June 16, 1959, George Reeves, an actor known for playing Clark Kent and Superman in the television series The Adventures of Superman, was shot to death in his Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles home. While authorities ruled his death a suicide, the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death suggest the on-screen superhero met his end at the hands of a feisty fiancée, a scorned ex-lover or a studio fixer with mob ties.
Despite the show’s popularity and his own international fame, George hated being a television actor from the moment he was cast and was hard on himself for not being able to land major roles in films. At the time, serious film actors scoffed at the idea of appearing on TV. Crushed by the overwhelming feeling of failure, George’s relationships with the three people he’s closest to – Leonore Lemmon, Toni Mannix and Eddie Mannix -- deteriorated. But was it enough to drive one of them to murder?
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter Roy and Wenndy Mackenzie revisit the life of the actor behind Superman and give characterizations of the three main suspects in his tragic death.
Leonore Lemmon and her party guests try to keep quiet so her fiancée George Reeves can sleep upstairs. But they accidently break a glass, which sends him running down the stairs. The couple gets into a heated spat, during which Leonore makes a cruel jab at George’s acting skills and breaks household items bought by his former lover. Not wanting to put up with her drunken antics, George says goodnight to the guests and trudges back up the stairs.
Leonore gives uncanny commentary to the sounds coming from his room – she claims it is George pulling a gun out of his drawer and putting it to his head. When there is a pause, she calls him a coward for not having the guts to kill himself. A moment later, they hear a gunshot.
Eight years earlier, on one of the first days of filming The Adventures of Superman, George meets an actress visiting the set named Toni Mannix. She is married to Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer rumored to have mob-ties. Employed to clean up any scandals that could be tied back to the studio or its stars, he has friends on both sides of the law and is one of the most intimidating men in Hollywood.
Despite her married status, George and Toni hit it off, and they are quite open about their extra-marital affair. Eddie Mannix surprisingly likes George and gives the affair his blessing. They even go on vacations together. The Mannixes also financially support George’s celebrity lifestyle, including buying and decorating a home for him in Benedict Canyon. Toni throws George a housewarming party, which Eddie good-naturedly attends. He compliments Toni’s interior design choices and talks amicably with George.
At a publicity appearance for a crowd of young fans, a little boy with a gun wants to prove George is really the “Man of Steel” by shooting him to see the bullets ricochet off his suit. Masterfully keeping in character, despite being terrified out of his mind, George gets the boy to hand over the gun. He tells the boy that, being Superman, he won’t get hurt, but the ricocheting bullets would seriously harm those in the crowd.
Although filming for The Adventures of Superman began in 1951, the series didn’t air until two years later. Some think its premiere destroyed George’s chances of becoming a serious film actor. During the two-year gap, he plays a part in From Here to Eternity, a melodrama destined to become a classic. By the time the film reaches the previews, he is already typecast a superhero for a children’s television program, and the producers cut his parts from the film. George never plays a role other than Superman again.
After filming wraps up in 1957 for the last season of The Adventures of Superman, George is unable to find work. He becomes depressed, and his relationship with Toni Mannix deteriorates.
In the fall of 1958, George meets Leonore Lemmon, a wild New York socialite, at a rowdy sports bar. Notorious for her fiery, short temper and willingness to brawl, Leonore had been kicked out of every other joint in town by the time they met. After seeing each other for eight months, George asks Leonore to marry him and breaks off his relationship with Toni. Toni is upset and promises George that he will regret leaving her.
Leonore moves in with George, and the spring before his death, strange things begin to happen. In the span of three months, he is almost killed in three separate automobile accidents. In one, he couldn’t stop because the brake fluid had drained from his car’s hydraulic system.
Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories show hosts Carter and Wenndy think the “accidents” have Eddie Mannix written all over them. Prior to his marriage to Toni, Eddie’s first wife mysteriously died in a car accident that seemed suspiciously like a cover-up for murder.
The mechanic who looks at George’s car tells him that the brake fluid had to be drained on purpose, yet George doesn’t believe anyone has it out for him. Arthur Weissman, on the other hand – a close friend and business manager – is absolutely convinced Eddie Mannix is trying to kill him. George thinks Eddie would have killed him a long time ago if he wanted him dead.
George begins receiving twenty or more mysterious phone calls to his private line every day. Most are hang-ups, but after a few include death threats, he files a report with the Beverly Hills Police Department and a complaint with the Los Angeles DA’s office. George believes the caller is Toni, but when the DA’s office investigates, they learn that Toni receives similar calls. One theory Carter and Wenndy present is that Eddie was punishing George for breaking Toni’s heart. Another is that the calls to Toni were a ruse, and she was using Eddie’s underground contacts to get back at George herself.
Around 1:00 a.m. on the night George died, William Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel drop by for a nightcap. The other person present is Robert Condon, who is staying over to gather material for an autobiography he’s ghostwriting for prizefighter Archie Moore. In three days, George is scheduled to make a public appearance as Superman in a boxing match against Archie.
Robert is in bed by the time William and Carol arrive. The noise they make compels George to come downstairs, and he argues with Leonore. Afterwards, he returns to his room, and Leonore eerily predicts that he is going to shoot himself just moments before a gunshot rings throughout the house.
Was it suicide? An accident? Or something far more sinister? Stay tuned for next week’s episode of Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories when William Bliss discovers the body of George Reeves.