Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mysterious Death of Superman

"It's a Bird! It's a Plane!"

"Faster than a speeding bullet!" the narrator begins. "More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" Followers of The Adventures of Superman knew and still know the entire show's intro by heart.

"Look! Up in the sky!" an excited woman cries to a group of bystanders on the street while pointing upward. "It's a bird!" another woman cries. "It's a plane!" a man shouts. "It's SUPERMAN!" a fourth bystander announces.

Kirk Alyn
Kirk Alyn

"Yes, it's Superman," narrator Bill Kennedy continues in a distinct, solemn baritone, to the universally familiar theme music of Leonard Klatzkin. "Strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman... who can change the course of mighty rivers. Bend steel with his bare hands. And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way."

When the TV show premiered on Sept. 19, 1952, no one had any idea how it would play out — least of all its title character. The Adventures of Superman had been a popular show on radio, starring Bud Collyer, for close to a decade in the 1940s when the TV show premiered. However, many radio shows were unable to successfully make the transition from a pure sound medium to a sound AND visual one. It was a risky venture trading sound effects for visual effects and doing so convincingly to viewing audiences.

There were also a number of Superman movies in the late '40s starring Kirk Alyn in the title role, but reducing the action to a small screen was also a risky venture.

Clark Kent and Lois Lane
Clark Kent and Lois Lane

Whatever the drawbacks, the TV incarnation of Superman exceeded expectations. In its first season, it had already begun drawing a cult following, and it retained that following through 104 episodes over the next six television seasons. In addition to Reeves, the cast included Jack Larson as the obsequious, hero-worshiping Jimmy ("jeepers") Olson, Phyllis Coates and later Noel Neill as Lois Lane, John Hamilton as the crusty, blustering Perry ("Great Caesar's Ghost!" and "Don't call me chief!") White, and Robert Shayne as Inspector Henderson.

The first two seasons were produced in black and white, while seasons three through six were produced in color. In the beginning Reeves wore a brown, gray, and white costume, which photographed better in black and white. Later, when the episodes began shooting in color, he wore the more familiar blue, red, and yellow outfit. However, because most American TVs were only able to receive black and white, even the color episodes came out that way. It didn't matter, though. Whether in black and white or color, the "Man of Steel" turned into a marketing bonanza unlike any phenomenon before him.

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