs, adding more than forty pounds to his frame.

In the film, teenage Clark Kent was portrayed by Jeff East, who wore prosthetic makeup to better resemble Reeve and had all his lines dubbed over by Reeve. This version of Clark Kent grew up constantly wondering why it was necessary to hide abilities he reveled in. When he later begins his double life as Superman, it's not merely a moral responsibility but a personal joy to let loose and no longer hide.

Reeve played adult Clark Kent as someone who was seemingly Superman's opposite. Where Superman's cape and suit implied power and motion, Clark's always-buttoned suit implied rigidity. He acted rather clumsily, embarrassing himself more than any one else. Reeve also used very different body language as Clark, slouched, and not only slicked back his hair but parted it on the opposite side. This, combined with his altered voice and mannerism, gave a new level of believability to the disguise.

Another interesting thing was that Reeve and Donner's portrayal of Clark Kent was indeed a disguise, but it was an honest one. At no point did Clark Kent say something that Superman himself didn't believe. And when seeing his friends in danger, Clark would still put himself between them and a gun. Clark also seemed to be a release for Superman, an identity that let him admit things like that he didn't know everything and that he preferred to read rather than watch TV when he was relaxing at home.

Reeve worked hard to portray Clark and Superman as very different people

Maintaining the idea that Superman didn't see himself as an authority figure, the actor deliberately did not try to strike a lot of dramatic poses or display his power. Reeve believed Superman would view the famous costume merely as his work uniform and would walk with the casual confidence and ease any professional at work might have. He didn't need to pose or pontificate when the costume already told the audience he was a superhero. This was also important to Reeve since this film was the first time a Superman adaptation intended to reach out to adults as well as children.

All his preparation and careful consideration of the character worked. The film was a success and spawned three sequels. Reeve's performance as both Superman and Clark Kent affected following generations of fans and storytellers alike. "Superman: The Movie" influences adaptations to this day and several artists in the '80s, '90s and into the 21st century have used Reeve as a model to follow.

Recently, artist Gene Ha portrayed a reimagined version of Krypton in the rebooted title "Action Comics," written by Grant Morrison. On the subject of Reeve, Ha remarked, "Christopher Reeve in the anti-hero '70s was able to portray boundless comic book idealism with absolute confidence and conviction. In leotards... there was real idealism and strength inside that man. Everyone else in those movies was acting, usually over the top. Christopher Reeves was Superman."

DC artist Cully Hamner agrees. "I grew up with many versions of Superman. I loved the comics, of course, and I was actually familiar with George Reeves' portrayal first. But Christopher Reeve was everything I wanted and needed Superman to be," Hamner said. "He was charming, powerful and had the perfect twinkle in his eye, which you can actually see in the last shot in the first film. Cavill could be great. But to me, Reeve is still the Superman to beat."

Stay tuned to CBR News for Part 2 and more on Superman and "Man of Steel."

TAGS:  dc comics, superman, bud collyer, kirk alyn, george reeves, christopher reeve

 
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