The Death of Superman

When I was a child, WTBS (a.k.a. TBS, the “Superstation”) was known as WTCG. At the time, WTCG was a small, unimportant UHF station in Atlanta that was infamous for running old black & white B-movies and reruns of ancient TV shows like Petticoat Junction, Felix The Cat and Mighty Mouse. Even though America had firmly moved in to the color TV era by this point, it sometimes seemed as if the only color you’d ever see on WTCG were the commercials or the occasional color episode of The Beverly Hillbillies!

One of the shows that WTCG ran religiously was the original Superman TV show – the one from the 1950s starring George Reeves. It was one of my favorite shows as a wee child, and I’d beg my mom to rush home from kindergarten so I wouldn’t miss a minute of Reeves dishing out truth, justice and the American Way. It’s ironic (and sad) then, that Reeves would be denied all of those things when it came to his own life.

George Reeves was born in 1914 in Woolstock, Iowa. His first film appearance was 1939’s Ride, Cowboy, Ride. Reeves would go on to become a somewhat successful “bit part” actor; he ended up being one of Vivian Leigh’s first suitors in the opening scene of Gone With The Wind. But by the 1950s, Reeves star had fallen, and he was reduced to taking the occasional part on television.

In 1951, Reeves was approached about doing a TV movie based on the Superman character. Reeves absolutely needed the money at this point, but back in those days TV was considered to be strictly “B-list”… so it wasn’t unusual that Reeves thought long and hard about taking the role, as he didn’t want to ruin his “real” career in movies for a quick paycheck in TV. He eventually relented, however, and production began on Superman and the Mole-Men – a made for TV movie that ended up being so popular that it was split into two one-hour programs called Superman and the Strange People – which would be the “pilot episodes” of the Superman TV show.

Reeves would go on to film 100 additional episodes as the Man of Steel, and would transform himself into one of America’s favorite actors and one of TV’s first role models. Reeves was often forced to make public appearances as Superman, and he found this to be humiliating… especially when children tried to challenge his assumed “superhuman” powers. One child even brought a loaded handgun to one of his appearances… to test Reeve’s supposed “bullet deflecting” powers! Nevertheless, Reeves took his responsibility as a role model so seriously that he quit smoking and was rarely (if ever) seen in public with his girlfriends.

Superman ended its run in 1957, and Reeves was horrified to find that he had been typecast as Superman. No matter how many agents, producers or friends he called, no one wanted to see Reeves as anyone but Superman. A good friend of his at Disney got him a role in what would be his last film, Westward Ho The Wagons. In that film, Reeves wore a beard, presumably because the director didn’t want people to look at Reeves and think “Superman”. In any case, Reeves became despondent over the typecasting, and on June 16, 1959 he went to his bedroom after a long night of drinking with friends and shot himself.

Or so the story goes. The police arrived and queried all of the guests that remained at Reeves’ home, and since they all agreed that it could only have been suicide, the police accepted their story. The only problem is, a lot of the facts around Reeves’ “suicide” just don’t add up:

  • There were no fingerprints on the gun. Presumably, Reeves would have been dead and couldn’t have wiped the gun himself, nor was he wearing gloves. And if it was, in fact, a suicide, why would one of the guests wipe the gun?

  • The spent shell casing was found underneath Reeves. Contrary to what you see in the movies, when people are shot they simply fall down exactly where they stood. It’s sometimes described as “falling like a sack of potatoes”. Since Reeves was found in his bed, the only simple scenario where the the casing could have ended up underneath him would be if Reeves had stood at the foot of his bed with his back to the bed, then pulled the trigger whilst falling back onto the bed. Could he have done that? Sure. Could he have shot himself in some other way so that the casing ended up there? Sure… but it’s highly unlikely.

  • The gun was found at Reeves’ feet. Had Reeves shot himself whilst standing up (as in the scenario above), the gun would have been found on the floor, not on the bed at Reeves’ feet. In any other scenario, the gun would have been in Reeves’ hands, or on the bed much closer to his head.

  • There were no powder burns on Reeves’ head. When someone puts a gun to their head and pulls the trigger, some of the burning gunpowder always burns a unique pattern around the wound. None was found on Reeves’ head, which indicates that the gun was at least 18 inches (or more) away from Reeves’s head when the trigger was pulled. Again, Reeves could have held the gun 18 inches away from his head and done the deed, but this seems unlikely. In fact, it’s so unlikely that the lack of powder burns near a “self inflicted” wound is almost always a sign of foul play for modern coroners.

  • There were multiple bullet holes in the walls. Bullet holes were found in the walls of the bedroom and the living room. It would have been impossible for Reeves to fire more than one bullet, and it have been awfully strange for bullet holes from any previous “incidents” to have not been covered up by this time. Incredibly, this angle was not explored at all by the police.

  • Reeves had cut down his drinking. Reeves was well-known as a “party guy” in Hollywood circles, especially in his younger days. But by the time of his death he had trimmed his drinking to the occasional social drink. Of course, people that have never had a drink in their lives also kill themselves, so a lack of alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But – if anything – his cleaning himself up would seem to point in the opposite direction: that Reeves’s life was coming together, not falling apart.

  • Reeves was working again. Reeves had just signed a contract to do two additional seasons of Superman, and had also had just signed a five-picture deal with Paramount Studios (one of the roles was to play the lead detective in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). He was even scheduled to fight boxer Archie Moore the next day (Reeves had a successful wrestling career in the 1940s). It seems odd then that Reeves would have killed himself over a “lack of roles” given that he had plenty of work coming up.

  • Reeves was getting married in three days. Reeves was supposed to marry his girlfriend Lenore Lemmon on June 19th – three days after his “suicide”. It seems odd that he would have killed himself just before his wedding!

  • Police weren’t called for at least 40 minutes after the death. It’s entirely possible that Lemmon and the guests simply needed some time to sober up before calling the police. But with all of the other things listed above, it just seems strange that the police weren’t called immediately.

So – the obvious question is: if Reeves didn’t kill himself… who killed Reeves? There seem to be two possibilities: Lenore Lemmon and Toni Mannix.

Reeves and Lemmon apparently had a passionate relationship. They were known to argue heatedly in public, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Reeves and Lemmon argued that night so intensely that Lemmon pulled a gun and shot him. Lemmon herself claimed to be the cause of the bullet holes throughout the house, as she had been “fooling around with” the gun earlier that evening. So she could have killed Reeves in a fit of passion. But had she done so, why would all of the guests go along with her story about Reeves committing suicide? And if it was premeditated, why would she have killed Reeves at that point? He hadn’t gotten around to changing his will yet, so Lemmon got nothing from his death.

And then there’s Toni Mannix. Toni was the wife of Eddie Mannix – the vice president of MGM and someone with alleged ties to the mob. Toni and Reeves had been having an affair for years, and Reeves attempted to break it off as his relationship with Lemmon blossomed. But Toni wouldn’t leave him alone. In fact, Toni’s obsession with Reeves got so bad that at one point Reeves went to an attorney to see if he could get a restraining order against her. Whether Reeves was “murdered” by Toni in an “if I can’t have him, no one can” gesture or whether the deed was done by jealous husband Eddie – who was accused of murdering his first wife Beatrice in a staged car crash in 1937 – is unknown. Some who have studied the last days of Reeves’ life wonder if a car crash he suffered not long before his death wasn’t an accident at all, but rather was Eddie’s handiwork. And if Reeves was indeed murdered by Eddie or Toni (or an associate), perhaps it was the mob ties that scared Reeves’ guests into silence.

Sadly, we’ll never know. There was never a definitive list of the guests at Reeves’ house that evening, and just about everyone else that can verifiably be traced to this “case” has died.

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