For one of the most powerful superheroes in all of superhero fiction, and for one who has an ability to be incredibly cinematic, Superman has also, surprisingly, found a substantial home on the smaller screen.
If anything, it’s television where the character has managed to thrive even more than on film. As various movie projects were announced and then shelved, seemingly never able to climb out of the pits of development hell (most famously the Tim Burton/Nicholas Cage collaboration from the mid-90’s), and as fans of the character clamour for a Man of Steel sequel that seems like it will never come, television has always found new and imaginative ways to explore the character and various aspects of his background, life as well as Kryptonian mythology.
These television series may not have had the budgets that the movies had access to, but they’ve managed to capture the heart and grace of the last son of Krypton even more than many of the character’s big screen outings.
Interestingly, one of the most famous television versions of the character actually started off life as a feature film; Superman and the Mole Men was a fifty-eight-minute feature film that gained theatrical distribution in 1951. Starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, the cast and crew immediately started work on a television show to follow on from it. After the first season, Coates opted to leave the series to pursue other projects and was subsequently replaced by Noel Neill who had actually played Lane previously in the famous Columbia serials of the 1940’s.
Lasting for six seasons, and eventually going from being filmed in black and white to colour, Reeves even made a guest appearance on I Love Lucy, such was the popularity of his performance and the series. However, controversy, urban legend and conspiracy theory surround the series even to this day over the death of leading man Reeves after the sixth season of the series, to the extent that it would inspire the movie Hollywoodland, strangely enough starring future Batman Ben Affleck in the role of Reeves, at one point wearing the famed Superman costume, while future Martha Kent Diane Lane would play Reeves’ lover Toni Maddox.
Controversy and conspiracy aside, the series was a massive success with audiences at the time and paved the way for future interpretations of the character on-screen, while Noel Neill and Jimmy Olsen actor Jack Larson have since made cameos and guest appearances in other Superman live action projects.
Television executives had, in fact, tried to spin-off Jack Larson’s performance as Jimmy Olsen, even contemplating the idea of using unused footage of Reeves along with a double to stand in for the deceased actor, but Larson felt the idea was in very poor taste and it never made it past those preliminary discussions.
A pilot episode for a potential Superboy television series was filmed in 1961 starring Johnny Rockwell, but it ended up not being picked up for series. Interestingly, it would not be the last time Superboy would be attempted at being developed and turned into a live action television series, with two series lying in the future showing the teen years of the Man of Steel.
Various animated television series followed throughout the sixties and seventies, most famously Hanna Barbara’s Superfriends and an animated series produced by CBS in 1988, but the next time there was to be a live action Superman it would be on the big screen through Richard Donner’s magnificent 1978 feature film Superman: The Movie, without a doubt the most definitive live-action account of the character and feature Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal of the title character.
Produced by father and son duo Alexander and Ilya Salkind, they would also end up being the producing hands on a successful attempt at bringing Superboy to the small screen through the syndicated television series of the same name, premiering in 1988, the same year as the CBS animated series and the fortieth anniversary of the creation of the character. Initially portrayed by John Haymes Newton in the first season, the actor would leave at the end of the first season and be replaced by Gerald Christopher from season two onwards and who would play the role until its fourth and final season.
Airing from 1988 to 1992, the first two seasons were very much teen superhero fare, but the series took a darker turn in its third season with stories that were of a more paranormal nature as well as featuring a darker look that many had suspected had been inspired by the success of Tim Burton’s darker interpretation of Batman in 1989.
Even though the series was incredibly popular, the fourth season would end up being its last. Rumours had it that the Salkinds’ (who ironically were no longer producing Superman movies having sold the film rights to Cannon who produced the disastrous, terrible masterpiece that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) had intended to keep the series going as a series of television movies, but it wasn’t to be.
In fact, Warner Bros. was already developing a new Superman television series, one that would once again put the focus on the character as a grown up, but which would also put Lois Lane front and centre in a way she hadn’t been before…