Deck Log Entry # 156 "But I Always Thought . . . ": Superman on Television (Part One)

If a rumour is pithy enough, especially if it involves a famous person and provides a cutting irony or a satisfying comeuppance, then the public will clutch it to its collective bosom, regardless of the facts.  H. L. Mencken proved this some ninety years ago, with his Bathtub Hoax.  I learnt it myself for the first time in 1962, one day at a friend’s house.

 

We were watching the regular afternoon rerun of Adventures of Superman, when my pal’s older brother, a senior in high school, popped his head in, pointed at George Reeves on the screen, and said, “He killed himself, you know.  He jumped out of a window because he thought he could fly.”

 

I was old enough to have read the newspaper report on George Reeves’s death and to remember it.  “What are you talking about?” I asked my friend’s big brother.  “No, he didn’t.”

 

“Sure he did,” he replied.  “He’d played Superman for so long he thought he was Superman and jumped out a window because he thought he could fly.”

 

“You’re wrong,” I told him.

 

He just shook his head, made a plunging-arc gesture with his hand, punctuated the motion with a “Splat!”, and walked off.

 

I looked at my buddy.  He said, “That’s what I heard, too."

 

I knew better than to ask my parents about it.  My folks wouldn’t have known who George Reeves was.  They wrote off Superman as “soopernatural stuff”, as my mom put it, and they didn’t approve of me watching the show in the first place.

 

So, instead, the next day, I asked my teacher about it.  I told her what my friend’s brother had said. 

 

“I’m pretty sure that’s right,” she replied.

 

“But that’s not what happened,” I argued.  “I read it in the paper.”

 

“You’ve probably got it mixed up with something else,” she told me, dismissing my protests out of hand because, of course, nobody ever listens to a kid.

 

Thankfully, the notion that George Reeves fell to his death because he thought he was Superman and could fly is one of the rare rumours that has vanished from public consciousness.  While it was commonplace in the ‘60’s and most of the ‘70’s, it was finally killed by baby-boomers of my vintage.  They grew up and wrote books and magazine articles.  News shows and entertainment programmes dredged up the actual circumstances of George Reeves’s death.  And the belief that Reeves plunged to his death has been supplanted by different suppositions and assumptions.

 

The fact of the matter is no-one will ever really know what happened that fateful hour on 16 June 1959.  But for almost twenty years, thousands of reasonably intelligent people believed that Reeves died jumping out a window---I imagine there are some who still do---and no amount of facts would convince them otherwise.

 

Time has put that rumour to a deserved rest.  But there are still a few other misbeliefs and inaccuracies about the Adventures of Superman TV show that need correcting.   Those are the ones I’m going to talk about here.

 

 

 

Myth # 1.  “. . . Able to Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound!”

 

It was one evening about fifteen years ago, I guess, when the Good Mrs. Benson and I were watching Wheel of Fortune on television.  A certain puzzle, category “Famous Phrase”, popped up on the letter board, and within a couple of consonants, I knew exactly what it was. It didn’t take much longer for the GMB to get it, either.

 

Finally, when the board looked like this . . .

 

. . . the contestant whose turn it was felt sure he knew it, too.  “I’d like to solve the puzzle, Pat.”

 

“About time!”  I shouted at the TV set from my easy chair.

 

“Go ahead,” replied Pat Sajak.

 

Confidently, the contestant recited, “’Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound’.”

 

Bzzzzzzzt!

 

“I’m sorry,” said Sajak.  “That’s incorrect.”

 

The GMB and I looked at each other, dumbfounded.  Of course, it was correct and I was already mentally drafting the letter I was going to write to the show, pointing out its mistake.

 

Shortly thereafter, another contestant got a shot at it.  I guess she hadn't listened too closely to the first contestant's answer, for she said the exact same thing:  “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”  And again, the Dreaded Buzzer of Shame sounded.

 

The third player wanted no part of it, though it was obvious the same phrase was going through his mind.

 

“Actually,” said Pat, “it’s ‘Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound’.”

 

I was perplexed.  I had always quoted it as “In a single bound.”  Everybody I knew who knew the expression cited it as “In a single bound.”  And I wasn’t about to let go of that without checking myself.

 

I had most of the entire run of The Adventures of Superman on video tape.  (I said this was fifteen years ago, remember?)  I played about a half-dozen of them on my VCR, trying to sample one from each season the show ran.

 

And, by gosh, every time, announcer Bill Kennedy’s opening narration proclaimed “Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”

 

I recalled that the Fleischer animated Superman cartoons of the ‘40’s and the radio version of The Adventures of Superman also used the same opening.  Maybe one of those had it as “in” and not “at”, I thought.

 

I had all of the Superman cartoons on video tape.  I played the cartoons produced by Fleisher and the later ones produced by Famous Studios.  Not all of them used the bullet/locomotive/tall building intro, but the ones that did all said “Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”

 

I had audio tapes of the radio show.  By then, I knew what I was probably going to hear, but I had to be sure.  Speeding bullet---check.  Locomotive---check.  And, yes, “Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”

 

Wheel of Fortune had it right.

 

Since then, I’ve come to realise that this is probably the single most misquoted phrase to appear in any books, articles, or web pages that mention Superman.  So I know I’m likely performing that well-known act involving a bodily function and a rope here, but if you taken nothing else from these 156 Deck Log articles of mine, just remember this one thing.

 

Not “in”.

 

“At".

 

 

 

Myth # 2.  Whenever a Criminal Fired a Gun at Superman on the TV Show, the Man of Steel Would Let the Bullets Bounce Off His Chest, But He Would Always Duck When the Crook Threw the Gun at Him.

 

 

Remember Tomorrow, hosted by Tom Snyder?   It ran from 1973 to 1981, sandwiched between The Tonight Show and the end-of-broadcast-day triptych of Sermonette, the national anthem, and the test pattern.  (If you don’t know what the test pattern was, ask your grandpa.)  Tomorrow was a wee-hours talk show for us insomniacs.  Snyder, a former television reporter and anchorman, would interview individuals usually linked by a single theme.

 

On 18 October 1976, the show’s guests were the three performers who portrayed Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and Inspector Henderson on the Superman television series---Jack Larson and Noel Neill and Robert Shayne.  Filling a fourth chair was Gary Grossman, author of Superman: Serial to Cereal (Popular Library, 1977).

 

About mid-way through the hour, the show came back from commercial, and Snyder said to his four guests:

 

In the pictures that I saw, when Superman would stand up and someone would be shooting at him with a gun, the bullets would bounce off of his chest . . . But now, when the crook knew the gun was empty, he would take the gun and throw it at Superman.  And Superman would duck and let the gun fly over his shoulder.

 

Tom Snyder wasn’t the only one to raise that odd scenario, or to do it on nationwide television.  Around the same time, comedian David Brenner had made the first dozen or so of what would be 158 appearances on The Tonight Show.  Much of Brenner’s early material plumbed humour out the illogical things one saw or did in day-to-day life.  (“Have you ever noticed when you’re about to enter the post office, there’s a sign on the door that says ‘No Dogs Allowed Except Seeing-Eye Dogs’?  Who’s that sign for?”)

 

Brenner used the bullet-and-gun thing in some of his routines.   So the bullets go bouncing off of Superman’s chest, he would point out, and then the crook would throw the gun at him---and, every time, Superman would duck!

 

At the time, I nodded with Snyder and chuckled at Brenner, fully in agreement.

 

It’s a common observation.  The other day I Googled “Superman ducks gun”, and I counted thirty separate, non-connected hits on it before I gave up because there were too many more pages to go.  Not only were dozens of folks wryly commenting on it, but quite a few responders actually tried to provide rational, in-fiction explanations for it.

 

It was about five years ago that I got the idea of doing a “But I Always Thought . . . “ article on the Adventures of Superman television series.  The problem was determining what, if any, popular misconceptions about the show existed and then, if there would be enough to build an article out of them.

 

One of the first things I thought of was the Superman-always-ducked-the-gun meme.  It was a widespread belief, but a perfect example of the kind of thing I was looking for, if it proved to be untrue.  Well, I didn’t have the time to sit down and view fifty-two hours of Superman episodes. So I did the next best thing.

 

I contacted Jim Nolt and Lou Koza, editors of “The Adventures Continue”, the most comprehensive Adventures of Superman site in existence.  If it’s in any way, shape, or form connected with the series, then it’s there somewhere on their site---and it’s accurate.  (And before you ask, yes, they have it right---“able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”)

 

I sent e-mails to both Mr. Nolt and Mr. Koza, asking them about the ducking-the-gun business.  Both gentlemen were gracious enough to reply.  They both told me the exact number of times on the show that Superman ducked a gun hurled at him, and the number was the same in both replies.

 

One.

 

It occurred exactly once---in the eighth episode of the first season, “The Mind Machine”.  Superman bursts in on syndicate boss Cranek, before the mobster can stop Lois Lane from giving testimony against him to a Senate committee.  The Man of Steel orders Cranek away from the machine which will destroy Lois’ brain and the hood pulls his gun.

 

You can see here what happens next . . . .

 

So, yes, Superman dodged a gun.  But it didn’t happen every time he was shot at.  Or even sometimes.

 

It happened only once.

* * * * *

 

 

Two down, two to go.  Like I tend to do, I got a trifle long-winded, so we’ll wind things up next time when we take a look at another couple of misbeliefs about the amazing Adventures of Superman.

Views: 1288

Comment by doc photo on April 24, 2013 at 9:28am

Great column, Commander. As I have stated in the past "Adventures of Superman", in spite of budget constraints and primitive technology, remains one the best ever comic book super hero adaptions ever done - thanks largely to the terrific cast.

Once again we have a shared memory - I too recall when my best buddy and I were playing in the driveway of my house when his older brother stopped by. The conversation turned to Superman, which wasn't unusual back then, and Older Brother told us the " George Reeves thought he could fly" story. It was sometime before I learned the truth.

 

Comment by The Baron on April 24, 2013 at 10:07am

I remember Tom Snyder. Dan Aykroyd used to parody him in the early days of Saturday Night Live.

Comment by Commander Benson on April 24, 2013 at 12:13pm

Thanks for the kind words, doc.

 

We have more than a shared memory of the "thought he could fly" myth; we're in sync with our evaluations of Adventures of Superman, too.

 

It's easy, and obvious, to criticise the series' shoestring budget, cheap special effects, foam-rubber muscles, and the juvenile plots of the last several seasons.  But when one considers, the back-breaking production schedule (they shot two episodes every six days) and the economising practise of shooting the set pieces for all the episodes at the same time, out of sequence, it's amazing that any given episode has any coherency at all.

 

As you said, doc, it's a testimony to the extraordinary talent and professionalism of the cast.

 

As far as that goes, there isn't enough I can say about George Reeves.  It's well known that, in taking the part of Superman, Reeves felt that he had hit the bottom of his career.  Yet, he still delivered a realistic, believable, and multi-layered performance as the Man of Steel and Clark Kent.

 

The publicity tag for the 1978 film Superman, with Christopher Reeve, was "You'll believe a man can fly!"  Well, the tag for Adventures of Superman should have been "You'll believe that there is a Superman!"

 

No other actor has come close to investing the characters of Supeman and Kent with as much presence and realism.  Forget about the foam-rubber muscles and the later-seasons truss to hold his waistline in.  Reeves projected authority, decency, sincerity, and warmth.  A viewer at home didn't think "That actor is doing a great job of playing Superman."; he was thinking, "That's Superman!"

 

Above all else, George Reeves's Superman---and to a lesser extent, his Clark Kent---was believable as an authority figure, a cachet that Christopher Reeve and all of the other subsequent pretenders to the throne lacked.  Besides Reeves's talent, I think a major contributor to this was the fact that Reeves was in his late-thirties to mid-forties when he played the rôle.  While still young enough to be vigourous, he was old enough to show experience and maturity.  In short, he was a grown-up.

 

By contrast, Christopher Reeve was twenty-five when he played Superman, and I'm sorry, but even when I was twenty-five myself, I didn't view twenty-somethings as having the maturity and depth to command the kind of respect a character like Superman requires.  And Christopher Reeves sure didn't.

 

Not only did that difference in ages affect the presence of the Superman character, it made a practical difference in their respective performances.  With more years of performing under his belt, George Reeves was a more skilled actor at the time he played Superman, than Reeve was when he donned the red cape.

 

And these things translate also to the other Superman actors who came along after Reeve.

 

I've always felt that one of the biggest tragedies in George Reeves's premature death was that he, a man who thought he had hit the bottom of the acting barrel in playing Superman, never lived long enough to see and enjoy how beloved and respected he still is by those of us "of a certain age."

Comment by Horn'd One on April 24, 2013 at 12:45pm

From what I know, George Reeves died from a fatal gunshot wound to the head. The debate still runs rampant whether it was a suicide or murder.
Yes, it's "AT" a single bound. Easy enough misconception, as many announcers not long after the show went off the air misspoke that line.
And as for the Superman-Dodging-A-Thrown-Gun? Pure reflex action on Mr Reeve's part. Would YOU want your face marred by an ill-timed throw? I think not.

Comment by The Baron on April 24, 2013 at 1:16pm

And, of course, there's always this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csjjkGzixAg

Comment by Captain Comics on April 24, 2013 at 1:26pm

I remember the gun-ducking scene so well, that if someone had asked me how many times it happened, I probably would have thought more than once -- so I'm delighted to know the facts. Thanks, Commander!

Comment by Commander Benson on April 24, 2013 at 1:43pm

"And, of course, there's always this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csjjkGzixAg"

It surprises some folks, but Adventures of Superman was not without an occasional gust of intelligent humour or witty lines ("Makes you nervous!?"), but it's a curious quirk that George Reeves's funniest and most memorable line as Superman was delivered on I Love Lucy.

 

 

Comment by Captain Comics on April 24, 2013 at 1:55pm

When I was a kid what really made me laugh about the gun-ducking scene was that the crook thought that Superman, after shrugging off bullets, could BE hurt by a thrown gun. The same thing happened in one of Universal's "Mummy" movies, too.

As an adult, I realize it's a reflexive impulse to throw the now-useless gun, but as a lad, I was so indoctrinated in the "rules" of the Weisinger Superman that I knew that the crook needed kryptonite, magic or a red sun to hurt the Man of Steel, and I couldn't believe he was so dumb he didn't know that! Adults were so STOO-pid!

Comment by Richard Willis on April 24, 2013 at 2:17pm

The most memorable line in the first Christopher Reeve movie was also light without being camp. Superman says "I've got you" and Lois says "Who's got YOU?".

Comment by Richard Willis on April 24, 2013 at 2:59pm

A modern example of this is the common belief that playing the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT drove Heath Ledger to commit suicide. The official cause of death was accidental overdose of prescription drugs. IIRC these were actual prescriptions, legally obtained. He had everything to live for including a career on the upswing and a new baby daughter.

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