Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But even Superman—or at least the actors who have played him—haven’t been able to escape one of Hollywood’s most legendary curses. This year the Man of Steel turns 80, and through the decades it has become apparent that a number of people who portrayed the character have fallen upon serious misfortune—from career washouts to untimely deaths.
Kirk Alyn was the first actor to portray the iconic crimefighter, starring in two 15-episode film serials for Columbia Studios starting in 1948: Superman and Atom Man vs. Superman. Having begun his career as a chorus boy and then on Vaudeville, he worked his way up through the acting ranks until a co-starring role in a Republic Studios serial gave him a big break. Studio executives from Columbia Pictures viewing it took note of the actor’s resemblance to Clark Kent, and soon cast him as the mild-mannered reporter. But since Alyn wasn’t well-known, the studio kept his name out of the credits as Superman.
After playing the Man of Steel for three years, he couldn’t shake his Superman image or parlay that role into a larger, more varied career. Because audiences had trouble picturing him as other characters, he only scored small roles in B pictures. “Playing Superman ruined my acting career,” Alyn said later. “I was bitter for many years.” He even saw his cameo role as Lois Lane’s father cut from the 1978 film version. In his final years he struggled with Alzheimer’s disease and died in relative obscurity.
George Reeves, the first television Superman, starred as the bulletproof do-gooder in both a 1951 film and the “Adventures of Superman” TV show that ran for six years starting in 1952. The hugely popular show made Reeves—who started his film career with a bit part in Gone With the Wind—into a household name. However, like Alyn before him, he had a hard time shaking his superhero image. Test audiences responded negatively to his appearance in the classic WWII film From Here to Eternity because they had a hard time picturing Superman at war. After five successful seasons, “Superman” was canceled in 1958 and Reeves struggled to find work afterward.
On June 16, 1959, the actor was found dead in his bedroom during a party at his house. The cause: a gunshot wound to the head. The police ruled his death a suicide, but the testimonies of drunken guests and the inconclusiveness of physical evidence led to murder rumors. Many pointed to his complicated relationship Toni Mannix, common-law wife of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s general manager and notorious studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix, as a possible cause. Reeves was only 45 years old. Neither Mannix nor his wife was ever charged, and the mystery remains one of Hollywood’s most enduring, inspiring the 2006 film Hollywoodland.
After classical acting training at Cornell University and the renowned Juilliard School, Christopher Reeve performed in multiple roles on stage and screen before landing his iconic film role in 1978’s Superman and its three sequels. Unlike previous actors who had embodied the man from Krypton, Reeve was able to land roles outside the action genre—including in literary adaptations such as The Bostonians and Anna Karenina—and maintain a relatively solid career.
He was even able to continue acting after his tragic accident in 1995. Reeve was an avid horseman and was competing in an equestrian event when he was thrown from his mount and suffered a broken neck. The accident left the actor a lifelong quadriplegic, dependent on a respirator. In true superhero style, though, he didn’t let the accident slow him down too much. He continued to act and became a vocal advocate for those suffering from paralysis. But despite having beaten the odds and even regained some feeling in his limbs, Reeve died from pneumonia, a complication of his condition, at the age of 52.
Lee John Quigley was cast as Superman at the tender age of seven months, appearing alongside Marlon Brando in the 1978 movie as his infant son Kal-El, who would be rocketed to Earth from the planet Krypton moments before its destruction. While he wasn’t on screen for very long, Quigley’s brief appearance gave him the distinction of being the youngest actor to play Superman—and the first non-American. It would be his only film role. He died tragically due to complications from solvent abuse at age 14.
Some say the so-called Superman curse has afflicted other actors connected with the franchise, as well. Marlon Brando, who played Superman’s alien father Jor-El, endured family tragedy when his son was convicted for killing his daughter’s fiancé and his daughter committed suicide. Richard Pryor, who played a computer hacker in Superman III, lit himself on fire during a drug binge and later developed multiple sclerosis. And Margot Kidder, who played the plucky Lois Lane, went on to suffer from bipolar disorder and addiction, causing havoc in her life and derailing her career.
Of course, many argue that the original curse was visited upon the hero’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They sold the rights to the character early on for a mere $130 to the precursor company to DC Comics and then spent the rest of their lives trying to recover legal ownership of the gold mine that was Superman. Ironically, the original $130 check sold at auction in 2012 for $160,000.