It seems to take a certain kind of actor to portray the most famous hero of all, Superman. Yes, they have to be tall, strong, good looking and run faster than a speeding bullet, but more so than that an actor who plays Superman has to, in a way, be Superman. He has to be honest, forthright; someone who doesn’t just act like they believe in truth, justice and the American way, but someone who truly has that in their heart. In a sense it’s like picking the perfect man, but it seems like it’s almost impossible for an actor who doesn’t share those values to play the role.
Remarkably, the actors who’ve portrayed Superman up to now have all lived up to the character they’ve so memorably portrayed, keeping the character free from scandal. It’s okay for Christian Bale to go off on a movie set because Batman is a dark and complex character who’s more of an instrument of revenge than a role model, but if an actor playing Superman gets arrested for, say, DWI, they could bring the purity of the character down with them. Some will point out the often-debated suicide of original TV Superman George Reeves, but many tend to forget that he raised money for children’s charities as Superman and was often knows as “Honest George." Christopher Reeve’s brave fight after his paralysis is the perfect example, and ask anyone who’s ever met Brandon Routh and they’ll tell you he’s real deal. As good as all these actors have been playing the Man of Steel, they’ve all been following the lead of the first actor to play Superman on-screen: Kirk Alyn.
The New Jersey-born Alyn had been a Broadway veteran whose Hollywood career consisted solely of bit parts (Alyn’s fear of horses kept him from a career in Westerns) when he was tapped by legendary B-movie producer Sam Katzman to play the title role in the first Superman serial for Columbia Pictures (this was a good 25 years before DC was purchased by Warner Bros.). Cast mainly because of his resemblance to Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, Alyn certainly looked the part, but he also projected a quiet truth and genuine honesty that Bud Collyer, who voiced a more bombastic Superman for both the radio show and the Max Fleischer cartoon, did not.
Like Collyer, he portrayed Superman and Clark Kent differently, less a clueless oaf than more of a meekish bookworm who often butted heads with fellow Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (portrayed by Noel Neill, who would also play the role opposite George Reeves on television). The success of the Superman serial led to more serials for Alyn, like Federal Agents vs. Underworld and Radar Patrol vs. Spy King, and Alyn would reprise the role in 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman, which also introduced the character of Lex Luthor (here just called “Luthor”) to the big screen. Atom Man also finally gave Alyn an on-screen credit for playing Clark Kent, though Superman was still credited as playing himself, as he had been in the first serial (everyone knew who he was, anyway). As with most actors who played the role, Alyn, now in his 40s, wanted to be known as more than just the Man of Steel and turned down the opportunity to play Superman again in a planned TV series, an opportunity that would make George Reeves a household name.
Alyn’s career began to stall by the end of the '50s, and he spent several years resenting being typecast by the role that made him famous. However, the kids who grew up cheering him on every Saturday morning at their local movie theater (and later on TV airings) would grow up to remember him fondly, and by the time he published his 1971 autobiography A Job for Superman, Alyn had come to embrace the role again, making personal appearances and granting interviews throughout the '70s and '80s. Alyn and Neill made brief cameo appearances in Richard Donner’s Superman as the parents of a young Lois Lane, bringing things full circle.
Kirk Alyn died of Alzheimer’s in 1999 (his contribution to the alleged “Superman Curse”), but his two Superman serials were released on DVD by Warner in 2006, keeping Alyn’s spirit alive and showing generations to come that the first actor to portray Superman on the big screen will always be one of the best.