TV Superman’s Real-Life Fall from ‘Hollywoodland': Who Killed George Reeves?

[IMG:L]In the wee hours of June 16, 1959, a Los Angeles police sedan is parked outside a modest two-story home at 1576 Benedict Canyon Drive, a dark, densely foliaged road that meanders up the rustic canyons just outside the city limits of glittery, glamorous Beverly Hills. Upstairs, two detectives surveyed the gruesome display in the master bedroom, where a tall, thickly built 45-year-old man lies sprawled nude across his bed, a bullet hole burned into his temple and a .30-calber German Luger pistol on the floor at his feet. The bed sheets are soaked with blood, spreading crimson beneath the body like a red cape. It was a grimly ironic image, for the dead man was, in life, best known for wearing a red cape on television. His name was George Reeves, but millions of children across the world knew him as Superman.

Hollywood.com’s Mysteries and Scandals Video: George Reeves

It has been said that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy marked the loss of innocence of 20th Century America, but for many Baby Boomers the entry into the darker world of adulthood came when they learned the next day that the man who they believed was the greatest superhero of all had taken his own life.

But if the suicide of Superman was unthinkable to his pint-sized fans, it was ever harder to accept by those who knew and loved the real man inside the costume. A big, likable lug with a winning grin, a wry gleam in his eye and a wickedly self-deprecating sense of humor, George Reeves had known more than his share of bad breaks in Hollywood: The promising start to his film career that began with a role as one of the Tarleton Twins in the legendary 1939 epic Gone With the Wind had been derailed when he was called to serve in World War II, and when he returned even a part in the Oscar-grabbing From Here to Eternity had filed to ignite much new heat.

So he took a role on that brand-new medium, television, as the star of The Adventures of Superman to pay the bills and keep his name in the spotlight, not realizing that the part was even larger than life than he was. Reeves donned Superman’s suit so convincingly, so majestically—despite the otherwise chintzy trappings of the show—it transformed him, and the audience of children that adored him would never want to see him as anything else. Neither, it seemed, would the powers-that-be that ran Hollywood. Had the mantle of the Man of Steel ultimately been too much for even the warm, charming and seemingly lighthearted George Reeves to bear?

Questions quickly arose in the wake of his death: Reeves was just days away from marrying his sweetheart, and things were looking promising—stable, at least—career-wise, with a surprise order for more Superman episodes and opportunities to move behind the camera as a director. Why had he given into despair now? The investigation only turned up more curious facts: Most of the people in his home that night were relative strangers; more than one bullet hole had been discovered in his bedroom; his body displayed hard-to-explain bruises; his pistol had been oiled, revealing no fingerprints; atypical of suicides, there was no note, and it was committed with people in the house; and the examination of his body had been cursory at best, washed and embalmed before a formal autopsy could be performed, thus no gunpowder residue was later found on Reeves’ hand to conclusively prove he pulled the trigger himself.

Suddenly, the press was buzzing with the notion that rather than a suicidal, washed-up actor, George Reeves may have in fact been a murder victim. And just as abruptly, the investigation was closed. To Hollywood in 1959, Superman was really the famous one; now Reeves would have to settle for being merely notorious. But as his legion of underage admirers grew to adulthood, they continued remembered Reeves fondly. And, instilled with Superman’s credo for “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” many of them began to poke and prod at the official “suicide” story, developing convincing scenarios that indicated foul play, not frustrated dreams of fame.

“I’ve probably spent half my adult life working on a book about Reeves,” said actor Jim Beaver. Best known as one of the ensemble of actors on HBO’s hard-edged Western series Deadwood, Beaver has long been compiling information about the actor’s life and curious demise, as his childhood fascination with the series slowly morphed into a nagging compulsion to determine what actually lead to the death of its star.

“As a kid it was quite an impactful show, but even more so was the impact of his death,” said Beaver. “It was such a startling thing for most of the Baby Boomers in this country, and I grew older and more interested in Hollywood history, this case kept coming back to me as something that hadn’t been adequately explored, and the more I explored it, the more I realized how many myths and falsehoods and inaccuracies were part of the common knowledge about George Reeves.” 

The noir-seeped film Hollywoodland arrives on DVD February 5th. Starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck as Reeves, the film dramatizes the shadowy mysteries surrounding the actor’s demise (Interviews). But as artfully crafted as it is, the film aspires to be neither a biopic nor a documentary. Hollywood.com takes a look at the prevailing theories and discovers a tangled web of intrigue that would have given even a superman pause.

[IMG:R]Suspect #1: Leonore Lemmon
Anyone taking an even cursory look at the details of the night of Reeves’ death looking for foul play has to begin by focusing on those inside the actor’s home on the evening in question to identify a prime suspect.

Present were Carol Van Ronkel, the lovely, much-younger wife of Rip Van Ronkel, a Hollywood screenwriter in Reeves’ circle who’d visited the house earlier in the night with his wife but was in absentia in the wee hours; Bill Bliss, a man Reeves just met who lived nearby who’d popped in earlier with the Van Ronkels and stopped again later when he saw that the home’s customary “come-over-and-party” signal—a still-lit front door light—was still on; and Bobby Condon, a writer researching a biography on Reeves’ pal and sparring partner, famed boxer Archie Moore, and, some claim, carrying on a secret dalliance with Carol Van Ronkel. Barring a spur-of-the-moment accident or an alcohol-soaked argument that got out of hand, the guests at the late-night party only casually or barely knew Reeves and carried no discernible ill will towards him, and thus no motive for homicide.

That leaves the only other person in the house under the microscope: The actor’s fiancé Leonore Lemmon, whom he was supposed to wed in mere days. Reeves may have been amused that his girl’s initials, L.L., mirrored those of Superman’s paramour Lois Lane. But since the TV show never featured the villainous Lex Luthor, it may have been lost on the actor that Leonore also shared a monogram with the Man of Steel’s worst enemy.

Lemmon was a notorious jet-setting party girl with a past that filled the New York gossip columns with her exploits. The daughter of a Broadway ticket broker, she had been named the illicit third party in a high society divorce and later wed and unwed at will, including a penniless member of the wealthy Vanderbilt family, before she was in her mid-twenties. The tempestuous “Lem,” as she was known, met Reeves in the fall of 1958 while he was in New York on a promotional tour, and immediately bedded the television hero. He was soon enraptured and Lemmon followed him home to Los Angeles (a city she loathed), where he broke off his long-term relationship with a rich and prominent Hollywood society matron.

She quickly upended Reeves’ life (though he seemed to delight in it): The family-style barbeques he routinely hosted for friends morphed into excessive all-night debauches that included few of his now-alienated pals but several of her less-than-savory chums. He caved to her every demand, spent wildly on her, and her glittery star-filled past seemed to rekindle his urgent need for “legitimate” Hollywood status. Offering to marry her and planning an ill-conceived a boxing exhibition tour with Archie Moore to keep his cash flowing, Lem was a wild ride for Reeves, but one he seemed insistent on seeing it through to the end. And the end was nearer than anyone suspected.

According to the version of events Lemmon gave the police on that night, after a day of hard drinking at home and on the club circuit, she and Reeves had retired to bed at midnight, but she later roused herself, turned on the outdoor party light and soon found the guests on the doorstep (Bliss, at least; Van Ronkel and Condon may have already been there together in the guest bedroom) looking for a few more nightcaps, and she let them in. Irritated by the revelry, Reeves came downstairs and snapped at them, but then apologized and joined them until about 1:20 a.m., when he retreated to the master bedroom on the second floor.

“He’s going to shoot himself,” the others present claimed Leonore offhandedly remarked, and moments later a gunshot was heard upstairs. Bliss raced to the master bedroom and discovered Reeves sprawled out on his bed, covered in blood.

This was the story Lemmon would stick to for the duration of the investigation, until her influential attorney and ex-lover, Jimmy Hoffa’s lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, apparently pulled strings and within the week (after being caught breaking into Reeves’ sealed house to raid it of travelers’ checks and scotch) she spirited away to New York, then Europe, never providing testimony to the grand jury investigating the case, and never to return to Los Angeles.

Theorists looking askance at Lemmon suggest that, prompted by the booze, late hour and intrusive parties, an irritable Reeves got into a heated argument with his headstrong and fiery fiancé that resulted in a physical struggle, with his Luger in the middle, and in either a crime of passion or a horrific accident, the gun went off and Reeves dropped dead. Such a scenario could explain many of the mysteries that have surrounded the case, including the bruises discovered on Reeves’ body, the fact that several other bullet holes were apparent in the bedroom, and the absence of gunpowder residue on Reeves’ gun hand.

In her later years, Lemmon—whose casualness with the truth was legendary—would often offer wildly different and contradictory variations of the events of that night, depending on how much attention she was craving and, more significantly, how much alcohol she consumed.

She alternately exposed the Bobby Condon-Carol Van Ronkel affair (something the police do seem to have covered up after Rip Van Ronkel arrived on the scene to retrieve his wife, to spare the couple’s privacy), denied that Reeves argued with anyone, cast Bill Bliss as an unknown and sinister character who lied about her predicting Reeves’ death in the seconds preceding it (Bliss appears to simply have been looking for a midnight cocktail in the wrong place at the wrong time), and said that once Reeves’ body was discovered other people were called to house well before the police were notified, and—though even at her drunkest she was almost always kind and sympathetic in her assessments of her former flame—even suggested that Reeves may have been planning to kill her before offing himself.

Faced with her near endless string of revisions, misinformation, exaggeration and inebriated ramblings, it’s virtually impossible to sift the truth from Lemmon’s lies. “When I was shooting the scene where I shot him, I was sure that Leonore shot him,” said Robin Tunney, who plays Lemmon in the film. “But how else can you play the scene?”

[PAGEBREAK][IMG:L]Suspect #2: Eddie Mannix
If there was anyone who had a seemingly obvious motive for wanting to see Reeves dead, it would have been Eddie Mannix. After all, the handsome actor had cuckolded Mannix, a vice president of MGM Studios, for some ten years with his ongoing love affair with Mannix’s beautiful wife, Toni.

Nicknamed “The Bulldog” for his pugnacious appearance and aggressive attitude, Mannix was a gruff, street-smart former bouncer from New Jersey who became a favored employee of the studio in the 1930s thanks in part to his skills at union-busting, secret surveillance, blackmail and his alleged organized crime connections: Central Casting couldn’t have turned up a more definitive vision of the gentleman thug. His menacing presence during delicate negotiations often turned the tide in MGM’s favor, and he operated alongside publicist Howard Strickling as the studio’s principal scandal suppressors.

It was ironic, then, that his wife openly cavorted with a washed-up movie star-turned-kiddie TV idol. But if Mannix took issue with his wife and Reeves’ romance, he certainly wouldn’t have waited a decade to act on it. Instead, by all accounts Eddie Mannix approved the arrangement—he had his own longtime mistress on the side—because it relieved any stress in their marriage (he had a long history of heart ailments) and, frankly, it made Toni–to whom he was otherwise devoted–happy. If it ever caused any trouble beyond that, well, Mannix was the ultimate Hollywood “fixer” and he would, quite simply, fix it.

Jealousy can be eliminated as a motive, but nevertheless, Mannix’s shadowy way of operating has led him to be implicated in Reeves’ demise, in defense of his wife in the wake of the actor’s abrupt casting off of Toni in favor of Leonore Lemmon. It’s been suggested that Mannix—either at his wife’s behest or acting on his own unique code of honor—used his connections to organized crime to order a hit on Reeves in hopes of soothing his wife’s metaphorically ravaged heart.

Just two months before his death, Reeves got a concussion in an automobile accident—treated in the press as an opportunity to write derisive “Superman Faints!” headlines. It was one of three he’d experience in the final months of his life, suggesting a classic mob-style tactic that, when failed, may have led to a more extreme, hands-on, approach. Mannix certainly did not need to pull the trigger on Reeves himself, but it’s very possible he knew the phone numbers of people who would, for a price.

“I knew Eddie Mannix” Jeff Hayden, the husband of actress Eva Marie Saint, told Hollywood.com. “I worked for him at MGM. He was a tough guy. A tough guy, but he knew his stuff. I thought he was a very nice guy.” Hayden paused a moment to consider whether Mannix was someone who was capable of arranging a murder. “Not that I could see, but I didn’t know the whole story.”

“I think he would’ve done it if Toni asked him,” concluded Bob Hoskins, who portrays Mannix in Hollywoodland, which suggests that Eddie could have indeed taken a hand in things. “He would’ve done it, but I think he would’ve done it in a much subtler way. I think he’s a bit of a classy killer.”

[IMG:R]Suspect #3: Toni Mannix
Despite the fact the she was married and seven years older than George Reeves, Toni Mannix had been involved in a deep and passionate love affair with the actor for a decade, a relationship cut short several months prior to his death . She, too, may have had a compelling desire to see “Superman” cease to exist.

A former Zeigfield Follies showgirl who married well after her future husband picked her from her first movie production number and made her a Hollywood high society doyenne, well-liked and high-spirited. She was aware of the impermanence of her beauty when she took up with Reeves, 45, after she turned 52, and as the relationship continued she clung tighter to him through their complexities. For every generous sugar-mama-esque gesture she offered—Toni purchased the Benedict Canyon home in which Reeves lived—there were equal bids to keep him in his place under her wing. She never appealed to her powerful husband to push for Reeves’ stardom at MGM.

Toni was, as she often quoted the popular song of the day, “Mad About The Boy,” and the two made no secret of their romance—as well as their shared love of liquor and the Hollywood party scene. She was a familiar fixture on the set of The Adventures of Superman, bringing Reeves his lunch (along with a little libation pick-me-up). But when Reeves returned from a New York trip late in 1958 and delivered the news that he was leaving Toni for Leonore Lemmon—just as Toni thought Eddie’s sick heart would soon give out and she and George could finally be wed—Toni’s rage and broken heart may have twisted her feelings for the boy into a truer form of madness.

Obsessing over the betrayal (though she nevertheless allowed him to continue to live in the home she purchased and even continued paying bills like his liquor store tab), she allegedly ranted to friends about wanting to slit Reeves’ throat (a seemingly empty threat), made or instigated a lengthy volley of harassing telephone calls and quite possibly stole his beloved schnauzer Sam from his idling Jaguar, keeping the dog to the end of its days.

The authors of the 1996 book Hollywood Kryptonite conclude—without any definitive proof, it must be noted—that Toni may have taken her unnerving fixation a step further, even beyond urging her husband to take a hand in things. While Eddie was incapacitated following a heart episode days before Reeves’ death, in a fit of desperation she may have taken it upon herself to contact some of Eddie’s more unsavory associates for a contract hit on her ex-lover (or possibly on Lemmon, a botched job resulting in an accidental slaying of the actor). Once she snapped back to reality and tried to call it off, it was too late and debilitated Eddie was in too much of a Demerol-induced stupor to step in.

All who knew her agree that the breakup had definitely driven Toni Mannix over the deep end. Even decades after Reeves’ death and long after her husband passed, she never stopped obsessing over her true lost love, living an isolated, Norma Desmond-like existence in her Beverly Hills mansion. She occasionally attempted to quash journalistic investigations into the curious circumstances surrounding Reeves’ death but also insisted to her dwindling circle of intimates that “the Boy” was murdered.

The Toni scenario is not included among the other Rashomon-like possibilities depicted in Hollywoodland. “That seems the least likely of all of them,” said the film’s director Allen Coulter. “There is a theory that she hired someone…that she might have got her own person to take care of this business,” he explained, but “I wouldn’t have wanted to promote one that I didn’t think had the remotest chance of being possible.”

“I don’t think we’re ever going to know,” said Diane Lane, who portrays Toni Mannix in the film and nurtured a crush on TV’s Superman since her childhood watching reruns of The Adventures of Superman. “I know that I didn’t want to believe that George killed himself, and I didn’t want to believe anybody harmed a hair on his head, either.”

[PAGEBREAK][IMG:L]Suspect #4: George Reeves
What any “mystery hit man” scenario fails to conclusively or convincingly account for is how any assassin could gain entry and exit to the compact Reeves home unseen and undetected, given that four other people were inside the house. Although some conspiracy theorists offer one of the late-night guests as a possible decoy or distraction to allow the contract killer to enter, the home is simply too small and full of revealing rear windows, and its second story windows to difficult to access unnoticed, to make that a very convincing scenario. And would any professional hit man really risk a hit amid that many potential witnesses?

So if Leonore was indeed surrounded by houseguests when the fatal gunshot was heard, that leaves only one more person in the home capable of pulling the trigger on Superman, and that, to many fans’ dismay, is George Reeves himself.

Despite his devil-may-care exterior, the future did hold some promise of better things. After two years of unemployment, he’d been contracted for another 26 Superman shows. He’d moved behind the camera into directing both episodes of the series and a few possible sci-fi films, and there was the possibility of starring in a Dick Tracy TV series. Of course, there was also his impending nuptials. But there were certainly dark clouds on the horizon as well: The scorned Toni continued to stir trouble; his relationship with Leonore was far more volatile than he liked; he was still, reluctantly accepting money from his wealthy, possessive mother; his alcohol consumption was at an all-time extreme; he’d been plagued with splitting headaches since his last car wreck; and while he still had that winning matinee-idol grin, he most certainly wasn’t getting any younger.

Friends described his highs as lofty as Superman’s, but his lows were also abysmally low. In a late night bout of boozy soul-searching, in a home filled with “friends” he barely knew and an untrustworthy young woman he loved but may not have liked very much, and staring straight into the maw of an uncertain future in which he might never escape the overpowering image of a kiddie character in tights and a cape, could Reeves have reached for his own bedside Luger in a desperate search for a final resolution? After his long, frustrated bid for the immortality fame provides, was the only solution to embrace a final mortality, to show the world that he was not Superman through the simple fact that he was, in the end, all too vulnerable to a bullet?

It wouldn’t be a heroic end, but unlike the career that was left to the whims of Hollywood and the private life that was at the mercy of overly domineering women, it was something that could be done on his terms, and his alone.

George Reeves was an iconic guy because of who he played,” said Ben Affleck, who admirably captures the compelling shades of light and dark that characterized Reeves in Hollywoodland, “and that was in some ways tragic for him, and a kind of paradox in the sense that he got the thing that he wished for and ultimately it was very destructive… I think of George as a guy who never really got a fair shake. So I thought that it would be the least that we could do here to give him his fair shake, finally that he didn’t get in his career or following his death.”

[IMG:R]The Mystery Persists
As another fictional crime fighter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, put it, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth.” Unfortunately, there are streaks of both possibility and improbability in each of the suggested scenarios, and with nearly 50 years past and all the key players long dead, the trail of revealing clues has grown as cold as Reeves’ body in 1959.

Back then, Reeves’ estranged but grief-stricken mother Helen Bessalo (herself an overly controlling female in his life with a penchant for fiction) refused to believe her son could take his own life and hired private investigators from the famed Nick Harris Detective Agency and, after a period of time pressuring the police for justice for her son, she abandoned her crusade, either scared off by what the private investigators discovered or satisfied simply to know that her beloved George had not committed suicide.

“I don’t know the answer,” said Adrien Brody, who as private investigator Louis Simo—a fictional character inspired by the Nick Harris P.I. firm—seeks the truth in Hollywoodland. “I think that the evidence shows that there might’ve been foul play, but it was documented as a suicide,” Brody limited his own research into the real case to only those things his character would learn, and considers himself far from an expert on the details. “I’m not sure, actually. I would hate for my opinion to somehow resonate as truth for someone.”

But after decades of exhaustive research in the hopes of unearthing a compelling piece of evidence to support anything other than the official scenario, Jim Beaver has come full circle to a reluctant hypothesis. “I’ve been digging into this for many, many, many years, and I started out completely convinced that foul play was behind it,” Beaver told Hollywood.com. “But too many facts have changed my mind. I’m afraid that George took his own life.”

“It was a confluence of unfortunate circumstances, not one thing—that’s my conclusion,” Beaver continued. “But I’m much more interested in the truth that what my conclusion is. New evidence would certainly be welcome to me, but I haven’t found anything to change my mind in a long time.”

Beaver’s also not changing his mind about the kind of man his childhood idol was, even if he succumbed to a morass of despair, and he’s pleased with Hollywoodland’s depiction of his hero. “I think it’s very true to who George Reeves was,” he said. “I personally think he was a very special person, and the movie treats him that way.”

Still, those who knew Reeves personally continue to have a difficult time imagining that the affable, fun-loving actor could actually choose to end his own life. “I don’t want to believe George committed suicide,” Reeves’ Gone With the Wind co-star Ann Rutherford said at the premiere of Hollywoodland, “because he was always too upbeat for that. He believed tomorrow is another day.”

In the end, both truth and justice may have eluded George Reeves in life, but on screen he may finally have gotten both. It may not be the American Way, but it’s the Hollywood Way.

More Hollywood Mysteries and Scandals:

[IMG:L]Hollywood Mysteries and Scandals: Bugsy Siegel

Hollywood Mysteries and Scandals: Lana Turner

Hollywood Mysteries and Scandals: The Black Dahlia

Hollywood Mysteries and Scandals: Marilyn Monroe

MORE WE LIKE

SIMILAR ARTICLES