If you think being Superman is hard work, try running a major daily newspaper. In the entirety of the DC Universe, Perry White, editor-in-chief at the Daily Planet, is hands-down the hardest-working man on Earth. There were different versions of the character as Superman grew and changed in the comics, as well as ones from the various live-action and animated series and films. Fans know that White is absolutely an “A-list” Superman character who is incredibly important to the story. In all versions, White is the epitome of the old-school newspaperman. He wants the hard facts, integrity, honesty and whatever you do, don’t call him “chief.”
When Laurence Fishburne was announced for the role in Man of Steel, the Internet practically broke in half. Was there a need to change the race of this traditionally Caucasian character? Suddenly message boards lit up with a vocal minority eschewing the casting choice, and in some cases even providing subtle or blatant racism. I wrote a piece about it here at Movies.com just days after the announcement. But perhaps Fishburne has more to bring to the table than that vocal minority might suggest.
The Early Years
When Superman comics were first hitting the stands in the late 1930s, Clark Kent had only just begun working for a major newspaper in Metropolis. He got the job for phoning in a firsthand account of one of Superman’s early escapades. All this took place before the story in the first issue began. The editor’s job was to dole out the stories that would send Clark Kent to dangerous places where Superman would effectively save people, and then Clark (or sometimes Lois) would write up the events and call it a day. However the Daily Planet did not exist yet, so this newspaper was the Daily Star. Furthermore, the editor had no name until Action Comics #7 (December 1938), which was not Perry White, but George Taylor.
When the comic book universe split into separate continuities in the 1960s, Earth-2 became the repository for the early version of DC’s characters, which included Clark Kent and Lois Lane working for George Taylor at the Daily Star. Some later versions even suggested that Perry White succeeded Taylor as editor-in-chief.
The Radio Series
The Superman radio show, which ran from 1940-1950, introduced a number of elements to the modern Superman mythos, such as Jimmy Olsen, Kryptonite (Read the history of Kryptonite here) and of course… Perry White, voiced by Julian Noa. He first appeared in the second episode in February 1940, and then was brought into the comic books in Superman #7 (cover dated Nov.-Dec. 1940). None of the remaining characters mentioned the changeup. Life simply went on as though he had always been there.
The Fleicher animated Superman features of the early 1940s showed that Clark and Lois certainly had an editor at the Daily Planet, but he was unnamed and only gave out the news assignments. This may have been due to the differences between the comic and the radio show, and that his name simply did not matter to the stories.
White was played by Pierre Watkin in the 1948 and 1950 Kirk Alyn movie serials, and then by John Hamilton for the George Reeves Adventures of Superman TV series from 1951-1957. This is where White’s two most famous lines came from. When surprised or frustrated, he would yell out “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” or whenever somebody called him “chief,” which was most often Jimmy, he would retort and then say, “And don’t call me chief!” Both of these have become staples of the character, and while I can comfortably assume the latter will receive a mention in Man of Steel, the former might, but could be too silly today. Laurence Fishburne can definitely pull it off.
By this time, much of the character was in place. He was tough, but fair. It was clear that he had worked hard to gain this extremely high position, because remember that this was a time when newspapers were the lifeblood of the socially informed. The Daily Planet was essentially akin to real life papers like The New York Times, Washington Post and so on. The whole world read this paper, not just the citizens of Metropolis. White’s position made him one of the most powerful men in the city after Superman because the pen is truly mightier than the sword, yet his fair-mindedness and objectivity kept him away from corruption.
The '60s, '70s and early '80s
Jackson Beck voiced White in the New Adventures of Superman animated series that Filmation produced in the late '60s, but the character rarely had much to do. The comics of the time continued using White the same way, but by the 1970s, the Daily Planet was bought by the villainous Morgan Edge, which put a new wrench in White’s effectiveness as editor. Although there had been hints about his back story along the way, including that he had once been the mayor of Metropolis and worked at other papers before, his biggest history moments were finally told in the 1980s.
In The New Adventures of Superboy #12 (Dec. 1980), younger Perry White earned a Pulitzer Prize for his exclusive interview with Superboy, which included that he was an alien from Krypton. A year later in Superman #366 (Dec. 1981), in a previously untold tale, it was Perry who first discovered that Superboy had relocated to Metropolis as Superman.
Keenan Wynn was originally cast to play White in the 1978 Christopher Reeve film, but he suffered a heart attack before filming began. According to director Richard Donner, he quickly hired Jackie Cooper for the role because he needed him fast and he had a passport to come to the studio in London. Cooper was an exemplary Perry White. Despite his gruffness, he sincerely cared about his reporters. In the first film, he sat Clark down to tell him why he needed to be more manly and tenacious, which was funny because we knew he was Superman and that Clark was simply an act to keep his secret. Cooper returned for three sequel films.
The late '80s and '90s
Soon after DC Comics completely rebooted its line, a new continuity began for Superman and his entire supporting cast. The new Perry was the same at his core, but many details were added to finally give him the depth of character he deserved. He grew up in the Suicide Slum section of Hobb’s Bay in Metropolis (compare to Hell’s Kitchen in New York City). Lex Luthor was a childhood neighbor and friend. At age 10, he began working as a copyboy at the Daily Planet. By his young adulthood, he went off to war in Vietnam while his girlfriend Alice was having an affair with Luthor. White returned and came to believe that his son Jerry was biologically his when it was really Lex’s. Luthor owned the paper and decided to sell it, so it was Perry who found the backers to save it and part of the agreement was that he stop being an investigative journalist and became the editor-in-chief.
Later in life, Jerry fell in with a bad crowd and began to spiral out of control. He redeemed himself in death by exchanging his soul for the souls of Jimmy Olsen and Superman. But the damage was done and Perry soon learned that Lex had been Jerry’s real father. Later, he and Alice adopted a young African-American orphan named Keith, and there was a flashback story where Perry crusaded with his black friend (and future owner of the paper) Franklin Stern against the KKK in the American South.
There was also an underlying question that was never answered, but clearly left up to the reader. Does Perry know that Clark Kent is Superman, but respect him too much to tell anyone, including Kent himself? I don’t agree with that conclusion, but there were occasional subtle hints and there are no specific arguments to prove or disprove it.
“I love the smell of fear in the newsroom.” –Lane Smith
On TV, Lane Smith became a new kind of Perry White for Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. This version became a father figure to Jimmy and the title characters, doling out everything from good relationship advice to bad relationship advice. Smith brought a new humanity to the character and had a unique way of delivering virtually any line. He also happens to be my favorite version of the character. I’ll revisit that when Man of Steel hits theaters.
During Lois & Clark’s run, a new animated series came on Saturday mornings in 1996 with George Dzundza as White. He did a fine job, but never had much to do.
The next Perry White was played by Michael McKean in the proto-Superman series Smallville. This younger version chased stories for various publications. He was already well known for his journalism work, but had spiraled into a dependency on alcohol. During a stupor, he witnessed Clark using his abilities, but was eventually convinced that he was a normal human. Later, after Jonathan Kent’s death, he dated Martha, played by McKean’s real-life wife, Annette O’Toole.
When Bryan Singer was casting Superman Returns, he originally set Hugh Laurie to play Perry White. Singer also executive produced TV’s House, which starred Laurie. The shooting schedules conflicted, so he was replaced with the equally talented but very different Frank Langella, who did a good job with what he had to work with, but was not heavily used.
What Fishburne brings to the table is somewhat unique. He has an amazing charisma with a voice and face that commands respect. Perry White as a character has to have worked so hard against the odds his entire life that he gradually became one of the most powerful men in Metropolis. Yet he’ll have that same sense of fair play. The film appears to take place in the approximate present, so White will have been born around the same time as Fishburne in real life, which is to say the early 1960s. There is no mistaking that racism is still alive today, despite how much better things are than they were at his birth. For evidence, just look at the message boards on movie pages from early August, 2011 when the casting was announced.
The fact that this Perry White is black does not detract from his character in the slightest, but rather adds a new, subtle layer to his story. For Perry to have grown up in the '60s and probably begun working at a newspaper at a young age, he must have dealt with powerful white men, some of whom might refuse to give him a fair shot just because of his race. For him to overcome that, on top of all the other odds stacked against him, goes to show what he’s made of. And the best part is that this is not something that needs to be explained in the film. It is simply implied, and goes to show why someone like Superman or Clark Kent would respect his opinion so much.
Fishburne is going to do a fantastic job and I can’t wait to see him in the role on June 14.
Which Perry White is your favorite? Do you think he really know's Clark's secret?