By Gary Dowell
Man of Steel opened last month, starring Henry Cavill as Superman. The careers of many of the actors who played the character in film and television have usually tanked afterwards, and some even suffered personal tragedy — enough to demand the question “Is there a Superman curse?” We take a look at the actors who have played Superman in live-action performances, the projects they appeared in, and the effect the role had on them.
Starred in: The film serials Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). Ten years after his debut in comic books, Superman made his first live-action forays on the silver screen via these 15-part serials.
Effect on Career: Alyn had trouble finding work before his two gigs as Superman, and the problem continued afterward. Apart from Blackhawk (1952), he had only sparse TV and film roles — some of them uncredited — prior to his retirement. He was offered the lead role in the Adventures of Superman TV series in 1951, but turned it down.
Starred in: Superman and the Mole Men (1951) and Adventures of Superman (1952-58). Mole Men was the first feature-length Superman motion picture, and served as a back-door pilot for the Man of Steel’s first television series. Both were runaway successes, and the series enjoyed a healthy 104-episode run. It was also one of the first TV series filmed in color.
Effect on Career: Reeves had intermittent success as an actor before rocketing to national celebrity status as Superman. However, the shooting schedule was harsh and the pay was shockingly low, and Reeves was never able to escape the role. Sadly, Reeves allegedly took his own life in 1959.
Starred in: The movies Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Reeve channeled the self-deprecating, good-natured charisma of Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby for his take on Clark Kent, and brought a more modern masculine male image to the role of Superman. Unfortunately, the quality of the franchise quickly plummeted after the firing of director Richard Donner during production on Superman II. Reeve was promised story input on Superman IV and a chance to direct the fifth installment, which was scuttled after the box office failure of Quest for Peace.
Effect on Career: To this day, Reeve is considered by many to be the definitive screen incarnation of the Man of Steel. Tragically, he was rendered quadriplegic after being thrown from a horse in 1995. Though he never achieved his vow to walk again, he proved to be a real-life hero by working as an activist on behalf of people with spinal cord injuries and for human embryonic stem cell research. He succumbed to complications from his condition in 2004.
Starred in: Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-97). An interesting post-modern take on the character, Lois & Clark followed the lead of the late-’80s comics reboot of Superman in treating Clark Kent as the real personality and Superman as the alter ego. As the title suggests, it also focused on the relationship between Clark and Lois Lane, resulting in an adventure-rom-com with broad appeal.
Effect on Career: Cain started the Angry Dragon Entertainment production company in 1998, and has appeared in a number of small roles over the past 15 years, including that of a villain during Season 7 of Smallville (see below). Lois & Clark remains his biggest role to date.
Appeared in: Smallville (2001-2011). Pitched as the chronicles of the young man who would grow to become Superman, with a strict “no tights, no flights” rule, Smallville broke Clark Kent down to the bare essentials and then built him back up again. Well-received by fans and newbies alike, the series had an astounding 10-season, 218-episode run and earned a number of accolades.
Effect on Career: Though he’s been largely under the radar lately, Welling’s career has been robust. He rose to executive producer over the course of the series, made his directing debut in Season 5, and went on to direct six more episodes of the series. He recently scored a key role in Ivan Reitman’s upcoming football drama Draft Day.
Appeared in: Superman Returns (2006). In the tradition of the original, Routh, a young unknown actor, was cast. He had the proper blend of vulnerability and strength, as well as an uncanny resemblance to Christopher Reeve. Unfortunately, Brian Singer’s take was a bit too beholden to the previous films, and the lackluster plot failed to grasp viewers.
Effect on Career: Routh was well received as Superman, and had been contracted to appear in at least two sequels; however, the film’s disappointing performance at the box office resulted in cancellation of those plans. Like other actors who have played the Last Son of Krypton, Routh has been relegated to small film and TV roles for the time being.