Any actor who takes on the role of Superman on film or in television has to wonder: Will playing the iconic superhero launch his career to new heights in a single bound and faster than a speeding bullet? Even so, will the weight of the Last Son of Krypton’s cape eventually limit how far and fast he may go?
As Henry Cavill steps into the iconic big red "S" for "Man of Steel," he’s poised to become a household name overnight, and in recent years a superheroic role can be a long-term game-changer: Christian Bale went on to win an Oscar after playing Batman, Robert Downey Jr. spectacularly reignited a stalled career as Iron Man and Hugh Jackman has been granted a diverse array of high-profile show biz opportunities after Wolverine. But while Superman has always helped careers take flight, it can also sometimes serve as Hollywood Kryptonite when audiences refuse to see the actor beyond the emblematic suit.
Soaring to Stardom, or Fortress of Solitude?
“There's a blanket statement that you can make about any actor whose portrayed Superman: they've really all been virtual unknowns,” says Jake Rossen, author of the 2008 book Superman Vs. Hollywood. “They weren't established actors, and because of that the audience's first impression and ever-lasting memory has been that they are that character. And it's been very, very difficult to have a vibrant career after taking on that role. That's been the great sacrifice these guys have had to make in order to portray this character.”
“He's so iconic, such a part of American mythology and culture that it's very difficult for an audience to look at a guy in that suit flying around, acting earnest, very altruistic, and then see him as a drug dealer in his next movie,” says Rossen. “People go 'My God, that's not a drug addict – That's Superman! What's he doing?'"
The first actor to give a face to the Man of Steel was Kirk Alyn, who starred in two film serials in 1948 and 1950. “Alyn was a song-and-dance man,” says Larry Tye, author of the 2012 book Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, “and it was a huge opportunity for him. This is a guy who is basically not really going anywhere as an actor, and he didn't care about being stereotyped. He cared about having a job, and this gave him one – and a high-profile one.” Afterward, though, Alyn worked only sporadically in bit parts through the 1950s and 1960s.
More successful, at least initially, was the first TV Man of Steel: actor George Reeves starred in the syndicated “The Adventures of Superman” from 1951 to 1958, a ratings and pop-culture sensation in its day but generally regarded as kiddie fare for a then pre-teen Baby Boomer audience. Reeves’ sunny, patriarchal performance made him prominent enough to land a guest spot on “I Love Lucy” – though in character as the caped wonder whose mantle he would be unable to escape. “Reeves was an actor who had played one of the Tarlton twins in 'Gone with the Wind' and had aspirations for doing A-level movies,” says Tye. The actor felt he was slumming in the low-budget series and struggled to find opportunities outside the Superman suit, which he ritually burned at the end of each season.
“Justified” actor Jim Beaver has been fan of Reeves since childhood and has been working on a forthcoming book about his hero for several years. “Reeves didn't work again after 'Superman,'” Beaver reveals. “He never had another job after his last episode, and he lived for another two and a half years after they finished the series, so he was definitely struggling. A large part of it was typecasting. In those days, you could do a part like 'Superman,' and nobody would touch you because there was a sense that too many people would believe you as the character and not as the actor.”
Frustrated, Reeves attempted to build a behind-the-scenes resume by directing episodes of the series, but he also led a troubled, alcohol-soaked, painkiller-addled personal life – he was involved in a long-term affair with the wife of a notorious studio “problem fixer” that turned obsessive on her part after Reeves broke things off and became engaged to a much-younger party girl. On June 16, 1958, Reeves was found shot to death in the bedroom of his Los Angeles home following a series of still-mysterious events. Debate still continues over whether a despondent Reeves committed suicide – the official verdict – or was the victim of foul play.
Reeves’ tale was dramatized in the 2006 film “Hollywoodland,” with Ben Affleck portraying the actor. “I think of George as a guy who never really got a fair shake,” Affleck said at the time of the film’s release. “I think that was the very first beginning of having idols who seemed bigger than everything, and then the perverse thrill was finding out that they weren't really Superman – that in fact they were human and seeing them be destroyed to prove it, and then lamenting them and looking back on the good things that they did.”
“That began the so‑called ‘Curse of Superman’ and the notion of actors being stereotyped and not being able to grow beyond that,” says Tye. “But I think it was partly George Reeves' own acting limitations, not just the fact that he had played Superman. If you saw those 1950s shows, you know that the difference between Clark Kent and Superman in them was negligible. It was him putting on and taking off his glasses. It was not changing the timbre of his voice or changing his posture.”
Twenty years later, director Richard Donner would cast relative unknown Christopher Reeve in the lavish 1978 film production that would become the new standard-bearer for cinematic interpretations of superheroes. A 25-year-old Juilliard graduate, Reeve's straight-faced earnestness, inherent gravitas and soft-spoken charm – as well as a deftly comic approach to Clark Kent – would perfectly suit Donner’s sweeping, epic tone.
“Chris Reeve started out with notions of wanting to have a serious theatrical career,” says Tye. “When his dad, who was a professor at Princeton, heard that he was playing Superman, he assumed that it was George Bernard Shaw's 'Man and Superman.' And Chris Reeve initially thought this was something crazy and was just enough money and enough temptation to do it once, but surely never envisioned doing four movies.”
While Reeve faced a certain amount of stereotyping post-Superman, he sustained a respectable film career with movies like “Somewhere in Time,” “The Bostonians” and “Street Smart.” “[Film] wasn't the career he envisioned doing, and he rose higher in it than anybody had ever imagined that he could do,” says Tye. “The public was partly more sophisticated and more accepting of somebody outside a role. A lot of people would look and say Superman was the role they were most familiar with him – in the same way as Sean Connery and James Bond – and yet good actors then and now can clearly move beyond it if they're really good at what they do.”
In 1995 Reeve, an avid horseman, fell from his mount and suffered a cervical spine injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Rather than retreat from public life, Reeve not only continued to act and direct, he became a tirelessly optimistic and inspirational advocate for the disabled and a proponent of envelope-pushing, mobility-restoring medical techniques until his death in 2004. “He ended up truly embracing the role of Superman after he had his tragic accident,” says Tye, “and he saw that his having played Superman let him become an iconic representative of people with brain injuries or spinal cord injuries, and that's what he devoted the rest of his life to.”
Big Red Boots to Fill
By 1993 Superman had flown to the small screen: “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” aired for four seasons on ABC and featured clean-cut Princeton grad and brief NFL player Dean Cain as the titular hero, but the show placed greater emphasis on his plucky reporter paramour and their romance, which ultimately led to a wedding. “His Clark/Superman character was second fiddle to Lois and Teri Hatcher,” says Tye. Cain’s post-Superman career has kept him steadily employed, primarily in small films, TV movies and series guest spots: his latest series, VH-1’s NBA cheerleader drama “Hit the Floor,” debuted this year.
Tye recently encountered Cain at a comic book convention. “He was embracing his role as Superman, even more than a decade after it ended,” he says, “having some fun being acknowledged again as having played an important – but not really central – role in the whole Superman mythos.”
The subsequent TV interpretation, “Smallville,” aired from 2001 to 2012 on first The WB and then The CW networks, casting ex-model Tom Welling as a pre-flight-powered, pre-costumed Clark Kent finding his way through adolescence. “That happened to him at a young enough age that he was considered a huge success, and he was the ultimate heartthrob for kids,” says Tye of the star. “The fact the show’s golden rule was 'No tights, no flights’ was a good thing for him, because he was there looking like Clark Kent – or Tom Welling – rather than the guy in the uniform.”
Like Reeves before him, Welling also ventured behind the camera on his series, taking a producer credit and directing several episodes. He later served as executive producer on The CW’s short-lived “Hellcats” and is currently developing a new series for the USA network.
In 2006 the superhero soared back to the big screen for “Superman Returns,” a semi-follow-up/semi-homage to the original Donner film. Director Bryan Singer Singer selected actor and former model Brandon Routh in part due to his strong resemblance to Reeve – giving the young performer not just one but two looming legacies to live up to. Routh took on the challenge with aplomb – he became actively involved in Reeve’s charitable foundation – but despite respectable notice for his acting and solid box office returns, the otherwise panned film was deemed a disappointment. He moved on to appear regularly in film and television, with genre-adjacent roles in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," “Chuck” and fanboy/filmmaker Kevin Smith’s “Zach and Miri Make a Porno,” as well as the recently cancelled CBS sitcom “Partners.”
Routh remains proud of his association with the icon. “It means everything – I’m here because of that,” he told the website MovieFanatic.com last year. “I trust I would’ve gotten something else, but it might have been a longer journey to get where I am, so I’m very grateful for it. It’s a great honor, and I’m happy to see people all the time who love the movie, and to carry on that spirit and that legacy.”
Over the years, Warner Animation has produced a steady stream of animated series and films featuring the Man of Steel, voiced by well-known actors including “Private Practice” star Tim Daly (“Superman: The Animated Series”), “Scandal” actor George Newbern (“Justice League”) and “White Collar’s” Matt Bomer (the direct-to-video “Superman: Unbound”). “Everybody brings their own twist to it,” says voice director Andrea Romano, who’s cast each new Superman. “It has to do with their own specific view of what they think Superman is, and what they think Clark Kent is.”
“He's very straightforward and he believes in what he's doing totally, and I have to lean into that,” says Daly. “I'm much more apt in my personal life to have a sense of irony and cynicism. Superman has none of that. He is a straight-and-narrow guy… I feel somewhat removed from it because it's a cartoon and it's not me, but when people recognize my voice I think it's great.”
“It’s been an incredible job, and an amazing responsibility,” agrees Newbern. “The fans are obviously international and rabid and it’s been a pleasure and a gift to be able to voice Superman, frankly. And I have a ten-year-old and it’s kind of cool that he gets to say ‘My dad’s Superman.'”
“Everyone would love to get to play Superman at some point in their life,” adds Bomer, who is the first openly gay actor to play the role. “He represents what we all hope we could be in the most difficult circumstances, our best self, our best version of us. We'd like to hope that when push comes to shove, we can do the right thing.”