Jeffrey Taylor is a staff writer/moderator at The Superman Homepage, co-host of From Crisis to Crisis: A Superman Podcast, available at the Superman Homepage, iTunes and The Superman PodcastNetwork.You can find his new Man of Steel Countdown column here at Movies.com every other Tuesday.
There are two classic curses surrounding the character of Superman. One is a superstitious claim that those who play the character will unexpectedly die or be injured at a young age and the other is that Superman will kill an actor’s career. Exactly where did these curses come from and how might they affect the new Superman, Henry Cavill?
Superman is faster than a speeding bullet, but the actors who portray him on the television and movie screens are just as fragile as any other human. The newspaper headlines on the morning of Tuesday, June 16, 1959 shocked America and the world when George Reeves, the popular, live-action face of The Man of Steel had apparently ended his own life. The facts of the case would later be called into question, but that’s for another discussion.
Fast forward 35 years. Christopher Reeve had become the world’s modern-day Superman, but he had a tragic accident. On May 27, 1995, he suffered a spinal injury when he fell off a horse while trying to jump an obstacle on horseback. He remained a quadriplegic until his untimely death in 2004.
Does that means there’s a curse surrounding Superman? Will everyone who plays the character suffer from his work? Some superstitious fans say yes, but is there a real stigma to being a Superman?
The Real Curse – Kirk Alyn (1948-1950)
Kirk Alyn starred as Clark Kent/Superman in the first live action pieces of the mythos in two, 15-part serialized theatrical releases, “Superman” in 1948 and “Atom Man vs. Superman” in 1950. He brought the magic to life, even though the flying version of the character was animated because it was too hard and too expensive to make him fly “for reals.”
Due to the popularity of the property, Alyn would forever be known as Superman and his burgeoning film career came to an abrupt halt. His story may not be as tragic as some of his successors, but he lived to nearly 90 years old, which puts the theory of the supernatural curse easily to rest.
George Reeves (1951-1959)
Despite George Reeves’ untimely death, he also suffered from the curse of being known as a generation’s Man of Steel. He starred in the theatrically released Superman and the Mole Men in 1951, followed by a popular long-running TV series, The Adventures of Superman. He was instantly known as the new face of the character and was immediately recognized as a star wherever he went.
He had already established himself as an actor with a small role in the classic film Gone with the Wind years before, and he worked steadily in Hollywood throughout the 1940’s, but it was Superman that turned “George Reeves” into a household name. He soon tried to use his fame to gain him more interesting roles on film that would allow him to be recognized as an actor, but he was cursed by being so well known as Superman that he would never be able to play a major role outside of the TV series ever again.
In 1953, Reeves had a small part in the star-studded film From Here to Eternity. The legend goes that the director loved his performance, but when the film was previewed, the audience laughed at his appearance, yelling out, “It’s Superman!!” The scene was severely cut and his film career came to an abrupt halt. He rarely acted outside of the tights again before his death.
Christopher Reeve (1978-1987)
Just as George Reeves defined Superman for a generation, Christopher Reeve did the same for the next. He believed in the character and took the role seriously. It also didn’t hurt that he was a classically-trained actor from Julliard who looked really good in the suit. He would forever be tied to the character as well, but did everything in his power to maintain a career outside of those films.
Partly thanks to his talent and incredibly hard work, Reeve made sure to keep busy on other film projects and a great deal of summer stock theater, but nothing could overshadow Superman.
After his injury, he created the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to fund spinal injury research and assist those needing help with their disabilities. He passed away in 2004, but will be remembered for being a Superman both on film and in real life. You can aid the cause by helping out at ChristopherReeve.org. You can also get unique Superman schwag just for donating.
Dean Cain (1993-1997)
Although Dean Cain would never receive the notoriety on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman as Christopher Reeve had from the films, he would be known as a Superman first and an actor second. Thanks to a family history of acting on TV and film, Cain continued to work hard in the industry after his life as Superman. He has continued to be an actor, writer, producer and director, as well as hosting Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which he also produced.
Thanks to a number of roles on TV and in B-movies, Cain has to be one of the hardest working people in Hollywood, but just as those before him, he will always been best-known for playing Superman.
Brandon Routh (2006)
It’s still too early to tell how Routh’s career will go. Superman Returns was not as well-received as the studio had hoped. He had only appeared in a single installment, but he has continued to work both in A and B movies, as well as popular TV shows like Chuck. Even though many fans felt he was short-changed and had more acting ability than was shown in the finished product, he may have effectively dodged the curse simply by being unpopular. History may remember him better as “Todd Ingram” in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World than a one-time Superman.
Tom Welling (2001-2011)
Similar to Routh, it’s far too early to tell how Tom Welling’s ten year journey as Clark Kent on TV’s Smallville will permanently affect him. Besides never actually putting on the suit, Welling made some very intelligent decisions while taking on the acting side of the show. He crossed over and became a producer, as well as writing and directing several episodes. While the audience watched him grow as a talented actor for a decade, he gained valuable experience that have the potential to fuel future projects.
Smallville ended less than a year ago and Welling has not made any announcements concerning his screen career since the show wrapped. Even though he stands little chance of topping the popularity he had as Clark Kent, I expect we’ll be hearing more from him soon.
Henry Cavill (2013-????)
Man of Steel will hit theaters in June 2013, but Henry Cavill is already becoming famous for being Superman, and from previous work, he has also established himself as a hugely talented actor. This April, he will star in The Cold Light of Day with Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver. He also played Theseus in Immortals last year. Since Man of Steel is still over a year away, there’s even a chance that he could appear in other movies that haven’t even been filmed yet before the whole world recognizes him as Superman.
There’s no telling what the future will hold for Cavill, but the odds are that he will continue to have a successful career as for long as he wants one. Once we hit the summer of 2013, he will forever be remembered as Superman above all his other projects, past and future, especially if Man of Steel is as successful as fans hope it will be.
When Bryan Singer was casting for Superman Returns, he explained why it was so important that Superman needed to be played by an unknown actor. The character needs to appear to come from “our collective memory of Superman,” so a well-established actor with a famous face will already be known as that person instead of the iconic Man of Steel. This is one of many reasons why actors like Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood were marked off the shortlist for consideration before Christopher Reeve was cast.
The superstition that actors who play Superman will tragically die young is completely unsubstantiated myth, but it can certainly kill a career. The greatest gift they get is the notoriety of the spotlight, but the greatest weakness is that they will never outlive their titles. The more recent Superman actors have had slightly less difficulty than Kirk Alyn, George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, but that curse still remains. Perhaps the popularity of comic book films over the past decade will end the curse with the most recent slew of actors, but this is not a problem that other franchises tend to encounter.
Sean Connery maintained an acting career after playing James Bond. Michael Keaton did the same after playing Batman, and nobody expects Chris Evans to forever be thought of as Captain America. I expect Henry Cavill will always be thought of as Superman, but I also anticipate more great things from him in the coming years.
What do you think about the Superman curses?