It’s June 1959, and Superman actor George Reeves is found dead, killed by a bullet to the head. Since his role as the Man of Steel, his career has floundered – and now either suicide or murder has taken his life. Incredibly, it’s just one of many tragedies that continue to befall people with connections to DC Comics’ most beloved hero.
George arrived into the world on January 5, 1914, in the small town of Woolstock, Iowa. While he was still a baby, his parents split up, and he moved with his mother Helen first to Illinois, and then California. On the west coast, she married Frank Bessolo, the man who would become Reeve’s stepfather for much of his young life.
After 15 years together, Helen and Frank decided to go their separate ways. Bessolo left while George was away, and the teenager was told that his stepfather had taken his own life. This falsehood was believed by the unsuspecting teenager for years. Sadly, this strange episode was just the beginning of a difficult and ultimately tragic life.
After developing a passion for acting during high school, George went on to study the craft at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse. And in 1939, he secured a minor role in the epic movie Gone With The Wind. Now contracted to Warner Brothers, he appeared in a number of pictures before war broke out and he joined the United States Army in 1943.
After the war, George made his way back to Hollywood, where he continued to land minor roles. By this time, he was married to the actress Ellanora Needles, although the pair divorced in 1950. Then, one year later, the actor secured the part that would change his life – that of the comic book hero Superman.
First created in 1938 by artist and writer duo Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman had already appeared in a radio adaptation, The Adventures of Superman, as well as an animated television series and a movie serial. Starring actor Kirk Alyn, the latter had been a roaring success.
By June 1951, another adaptation was on the cards in the form of television series Adventures of Superman. And even though George was initially reluctant to take on the part, he soon found fame as the beloved superhero. Now a household name, he transformed himself into the ultimate role model, ditching his tobacco habit and keeping his personal life tightly under wraps.
However, things soon began to unravel. Embroiled in an extramarital affair with the wife of MGM manager Eddie Mannix, George grew dissatisfied with the direction of his career. And by 1959, he had made a number of attempts to break free from typecasting associated with the Superman role.
Unfortunately, George had limited success, and grew increasingly dependent on playing Superman in order to pay the bills. And even though the series was now off the air, there were plans to revive it with a new run of episodes and a new movie to boot. However, on June 16, the actor was found shot dead.
Although George’s death was officially treated as a suicide, the verdict left many questions left unanswered. Apparently, his body had been discovered in his room by guests, but there were no fingerprints on the pistol that was found at the scene. Moreover, a total of three spent bullets were recovered by police – despite witnesses’ claims that only one shot was fired.
Because of the mysterious circumstances, many have theorized that George was in fact murdered, perhaps by someone involved in the actor’s complicated personal life. But over the years, these suspicions have morphed into something altogether more supernatural and sinister – the idea that the role of Superman is somehow plagued by a terrible curse.
According to some, George wasn’t the first to be affected by this alleged curse. In fact, believers point to Shuster and Siegel as the first victims, highlighting how Superman’s creators sold the character for a meager $130 – the equivalent of just $2,000 in today’s money. And for three decades, they languished in poverty while their superhero made millions.
Although Shuster and Siegel eventually won recognition and recompense from DC Comics, their misfortune was just the first in a long string of unfortunate incidents with links to the Man of Steel. Before George there was also Kirk Alyn, who played the hero in the 1940s movie serial. Unable to secure further acting work after playing the iconic role, Alyn’s star waned and he died in virtual anonymity, eventually succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease.
Another early Superman was Bud Collyer, who lent his voice to the 1940s animated series. Decades later, he returned to the character, supplying vocals for a 1966 CBS cartoon. But just three years later, he was dead at the relatively young age of 61. Could he have been another victim of the alleged curse?
Perhaps one of the most well-known cases of the alleged curse relates to Christopher Reeve, the actor who took the title role in Superman: The Movie in 1978, and in three subsequent adaptations. A success in the part, he did not seem to suffer the same typecasting as other incarnations of the hero. But sadly, a far worse fate awaited him.
In 1995, Reeve fell off a horse and broke his neck. Rendered paraplegic, he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, requiring a respirator just to breathe. And even though he continued to act after the accident, he died aged just 52 from complications relating to his injuries.
Reeves’ debut was also the first appearance for child actor Lee Quigley, who played the hero as a baby. Just 14 years later, he was dead from solvent abuse. Meanwhile, Marlon Brando – who appeared as Superman’s father Jor-El in the same movie – suffered his own personal tragedy when his son Christian shot and killed Dag Drollet, the partner of his half-sister Cheyenne.
Although Christian was eventually released from jail, Cheyenne ultimately took her own life. And apparently, Marlon wasn’t the only supporting actor affected by the alleged curse. For example, Superman III’s Richard Pryor suffered a long history of drug abuse before dying of a heart attack at 65, while Margot Kidder, who played romantic interest Lois Lane, saw her career crash and burn as she battled both addiction and bipolar disorder.
With so many misfortunes linked to the Superman franchise, it’s hardly surprising that rumors of a curse still abound some 60 years after George Reeves’ death. However, others are quick to dismiss the connections as mere coincidence, pointing out the many people who have been close to the hero and yet managed to escape any tragic consequences.
In fact, actors such as Dean Cain, Tom Welling, Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill have all gone on to have successful careers despite their portrayal of history’s most famous superhero. So is the curse merely outlandish speculation? Obviously, it’s an impossible thing to prove. Nonetheless, the rumors are probably enough to make any potential Superman think twice before taking on such an iconic – and potentially dangerous – role.