George Reeves: The Death of Superman

Was the star of 50s TV show The Adventures of Superman murdered?

As TV’s original Superman, George Reeves was the ultimate hero to millions of children. But the scandalous and suspicious way he met his death in 1959 could not have been further removed from his role as the Man of Steel.

Sprawled naked on his bed, Reeves had been shot in the head after a late night party at his house. How he came to meet this grisly end is a story as disputed and controversial today as it was when the scandal rocked Hollywood at the height of the actor's fame.

Tall and chisel jawed, Reeves was the perfect choice to play the all American hero in the syndicated television show the Adventures of Superman. From 1952 to 1958 he starred in 104 episodes, but by the late 50s it had declined in popularity and it was put into hiatus after it’s sixth season.

Reeves’ shocking death made headlines around the world

Reeves, who took his acting career seriously and had parts in Gone with the Wind and From here to Eternity, always had mixed feelings about his fame as Superman. Nevertheless, the end of his iconic role reportedly hit him hard and at 45, typecast, unemployed and overweight, he found himself reduced to appearing in commercials and celebrity boxing matches.

The official verdict was that Reeves had committed suicide, the weight of his troubles having become too much for him to bear. However, many of his friends and colleagues believe the actor was murdered, his death the stormy culmination of a tangled love life.

It was an open secret in the business that Reeves had been conducting a long term affair with Toni Mannix, the wife of notorious Hollywood fixer and MGM vice president Eddie Mannix. They had even planned to marry if Eddie were to die.

Superman and the Mole Men acted as a pilot for the TV series

The year before Reeves’ death he abruptly ended his relationship with Mannix, leaving her for the younger New York socialite Leonore Lemmon. Mannix was devastated by the rejection, made all the more humiliating for the fact Reeves had moved Lemmon into a house in Los Angeles she owned.

Reeves himself believed Mannix was behind the succession of sinister events that dogged Reeves in the run up to his death, including silent midnight phonecalls and the kidnapping of his beloved Schnauzer Sam. Had the jilted older woman taken things one step too far and shot Reeves in a jealous rage?

George Reeves with long term lover Tony Mannix

Or was the culprit his new girlfriend, the volatile and temperamental Lemmon, who had argued with Reeves the night of his death about the late night party she was having whilst he tried to sleep off his own night of heavy drinking?

More sinister still, did Eddie Mannix, a man whose job it was to make Hollywood scandals go away, pull some of his underworld strings and hire a hitman to erase the man who had so grievously upset his wife?

To unravel the murky fate of TV’s first superhero we must return to the early hours of June 16, 1959. The night Superman died and an enduring mystery was born.

At around 2am that morning, two police officers arrived at 1579 Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, the house Reeves had been living at with his new fiancée Leonore Lemmon during the previous few months. Lemmon had called them after she and her party guests had found Reeves dead in his bedroom.

Those guests were neighbour Carol Van Ronkel, her lover Robert Condon, and another neighbour, William Bliss. Due to their advanced state of inebriation the party guests were not entirely coherent, but they all seemed to agree on the suicide story. At around 1.20am, a bad tempered Reeves had admonished the trio for their noise, before returning upstairs.

Reeves as Superman with Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane

What happened next is mired in controversy, but according to the police interviews with the witnesses, a short moment later a shot was heard and the man who had become famous for been impervious to gunfire had, ironically, ended his life with a bullet to the head.

The subsequent police report seem to accept the whole story at face value. George Reeves was depressed and whilst entertaining guests at his home he he inexplicably left the room, placed a pistol to his right temple and pulled the trigger. It all seemed so simple.

However, a number of suspicious details about the case have long piqued the interest of gossip mongers and armchair detective alike. Why had Lemmon waited for so long - 45 minutes or so, to call the police? Was it true she was heard to say “He is going to shoot himself”, after Reeves had left the party to go back to bed?

George Reeves as Clark Kent in the Adventures of Superman

The police also appeared to be behaving in a careless manner. No photos of the body were taken and the crime scene was not properly searched or dusted for prints. Reeves initially had no autopsy and his body was swifted embalmed.

The ballistics looked all wrong too. The actor had no burn marks on his hands or face - how had he shot himself in the head with a pistol without leaving powder burns?

Three bullet holes were found in the bedroom, all caused by the Luger that was found resting between the victim's legs. Had Reeves really shot himself three times? And how had the fatal bullet ended up in the ceiling whilst the shell rested underneath his body?

The young George Reeves was determined to become a serious film actor

Despite these suspicions, the Los Angeles Police Department officially ruled the death a suicide, on little more than a cursory investigation. Were Hollywood's police force keeping a lid on the truth to protect Tinseltown from another scandal? And did that scandal involve one of the most powerful men in the movie business, Toni Maddox’s husband Eddie?

Perhaps fueled by a disbelief that the Man of Steel could ever take his own life, speculation and theories have abounded for more than 50 years that Lemmon, Mannix, her husband or even a hitman were responsible for the death of Superman.

Is there any truth in the persistent rumours that Reeves was murdered?

Evidence For

The Return of Superman

The main reason Reeves was said to have committed suicide was depression over his declining fortunes as an actor. Superman had been cancelled and Reeves had struggled to find the serious work he craved.

However, friends and relatives think Reeves’ career troubles were exaggerated. In actual fact The Adventures of Superman was due to return in 1960, with a higher pay packet for Reeves and the promise that he would be able to direct more of the episodes, something he had enjoyed doing on the last three shows of the previous season.

A publicity shot of George Reeves as Superman

He had also lined up a science fiction script called ‘Return to Earth’, by screenwriter Sidney Fields that he had hoped to direct, possibly with his Superman co-star Phyllis Coates in one of the lead roles. Coates was amongst many of Reeves’ friends and co-stars who did not believe he would have killed himself.

If anything, it seemed like Reeves career was on the up. Would the actor, generally described as an ordinary, straightforward kind of guy, really have killed himself in a house full of guests, especially choosing to do so naked - highly unusual in suicides?

George Reeves’ mother Helen Bessolo never accepted the official verdict and hired private investigators to to reopen the investigation into his death. She even commissioned a second autopsy, which concluded that Reeves was possibly murdered. But this had no official status and could not overrule the coroner's verdict of suicide.

Faster than a Speeding Bullet

Even outside of the world of comic books, bullets sometimes do funny things, and that was certainly the case in the death of George Reeves.

According to the autopsy report, Reeves had taken his .30 caliber German Luger pistol, placed it near his right temple and pulled the trigger. He died instantly and fell backwards, his feet still hungover the bed and his back on the mattress. The gun fell to his feet and the shell was found underneath him.

Reeves was shot in the right temple

For some reason Reeves had contorted his head so it was tilted upwards at the point of firing, as the bullet was found embedded in the ceiling. If his death was suicide Reeves must have held the gun with his right hand, although this in itself is suspicious as the actor had injured his right hand in an automobile accident a few weeks prior to his death.

Reeves’ head and hands showed no signs of gunshot residue or powder burns. Even if the actor had not placed the gun to his head at point blank range, as is usual in suicides, it should have left some obvious marks on his forehead.

Inexplicably, the shell casing was found underneath Reeves’ body. Since a 9mm Luger generally ejects its shells to the right, it's hard to conceive what position the actor must have been in when he fired for it to have ended up underneath him.

Other evidence that casts doubt on this scenario is the lack of burn marks on Reeves’ back. If he had really fallen backwards onto a freshly ejected shell case it should have been hot enough to have burnt his skin, yet no such marks were evident at the autopsy.

George Reeves’ death certificate

Had the actor been placed on the bed some time after he was shot? If this was the case, then clearly he had not fired the gun himself, and another party was involved. Further to this, a later search of the bedroom found two extra bullet holes.

Multiple gunshot suicides are rare, so if these shots were contemporary to Reeves’ death, it seems unlikely he was the shooter. If they were fired earlier, then at the very least its evidence somebody in the house had a somewhat cavalier attitude to firearms.

The Fiery Fiancée

Leonore Lemmon was, by all accounts, a bit of a hell-raiser. Hard drinking and hard partying, she gave as good as she got, and had the dubious distinction of been the first woman to be thrown out of New York’s famous Stork club for fist fighting. She also had a reputation as a gold digger, having married twice before for money.

Reeves with his fiancee Leonore Lemmon

Lemmon and Reeves had a stormy relationship but, at least according to her, were engaged to be married. On the night of his death the pair had gone for dinner with writer Richard Condon, who was staying with the couple whilst he worked on a biography of Archie Moore, the prizefighter Reeves had been due to fight in a celebrity boxing match later that year.

According to Condon, Lemmon was in an combative mood that night, and had made somewhat of a scene in the restaurant. The argument had carried over back to the house, Lemmon apparently upset by the suspicion that Reeves had been talking to previous girlfriend Toni Mannix.

Years later, William Bliss, one of the party guests who had originally told police Leonore Lemmon was downstairs with them when the shot was heard, changed his story. Talking to friend Millicent Trent, Bliss said Lemmon had actually rushed down the stairs after the gunshot and urged them to “Tell them I was down here! Tell them I was down here!”.

Was Lemmon with Reeves when he shot himself? Had she even pulled the trigger herself? Considering her temperament, it does not seem out of the question she may have started waving Reeve’s pistol about whilst having a drunken argument with her prospective husband.

Had Reeves gotten cold feet about their supposed wedding, or been caught on the phone to Toni Mannix? Leonore Lemmon’s behaviour after Reeves’ death did little to allay suspicions she may have had more involvement than she was letting on.

The police did not treat the house as a crime scene, and Lemmon was able to return shortly after they had left, have the bloody sheets washed, retrieve $4000 in travellers cheques and leave Los Angeles for New York, never to return again, not even for Reeves’ funeral.

Later in life, she become a somewhat tragic figure, bloated and consumed by alcoholism, Leonore would give many different accounts of the events of that night, often contradicting herself and denying things she was commonly reported to have said and done. She died alone in her apartment over New Year 1989, her body not found for four days.

The Jilted Showgirl

Mobster Mickey Cohen once described Toni Mannix as the only person in Hollywood who had any balls. So when George Reeves spurned his long term mistress for a younger model, she did not take it lying down.

Reeves himself was convinced it was Mannix behind a string of strange incidents that had befallen him in the aftermath of their breakup. He was inundated with menacing silent phone calls at all hours of the morning and someone even abducted his beloved dog Sam.

Toni and Eddie Mannix

Worst of all occurred on April 8th, when Reeves lost control of his Jaguar and careered into a cement pillar near his home in Benedict Canyon. He was lucky to escape with head injuries that required him to take powerful painkillers right up until the night he died.

The accident was rendered in a more sinister light when Reeves’ mechanic discovered the brake fluid in the car had been drained. Had the usually diligent actor neglected to maintain his prized Jaguar properly or was this, as some have suspected, a murder attempt by Toni Mannix?

If Mannix was trying to extinguish the Man of Steel, it’s unlikely she pulled the trigger that night at 1579 Benedict Canyon. More adept with withering, foul mouthed put downs, violence was not really her style. Besides, she was married to ‘the most dangerous man in Hollywood’, who had a formidable reputation for been able to make problems disappear.

Toni, a former showgirl and starlet in the early talkies, married MGM studios enforcer Eddie Mannix in 1951. Shortly after, she began her affair with Reeves, who at 10 years her junior, she referred to as ‘the boy’.

The Mannix’s relationship was unusual even by the standards of Hollywood. Effectively living an open marriage, Eddie tolerated, even liked Reeves, and himself maintained a younger mistress.

Eddie’s exploits in covering up the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood were legendary. As portrayed in films such as Hollywoodland and Hail Ceasar, Eddie had an array of thugs, bent cops, private eyes and mobsters on the payroll.

No scandals were too big to be neutralised by Eddie, from covering-up Clark Gable accidently killing actress Tosca Roulien, to tracking down and buying up every copy of a porn film starring Joan Crawford.

If anyone could put the heat on Superman it was Eddie. Was he responsible, on behalf of his wronged wife, for the misfortunes that had befallen Reeves in the run up to his death? And was Eddie, a man suspected of killing his first wife Bernice Fitzmaurice, behind the bullet to the head that ended the actors life?

This theory centres around the mysterious WIlliam Bliss, a stranger to both Reeves and Leonore Lemmon, whose presence in the house that night has never been adequately explained. Was his role to distract the house guests and facilitate the entry of a hitman to do away with Reeves?

Josh Brolin played Eddie Mannix in the Cohen Brothers’ Hail Caesar

Whilst highly speculative, some corroboration to this comes from Reeves’ own Lois Lane, actress Phyllis Coates. Coates had become a mutual friend of both her Superman co-star and Tony Mannix. That night she received a disturbing phone call.

In the early hours of June 16, Mannix called Coates; she was hysterical and told her friend that Reeves had been murdered. This was before news of Reeves death had gotten out, and it always remained a mystery to Coates how Mannix could have known Reeves was murdered unless she was party to it.

It seems the dark secret haunted her for the rest of her life. According to publicist Edward Lozzi, who had befriended Toni during her last years as a widow in Beverly Hills, what she had done weighed heavily on the now elderly Mannix

“She was absolutely terrified of going to hell", Lozzi told the LA Times. In 1983, the publicist sat by her bedside during her last hours, and knowing she was the last person on earth to know the truth, confessed all to her priest.

She and Eddie had used his underworld connections to have Reeves killed. Her devastation at been rejected by her ‘boy’ had pushed her to the ultimate reprisal.

Is her confession credible? Clearly she had the motive, and through her ruthless and well connected husband she certainly had the means. But she was also suffering from alzheimer's at the time of her death, and may have confused fact with the many fictions that had long circulated about the death of her former lover.

Evidence Against

The Dark Side

While many of Reeves’ friends doubted the suicide verdict, Jack Larson, who played cub reporter Jimmy Olsen in the show, always accepted that his friend took his own life.

Larson had suffered a similar career downturn to Reeves after series was cancelled, and like his Superman co-star had struggled to break free of the typecasting associated with such an iconic role.

“Nobody wanted me to work at all. I don't know what happened to George. I was depressed, and I accepted instantly that he had committed suicide”, Larson told Unsolved Mysteries in 1995.

Larson also thought the prospective return of the Adventures of Superman had filled the actor with dread, “Anyone who thinks another season of Superman wouldn't depress George didn't know George”, he said.

Reeves would frequently bemoan the role he felt so trapped in, with particular disdain reserved for the crude and repetitive scripts that often required little more of him than to turn up at the end and have the villain’s bullets bounce off his chest.

Towards the end of the TV Show’s run, Reeves had begun to show his age

He referred to the show that had made him famous as “scraping the bottom of the barrel”, and would burn the costume he called a “monkey suit” at the wrap of each season. But unable to find work, perhaps George felt he had little choice but to return to a part that clearly caused him much anguish.

At 45 and craving more serious work, the prospect of yet again trudging around the country in tights and cape, as children threw stones at him and teenagers challenged him to fights, may have become too much bare.

Was the coroner's verdict right after all? Had Reeves, drunk, unhappy and smarting at another argument with his new girlfriend Leonore Lemmon, pulled the trigger on his Luger whilst plumbing some dark trough of self pity?

Reeves was extremely intoxicated when he died, and also pumped full of painkillers to treat the injuries he received in his recent car accident. Alcohol, narcotics and depression are a red light warning sign for suicide, and with little other evidence available to them to suggest otherwise, it’s not hard to see why the Police came to this conclusion.

A Dangerous Game

One variation on this theory is that Reeves accidentally shot himself playing a game of Russian Roulette. Perhaps the toxic mixture of alcohol and painkillers had led to a fatal misjudgment?

Whilst it’s true the actor had a habit of playing dangerous games with his gun, naked in bed at 1am does not seem a very likely time for macabre party tricks. Besides, the gun was not a revolver and it was quite evident whether it was chambered or not.

If it was Reeves that pulled the trigger then in all likelihood it was because he had had enough of his life, for whatever reason. For decades friends, family and strangers alike have speculated on his mental state and whether he was the type of person to commit suicide or not, but the truth is only George Reeves himself knew what was truly going on in his mind.

All too often it is those closest to someone who takes their own life who can least understand it. The suicidal can become very adept at hiding their inner turmoil from their loved ones. Conversely, not everyone who is depressed about their career takes their own life.

After all these years, what happened that night at 1579 Benedict Canyon remains obscure and controversial. Everyone involved is now dead, and little or no evidence from the crime scene remains.

It is sometimes easy to get caught up in the mystery of George Reeves’ demise, the different theories and suspects. But the strange death of Superman is not a parlour game. There was a real man behind the superhero, whose tragic early death will likely forever be a mystery.

Comments

Read more!