This year marks the 75th anniversary of Superman’s debut as a comic book superhero. For most of us, 75 would seem to be just about the right age to cash in the retirement fund and decamp to Florida, but not Superman. No, he’s a character who never really ages – not in the world he inhabits, and especially not for the audiences that love him. He has a long legacy of newspaper, radio, and on-screen adventures under his super belt, and the latest addition to his lengthy resume, the new film Man of Steel, which has set box office records this past opening weekend.
For most fans, a new Superman movie is cause for celebration. There are a delicate few, however, who may regard the event with some trepidation. This can be attributed to a notion, almost as old as Superman himself, that the Man of Steel – particularly in his TV and motion picture incarnations – is somehow cursed. With the same level of superstition that theater people feel for “that Scottish play,” some Superman enthusiasts grimly assert that the helpful fellow with the red cape and spit curl is something of a jinx.
Although the idea of a “Superman curse” seems slightly silly upon first glance, there’s no denying that Superman has been Kryptonite to the personal lives or careers of some of the people associated with the franchise. In the same way that Superman loses his strength after an encounter with that otherworldly substance, more folks than you might expect (particularly unlucky actors) have been damaged, confused, or set adrift after consorting with the caped one.
With fingers crossed for the cast of Man of Steel, let’s take a look at some of the more notorious instances of the “Superman curse” below. All coincidence? Probably. But steering clear of gents in tights who play with trains and are regularly mistaken for birds may not be a bad idea, anyway.
George Reeves Even though Superman had been a presence on radio for years before his television debut, it was The Adventures of Superman in 1951 that consolidated his position as the über-superhero. Largely responsible for the success of the series was the actor George Reeves, who played the “S”-emblazoned crime fighter with a mix of wholesome charm and beefy physicality. Although other actors had portrayed Superman before (notably Kirk Alyn in two sets of 1948 theatrical serials), Reeves became the definitive face of Superman during the six-year run of the series.
Unfortunately for George Reeves, being Superman wasn’t all happy flying. He became so closely identified with the role that it became difficult for him to land other parts. The series never paid well in the first place, and when an attempt to produce his own shows fell flat, Reeves found himself struggling financially. Dissatisfied with his career path and smarting from a break-up with his long-time companion Toni Mannix, Reeves looked to be at a dead end.
Reeves’ dead end became less metaphorical on June 16, 1959, when the actor, annoyed by a loud party in his house, apparently went upstairs and shot himself in the head with a 9 mm pistol. Some controversy surrounds his death, as the testimonies of drunken guests and the inconclusiveness of physical evidence leave some doubt as to whether Reeves really committed suicide or was killed, accidentally or with malice, by other parties. In any event, the “death of Superman” was a shock to the American public, and the TV show ended quietly.
Christopher Reeve For the most part, Superman lived on in animated form through television cartoons in the 60s and 70s. In 1978, however, another actor took on the role and became just as identified with it as George Reeves had been. Christopher Reeve, well on his way to becoming a prominent New York stage actor touted by the likes John Houseman and Katharine Hepburn, auditioned for a proposed Superman film without much expectation of getting the part. Much to his surprise, he was cast in the film and became an overnight star upon the release of Superman: The Movie.
Over the course of three sequels, Reeve, like his predecessor George Reeves, became the face of Superman for a new generation. Unlike George, however, Christopher was able to scare up other parts in non-action films like Somewhere in Time, Deathtrap, and The Remains of the Day. Athletic and adventuresome, he became an accomplished pilot, sailor, and horseman in his time off-screen.
Sadly, Reeve’s derring-do would eventually be his undoing. It was while riding horses competitively that, on May 17, 1995, Reeve was thrown from his horse and paralyzed. Initially filled with despair once he realized he would not walk again, Reeve eventually responded to rehabilitation, and he would become an outspoken advocate for research into spinal cord and neurological disorders. His activism was short-lived, though. Prone to infections, Reeve died from a heart attack in reaction to an antibiotic in 2004, only 52 years old. A bitter side note was the death of his widow Dana two years later from lung cancer, even though she had never smoked cigarettes.
An influential and eccentric actor known for his roles in A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and The Godfather, Marlon Brando received an offer he couldn’t refuse when he accepted the role of Superman’s father in Superman: The Movie. Brando was paid almost four million dollars and over 10 percent of the film’s gross profits (which would run into additional millions) for less than two weeks of work. Brando read most of his lines from cue cards and seemed to feel little affection for the material.
Brando’s post-Superman career was not very illustrious; after a bizarre turn in Apocalypse Now, he disappeared from the screen for several years, only to return in a series of undistinguished films like Don Juan DeMarco and a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Several Academy Award nominations seemed more in recognition of the actor he had once been than the actor he had become.
As for Brando’s private life, it was beset by misfortune. In 1990, Brando’s son Christian shot his half-sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend and was sent to prison for 10 years. Brando testified tearfully at the trial that he had failed his son and daughter. In 1995, Cheyenne hanged herself, reportedly still depressed over her boyfriend’s death. To the public's shock, the once dashing Brando physically let himself go. His weight ballooned, he became reclusive, and he died in 2004, about four months before his Superman co-star Christopher Reeve.
Margot Kidder While not the first actress to play Superman’s love interest Lois Lane, Margot Kidder put her stamp on the role as definitively as her co-star Christopher Reeve did on Superman. In all four ‘70s/‘80s Superman films, Lois Lane’s flirty relationship with Superman and his alter-ego Clark Kent adds elements of humor and romance mostly missing from earlier versions. Kidder’s tenure with the franchise was not always smooth, however; vocal about her displeasure with a change in director halfway through Superman II, her role in Superman III was reduced considerably.
Despite working consistently throughout the ‘80s, Kidder was unable to attract any other parts as high-profile as Lois Lane. In 1990, she was involved in a serious car accident that left her temporarily paralyzed and unable to work for several years. Suffering from mood swings and depression, she began to experience manic episodes, culminating in a strange four-day “freakout” in California in 1996. Convinced that her ex-husband Thomas McGuane was trying to kill her, she chopped off her hair with a razor, threw away her purse, slept on porches, and was beaten up and almost raped by a homeless man before being found in a Glendale backyard by police. She was admitted to UCLA Medical Center for treatment.
Since this very public episode of distress, Margot Kidder seems to be on an even keel. She plays small roles in movies and TV shows and lives quietly in Montana. Shortly before Christopher Reeve’s death, Kidder appeared with him in the Superman-related TV series Smallville.
Perhaps even more unusual than the casting of Marlon Brando in Superman: The Movie was the casting of Richard Pryor in Superman III. The underground comedy pioneer, whose socially satiric and profane stand-up act had a huge impact in the ‘70s, made occasional forays into acting, but rarely in a vehicle as mainstream as Superman III. Aside from a continuing romance with co-star Margot Kidder, Pryor was seduced by the fee he was paid for the film, which was as lucrative as Marlon Brando’s five years earlier.
Reviews of Pryor’s performance and the film itself were mixed at best, and Pryor’s career took a turn towards broader, less controversial comedy afterwards. Although occasionally successful (Brewster’s Millions, Harlem Nights), most of Pryor’s later movies lacked the edge of his earlier efforts.
In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His condition began to deteriorate, and he required triple bypass surgery in 1990 for a heart problem. By the end of his life, Pryor was confined to a motorized chair. He continued to perform haltingly for several more years until he finally passed away in 2005.
Lee John Quigley Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, and Margot Kidder were all cast members of Superman: The Movie who experienced later problems off-screen. A less well-known cast member to meet a tragic end was Lee Quigley.
Lee Quigley was cast, at seven months old, as the baby Superman, Marlon Brando’s son Kal-El, in Superman: The Movie. He wasn’t on screen for very long, but he has the distinction of being the youngest actor to play Superman, as well as the first non-American (he was British).
Unfortunately, Lee’s home life was unstable and his childhood was not a happy one. It has been suggested by some that his role in the Superman film may have contributed to his unhappiness due to schoolyard teasing. In 1991, after several years of solvent abuse, he huffed air freshener from a can and died.
The Creators of Superman
Although many people associated with Superman have suffered various indignities and accidents (most recently, several crew members preparing the DVD release of Superman Returns), the greatest curse of all may have been visited upon the original creators of Superman.
Siegel and Shuster. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were high school kids in Cleveland who were enamored with science fiction stories. After a few false starts, they hit upon the conception of Superman that still defines the character today. They found a publisher at the tail end of the Great Depression, and in less than a year, Superman was the star of Action Comics. Unfortunately, early on the two men sold the rights for their greatest creation to their publisher for a paltry sum. They spent the rest of their lives trying to recover legal ownership of Superman, as well as a share in the immense profits that the character generated year after year.
Copyright law worked against Siegel and Shuster. Again and again, the old copyright owned by the publisher was renewed and their bid for legal ownership thwarted. Siegel died in 1996 and Shuster in 1992, neither man successful in reclaiming the superhero they gave to the world.