The iconic Kryptonian superhero Superman was the collaborative brainchild of teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933, first gracing the pages of DC Comics in 1938. Since that time, every little boy has envisioned himself at some point as the Man of Steel – most likely dressing up as him for Halloween until they were teenagers.
Unfortunately, not every little boy can grow up to slip on the red cape and blue tights. To date, only sixteen actors have been lucky enough to get paid to pretend to be Superman, on either the big or small screen throughout Hollywood’s short history.
We’re going to take a look at all 16 Actors Who have Portrayed Superman and their impact, if any, on the cinematic history of the character.
Notable Facts: First public appearance of Superman
Actor Ray Middleton had the privilege of being the first person to ever portray Superman in public during the 1939 World’s Fair. Color video of the history-making event actually exists (watch it HERE) and it’s amazing to see how the classic Superman outfit (blue tights, red briefs, red cape) translates from the page to the real world for the very first time.
Notable Facts: First theatrical appearance of Superman and supporting characters Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson and Lex Luthor.
In 1948, former Broadway actor Kirk Alyn was the first to don Superman’s cape in a live-action setting. Columbia Pictures’ Superman theatrical serial became an instant hit and young fans of the superhero were immediately mesmerized. For years prior, their imaginations did all the work based off a weekly radio broadcast starring the voice of Bud Collyer as Superman, but now they could see their idol in action!
The Superman serial had 15 episodes long, told Superman’s basic origin story, his job as a reporter at the Daily Planet and his friendships with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen; in the final episode, he battled the villainous Spider Lady. In 1950, Alyn would reprise his role in another serial – Atom Man vs. Superman. This time around the villain is Superman’s main rival Lex Luthor who, as Atom Man, terrorizes the good citizens of Metropolis with his atom disintegration ray.
Notable Facts: First non-serial theatrical Superman appearance. First televised appearance. First televised color appearance. First fully-filmed take-off, flight and landing sequence.
Arguably, George Reeves was the most popular actor to every portray Superman and his alter-ego Clark Kent, in both the feature-length film Superman and the Mole Men and the subsequent TV series Adventures of Superman.
Reeves is the only actor to ever play Superman in both a theatrical release AND in a TV series. He would entertain audiences for six seasons, with the first three seasons broadcast in black and white. While the remaining seasons were filmed in color, they wouldn’t be broadcast that way until the show was syndicated in 1965.
Notable Facts: First non-comic appearance of Superboy and Lana Lang.
Adventures of Superman was canceled in 1958, followed by the passing of George Reeves in 1959, so when ABC decided to reboot the show in 1961, actor Johnny Rockwell was chosen to portray Superboy. The project never made it past an unaired Superboy pilot titled “Rajah’s Ransom”, even though twelve full scripts were completed for the show .
Alas, the general public would never see Rockwell dressed as Superman, but footage from the pilot stills exists (it comes with the 62 DVD collection Smallville: The Complete Series) and a small clip from the show can be found in the documentary Look, Up In The Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman.
Notable Facts: First singing Superman
Some studio executive in Hollywood will always think turning their movie/TV show into a full on Broadway musical is a good idea – and not even Superman is immune to this disease. In 1966, Bob Holiday starred as the singing Superman in the Broadway production titled It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman.
Holiday actually “flew” during these performances (with the help of some rather large cranes) as he battled the evil Dr. Abner Sedgwick. Together with Lois Lane and Perry White the cast performed 21 song and dance numbers (yes, there was choreography) over the course of two acts.
A couple of the songs ended up with an off-Broadway life, though: “It’s Superman” was the opening theme music for Channel 9 News in Washington D.C. until 1982 and “You’ve Got Possibilities” was used in a 2005 commercial for Pillsbury Grand! biscuits.
Notable Facts: Worst Superman costume ever
Even though It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman only had 129 performances and ran for under four months closing in 1966, someone at ABC thought it deserved a chance as a TV musical special – which was a spectacular failure.
So in 1975, poor David Wilson won the job (more like lost a bet) of playing the singing Superman. The story, songs and cast were heavily modified and Wilson was given a costume that looked like it came directly from the shelves of a party store. The bad guys were changed from Chinese acrobats to corny mobsters, while the nation just changed the channel.
You can watch clips from the show HERE.
Notable Facts: First full-color, feature-length Superman theatrical release. Significant upgrades in flying SFX. Introduced most classic version of costume. First “evil” Superman.
Superman: The Movie was first conceived in 1973 but wouldn’t see a theatrical release until 1978 with Christopher Reeve starring as the titular superhero. Superman I and Superman II were filmed simultaneously at the total cost of $109 million. Superman I proved to be the more popular of the two bringing in $300 million at the box office, while the sequel only brought in $104 million.
Over the next few years, Superman III and Superman IV, both starring Reeve and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthorn (who skipped number 3), would come and go in theaters with very little public support – together, both films only grossed $85 million on a $46 million budget.
Even with poor box office performances later in the franchise, Christopher Reeve’s name would become (and still is) synonymous with Clark Kent and Superman – arguably even more so than George Reeves.
Notable Facts: Only non-US adaption of Superman
Comic books, and the superheroes in them, are popular all over the world, which explains why Turkish director Kunt Tulgar made an unauthorized Superman adaptation titled The Return of Superman, starring Tayfun (pronounced typhoon) Demir in 1979.
The film is laughably bad on all counts – SFX, story, characters, props, cinematography, acting, music – with Tayfun’s performance being the best of the bunch. A lot of the music used to score the film was taken directly from Superman I, several James Bond films and other action-style movies.
They did get Superman’s costume correct, though, and even managed to outdo the pitiful attempt David Wilson was forced to wear on TV. The only other foreign representation of Superman is a French print ad showing Superman with AIDS… and we aren’t going to count that one.
Notable Facts: First TV series ever produced by Disney/MGM. First in-depth look at Superman’s teenage years. First appearance of Mr. Mxyzptlk.
Only a year after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace entered theaters, producers wanted to once again tap in the the lucrative TV market with a Superman show – enter Superboy starring James Hayes Newton in 1988. Newton would only sport the red cape for the first season due what the producers consider a lackluster performance, combined with his demand for a raise and a DUI arrest.
The show debuted during the 50th anniversary of Superman character and ironically, the actual character of Superboy had recently been removed from comic lore in The Man of Steel retcon by comic artist John Byrne. This was the first time the teenage years of Superman were explored. The show followed Clark Kent and Lana Lang as they reported on weird happenings for their college newspaper, The Shuster Herald (get the reference?).
Notable Facts: First appearance of villains Bizarro, Metallo and Toyman. First exploration of The Death of Superman storyline.
The second, third and fourth seasons of Superboy (re-titled The Adventures of Superboy in season three) saw many cast changes – the most notable being Gerard Christopher replacing Newton as Clark Kent/Superboy. The series also started taking on more “mature” storylines as time went on, including having Clark deal with the return of his Kryptonian parents, Jor-El and Lara. The series left the slightly-campy feel of season one behind and started placing Superboy in many perilous situations – becoming darker in tone with each new episode.
The producers, planning for a fifth and sixth season, had delved into “The Death of Superman” storyline at the end of the fourth season – even filming the demise of the superhero for the season’s finale. However, Warner Bros. placed a lien against the show and the series was canceled. Parts of the final episode were re-shot to tie up the series by revealing that Superboy had faked his death.
Notable Facts: First time the love life between Lois Lane and Clark Kent is explored. First series to keep Clark’s parents alive. First time Superman’s costume is explained.
The lien and resulting cancellation of The Adventures of Superboy were actually a plan by Warner Bros. to establish a series of their own called Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in 1993 starring Dean Cain as Clark Kent/Superman and Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane. The show proved to be a whopping success with audiences and had a run of 87 episodes over the course of four seasons. The third season proved to be the most popular, drawing in an average of 15 million viewers a week.
Unlike previous television series, Lois & Clark (as its name implies) focused heavily on the love interest between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. While Superman showed up in every episode, he wasn’t typically the focus of the show, as series creator Deborah Joy LeVine wanted to explore more of Clark’s life. To that end, Clark’s parents were kept alive (unlike the Silver Age of the Superman) and he visited them frequently to discuss pressing issues. The show also addressed how Superman got his outfit – his mom, Martha Kent, made it for him – awww.
Notable Facts: Limited Superman’s powers. Changed villain Brainiac’s origin to Krypton.
More than two dozen actors have lent their voices to various animated versions of Superman but none were as popular, or prolific, as Tim Daly. Daly was the voice of Superman through 54 episodes of Superman: The Animated Series starting in 1996. The show is widely considered to be the most popular animated version of the superhero, as it was shepherded by DC animation guru, Bruce Timm.
Before Daly, Danny Clark provided the voice of Superman for the Hanna-Barbera animated Super Friends series during the ’70s and ’80s – and of course, Bud Collyer has the distinct honor of being the first voice of Superman on The Adventures of Superman radio show during the ’40s.
S:TAS had an Art Deco-feel and the time period was purposely vague by producers. Some of the common Superman mythos was also changed in regards to his powers (he could die) and the origins of certain characters were also modified.
Notable Facts: Longest running live-action Superman series. Introduced several live-action versions of popular DC Comics’ characters. Only version of Clark Kent not referred to as Superman, doesn’t appear in costume.
A few years after Lois & Clark ended, writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar produced Smallville for the WB/CW, starring Tom Welling as Clark Kent. The show ran for ten full seasons and initially drew in 8+ million viewers – though those numbers reduced dramatically as time went on, eventually only pulling the attention of 3 million viewers for the series finale.
Smallville took a “no flights, no tights” rule per Gough and Millar – audiences can only see Clark fly once and only briefly see him in a cape in the final moments of the series finale. It did, however, introduce many members of the Justice League and brought to life several villains never before seen on TV, such as Darkseid and Doomsday.
Notable Facts: Updated the look of Superman’s costume. Introduced Superman and Lois Lane’s son.
Almost twenty years passed since a live-action Superman movie was released in theaters, until Warner Bros. decided to pump over $300 million in Superman Returns starring Brandon Routh.
The story involved Superman returning to Earth after a five-year trip to Krypton to see if any of his people survived. Lex Luthor is once again the villain (like the original Superman movies) and he absurdly wants to create new land using crystals stolen from Superman’s Fotress of Solitude. The film’s “twist” – that Lois and Superman had a child who inherited his father’s super genes – brought on more jeers than cheers from audiences.
The movie was a disappointment to both critics and fans – many of whom also disliked the sleeker costume hip-hugging style briefs and a much smaller “S” on his chest. He did have the signature curl in his hair, though.
Notable Facts: None – Only used to promote foreign cars
Proving that even actors have to eat, a pre-White Collar Matthew Bomer starred in a series of Toyota Prius commercials in 2009. In the short scenes, Bomer can be seen dressed at Clark Kent, then flying around the city using his x-ray vision to investigate the internal workings of a Prius.
It’s all pretty campy stuff but he’s an actor, dressed as Clark Kent, flying as Superman – so we guess it counts…sorta.
Notable Facts: First modified appearance of classic costume. Replaced Jimmy Olson with Jenny Olson. First shared universe for DC Comics. First Superman film in 3D.
Henry Cavill is the latest actor to play Superman in director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel but he certainly won’t be the last. After the underwhelming Superman Returns, fans of the character were holding out very little hope that they would ever see a good, modern version of Superman in theaters again. For the most part, Snyder quelled those fears.
Man of Steel, with all its super powered, action-goodness, wasn’t without its drawbacks though – erratic scene cuts, weak character development and a longer-than-necessary running time, make the film drag in some areas. Most critics and fans agree though, the film is a far better than the previous attempt.
DC Comics has been behind Marvel in the shared movie universe and Man of Steel is their first (weak) attempt to fix that situation. A sign attached to satellite high above the earth reads “Wayne Enterprises” and is the only thing tying Superman to Batman. It could have been stronger but at least it was there.
We started off this article saying that every little boy dreams of being Superman and that sentiment rang doubly true for one of our avid readers Brent Bennett (pictured far right). Brent didn’t just like Superman, he LIVED Superman. When he married his sweetheart Megan in 2011 he had a Superman-theme cake and all of the groomsmen wore t-shirts with the iconic “S” on it.
Like most of us, Brent was really looking forward to June 14th when Man of Steel would fly into theaters – sadly, tragedy wouldn’t allow Brent to attend a screening. On February 22nd, 2013, Brent was tragically killed during a car accident in Morristown, TN.
Brent’s widow, Megan, reached out to simply tell us what a fan Brent was of our site – her story touched and humbled us. We offer our sincerest condolences to Megan and Brent’s family and think it’s fitting when Superman says “The S means hope”.
We dedicate this post to Brent Bennett – he was HER Superman.
Fly with me on Twitter – @MoviePaul – and tell me who your favorite Superman actor is.