Today, to the younger generations, the name George Reeves means nothing. To baby-boomers (those born just after the end of World War Two) he was just a TV actor whose face became instantly recognizable because he portrayed Superman in 102 episodes of the hit TV series The Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1952 until 1958. Older cinema-goers would have seen him in the opening scene from the classic Gone with the Wind (1939), playing one of Scarlett O’Hara’s sycophantic admirers, the Tarleton twins. He was Brent.
George (left) as Brent Tarleton
in Gone With The Wind
He appeared in several good films after that: Virginia City and Knute Rockne – All American in 1940, The Strawberry Blonde and Blood and Sand in 1941, and 1943’s The Blue Gardenia. In that same year he almost achieved stardom with the lead in So Proudly We Hail! Almost. He was strong, good-looking, but did not possess that ‘star quality’ that the studios always seemed to be looking for. In short, his career was in limbo for nearly a decade before being offered the Superman TV series in 1952. He jumped at the regular pay check of $2,500 per episode, but the season only ran 13 weeks, and he soon realized he was going to have to be Superman 52 weeks a year. He was a star at last, but only a television star, and one that had no further opportunity to do anything else but portray Superman.
Overnight, Reeves suddenly became famous, especially with children. He made scores of personal appearances dressed as ‘The Man of Steel’, signed autographs and posed for photographs. On one occasion a small boy produced a Luger that his father had brought home from the war, aimed it at Reeves’ chest, and prepared to pull the trigger, just to see if Superman really was immune to bullets. The actor swiftly convinced the boy that, even though he was impervious to bullets, they might ricochet off his chest and injure bystanders. Reeves took his position as a role model for children very seriously, to the extent that he even gave up smoking and would never appear in costume in the company of a girlfriend.
Reeves & Burt Lancaster in
From Here To Eternity
Around about that time he gained a much-awaited break when he won a small role, that of Sgt. Maylon Stark, in a big movie – From Here to Eternity. Unfortunately, by the time the movie was played before some ‘test’ audiences, his face had become synonymous with that of Clark Kent and Superman. Cries of, ‘Look, there’s Superman!’ rang out from the seats and the picture’s producers became concerned that his very presence on the screen was detracting from their ‘serious’ WW2 movie about the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, contrary to many claims since then, according to director Fred Zinnemann, his part was not reduced in any way.
On June 16, 1959, he would be shot to death in his home at the age of just 45. For a long time most people, certainly his fans, thought he had committed suicide. Maybe he did. But the more likely explanation suggests he may have been murdered. But by whom and how? There were two strong candidates. One was MGM executive Eddie Mannix and the other was his wife Toni, not that either would have done the deed personally. There were underworld connections for that kind of thing. Personally, I do not think either was responsible for his death. Toni loved him far too much (obsessively, in fact) and Eddie would have to live with a shattered Toni afterwards. She was emotionally damaged by his death in any case.
Toni & George on the town
Eddie Mannix was vice-president of MGM in the 1950s and a very powerful entity in the Hollywood of that era. He had grown up with the likes of ‘Bugsy’ Siegel and other wise guys, and he still had underworld ties. He and fellow MGM executive Howard Strickling were involved in a cover-up over the death of producer Paul Bern (Jean Harlow’s husband). And that was just one. They ‘fixed’ things, and had done so for decades. Rumour also had it that Eddie murdered his annoying first wife by faking a high speed car chase back in 1937. Since that time he had lived as man and wife with his former Ziegfeld Follies girlfriend, Toni. They quietly married shortly before she took up with George.
When Toni and the much younger George began their lengthy affair, Eddie was fully aware of it and offered his tacit approval. He had a heart condition and viewed Reeves as someone who would make a suitable husband for Toni when he was gone. Given his chronic condition, that could have been at any time. Anyway, Eddie was a serial philanderer, able to take his pick from an endless supply of ambitious young things that adorned his MGM casting couch daily. There was never a shortage of bed mates, even for an executive with the less than agreeable looks and demeanor of Eddie Mannix. In fact, he and his latest plaything would often double-date with George and Toni. It was a comfortable arrangement for all, but particularly for George. Toni bought his clothes for him, his car, his furniture, even the house in which he died. When they vacationed she paid for everything. All he had to do was ‘service’ her on requirement, and to be seen on her arm at clubs and the like.
Whatever Eddie had planned for Toni and George after he’d gone, however, was torpedoed in no uncertain terms when the latter returned from New York in 1958 with a fiancée, a nymphomaniac and all round party girl named Leonore Lemmon. Unforgivably, she happened to be a full 15 years younger than Toni who was really starting to show her age by then. Consequently, when George ended their relationship she took it very badly. Very badly. Inconsolable, she rang him 20 times a day, but to no avail. He and Leonore were planning to marry. Some of Toni’s friends even thought she might suicide when he broke the news to her. As for her husband, he began to smoulder. And when Eddie Mannix smouldered people began to look over their shoulders. Philanderer he surely was, but he was also devoted to his wife – and she was hurting.
It was not long after he delivered the happy news that George suddenly found himself very dead. His demise left many unanswered questions. Was it suicide? Did Toni have him taken out in a fit of jealousy? Did Eddie have him killed out of pique. Did Lenore lose her very short temper and finish the argument the couple had that very evening at a restaurant? Or was there another story altogether? And if it was indeed murder, how did the killer carry out the dastardly deed in a house full of witnesses without being seen or caught? Why did Lenore and her guests wait over 30 minutes after hearing the shot(s) before calling the police? What did they do and talk about during that 30 minutes or so? Did they cover for Lenore? Did Eddie Mannix bring pressure to bear to ensure a suicide verdict, one that would keep his and Toni’s names out of it?
George Reeves’ body was found on his bed in a pool of blood, a gun between his feet, and a shell casing under his corpse. In the world of ballistics that fact alone does not reconcile with a suicide verdict. There was also a bullet in his brain. That fact does reconcile, of course, but only if it is accompanied by traces of gunpowder on the hair or skin, for these traces had to be present if he shot himself at close range. Inexplicably, the coroner’s autopsy only took place after his body had been completely washed, and nobody checked his head or hair for powder traces. In a ‘suicide by gunshot’ case that is, to put it mildly, remiss.
Detectives found additional bullet holes in the floor of his bedroom, but made little or no effort to explain them. Nobody attempting to shoot themselves in the head is that bad a shot. Shell casings were found in all the wrong spots in the bedroom. Furthermore, George’s corpse had unexplained bruises on face and chest. Also left unexplained. He left no suicide note and he was found naked. Both these factors are extremely uncommon in suicide cases. It would appear that a lot of people were not doing their jobs very well.
The media frenzy over his death lasted about a week. Then it suddenly went flat. Did they lose interest or was pressure brought to bear from powerful people in good old Tinsel Town? Most, if not all, of the principals are long dead by now, so the mystery looks like remaining just that, a mystery. Eddie eventually gave Toni a break by dying four years after George in 1963. Leonore’s looks evaporated in time and she spent her last years as a bargain-basement hooker. Strickling shuffled off in 1982, taking with him enough secrets to sink a battleship, and Toni finally turned up her stilettos in 1983.
In 1999, Beverly Hills publicist Edward Lozzi claimed that Toni had made a death-bed confession to a priest in his presence, saying she had arranged the hit on George. She needed to confess (said Lozzi) because she was ‘terrified of going to Hell’. Maybe she did order a hit, but that still does not explain how it was carried out in a house full of witnesses. If she did set it up, the least she might have done is told us ‘how?’ Some people just have no sense of history.