Adventures of Superman is an American television series based on comic book characters and concepts created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The show is the first television series to feature Superman and began filming in 1951 in California. Sponsored by cereal manufacturer Kellogg's, the syndicated show's first, and last, air dates are disputed but generally accepted as September 19, 1952 and April 28, 1958. The show's first two seasons (ep. 1-52) were filmed in black-and-white while seasons three through six (ep. 53-104) were filmed in color. The color seasons were broadcast monochromatically.
George Reeves plays Clark Kent/Superman with Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, John Hamilton as Perry White, and Robert Shayne as Inspector Henderson. Phyllis Coates plays Lois Lane in the first season with Noel Neill stepping into the role in the second season (1953). Stories follow Superman as he battles crooks, gangsters, and other villains in the fictional city of Metropolis while masquerading "off-duty" as Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, Clark's colleagues at the office, often find themselves in dangerous situations which can only be resolved with Superman's timely intervention.
Adventures of Superman generally employed visual effects advanced for television of the period, and, while the show won no major awards, it was popular with its audience and remains popular today. Its opening theme, known as The Superman March, has become a classic of its kind and is instantly recognizable by most classic television buffs and Superman fans. In 1976, the book Superman: From Serial to Cereal was published, and, in 1987, selected episodes of the show were released to video. In 2006, the series became available in its entirety on DVD and reruns of the show still hold a place on television programming schedules. In 2006, Hollywoodland, a film dramatizing the show's production and the death of its star, George Reeves, was released.
In 1951, California exhibitor and B-movie producer Robert L. Lippert released a 67-minute black-and-white feature starring George Reeves and Phyllis Coates called Superman and the Mole Men with a script by Robert Maxwell (as Richard Fielding) and direction by Lee Sholem. The film prompted the first television season to go into production in August/September of the same year. The series discontinued production, however, and remained unaired until September 1952 when cereal manufacturer Kellogg's agreed to sponsor the show, as the company had previously done with the Superman radio series. The success of the series came as a complete surprise to the cast. Jack Larson remembers being in New York City and was totally caught off guard by his new found fame. Regarding the initial feature film, The "Mole Men" was edited into a two-part story called "The Unknown People" and was televised late in the first season, the only multi-part story of the series.
After the first season's filming was completed, actress Phyllis Coates made other commitments and did not return as Lois Lane for the second season. Noel Neill (who had played the character in the theatrical serials) stepped into the role, and remained in the role until the series' cancellation. The core cast thereafter remained intact with Phillips Tead occasionally joining the regulars in the last seasons as recurring character Professor Pepperwinkle. To promote and advertise the show, cast members Reeves, Hamilton and Larson were able to gain extra money by appearing in Kellogg's commercials during the second season. However, Noel Neill was never approached for these, because sponsors worried that scenes of Clark Kent having breakfast with Lois Lane would be too suggestive.
From the beginning, the series was filmed like a movie serial with principals wearing the same costumes throughout the show to expedite out-of-sequence shooting schedules and save budgetary costs. For instance, all scenes that took place in the "Perry White Office" set would be filmed back to back, for future placement in various episodes, which was often confusing to the actors. Money was further saved by using Clark's office as Lois's office with a simple change of wall hangings, thus dispensing with additional set construction. Other scenic short-cuts were employed. In the last seasons, for example, few exterior location shoots were conducted with episodes being filmed almost entirely in the studio.
The budget for the series was relatively low with a complete episode averaging $15,000. The series' actors were paid $200 per episode, with the show's historians and Jack Larson stating that the cast had to make repeated requests to producers before they were given a $50 raise, or else they would quit production. By the end of the run, star Reeves was making at least $2500 per episode, but the rest of the cast still made considerably less. The stars were signed to a "run of the show contract," meaning the producers could demand their services to shoot a new season within thirty days' notice. However, this clause also prohibited them from doing any long-term commitments like movies or plays.
As a hedge against the eventual introduction of color TV broadcasting, the show switched to filming in color for the 1954 season onward, though it was initially broadcast monochromatically. Reeves' Superman costume was brown (for red), grey (for blue), and white (for yellow), so that it would "read" in appropriate gray tones on black and white film. In the monochromatically-broadcast color episodes, the gray tones of Reeves' new blue and red costume were rendered nearly indistinguishable.
Throughout the last 50 episodes, a lackadaisical attitude toward flubbed lines prevailed, ascribed to morale deterioration among cast and crew with the added expense of color filming and salary disputes. Producer Whitney Ellsworth later admitted: "Sometimes there was just garbage in the rushes, but we were often forced to use what we had, rather than relight the set and go again."
Adventures of Superman was a filmed television program comprising single camera, full screen, half-hour episodes. The show filmed in black and white for its first two seasons and filmed in color for seasons three through six. The color seasons were initially broadcast monochromatically.
The noir-like episodes of the first two seasons resemble theatrical action-adventure serials and crime melodramas of the 1940s. The supporting casts are filled with established movie character actors, heightening the resemblance. Phyllis Coates, like George Reeves, was a popular lead in B features of the period. For the TV series, Reeves suggested that Coates receive equal star billing. Coates created a sharp, strong-willed Lois Lane, an enterprising reporter who tries to out-scoop Clark Kent. Jack Larson presents Jimmy Olsen as a Daily Planet intern always investigating the truth behind something wrong, but being caught by the villains. He usually receives help from Superman in the nick of time. Superman himself is seen as a semi-mysterious presence, unknown to many of the crooks ("Who's the guy in the circus suit?" asks a villain in "The Riddle of the Chinese Jade"). The episodes are typically action-packed, gritty, and often violent storylines in which Superman fought gangsters and crime lords. There were a number of deaths both on- and off-screen.
When it came time to reassemble the cast and crew for filming the second season, Phyllis Coates was no longer available, having committed to another project. The producers then hired Noel Neill and gave her secondary billing with Larson, Hamilton, and Shayne. Neill's portrayal was more accessible to the younger television audience, sweeter and more sympathetic than the efficient, hard-as-nails Coates characterization. Bob Maxwell, whose episodes in the first season verged on the macabre, left the show (going on to produce Lassie in 1954). Whitney Ellsworth became Superman producer in 1953 and would remain so for the duration of the series (he was an uncredited associate producer and story editor during the initial season). The second season shows were still fairly serious in nature, with Ellsworth tempering the violence significantly. With villains becoming comic bunglers less likely to frighten the show's juvenile viewers and only occasional off-screen deaths, Kellogg's gave its full approval to Ellsworth's approach and the show remained a success. Sentimental or humorous stories were more in evidence than in the first season. A large portion of the stories, however, dealt with Superman's personal issues, such as his memory loss in "Panic in the Sky".
With the color seasons, the show began to take on the lighthearted, whimsical tone of the Superman comic books of the 1950s. The villains were often caricatured, Runyonesque gangsters, played with tongue in cheek. Violence on the show was toned down further. The only gunfire that occurred was aimed at Superman, and of course the bullets bounced off. Superman was less likely to engage in fisticuffs with the villains. On occasions when Superman did use physical force, he would take crooks out in a single karate-style chop or, if he happened to have two criminals in hand, banging their heads together. More often than not, the villains were likely to knock themselves out fleeing Superman. Now very popular with viewers, Jimmy was now being played as the show's comic foil to Superman. A lot of the plots had him and Lois being captured, only to get rescued at the last minute by Superman.
Scripts for the final sixth season did not hit the campy lows of the previous two years and reestablished a bit of the seriousness of the show, often with science fiction elements like a Kryptonite-powered robot (a left-over prop from "The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters"), atomic explosions, and impregnable metal cubes. In one of the last episodes, "The Perils of Superman" (a takeoff on The Perils of Pauline), there was indeed deadly peril straight out of the movie serials: Lois tied to a set of railroad tracks with a speeding train bearing down on her, Perry White nearly sawed in half while tied to a log, Jimmy in a runaway car headed for a cliff, and Clark Kent immersed in a vat of acid. This was one of three episodes directed by George Reeves himself, in an attempt to inject some new life into the series. Noel Neill's hair was dyed a bright red for this season, though the color change was not apparent in the initial black-and-white broadcasts. Reeves's directorial efforts did not save the series from cancellation.
The Superman of the radio program, Bud Collyer, felt he was too old (at 43) to play the television role and was, in any event, a completely different physical type. Kirk Alyn, who had played Superman in two theatrical serials, stated he refused the TV series role for fear of typecasting. Producers of the series say neither Alyn nor his serial co-stars Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, or Pierre Watkin, (who later was considered for the role of Perry White following the death of John Hamilton), were ever seriously considered for the inaugural season.
Adventures of Superman began filming at the RKO-Pathe Studios (later, Desilu Studios) in Culver City, California in August-September 1951. Episodes cost roughly $15,000 a piece, a low-budget program by any standards then or now. In 1953-54, the show was filmed at California Studios, and, in 1955, at Chaplin Studios. In 1956-57, the show was filmed at ZIV Studios.
The establishing shot of the Daily Planet Building in the first season was the E. Clem Wilson Building in Los Angeles, California while the Carnation Milk Company Building a few blocks east served as the Daily Planet's front door. Later, various stock clips of the Los Angeles City Hall were used as the Planet building and the sidewalk entrance to the Planet was a studio-bound "exterior." Many exteriors in the first season were shot at RKO Pictures backlot called "Forty Acres", a site that later became famous as the fictional, idealized small town of Mayberry, North Carolina on The Andy Griffith Show. Hillsides in Culver City, city streets of downtown Los Angeles, or residential areas of the San Fernando Valley were sometimes used for exteriors during all six seasons. In later seasons, filming occurred on soundstages, with exterior shots (such as cars driving along roadways) being stock footage. Another Los Angeles stock-footage landmark was the Griffith Observatory, which had several different "cameos" in the series. Aside from a few clips of New York City in "Superman on Earth", most if not all of the stock clips used to depict Metropolis are from the Los Angeles area.
The show's title card (see, infobox above right), imitated the three-dimensional lettering of the comic book covers. Occasional confusion arises about the article "the", since it was spoken by narrators in voice-overs. Some references title the show "The Adventures of Superman"; other books (as well as TV Guide listings) simply label the show "Superman". The title of the show is generally accepted as Adventures of Superman with no article preceding "Adventures".
The opening narration of the show, expanded from that of the 1940s radio show and the Superman cartoons, was voiced by Bill Kennedy, framed by the show's theme music, and set the stage for each program.
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound! ("Look! Up in the sky!" "It's a bird!" "It's a plane!" "It's Superman!")... Yes, it's Superman ... strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman ... who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!
The score for the series was taken from stock music libraries, often adaptations of music from B-movies. Apparently the only original music written for the series was the March heard primarily during the credits. The theme is ascribed to studio music arranger Leon Klatzin, although it may have been adapted from an earlier unrelated (and now lost) theme. The main theme, based on a triad, matched the three syllables in the character's name, as has been the case with nearly all Superman music. John Williams' later score for Superman used a similar but not identical musical triad. With the exception of the title theme, musical cues ranged from the serious to the light-hearted and were different for each of the seasons. Each season's cues tended to be used repeatedly from episode to episode, in similarly appropriate "mood" moments such as apprehension or fast action. The opening credits theme, Superman's "leitmotif", was often (though not always) used whenever Superman was depicted flying or taking action.
The show's sponsor was Kellogg's, maker of corn flakes and other breakfast cereals, a sponsorship continued from the radio days. The characters from the TV series made a number of TV commercials promoting cereal products, some of which are preserved in the DVD series. Some versions of the show contained a vocal introduction, "Kellogg's, the greatest name in cereals, presents, The Adventures of Superman." The line was spoken by announcer Charlie Lyons. The sponsor originally requested to have this line placed (at the intro's start) on every single episode of the series, as well as (from second season onward) the company's logo on the intro and the end of the closing credits. When Kellogg's ceased being the show's sponsor the logo and the intro line was removed from some prints, especially when Warner Bros. Television received distribution rights.
While considered simple by today's standards, the "flying" effects on Adventures of Superman were advanced for the period. Superman's "flying" involved three phases: take-off, flight, and landing. Cables and wires were used for Superman’s take-offs early in filming but when Reeves came close to suffering a concussion in "The Ghost Wolf", cables and wires were discarded and a springboard was brought in. Reeves would run into frame, hit the out-of-frame springboard which would boost him out of frame (sometimes over the camera), and onto padding. The springboard had enough force, along with subtle camera manipulation, to make it look as though he was actually taking off. The flying scenes were accomplished through a relatively small amount of stock footage that was used repeatedly. The typical technique had footage of Reeves stretched out on a spatula-like device formed to his torso and leg, operated on a counterweight like a boom microphone. Reeves was occasionally filmed in front of aerial footage on back-projection screen, or against a neutral background which would provide a matte which would be optically combined with a swish-pan or aerial shot. That footage was matted onto various backgrounds depending on the needs of the episode: clouds, buildings, etc. that he would appear to fly by. Techniques for landings involved Reeves jumping off a ladder or holding an off-camera horizontal bar and swinging down into frame. In early episodes, stuntmen sometimes took Superman’s part.
The bad guys on the show were usually generic thugs, gangsters, evil scientists, crooked businessmen, or spies of fictitious foreign countries. Tris Coffin, Herb Vigran, John Eldredge (best known as Harry Archer on Meet Corliss Archer, (1954)), Philip Van Zandt, and Ben Welden made multiple appearances over the course of the show, always as different villains.
Actors who landed a Superman guest appearance early in their careers included:
Two stars who would later appear together in the television sitcom Hogan's Heroes made appearances on Superman; John Banner, who became famous as Sergeant Hans Shultz appeared once, and Leon Askin, who would star as the rotund General Burkhalter, made appearances on two episodes of Superman. Director Tommy Carr's brother Steve appeared as an unbilled extra in nearly every one of the first 26 shows (he was also the show's dialog director, and was the man pointing "up in the sky" in the black-and-white intro).
Episodes follow Superman as he battles gangsters, thugs, mad scientists and non-human dangers like asteroids, robots, and malfunctioning radioactive machines. In the first episode (the "origin" episode), Superman's infant life on the planet Krypton, his arrival on Earth, and his nurturing by a farm couple are dramatized. In succeeding episodes, he conceals his super-identity by posing as mild mannered Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent who, in times of crisis, scoots to a broom closet or alley, sheds his civvies, and reappears in superhero tights and trunks to rescue hapless folk from the clutches of evil-doers. A running gag on the show has editor-in-chief Perry White ordering Jimmy Olsen, "Don't call me 'Chief'!" to which Jimmy replies, "Yes, Chief! Er ... I mean, Mr. White!".
Superman arrived on television in 1952 with a mythology established through comic books, a novel, a radio series, two theatrical serials, and several Max Fleischer animated shorts. None of Superman's established foes like Brainiac or Lex Luthor appeared on the TV show but Mr. Zero, a miniature Martian suggesting Superman's comic book foe Mr. Mxyzptlk made an appearance in a fifth season color episode. The most potent element incorporated into the show from the established mythology was the superhero's vulnerability to Kryptonite. Several episodes during the course of the show's run featured the metal as a plot device. Another element appropriated from the mythology for the television series was Lois Lane's suspicions regarding Clark Kent's true identity and her romantic infatuation with Superman.
In 1958, producer Whitney Ellsworth created Superpup, a never-aired-on-TV spinoff pilot that placed the Superman mythos in a fictional world populated by dogs. Featuring live-action actors in dog-suits portraying canine versions of Superman and other characters, the pilot was filmed on Adventures of Superman sets and was intended to capitalize on the success of its parent series.
Producers planned to continue Adventures of Superman in 1959 with two more years' worth of episodes, to begin airing in the 1960 season. The death of actor John Hamilton threw the plan into disarray. Actor Pierre Watkin was hired to replace Hamilton as "Perry White's brother" (Watkin had played Perry White himself in the two Columbia serials, and had guested on the series before).
The sudden death of the show's star George Reeves in June 1959 was not the end of the series either, in the producers' eyes. When Jack Larson returned from Europe after the death of Reeves, producers suggested the series could continue as "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen," with more focus on Larson continuing his character, playing opposite a "Superman" who would be a composite of stock shots of George Reeves and a look-alike stunt double to be filmed from behind. Larson rejected the distasteful idea out of hand, and the series was truly over.
Another spin-off idea was a pilot produced by Whitney Ellsworth in 1961: The Adventures of Superboy. Johnny Rockwell starred as a young Clark Kent in Smallville, and as Superboy wore a suit similar in sesign to George Reeves' suit. Although twelve scripts had been written, only the pilot was filmed.
In the 1970s, colleges across the United States welcomed Noel Neill, who charmed and delighted the show's now-grown fans with videos, anecdotes and stories about her participation in the series. Neill and her original 1948 Superman serial co-star, Kirk Alyn, enjoyed cameos in the 1978 film Superman as Lois Lane's parents. Their dialog scene was cut for theatrical release, but played in its entirety when the film was broadcast on TV, and later in the 2000 director's cut restoration. Neill and Jack Larson both made guest appearance on the TV series Superboy in the episode "Paranoia" during the show's fourth season.
Larson was cast as a man-on-the-street in an American Express ad called The Adventures of Seinfeld and Superman, featuring Superman fan Jerry Seinfeld. Patrick Warburton voiced the animated Superman. Larson also had a guest appearance on Lois & Clark, playing an elder Jimmy Olsen. Like Neill, Larson has participated in various conventions connected with Superman, also donated his time to provide commentaries for some of the episodes on the DVD releases during 2005 and 2006, and the 2006 documentary history of the Superman character, Look, Up in the Sky, and had small speaking roles in the 2006 film Superman Returns.
Robert Shayne received a recurring role as "Reggie," the blind newspaper vendor in The Flash in 1990-91 because the producers were aware of his Superman connection. Shayne was, in fact, legally blind by that time.
Phyllis Coates played the part of Lois Lane's mother, in a 1993 episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, at the suggestion of Lois & Clark guest star (and George Reeves biographer) Jim Beaver.
As a syndicated show sold separately in every market, Adventures of Superman did not have a proper "premier" date. It was first seen in Los Angeles on KECA February 9, 1953 and first aired in New York on WABC-TV April 1, 1953. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) notes the show's debut was September 19, 1952, and, though this date is not sourced, is generally accepted as the television premier date. It is believed to be the Chicago premier date and the earliest recorded premier date. Following cancellation, Adventures of Superman was seen in reruns.
Episode copyright dates are a matter of confusion due to title card editing after the show's cancellation. First season title cards were spliced onto second season episodes, for example, while third and fourth season episodes often had 1957 title cards. DVD releases compounded the confusion at a later date. The actual copyright dates, however, appear in the closing credits.
In 1976, Gary H. Grossman published Superman: Serial to Cereal, a volume considered by many a definitive study of the show. In 1987, Warner Home Video released selected episodes to VHS and LaserDisc. Each volume contained one black-and-white episode and one color episode, plus a Max Fleischer Superman animated short. In 2003, Truth, Justice, & The American Way: The Life And Times Of Noel Neill, The Original Lois Lane was published, and, in 2007, the film Hollywoodland was released to DVD.
Individual season DVD releases began in 2005 with the show available in its entirety in 2006. The DVDs feature documentaries enhancing the viewer's experience of the show.
On April 8, 1953, Variety reviewed the April 1 New York premiere:
It's to National Comics credit that its television version is restrained on the scripting side and well done technically ... Filming is top-notch, with no expense spared to get those special effects. George Reeves, who acts Superman, doesn't have too much of a role in the initial pix, since most of it deals with boyhood of the hero, but he registered nicely as the meek reporter and as the hero. Phyllis Coates was okay as Lois Lane, the girl reporter, while John Hamilton fits the fictitious concept of the editor. Other roles were well handled.
In 2007, the show's complete six seasons received the Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films for "Best Retro Television Series Release on DVD". In 2006, the show's first season received a Saturn Award nomination for "Best Retro Television Release on DVD". In 2003, George Reeves received a nomination for TV Land's "Superest Superhero" award. Two years later, he received a nomination for TV Land's "Out of This World" award.
The show received a proclamation in July 2001 on its 50th Anniversary from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in a ceremony attended by Jack Larson, Noel Neill, Robert Rockwell, Jeff Corey, Mrs. Robert Shayne and Mrs. Jerome Siegel. The proclamation scroll was accepted by DC Comics Vice President Paul Levitz.
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