Celebrating 75 years of Superman with this previously un-published
interview I conducted with Noell Neill
Superman’s Girl-Friend, Noel Neill!
She is the reason we care.
It isn’t because of her fantastic career as an actress and it isn’t because she co-starred in one of the more memorable television shows in history. Certainly those are points of interest that provide her fans a basis from which to proceed. But the real reason so many thousands of people care so much about her is this – she is a genuinely nice person. There is nothing false or pretentious about her. And her smile, quite frankly, is a knockout punch.
Noel Neill will always be remembered as the first woman to play Lois Lane in a movie. This is a notable distinction, but only touches the surface of her long and fascinating career.
She made her screen debut in an uncredited bit as a teenager in Mad Youth (1940), followed by small roles in Henry Aldrich for President (1941), Miss Polly (1941), The Remarkable Andrew (1942), She’s in the Army (1942) and at least eight other features with uncredited roles. By the end of World War II she worked steadily in small roles. These films were aimed primarily at the teenage market: Junior Prom (1946), College Queen (1946), High School Hero (1946), Vacation Days (1947) and Sarge Goes to College (1947). A few roles in Westerns made her popular with fans of a genre that was at its peak when she made Adventures of Frank and Jesse James in 1948.
The turning point came when she was cast alongside Kirk Allyn in the fifteen chapter serial Superman for Columbia Pictures. She played ace reporter Lois Lane opposite Alyn’s Clark Kent/Superman. The serial was immensely popular and a sequel was developed, Atom Man Versus Superman, released in 1950.
In 1953 she replaced Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane on the television series, The Adventures of Superman. Coates had decided against continuing on the show in favor of other acting jobs. Neill was the natural choice as a replacement having originated the role with Kirk Allyn. But this time Superman was being played by veteran character actor George Reeves.
These facts, and much more fascinating information about Noel Neill, are detailed in the only authorized biography of the actress, Truth, Justice, & the American Way: The Life and Times of Noel Neill by Larry Thomas Ward. Published in 2003 by Nicholas Lawrence Books, Ward’s biography is a highly collectible volume. Loaded with dozens of rare photographs from Miss Neill’s personal collection, Ward traces her career from its origins in a vaudeville stage act, through her highly successful career as a singer, and through all of her film work.
Larry Ward frequently appears with Noel at signings and convention appearances. He shares her generosity and good will. My first impression of Noel Neill was one of surprise. Her smile lights up a room, and her beauty is still quite evident after so many years. She carries her age better than most. I was immediately attracted to her. That dazzling smile, that spark of joy in her eyes, the pleasant timbre of her voice, all made me feel comfortable in her presence.
She had time for a few questions so I snapped on my recorder:
TM: Do you have a favorite episode?
NN: Yes, my favorite episode is “The Wedding of Superman!”
TM: And why is that your favorite?
NN: Because I was in it the most! (laughs) I’m a ham!
TM: Tell me about Kirk Allyn. A lot of people, including myself, think he made a great Superman.
NN: Actually, Kirk did make a great Superman. From what I hear he was a dancer beforehand, and he was very good. I think he was a natural ham, although I shouldn’t say that, rest his soul. He always had a spit curl on his forehead, but yes, I think he was very good as Superman. He was very active in the role.
TM: What is your favorite memory of George Reeves?
NN: We had a wonderful special effects man who built these walls and he built them at night so they were hard enough to stand up but soft enough to break through. So one morning, with the first shot, John Hamilton, Jack Larson and myself are in this cave, and of course George was supposed to come breaking through to save us. So the director said, “Ok kids.” And they had two cameras going at one time. The director said, “Don’t anybody goof up because it’s one take and that’s it! Then the wall will be gone!” So we waited and waited and pretty soon we saw one hand come through, and then one foot. And nothing happened! Finally the director shouted, “Cut! Cut!” And they had to pull George back because he got stuck in the wall. And he bowed very nicely because he was a southern gentleman, and he said goodbye to everybody! He said, “I’ll see you all tomorrow.” So everybody started scrambling. The Script girl was running around asking what we could do to fill in to make up the time (laughs). But I just remember that because he was so “cool” as they say nowadays.
TM: What made Lois Lane so much fun to play?
NN: Well, it wasn’t our paychecks! (laughs) But let’s see, it was nice working with Jack (Larson), and John (Hamilton), and of course, George (Reeves). They were all so great and we all got to be close, just like we were a family together. It was kind of nice. We worked thirteen weeks on our contracts, and then we had almost two years off in between, so we had plenty of time to be with husbands and friends or whatever. Then we all got back together again which made it real easy and nice.
TM: George Reeves’ death is still so controversial. What do you think happened?
NN: Oh boy! That’s kind of dangerous water to get into. Well, of course they said at first that it was suicide. George’s mother came out and hired Jerry Giesler, the famous lawyer years ago, and they tried to prove that it was not suicide because he was Catholic and Catholics can’t be buried in hallowed ground if they commit suicide. But it was...well, let’s just say that he went with the wrong woman at the wrong time and things happened. Because he had been going out with another person for almost thirteen years who was a very great gal, and she was just distraught about it. They closed off the case quickly, after only two weeks, because they said it was suicide. Because there was a “power” at the studio, or whatever. But I had just seen him a couple of days before it happened – he was in a good mood because the producer, Mr. Ellsworth, had called and said “Hello Noel, you’re still alive!?” And I said yes and he said we’ve got scripts from New York. They had sent everything off from National Comics and he said we’ve got twenty-six more to do and we start in September. He said to come on by, we’re still at Ziff Studio, and see if your old suits still fit you. So I went by a few days later and it just so happened that George Reeves was sitting there in the office playing gin-rummy with George Blair, one of our neat directors, and he was just happy as a bug because he was going to do this and because he was going to direct part of it. He wanted to get into directing because he said he was getting a little long in the tooth to be running around in his underwear. He had a good sense of humor. So he was fine. He was going to do a movie beforehand, a B-movie, and then do a lot of directing. So we all said goodbye and see you in September. And I couldn’t believe it when a couple of days later the phone rang and my girlfriend said, “Did you hear what happened to George?” And I thought she was talking about her husband George. I said no, and we were talking and she finally realized we were not in sync, and she said “George Reeves, not my husband.” So I called Mr. Ellsworth and I just couldn’t believe it. George had been so positive, so up."
There was a moment then, perhaps only for a second, where the room fell silent. Some fans had gathered around us and were listening intently. It happens occasionally when I am conducting an interview where the memories are so poignant and the emotions so strong that in the space of a heartbeat the distances of time have vanished and we are reliving that moment again. It doesn’t happen often, but it had happened just then. Something in Noel’s voice had changed; the soft inflection in her tone when she spoke or the gentle sheen in her eyes. She had gone back to that moment and had graciously taken us with her.
I have had the privilege of observing many celebrities responding to questions from both the press and fans alike and often the celebrities go into an auto-pilot mode; their answers scripted based upon years of encounters, a response carefully presented to expend as little energy as possible without offending anyone. This is a survival mechanism, and a necessary one for those celebrities instantly recognizable in a culture where actors are coveted liked prized jewelry. But I noticed a profound difference with Noel Neill – she was actually listening.
I sat back and watched her awhile as fans presented themselves to her. For the fan, meeting Noel Neill is often a nostalgic moment that takes them back to their youth. How many of us can recall the homes where we lived when we first heard that stirring music and The Adventures of Superman appeared on our television screens? And those memories have other associations as well; family members who are no longer with us or places from our past that had special meaning for us. Films and television connect us to our past and have, in a large sense, helped us define who we are.
Noel Neill was listening. It was not uncommon for a fan, perhaps in his late fifties, to approach her and say, “I remember we lived in a two-room flat on Chicago’s south side when Superman came on. That was such a great show. I remember watching it with my father when I was little...”
She must have heard this type of comment thousands of times before, but still she was listening. And if the eyes are the window of the soul, then Noel’s eyes spoke volumes about her. She nodded, and I never saw her attention waver. She has that natural ability to listen, and I felt this was no mere act. While she may be accustomed to such contact with fans, she was also grateful for it, too.
“Oh how I wish my brother was alive today.” I heard one woman say. “We watched that show all the time. He never came back from Vietnam...” There is the briefest pause before the woman continued, “But you were the greatest! You had such brass on that show. I always had an interest in journalism because of your character on that show...”
Meeting her had become a celebration for the survivors of that era not so far removed by the years, but by the cultural changes that had transformed our lives into something that we could never have imagined.
She has become an icon, a symbol both of television’s golden age and an American way of life that is long gone and sorely missed. I mentioned that if George Reeves had lived this long he would have enjoyed unparalleled popularity.
“Yes, you’re right.” Noel said. “He would have loved all of this, all of these wonderful fans that come to these conventions.”
Noel Neill had finished answering my questions, but thinking about George Reeves over forty years after his death, that tenderness still present in her eyes, she looked at me once more and said, “We all still miss him.”
****Postscript: It’s a little known fact that actor Tom Selleck, who was a fan of the Superman program as a child, hired Noel years ago to handle his fan mail. I asked her recently if she was still handling his mail and she said, “Oh yes. And he’s getting more than ever!” Her friend, Larry Thomas Ward, recently published Beyond Lois Lane, which Noel is happy to sign at conventions. Her most recent film appearance was in Superman Returns, as Lex Luthor’s ailing wife.
Text and content © 2013 by Thomas McNulty