Fifty years ago today, on June 16, 1959, George Reeves shot and killed himself. Best know as television’s Superman, Reeves also played a small role in the legendary film Gone With the Wind. When he died, he was 45 years old.
The purpose of the “Still Dead…” feature on LatinoLikeMe is to give me–a GenerationX Chicano with a historically-inclined addiction to his own encounters with popular culture–a chance to share a bit of what the figure being remembered meant to me and, I hope, others. It might seem odd, then, for me to be writing about a man who died more than a decade before I was even born.
George Reeves might have been dead the entire time I’ve been alive, but, as Superman, he had a profound place in my life. My dad is a Chicano baby-boomer from East L.A. When he was a child, Reeves’ embodiment of the Man of Steel helped turn his imaginary play into something more real, more concrete. The magic of that show is suggested in the enthusiasm for the actor and the character I inherited from him. It is further suggested by the fact that the show remained a feature of daytime and weekend TV throughout the 1970s.
Among the earliest forms of exposure I had to moving-image science fiction and fantasy, shows like “Superman” had a lot to do with laying the foundation of my later love of things like “Star Wars.” I believed the clumsy technology of Reeves taking off and flying around Metropolis. It helped to make the more real-looking “Star Wars” just that much more powerful. The acceptance of his build as emblematic of strength, carved from the Jack LaLane era of body fitness, served as a stark contrast to Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk or, later, Schwarzeneggar’s Conan, making those later figures seem all the more strong and unbeatable.
That isn’t to say Reeves is only to be appreciated for the comparison he offers to something better. “Superman” was–and is–a great show. It’s rootedness in the original ideal of Superman, makes it a faithful project but, more importantly, the way it gave life and breath to Superman forever informed how it is we see and understand that legend of comics. In many ways, all Superman work from Reeves’ Superman as a starting point. They are either impostors or conscious departures.
George Reeves had a life filled with some success and some tragedy, reflected in the manner of his death. He struggled with the success he achieved with Superman and the way that essentially cut him off for more serious roles. While I can appreciate that level of his struggle, I can’t help but think that if the man knew the place of science fiction and fantasy within the popular culture today, he wouldn’t have hurt so much becoming synonymous with the last son of Krypton. Certainly in my mind, there can be few more significant achievements in the world of entertainment.
Reeve’s iconic interpretation of the “Man of Steel” is now available on DVDfor a whole new generation to discover for the first time.