George Keefer Reeves: The Original Superman
George Keefer Reeves was born January 5th, 1914 in Woolstock, Iowa, the son of Don Brewer and Helen Lescher. Reeves was born five months into their marriage and the couple separated soon after his birth. Later, Reeves' mother moved to California to stay with her sister. There, she met and married Frank Bessolo, while Reeves' father married Helen Schultz in 1925. Reeves reportedly never saw his father again.
Reeves began acting and singing in high school and continued performing on stage as a student at Pasadena Junior College. While studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, Reeves met his future wife, Ellanora Needles. They married on September 22nd, 1940, in San Gabriel, California, at the Church of Our Savior. They had no children and divorced 10 years later.
He starred in many films in minor roles but in June 1951, Reeves was offered the role of Superman in a new television series titled ‘Adventures of Superman’. He was initially reluctant to take the role because, like many actors of his time, he considered television unimportant and believed few would see his work!
In 1958 Reeves announced his engagement to society playgirl Leonore Lemmon. He was apparently scheduled to marry Lemmon on June 19th, and then spend their honeymoon in Tijuana. At this time he was complaining to friends, columnists, and to his mother of his financial problems. The planned revival of Superman was apparently only a small lifeline to his money problems.
Reeves had also hoped to direct a low-budget science-fiction film written by a friend from his Pasadena Playhouse days, However, Reeves and his partner failed to find financing and the film was never made. Another Superman stage show was scheduled for July with a planned stage tour of Australia. He had options for making a living, but those options apparently all involved playing Superman again - a role that he was not eager to reprise at the age of 45.
On June 15th he and Leonore had been out dining and drinking, and on returning home Reeves went to bed. Sometime near midnight an impromptu party began when Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel arrived. Reeves angrily came downstairs and complained about the noise. After blowing off steam, he stayed with the guests for a while, had a drink, and then retired upstairs again in a bad mood.
George Reeves died of a gunshot wound to his head in the upstairs bedroom at his home in Benedict Canyon between approximately 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. on June 16, 1959. He lay naked on the bed in a pool of blood, a gun between his feet, a shell casing beneath his corpse, a bullet in his brain and a thick spray of his gore stretching up the wall to the slanted ceiling. The police arrived within the hour. Present in the house at the time of the incident were Leonore Lemmon, William Bliss, writer Richard Condon, and Carol Van Ronkel, who lived a few blocks away with her husband, screenwriter Rip Van Ronkel.
Statements made by the witnesses to the police and to the press essentially agree. Neither Leonore Lemmon nor other guests who were at the scene made any apology for their delay in calling the police after hearing the fatal gunshot that killed Reeves; the shock of the death, the lateness of the hour, and their state of intoxication were given as reasons for the delay. Police said that all of the witnesses present were extremely inebriated and that coherent stories were very difficult to obtain from them.
In contemporary news articles, Lemmon attributed Reeves' alleged suicide to depression caused by his ‘failed career’ and inability to find more work. The report made by the Los Angeles Police states, ‘(Reeves was)... depressed because he couldn't get the sort of parts he wanted.’ Newspapers and wire-service reports possibly misquoted LAPD Sergeant V.A. Peterson as saying: “Miss Lemmon blurted, ‘He's probably going to go shoot himself.’ A noise was heard upstairs. She continued, ‘He's opening a drawer to get the gun.’ A shot was heard. ‘See there - I told you so!”
The official story given by Lemmon to the police placed her in the living room with party guests at the time of the shooting, but statements from Fred Crane put Leonore Lemmon either inside or in direct proximity to Reeves' bedroom - minimally as a witness to the shooting. (Crane was Reeves' friend and colleague from Gone With The Wind.) According to Crane, Bill Bliss had told Millicent Trent after the shot rang out, while Bliss was having a drink, that Leonore Lemmon came downstairs and said, “Tell them I was down here, tell them I was down here!” In an interview with Carl Glass, Crane expanded on this: “It needed to be said and that is the way I heard it from Millie as it was told to her by Bill Bliss. Janet Bliss and Millie were very close friends. I met Millie at Bill and Janet’s house up in Benedict Canyon on Easton Drive. We lived on the same street.”
Witness statements and the examination of the crime scene by the Los Angeles Police led to the official inquiry conclusion that Reeves' death was a suicide. Lenore Lemmon returned to New York where she lived out the remainder of her life and died December 30th 1989.
An open-and-shut case of suicide, said the LA police and the coroner, before closing the investigation with what some considered indecent haste. The police concluded that Reeves, 45, was depressed because he couldn’t get any further work in Hollywood, and ruled his death as a suicide. The newspapers were in a frenzy for a week, then dropped the story flat. But among the dead man's friends there were many who called it murder, and there was no shortage of suspects or motives. The case has never been reopened, but the doubts have never been satisfactorily laid to rest.
But Reeves’ mother refused to believe that her son would kill himself, and the evidence did not corroborate a suicide. The four other guests in the house waited for some considerable time before calling the police, and stray bullet cases were found by the body. This has led many to believe that Reeves was, in fact, a murder victim.
Reeves is interred at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena, California. In 1985, he was posthumously named one of the honorees by DC Comics in the company's 50th anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great. For his contributions to the TV industry, in 1960, he was awarded a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.