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"FROM 'MAN OF STEEL' TO 'LAST SON OF KRYPTON'...AN OVERVIEW OF 'SUPERMAN' PORTRAYALS, FROM BUD COLLYER TO BRANDON ROUTH"
by Ben Burgraff
see Ben's art contributions to Supermanfanart.com         back to
Superman Articles

There is a misconception that all it takes to play Superman is a good physique, an ability to pretend to fly and do superhuman stunts, and to act like a geek in glasses while playing Clark Kent.

Actually, Superman is a far more difficult role than that...an actor must accept sixty years of the character being a part of the "national consciousness", and deal with the pre-conceived 'look' people expect, as well as trying to find the 'core' of a character that isn't really human, but embodies the 'best' qualities of humanity...an almost Christ-like figure of morality and compassion, dealing with a world rife with corruption...while wearing tights!

In other words, it AIN'T easy! 

Each actor who has portrayed Superman has offered a unique 'take' on the character, sometimes more successful than others, but each exciting, and entertaining!

Here is a brief look at the first men who "wore the 'S'..."

BUD COLLYER

The first 'voice' of Superman, Collyer's contribution is often unfairly overlooked. One must realize, at the time of the radio program, Superman was still being 'invented', and his characterization had to offer enough flexibility to change and grow.

The most important aspect of Collyer's performance was making the difference of Superman and Clark Kent's voices convincing enough to 'fool' Lois and the rest, but close enough that radio audiences knew it was the same man. No actor ever did a better job at this...His 'Kent' was always "mild-mannered" without being overly 'geeky', his 'Superman', heroic but always 'accessible'. The impact his performance had cannot be understated; from Kirk Alyn to Brandon Routh, each 'Superman' has built upon what Collyer provided, as the foundation.

When a 'live' Superman was to be made, however, Collyer was never seriously considered for the role; besides having an extraordinarily busy schedule on both radio and early television, Collyer, even with his good looks and an ever-present twinkle in his eye, was slender, and of medium height, and simply would not have been charismatic or commanding enough a presence, onscreen...

KIRK ALYN

Kirk Alyn, of the 'Superman' serials, was the ideal 'leading man' for low-budget studio productions...Handsome, forceful, not an overpowering thespian, but able to strike poses, handle frequent fight scenes, and appeal to the 'action-oriented' crowd who thrived on Saturday matinees.

His biggest attribute, as Superman, was the sheer joy in his abilities that he conveyed. He honestly seemed to hope that villains would challenge him, just so he could show off his "stuff"! Very comfortable in the "long johns and cape", it would always be amusing to watch him deal with that cape, constantly getting in the way during fight scenes (especially as the films were shot so rapidly, and on such a tight budget, that second 'takes' were rare). It is a shame that budgetary restraints prevented more than rudimentary 'flying' effects...he would have been graceful, and truly 'in his element', in the air, had the technology been more advanced. 

What Alyn lacked in 'presence', as Superman, he certainly made up for, in energy!

Alyn's soft-spoken 'Clark Kent' was quite effective, as well, although, again, a lack of charisma tended to cause him to blend into the ensemble far more than his successors would. Still, with Noel Neill and Tommy Bond's broad overplaying as Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen (Neill would be far better on television), Alyn's performance was subtle and self-assured.

Much has been made of Alyn not playing Superman, on television; whether the reason was salary, ego, or availability, audiences would be fortunate, as the new medium would get a Superman ideally suited for the small screen...

GEORGE REEVES

So much of Reeves' tenure as Superman has been colored by the circumstances of his mysterious and tragic death, it is often forgotten just how good he was in the role.

If Kirk Alyn was a case of a fair actor in a good role, George Reeves was, easily, a great actor in the role. With over a decade of acting experience, and a handful of major roles in 'quality' films, Reeves would have become a major star, had not WWII intervened; by war's end, with studios cutting back on their product, and many contract stars returning, Reeves' career suddenly plummeted to 'B' movies and serials...and the opportunity to star as Superman was not an offer he could afford to refuse.

A true professional, Reeves immersed himself in the role, although he hated the costume, which was unbearably hot, and embarrassing to wear (between 'takes', he always donned a robe). He decided, early on, to have a tee shirt with padded shoulders sewn into the Superman shirt, to make him more physically imposing (a fact Kirk Alyn never neglected to make fun of). At 6'1", with a broad chest and lantern jaw, Reeves cut a heroic image as Superman, and had a commanding presence that made him irresistible. In "Superman and the Mole-Men", the first "Superman" feature film (and 'pilot', actually, for the series), Reeves' "Man of Steel" is stern, just, and unbending in his integrity, attributes Kirk Alyn would have been far less convincing in conveying...and his relationship with Lois (Phyllis Coates) was more adult and businesslike than the lighter tone of the serials.

Reeves softened the portrayal for television, adding his signature charm, and the boyishness he still exhibited, in the early 50s. Patterned more after Bud Collyer's portrayal than Alyn's, Reeves would occasionally turn to the camera, smile, and wink, reminding audiences that they were privy to secrets the cast would never know!

Many Superman 'purists' have faulted his tough, heroic portrayal as 'Clark Kent', saying it was far too close to his 'Superman'...but that was a necessary evil of a limited budget TV series. FX were so expensive to produce that Superman's appearances, each episode, had to be limited...so Clark Kent had to 'fill the void', and become more of a 'take charge' kind of guy. Reeves, himself, preferred playing Clark, and seemed more relaxed during those scenes (even substituting his own glasses for the 'fake' ones, during the last season of the show).

The most bittersweet aspect of the series is watching Reeves age...the youthful Superman of the first season would be a graying, chunky, middle-aged man by the last. The brightly-lighted color episodes from Season 3 onward was very unkind to the entire cast, but most particularly on Reeves, and combined with the increasingly silly plotlines (forced upon the series by the sponsor, Kellogg's, to 'protect' children from 'unhealthy' influences), his portrayal would be unjustly lampooned. 

Reeves was devoted to being a positive role model for children, and a generation would adore him, a fact that he appreciated, but which offered little comfort as an actor, as he became 'typecast' in the role.

Did he kill himself, or was he murdered? No one will ever really know the truth...

CHRISTOPHER REEVE

The closest in appearance to the comic book 'Superman', 6'4" Christopher Reeve brought sensitivity to the role, and an almost Elfen demeanor to Superman...one could believe he might be an alien who 'adopted' our world to serve as it's defender. Incredibly handsome, but without ego, Reeve not only made you believe a man could fly, but that he really cared for everyone, and would gladly sacrifice his life to save Earth.

His physique changing, over the four "Superman" films (always slender, but far more 'pumped up' in the first two), he conveyed that his strength came from his origins, and not a gym. His flying sequences were ballet-like, and poetic, and a constant joy to watch. 

Reeve's strongest assets were his sincerity, and vulnerability...bullets might not hurt him, but his heart could still be broken. His relationship with Lois was so sweet and gently romantic that, for the first time, onscreen, a romance between the pair was actually believable (Reeves and Neill had shared one 'romantic' dream episode, on TV, but the emotional core was more centered in Neill). Superman became a hero for a new generation, as Christopher Reeve made him a role model to believe in.


However, Reeve's interpretation of 'Clark Kent' has as many detractors as George Reeves had...this time, for swinging too far into the 'geeky' side. With a voice high-pitched and sinus-challenged, slumped shoulders, slicked-to-the-side hair, and a tendency to stammer, Reeve's performance seemed more caricature than real. While Reeves insisted his portrayal was based mostly on himself, and first director Richard Donner would encourage as much separation between 'Kent' and 'Superman' as possible, it would be the one aspect of Reeve's performance that fans have found fault with, over the years.

DEAN CAIN

Dean Cain had very big boots to fill, when he assumed the role of Superman, in "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman", and critics were particularly unkind, in the beginning, criticizing his somewhat ethnic appearance (Cain was part Japanese/Hawaiian), boyishness, and lack of the kind of commanding presence George Reeves and Christopher Reeve had conveyed. What they forgot was that Cain was attempting to 'reinvent' the hero for a more adult audience. The producers wanted an electric chemistry between Cain and his 'Lois', Teri Hatcher, and Reeves' 'authority figure' and Reeve's 'alien innocent' would have been completely inappropriate for the series. Here, Clark's bond with his human foster parents, the Kents, would be a viable, continuing factor, stressing his warmth and humanity, and the mutual physical and emotional passion between Clark and Lois would be something everyone could understand, and relate to. 

Not that Cain couldn't be 'super'; he handled the "Powers and Abilities" end quite effectively, and was certainly the most muscular of the screen Supermen. An underrated actor, he could express a wide range of emotions by simply raising an eyebrow, and could toss off a quip with an ease that George Reeves would have envied. His Superman may have lacked much of the charisma of the previous actors, but it was still a worthy successor.

Cain's 'Clark Kent' was even better; not as preachy as George Reeves, and more confident and likable than either Christopher Reeve or Kirk Alyn's portrayal. He dressed stylishly, could laugh, easily, and was a 'go to' guy you could trust, at the Daily Planet...and the competition, with Lois, for choice assignments and 'status' was reminiscent of the Cary Grant and Tracy/Hepburn movies of the forties. Very successfully conceived, as well as sophisticated, it reflected the growing maturity of society, and the comic books of the nineties. And that Lois and Clark MARRIED was a revolutionary development!

Sadly, the series was cancelled before this new direction could be truly explored... 

Which takes us to Brandon Routh...and his contribution to the legacy, 

 

The young TV 'Soap Opera' alumni, at 26, was cast, in large part, because director Bryan Singer saw a resemblance between Routh and Christopher Reeve, and liked Routh's inherent sweetness, vulnerability, and spirituality. At 6'4", both Routh and Reeve had a commanding presence, onscreen, although Reeve's torso was much closer to the comic book 'Man of Steel', more 'bulked' in the neck and chest, while Routh was thinner, and more defined (a fact emphasized by the 'Speedo'-inspired new uniform). While Routh insisted that he didn't pattern his portrayal after Reeve (even parting his hair on the opposite side, as Superman), the similarities were quite obvious, particularly in the guise of Clark Kent.

 

Singer wanted to stress the alien heritage of Superman, moving away from the more 'human' tendencies Dean Cain (and even Tom Welling, in "Smallville") had showcased, over the previous decade. Routh's dialogue was slashed to a minimum, his expressive face providing the core of his portrayal. This actually would work against him, as audiences had difficulty warming up to a character who seldom  spoke. Nonetheless, the actor ultimately managed to make the character endearing (his repeating his father's words about never being alone, to his sleeping son, is a film highlight). In action sequences, Routh was superb, with a natural grace while flying, and confidence in making the superhuman stunts seem real. While his 'Kent' returned to the geekiness of the Reeve era, he had a puppy-like desire to please that made the reporter far less wimpy. When people laughed at his 'mild-mannered reporter', he would flash such a sweet-natured grin that one couldn't help but feel protective.

 

Much has been made of the romantic story arc between Superman and Lois Lane. I actually didn't feel it was overemphasized; other than Lois' comment, as they flew, of how she'd forgotten how 'warm' he was, there was little, in the way of endearments, between the pair. She clearly had 'moved on' in her life; he suffered, silently, that he'd 'lost' her, particularly as James Marsden, playing her new love, was presented as such a likable person. The romantic triangle between the three should prove interesting in the sequels, if Singer chooses to persue it.

 

In the broad canvas of Superman portrayals,  Routh's interpretation won't have people forgetting Reeves, Reeve, or Cain,  but he shows promise in growing into the role, more fully, in time...and with the huge box office the film has enjoyed, it appears he will get that time!


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