The Mysterious Death of Superman
A Marketing Bonanza
Personally and professionally, the producers of the Superman TV series couldn't have chosen a more worthy role model than Reeves. Although his personal life wasn't the most exemplary — he drank heavily, smoked, and was recently divorced and running around with a married woman — he played the superhero role to the hilt in his public appearances. He quit smoking, never brought his girlfriends to his public appearances, and enthusiastically endorsed his sponsor's healthy products (Kellogg's breakfast cereals). In every way imaginable, he exuded the appearance of a proud, solid, red-blooded American citizen. Parents who had grown up on Superman comics and radio shows loved Reeves' portrayal as much as their kids. Whole families often sat down to watch the shows together.
Reeves also performed at and hosted a number of benefits for charitable causes. He was a devout supporter of The City of Hope cancer research hospital and the Los Angeles chapter of United Cerebral Palsy. He also appeared on The City of Hope and UCP Telethons on local Los Angeles TV and at The City of Hope parades in Duarte, California, as Superman.
He also did many benefits and appearances for and with children in his early years as Superman. At all times, during those appearances with children, he tried to impress upon them the importance of obeying the law and doing the right thing. He was always courtly, polite, smiling, and accessible. Unfortunately, he eventually had to curtail his appearances with kids when some of them, unable to distinguish between the TV character and its real-life portrayer, tried to test his "invulnerability" by punching, kicking, or assaulting him in other ways.
One story, believed to be apocryphal, even had a child pointing a loaded gun at him and was ready to fire it to see if the bullets would bounce off his chest. The incident was portrayed in Hollywoodland, in which Reeves (played by Affleck) calmly tells the boy that the bullets could hurt someone else after they ricocheted off his chest. The incident probably never happened, but given Reeves'/Superman's reputation, such a scenario was not out of the realm of possibility.
But even Superman's personal appearances were not as lucrative to the character's creators as the merchandising opportunities he opened up. Superman comic books, Superman lunchboxes, Superman record players, Superman action figures, Superman everything. You name it, they created it — even replicas of his costume, which, for a time, was the most popular Halloween costume on the racks. And Reeves was out there as much as possible, pushing these product lines. He did whatever he could to lend his and Superman's names to the merchandising effort.
According to several accounts, his personal appearances were even more lucrative than his paychecks. In the beginning, he was only getting about $200 per episode for risking his life performing most of his own stunts and being held up by wires while simulating flight. They broke on one occasion, causing him to fall and sustain injury. The studio was a lot more careful after that.