Since his creation in 1938, Superman has thrilled audiences worldwide and although times have changed, Superman still remains an iconic symbol of social justice and the fight against tyranny. And it’s the nature of the character that makes it so difficult to pay homage to the heritage and to also keep the character from seeming predictable and boring that makes adapting Superman to the big and small screen problematic. Playing the superhero who is credited to be the first to start this genre requires a certain amount of style that only a few have successfully achieved. With the recent release of images of Henry Cavill as the new Superman, it brings to mind all the previous incarnations and actors who have played the Man of Steel. Here’s a look through the years at the actors who have portrayed this treasured superhero on the live-action screen:
Kirk Alyn (1948)
Kirk Alyn was the first actor to ever play Superman in the 1948 live action movie serial ‘Superman’. The series ran for 15 episodes with the main plot consisting of Superman’s battle against the criminal known as Spider Lady. Producers of the series tried to find a way to have Alyn “fly” on screen, but when they tried to use hidden wires for the effect, the wires were clearly visible. That’s why whenever Superman jumped up, he turned into an animated character before flying off. Two years later, in 1950, ‘Atom Man vs. Superman’ was released and featured an alternate dimension called ‘The Empty Doom’ that was similar to the Phantom Zone (which did not exist or appear in the comics until 1961). This sequel was so popular that it was boasted as the most financially successful serial of the time. When ‘Superman’ moved to television in 1951, Alyn was offered the part but turned it down for fear of typecasting. Here’s a trailer of ‘Superman’ that was shown in theaters in 1948:.
George Reeves (1952-1958)
After Kirk Alyn turned down the role in the television version of Superman, the role was offered to George Reeves. Reeves was reluctant to accept the role feeling that television was unimportant and he didn’t think very many people would see his performance. Little did he know that this television series would last 6 seasons with 104 episodes. The first 2 seasons were filmed in black and white. The producers then filmed the last 4 seasons in color (although it was telecast monochromatically) foreseeing that color television would be popular in the future thus making these episodes more valuable. ‘Adventures of Superman’ was considered advanced in its use of visual effects at the time and although the series did not win any major awards, it did receive a Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films for “Best Retro Television Series Release on DVD”. The popularity of ‘The Adventures of Superman’ continues today with airings in syndication around the world. In 2007, Warner Home Video released all six seasons on DVD for purchase. On June 16, 1959, Reeves died from a shotgun blast to the head. It was ruled a suicide, but many believe foulplay was involved. The next day newspapers around the world carried the story of “Superman’s Death”, causing sadness in the lives of many children. Check out the opening sequence of ‘Adventures of Superman’ below:
John Rockwell (1961)
After the death of George Reeves, the plan to reboot the Superman series was replaced by the prospect of launching ‘The Adventures of Superboy’ series, a precursor to ‘Smallville’. John Rockwell was cast in the role of the young superhero. Although 13 episodes were written for the series, only one episode was ever shot and it never made it to screen because it was deemed too expensive to make. You can see a clip of that episode here:
Christopher Reeve (1978-1987)
Christopher Reeve is unquestionably the most well-known of all the actors who have played Superman. ‘Superman’ opened in December of 1978 to critical acclaim and financial success grossing $300.22 million worldwide. It was the sixth-highest grossing film at the time of its release, as well as Warner Brothers’ most successful movie.
Many actors were considered to play the Man of Steel: Sylvester Stallone, Warren Beatty, James Caan, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Kris Kristofferson, Nick Nolte, Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jon Voight. Robert Redford turned down the role because he wanted more money, Clint Eastwood was too busy and James Caan didn’t want to put on the suit. At first the producers thought Christopher Reeve too young and too skinny for the role, but ended up signing him anyway. Reeve refused to wear a muscle suit so to bulk up so he underwent a body building regime supervised by David Prowse, the man who played Darth Vader in the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy.
The success of ‘Superman the Movie’ revived the franchise and spawned 3 sequels. It established the superhero film genre as a viable money maker even though it would be decades before any other superhero movies would achieve the success of this film.
John Haymes Newman (1988)
In an attempt to bring back Clark Kent’s story prior to his becoming Superman, the series ‘Superboy’ was developed. It was produced by Ilya and Alexander Salkind, the same producers who brought ‘Superman: The Movie’ to the screen.
The series premiere coincided with the 50th anniversary of the creation of Superman. Instead of the town of Smallville, however, the series took place at the fictitious Shuster College in Florida partly because it was filmed in Orlando, Florida. The series ran for 4 seasons but John Hayes Newman who played Superboy was soon replaced after the first season because he had received a DUI in Florida and there was a morality clause in his contract. Recently, Newman reprised his role as Kal-el in animator Robb Pratt’s excellent fan film, ‘Superman Classic’. The opening of the series can be seen below.
Gerard Christopher (1988)
Unhappy with how John Hayes Newman played Superboy, the producers replaced him with Gerard Christopher at the start of the second season. They had decided they wanted a more “Christopher Reeve” type of portrayal and Gerard fit the bill especially since he looked like a young Christopher Reeve. Oddly though, he was actually about 10 years older than Reeve, Dean Cain and Brandon Routh when they got cast for the Superman role!
The series was set to go for a fifth and sixth season before a lien was placed by Warner Bros. against the producers and distributers of the series causing production to come to a standstill. Afterward, Christopher did try out for the role of Superman in the series ‘Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’ and was in deep contention for the role but was passed over when it was learned he had already played the role of Superboy.
Dean Cain (1993-1997)
One year after the demise of ‘Superboy’, ABC started airing ‘Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman’ with Dean Cain in the title role beating out Kevin Sorbo for the title role. What made this series different is that it loosely followed the tales of comic book writer John Byrne with Clark Kent as the true personality and Superman as a secondary disguise. The show focused more on the relationship of Lois and Clark/Superman rather than his heroic efforts and their wedding coincided with the wedding of their comic book counterparts in the comic ‘Superman’. The series ran for 4 seasons and was nominated for 5 Emmys before being cancelled by ABC. You can check out the opening credits of the series here.
Tom Welling (2001-2011)
After a nationwide search for an actor to play a young Clark Kent for the series ‘Smallville’, the role was given to Tom Welling. Had Tom Welling not accepted the role, it would have gone to Jensen Ackles (Dean from ‘Supernatural’). The pilot aired in October 2001 and became the highest-rated debut for The WB, with 8.4 million viewers. The series ran for 10 years and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest consecutively running sci-fi television series of all time. Welling has admitted in interviews that prior to accepting the role, he was not a fan of the Superman comics and even while filming the series, made a conscious effort not to read the material for fear it may somehow affect how he plays the young superhero even if subconsciously. ‘Smallville ‘ended its run in May 2011 with Clark Kent taking his last step to becoming the Man of Steel. You can relive those final moments here.
Brandon Routh (2006)
In 2006, Warner Bros. brought Superman back to the big screen with the film ‘Superman Returns’. Prior to casting Brandon Routh in the role, they were throwing around actors’ names such as Brendan Fraser, Josh Hartnett, James Marsden, Keanu Reeves, David Boreanz, Henry Cavill, Ashton Kutcher and Jerry O’Connell. It wasn’t until director Bryan Singer came on board and insisted that an unknown be cast (as was the case with Christopher Reeve for the original ‘Superman’ movie) that Routh was considered. ‘Superman Returns’ was 12 years in the making and is considered as a sequel (albeit loosely) to the first two ‘Superman’ movies starring Reeve. The film was released in the U.S. in June 2006, and was considered a box-office disappointment grossing only $200 million in the US (the budget to make the movie was over $250 million). Sequels to ‘Superman Returns’ starring Routh were shelved due to the low box office takes.
Henry Cavill (2013)
Henry Cavill will be the latest to don the Superman outfit in a modern reboot of the Superman film called ‘Man of Steel’. In an effort to restart the Superman movie series, director Zack Snyder had declared that this movie would not have any ties to any of the previous cinematic incarnations of the character. From the looks of the photo below of Cavill in the suit, it looks like we are definitely going to see a different type of Superman.
It seems that no matter who plays the role of Superman, audiences just can’t get enough of the Man of Steel. 73 years after his creation, Superman still epitomizes the superhero genre and the basic characteristics of what makes him so great continues to strike a chord in all of us. It’s no wonder that the entertainment industry continues to make movies and shows about him.
(A special thanks goes to the Superman: Man of Steel (2013) Facebook page and Superman Homepage for providing the pictures.)