The Baffling Death Of George Reeves, The ‘Original Superman’ Who Some Believe Was Murdered

Published March 9, 2024

Police ruled George Reeves' death in June 1959 a suicide, but a series of suspicious events surrounding the incident led some people to point a finger at the actor's fiancee — or even the Mafia.

George Reeves Death

Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock PhotoGeorge Reeves’ death under suspicious circumstances came just a year after the hit TV series Adventures of Superman ended.

On June 16, 1959, actress Phyllis Coates woke up around 4:30 a.m. to a very strange phone call. The person on the other end of the line was a woman named Toni Mannix. She sounded very disturbed and was hyperventilating as she rasped, “The boy is dead. He’s been murdered.” This kind of phone call would not have been out of the ordinary for Lois Lane, the character Coates famously played on TV. But not even Lane could have imagined that Mannix was referring to the death of George Reeves, the “Original Superman.”

The 45-year-old actor had been known across the nation as Superman for eight years, but while some may have considered the hero to be a dream role, rumors of a “Superman Curse” began with Reeves’ own career. Dissatisfied with the one-dimensional character and his low salary, Reeves had grown tired of the job. What’s more, he was struggling with several relationships in his personal life.

Because of this, it was widely assumed at the time that the former Superman had died by suicide — but some people speculated that George Reeves was murdered.

George Reeves’ Life Before Superman

George Reeves was born George Keefer Brewer on Jan. 5, 1914, in Woolstock, Iowa. His parents broke up when he was still an infant, and young George was raised by his mother in Illinois.

Reeves never had a relationship with his father after the split, but his mother eventually married a man named Frank Bessolo, who adopted Reeves when he was 13.

George Reeves first started acting in high school and later went on to attend Pasadena Junior College. It was in Pasadena that Reeves met his first wife, Ellanora Needles. The two married in September 1940 but divorced a decade later.

A year before his marriage to Needles, Reeves landed his first big film role, though it was a small part. He appeared in the opening scene of Gone with the Wind alongside Fred Crane as Stuart Tarleton, one of the twin suitors of Scarlett O’Hara.

George Reeves In Gone With The Wind

ARCHIVIO GBB / Alamy Stock PhotoGeorge Reeves as Stuart Tarleton (right) alongside Fred Crane and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.

This marked a turning point in Reeves’ career as an actor, and he soon began to appear in a number of B-list movies while working to establish a name for himself. Then, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered World War II, and Reeves landed a starring role in the war film So Proudly We Hail!

The following year, Reeves was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, where he joined the theatrical unit. He played a role in the Army’s Broadway show Winged Victory before going on to appear in training films.

Unfortunately, when Reeves was discharged at the end of the war, he struggled to reach the same heights he had been on the precipice of approaching before he was drafted — and he grew desperate.

How George Reeves Became The ‘Original Superman’

Reeves returned from the war unharmed, dedicating himself more than ever before to making it as an actor. However, Hollywood was struggling to recover in this new post-war era, and Reeves and many actors struggled along with it.

Then, Reeves was offered the role of Superman — but he was hesitant.

Today, landing a role as the Man of Steel might be the peak of an actor’s career, but in the early 1950s, superheroes weren’t held in the same regard, and neither was television. Much of Hollywood’s money, fame, and glory was reserved for actors on the silver screen.

The Original Superman

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty ImagesPhyllis Coates and George Reeves in Adventures of Superman.

Reeves had no doubt that the show would be popular, but the series was mainly meant to appeal to children. He worried that he wouldn’t be taken seriously as an actor if he played the role, but he accepted the offer anyway.

Why? “I was hungry,” as he said in a June 1958 interview published in The Tampa Times.

The ‘Superman Curse’ That Effectively Ended Reeves’ Career

Unfortunately, Reeves was correct in assuming that people wouldn’t regard him as a serious actor, and he struggled to find work outside of Adventures of Superman. To make matters worse, he wasn’t exactly being paid well.

In fact, Reeves attempted to leave the show after its second season, which netted him a raise, but it still wasn’t enough to make a comfortable living. Plus, the amount of time he had to dedicate to the series made it hard to showcase his talents anywhere else.

Christopher Reeve

Wikimedia CommonsGeorge Reeves was the first victim of the alleged “Superman Curse” that affected later portrayers of the hero like Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed when he fell from a horse.

In 1953, he did manage to land another role in a film called From Here to Eternity — only for test audiences to laugh and yell, “There’s Superman!” when Reeves’ character appeared.

Reeves was eventually freed from his role as Superman in 1958 when, after six seasons, the show was canceled. But by then, the damage to his career was done — and matters in his personal life seemed to be taking a toll on him, as well.

The Mystery Behind George Reeves’ Death

Reeves had, for the better part of three years, been engaged in an affair with actress Toni Mannix — the wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix, who was also purported to have connections to the Mob. In a strange twist on the classic tale of a jilted lover, Eddie Mannix had no issues with his wife’s relationship with Reeves. After all, he was having plenty of affairs himself.

Reeves, however, had become infatuated with another woman, Leonore Lemmon, and he put an end to his relationship with Toni, breaking her heart.

But Reeves’ relationship with Lemmon was anything but perfect. They had plans to get married after just six months of dating, but Lemmon found herself disappointed that TV’s Superman wasn’t the wealthy Hollywood star she had expected him to be. The two drank a lot and bickered even more.

George Reeves And Richard Keith

RGR Collection / Alamy Stock PhotoGeorge Reeves and Richard Keith on the set of I Love Lucy.

On the night of George Reeves’ death, the actor and Lemmon had gone out for a drink. They returned home around 11 p.m., and Reeves went to bed shortly after. However, Lemmon continued the party with the writer Robert Condon, who had been staying with them, and two other friends. At 1 a.m., Reeves stomped downstairs to yell at the guests for being too loud.

As Reeves returned to his room, Lemmon bizarrely began providing some morbid commentary. “He’s going upstairs to shoot himself,” she explained to her friends, according to the Daily Beast. They then heard a sound from the bedroom. “See, he’s opening the drawer to get the gun,” Lemmon claimed. Finally, a single shot rang out. “I told you, he’s shot himself.”

Nobody called the police for 45 minutes, and when they did arrive on the scene, Lemmon told them she had been “only kidding” when she made her strange remarks. Investigators found George Reeves upstairs on his bed, with a Luger on the floor and a bullet hole in his head.

The police ruled the death a suicide, but by the time Reeves’ obituary was published in the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper was already noting there was “an element of mystery” to his demise.

Reeves’ mother refused to believe her son had killed himself and hired famous Hollywood lawyer Jerry Giesler to investigate further. Giesler called for a second autopsy. The police had never checked Reeves’ fingers for residue to see if he pulled the trigger, nor did they count the number of bullets remaining in the gun. There were also bruises on Reeves’ head and body. However, these injuries were never investigated, and Giesler strangely stepped down from the case early on.

Giesler had been paid a hefty sum, so why did he suddenly drop the case? Perhaps he came a little too close to the truth. In reality, George Reeves’ life was a far cry from that of his heroic television counterpart.

Although the power of the large Hollywood studios was waning by the 1950s, it’s possible Eddie Mannix still wielded enough influence to order the death of George Reeves at his wife’s behest.

Superman Serving Food

Wikimedia CommonsGeorge Reeves in costume a year before his death.

Or, perhaps, Toni took matters into her own hands and simply had her husband cover it up. After all, it was she who had made the early morning phone call to Coates before anyone outside of Reeves’ home could have known about his death.

Regardless of the plausibility of these theories, it’s likely that the identity of whoever fired the bullet that killed the Man of Steel will remain a mystery.


After learning about George Reeves’ death, read about the gruesome and unsolved murder of the Black Dahlia. Then check out 48 photos that capture vintage Hollywood.

author
Gina Dimuro
author
A graduate of New York University, Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.
editor
Cara Johnson
editor
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.