Childhood & Early Life
George Reeves was born on January 5, 1914, as George Keefer Brewer in Woodstock, a small farming community in Iowa to Donald Carl Brewer and Helen Lescher. However, the couple split soon after George was born.
After the divorce, Helen moved to her home in Galesburg, Illinois with infant George, and then to Pasadena, California to stay with her sister. There, Helen married Frank Joseph Bessolo, who adopted George in 1927, and George Brewer became George Bessolo. While his biological father, Donald, also remarried, George never met him again.
George Reeves spent his childhood in Pasadena; he studied at Polytechnic School after which, he enrolled at the Pasadena Junior College. In college, he played the guitar, joined the acapella choir and actively performed in college dramatics.
In 1935, at the age of 21, George joined the Pasadena Community Playhouse, one of the nation’s most famed and prestigious theaters. During the next four years, George acted in numerous Playhouse productions.
One day after returning from a vacation, his mother told him that his father had committed suicide. In reality, the couple had divorced after being married for 15 years. It was only many years later that he learned that not only was Frank Bessolo very much alive but also that he was not his biological father.
Continue Reading Below
George Bessolo made his debut in films when he was cast in the 1939 epic ‘Gone with the Wind’ as Stuart Tarleton, one of the two suitors of Scarlett O'Hara. Soon after being chosen for the role, he entered into a contract with ‘Warner Brothers’, who promptly changed his screen name to George Reeves.
Even though ‘Gone with the Wind’ was the first film he signed up for, ‘Warner Bros.’ made and released four films with him in the year it took for ‘Gone with the Wind’ to be completed and released.
Warner Bros.’ also loaned him to Alexander Korda for the 1941 film, ‘Lydia’ in which, he was paired with Merle Oberon. The film bombed at the box office.
After he was released by ‘Warner Bros.’, George Reeves signed up with ‘Twentieth Century-Fox’, however the association did not last long as only a few films got made, one being ‘Dead Men Tell’, a Charlie Chan movie.
After parting ways with ‘Twentieth Century-Fox’, he became a freelancer and was cast in as many as five ‘Hopalong Cassidy’ westerns before he got a minor role in the Mark Sandrich 1943 war drama, ‘So Proudly We Hail!’ that proved to be a big hit.
Reeves enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943, joining the Special Theatrical Unit of the U.S. Army Air Corps. He performed in ‘Winged Victory’, a USAAF's show that had a very long run on Broadway. Following a national tour and even a movie version of the play, he was transferred to the First Motion Picture Unit of USAAF and made several training films.
After the end of the Wolrd War II ended, Reeves returned to California in 1945 only to find Hollywood in transition. The only work he was able to get were low-budget embarrassments like ‘Thunder in the Pines’, ‘Jungle Goddess’ and ‘The Adventures of Sir Galahad’, a Columbia Pictures’ 15-part serial produced by Sam Katzman.
Frustrated with the lack of opportunities in Hollywood, Reeves moved to New York City in 1949 but returned a couple of years later to act in ‘Rancho Notorious’, a Fritz Lang film.
In June 1951, George Reeves got the opportunity of playing the role of ‘Superman’ in ‘Adventures of Superman’, a new series planned for television. Even though, he thought TV to be an unimportant medium and feared that he would not get much of an audience, he signed up for a really hectic schedule shooting at least two shows weekly for a reported $1,000 per half-hour episode.
Continue Reading Below
‘Superman and the Mole Men’, however, was the first ‘Superman’ role that Reeves played; the picture was in fact intended to be a pilot for the TV series. The very first feature film to have ever been made on any ‘DC Comics’, the character was received very well.
‘Adventures of Superman’ that was shot in 13 weeks in the summer of 1951 started showing on TV in the fall of 1952. The show that obtained very high ratings as well as critical acclaim made George Reeves an instant celebrity and a household name across the nation, especially with the younger audience.
In between the first two seasons of ‘Superman’, Reeves managed to get some acting roles; he acted in a few feature films in 1953; ‘Forever Female’, ‘The Blue Gardenia’ and a minor character in ‘Here to Eternity’ that won the ‘Oscar’ for ‘The Best Picture’. However, Reeves found himself unable to get roles to his satisfaction as he was already typecast as ‘Superman’.
Immensely dissatisfied with the low salary and single-dimensional role of ‘Superman’, Reeves quit and set up his own production company to produce a TV adventure series. However, the producers of ‘Superman’, unable to find his replacement, lured him back with the promise of $2,500 per episode.
On June 16, 1959, after partying till late with friends at his Hollywood home, he was found dead and naked in his bed from a gunshot wound in the head in the early hours of the morning. Initially considered to be a suicide, the sudden death of a much-loved superhero sparked off a lot of controversy, including accident and murder, but nothing ever has been ever proved.
Personal Life & Legacy
During the time he spent at Pasadena Playhouse, he met Ellanora Needles, also an actress, and married her on 21 September 1940, however, the childless couple divorced a decade later on 16 October 1950.
He had a serious romantic relationship with Toni Mannix, a former showgirl eight, years his senior and the wife of Eddie Mannix, a senior ‘Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’ executive. In 1958, he split with Toni and became engaged to Leonore Lemmon, a New York socialite.
Reeves worked tirelessly to raise funds to fight myasthenia gravis and even served as the ‘Myasthenia Gravis Foundation’ national chairman in 1955. He also supported the Los Angeles chapter of ‘United Cerebral Palsy’ and ‘The City of Hope’, a cancer research hospital, appearing in telethons and parades.
Even though he was depressed and frustrated at being typecast as ‘Superman’ due to which, he believed his career never took off, he always tried to live up to his clean image taking care not to smoke or appear with his girlfriends around children.
The 6 foot-plus Reeves was extremely athletic and performed most of the stunts as ‘Superman’ on his own.
The second actor to play the role of ‘Superman’, he turned out to also be the oldest one to date.
He appeared in two films that won the ‘Academy Award for The Best Picture’ — ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939) and ‘From Here to Eternity’ (1953).
While he played the part of Stuart Tarleton in ‘Gone with the Wind’, the credits show him as Brent Tarleton.