If you were a kid in the 1950s and had a TV, you were probably obsessed with George Reeves’ Superman. But, the story of Reeves’ tragic life and suspicious end were mostly unknown to TV audiences at the time. Studios kept his secret girlfriends and mob connections under wraps to protect his heroic image. But now it’s time to take a look at some startling facts about TV’s Superman.
George Reeves Facts
1. He Grew Up Thinking He Was Italian
George Reeves was born George Keefer Brewer in Iowa in 1914—five months into his parents’ marriage. His dad left the family shortly after and his mother moved with her infant son to California. There she remarried Frank Bessolo, who took young Reeves in and treated him as his own son. In fact, the boy had no idea that Italian Bessolo wasn’t his real father.
For all Reeves knew, he had a normal, happy family life—but all of that was about to be ripped away.
2. His Mother Told Him An Outrageous Lie
Reeves came home from visiting relatives one day and he couldn’t help but notice that his father wasn’t around. Eventually, Reeves’ mother broke the devastating news: Bessolo had taken his own life. Of course, the boy was distraught, but what he didn’t realize was, his mom was hiding a cruel secret. She was lying: They’d simply gotten a divorce. Reeves would only discover the truth years later.
3. He Made A Mind-Blowing Discovery
Teenage Reeves and his mother were cleaning up the attic one day when he found a photograph of a handsome young guy. He asked his mother about it and before she could think to lie, she revealed the truth: The man in the photo was his biological father. Oops. It was “can of worms” time and Reeves found out three things: That he didn’t know his real dad, that his stepfather hadn’t taken his life, and that he definitely wasn’t Italian. Mama mia!
4. He Signed Up For Acting Lessons, But Got Something Better
Once he finished high school, George Reeves enrolled in acting class. While studying at the Pasadena Playhouse, he met and married classmate Ellanora Needles, who came from a family involved in the circus. While his real-life marriage flew under Hollywood’s radar, his on-screen dating was nothing less than epic.
5. He Courted A Legend On Screen
Reeves was lucky enough to appear in the first scene of Gone With the Wind as a suitor of none other than Scarlett O’Hara, but he wasn’t George Reeves yet; he was still going by his stepfather’s name, Bessolo. Reeves played Stuart Tarleton, one of two twins who pursued O’Hara’s hand. You could be forgiven if you didn’t recognize him, though: Warner Brothers made his dye his hair red for the role—but they didn’t stop there.
Next, they asked him to make a more permanent change.
6. Studios Changed His Name
After appearing in Gone With The Wind, Reeves signed on with Warner Brothers, who changed his name from George Bessolo to George Reeves. Luckily they hadn’t finished the credits for Gone With the Wind yet and his name got switched in time. With the name change, the actor was now on his way to stardom—a path that accelerated when producers realized he had profitable acting skill.
7. He Had An Unusual Acting Skill
Reeves got offered a role for a strange reason. In his screen test for the Hopalong Cassidy series of films, Reeves and his scene partner were able to get through seven pages of script in one single take. So he got hired not necessarily for his talent, but instead for the money he’d save producers on doing numerous takes. Because of this skill, he signed on for five Hopalong Cassidy films.
The actor was officially his way—but he had no clue what the movie industry had in store for him.
8. His Wife Had A Wandering Eye
Back then, working as an actor actually usually didn’t pay that well, so times were often tough for Reeves and his wife. Even though they had a good marriage, Needles couldn’t help but look longingly at men who could make more money. The cracks started to show, and then when Reeves lost their cash on an investment, his wife had finally had enough—and she acted with lightning speed.
9. He Got Dumped For A Selfish Reason
Needles took a long look at her husband and saw that Reeves was not only a poor earner, but also not great at investing the little money they did have. The future for the couple looked pretty grim. Needles wasn’t proud of it, but she left him for a richer fella who swept her off her feet. Reeves’ response was heartbreaking.
He couldn’t get over her rejection and refused to even talk about her ever again.
10. He Found A Wife To Replace His Wife
Reeves was hopelessly low on money and facing being a single man for the first time in years. It was at this tragic time in his life that he met Toni Lanier. Lanier was an ex-showgirl and eight years older than Reeves. She’d improved her lot in life by marrying MGM’s general manager Eddie Mannix. It seemed that Lanier was looking for a romantic plaything and Reeves seemed up for the task.
But there was something more than just romance between these two…
11. He Was A Kept Man
Toni Lanier was very generous to Reeves. No gift was too big for her boy toy. She bought him vacations, furniture, cars, and even a house. Rumor had it that Lanier, in effect, “owned” Reeves. Could it be that the future Man of Steel relied on a purse lined with cash? Having a sugar momma was great, but where exactly was all that money coming from?
12. He Was Cheating With The Wrong Fella’s Wife
Lanier’s husband, Eddy Mannix, was actually aware of his wife’s affair with Reeves, and in fact condoned it. But this didn’t mean Mannix was a good person to have on Reeves’ bad side. First off, he was a Hollywood executive, which could have a negative influence on the actor’s career. The second reason was one that could prove fatal, even for Superman.
13. There Was a Mob Connection
Reeves’ girlfriend’s husband worked for MGM as a fixer. Basically, Mannix made the bad things go away when stars got into trouble. To do this, he often had to work with some unsavory characters—usually people in the mob. So even though Mannix was okay with Reeves fooling around with his wife, he was a dangerous man to have around.
The minute something went wrong, the whole twisted situation could blow up in Reeves’ face—and it soon would.
14. He Went On Some Twisted Double Dates
It turns out that, like his wife, Eddie Mannix also had some under the table female company. So why not do the most obvious thing? Go on double dates with your spouse and your flings! Imagine Reeves and Lanier going out with Lanier’s husband and his girlfriend. Can you say awkward? And sometimes these dates turned into something even more.
15. He Wasn’t Worthy Of First Class
Double dates with Mannix and Lanier soon turned into vacations. To the casual observer, these trips looked fairly innocent: The Mannixes traveling with friends. But the sordid reality was in who was in whose hotel room. In spite of the relationship anarchy, there was a rule: Mannix and Lanier flew first class while the playthings sat back in coach. But soon Reeves would be flying by his own steam.
16. He Landed A Super Role
Film roles started drying up for Reeves and he soon had to consider roles on TV. Reeves quickly got an offer to play comic strip hero Superman. Today, that would be the chance of a lifetime—back then? Not so much. Most artists still viewed television as the inferior medium to the big screen, so Reeves hesitated. But even with Lanier’s money, times were tough, so Reeves reluctantly agreed to appear as the lead character in The Adventures of Superman.
I don’t have to tell you, but it changed his life forever.
17. He Wasn’t Quite The Real Deal
Reeves got the role of Superman in part because he looked the part of the comic book hero. Thanks to some time spent boxing in his youth, Reeves cut a mean figure—but it wasn’t enough for his producers. Showrunners apparently thought their Superman needed to look a little extra buff, so they stuffed Reeves’ costume with padding to make his chest worthy of the “S.”
If you ever wondered why the old Man of Steel looked a little…soft, there you have it.
18. He Hid His True Self
Even though it wasn’t the most glamorous gig, Reeves knew that young fans looked up to Superman, and he took his position as a role model seriously. This means he was always aware of his behavior when he was around fans—which was almost all the time. Reeves only smoked out of eyeshot of fans and eventually quit the habit—all for the show. But what about his unconventional love life? That was his biggest secret.
19. He Kept His Girlfriend Under Wraps
Now that Reeves was a celebrity, he was careful to keep his relationship with Lanier a secret. How would it look to fans if they knew that their beloved Superman was a kept man, fooling around with a married ex-showgirl? The connections to the mob wouldn’t do him any favors either. Reeves was obsessed with pleasing his young fans and to him, Lanier didn’t fit in with his image.
But there were more worrisome details about Lainer that Reeves didn’t even know about.
20. He Was Dating A Human Vulture
Reeves’ girlfriend, Toni Lanier, had an unsettling habit of waiting around for people to die. She waited for her husband’s first wife to die before marrying him. Then she hooked up with Reeves and told him that she was waiting for her husband to die so she could marry Reeves. It makes you wonder who she’d be waiting to die next? We’ll soon find out it may have been Reeves himself—unless a fan got to him first.
21. A Fan Threatened His Life
Once The Adventures of Superman was on the air, the public went wild for Reeves. In fact, he sometimes found himself surrounded by up to 20,000 fans—mostly children. They absolutely adored their invincible hero—but that put Reeves in some terrifying situations. Because his character had super strength, young fans jabbed him with pins and punched him in the stomach to see if he was the real deal.
One lovely tot even pointed a loaded .38 at him. To the kids, he was Superman. The problem was, it wasn’t just the kids who saw him that way.
22. He Caused A Commotion In Theaters
Before becoming Superman, Reeves had a supporting role in Best Picture Oscar winner From Here to Eternity. The film came out after The Adventures of Superman had started airing, so audiences watching the prestige film were constantly shouting “There’s Superman!” whenever Reeves would come on the screen. The character of Superman was now making it almost impossible for Reeves to play other roles—and it started to take its toll.
23. He Wasn’t Exactly Proud
Reeves was very realistic about the work he was doing on The Adventures of Superman. When Phyllis Coates came on board to play Lois Lane, he took her to his dressing room, poured her a martini, and said, “Well, Phyllis, welcome to the bottom of the barrel.” Hey, I wouldn’t complain about a job where you can drink a martini at work.
24. He Had A Bizarre And Fiery Ritual
Superman seemed like a blessing at first, but by this point, it felt like a curse. The role didn’t challenge Reeves as an actor, it brought him no respect from his peers, and it didn’t even pay that well to boot! In fact, Reeves so hated playing Superman that he created a dark ritual for the end of every season. After 13 weeks of portraying the Man of Steel, Reeves would strip off his costume and set it ablaze.
The role was slowly but surely destroying his career—and it even destroyed his personal life.
25. He Was Through With Being Super
Consorting with the wealthy Mannix and Lanier reminded Reeves how small his salary was. He was 40 years old, playing a guy in tights and a cape, and getting financial support from his rich girlfriend—and her husband. Reeves wanted to stand on his own two feet. He told the studio he was moving on to other things, and they reluctantly started looking for his replacement.
But quitting the role of Superman would take a lot more than superhuman strength.
26. He Slipped Back Into His Tights
Reeves attempted to create his own project, a TV show called Port of Entry, but when the producers of The Adventures of Superman offered him more money, Reeves took the sure thing. Port of Entry never happened and Reeves returned back with an “S” on his chest—hopefully not standing for schmuck. But Reeves hadn’t totally given up on his dreams.
27. He Had More Than X-Ray Vision
Reeves ached to get even further away from his superhero character and desperately wanted a chance to show fans a different side of him. He jumped at the opportunity to appear on crooner Tony Bennet’s show. Instead of showing off his superhuman strength, he treated his fans to his super harmonies. I wonder how that went down with 12-year-old boys? I’m guessing it was a big meh.
28. He Got A Call From A Comedy Legend
Reeves was still trying to distance himself from Superman, but when famed comedian Lucille Ball asks you to get back into your cape and tights, you do it at lightning speed. Ball wanted Reeves to play Superman in an episode of her show I Love Lucy where Lucy needs the Man of Steel to appear at her son’s birthday. This truly was a shark-jumping moment for the character—within a year, the studio had canceled The Adventures of Superman.
29. He Dumped His Sugar Mama
All this time, Reeves had been carrying on his affair with married and rich Toni Lanier, but he eventually reached his breaking point. Reeves was finally through with keeping his love life from the public eye and with being a kept man. He dropped Lanier in 1958 and looked for romance elsewhere. We’ll soon see why dumping Lanier and finding a new girl was the beginning of the end for Reeves.
30. He Found A New Girlfriend In Lightning Speed
Reeves became engaged almost immediately after breaking it off with Lanier. His fiancee was American socialite Leonore Lemmon, who had quite the past. Before Reeves, she’d married a “penniless” Vanderbilt—if that’s even a thing—for all of eight days, then moved onto another quick marriage to a musician. Many people called her a party girl and a gold digger; although there wasn’t much gold to mine when it came to Reeves.
Regardless, if she did indeed marry Reeves for his money, she got a whole lot more than she bargained for.
31. He Was The Focus Of A Fatal Attraction
Long before Glenn Close boiled a pet rabbit to get back her man, there was Toni Lanier. After his break up with Lanier, Reeves’ life took a twisted turn. First, there were the predictable silent phone calls, but things got scary when someone abducted Reeves’s beloved pet dog. Reeves could bet money—if he had any—that it was Lanier, but he had no proof.
Things were getting pretty bad for George Reeves—and they were about to get so much worse.
32. He Drove Himself To Tragedy
Reeves was driving his car one day when he got into a terrible car accident. His memory of the frightening incident wasn’t great, but he did recall that he was unable to stop his car in time before impact. Reeves survived the crash with minor injuries and took his car to the repair shop. What the mechanic told Reeves must’ve made his blood run cold.
33. His Accident Wasn’t So Accidental
When Reeves had fully recovered from his injuries, he was ready to drive again. According to some reports, he went back to the repair shop—and made a shocking discovery. The mechanic told him that someone had cut his brake lines, turning his car into a weapon on wheels. That was the last straw: Reeves had to stop Lanier before something even worse happened. But would he be able to do it in time?
34. He Kept His Ex At Arm’s Length
Reeves couldn’t prove that Lanier was behind the phone calls, dog abduction, and cut brake lines, but he had to do something. He managed to convince authorities that Lanier was a threat and took out a restraining order against her. But did Reeves really think that a flimsy piece of paper was enough to save him from this real-life femme fatale?
35. He Was Walking On Eggshells
Tensions were running high in the days leading to Reeves’ wedding to his party girl fiancee Leonore Lemon. Reeves had managed to keep Lanier out of the picture with the restraining order, but was Lanier going to give up so easily? And what about her mob-connected husband Mannix? He couldn’t have been too happy about the way Reeves had dumped his wife.
Reeves was certainly stressed to the max—and all his fears came together on a night a few days before the wedding.
36. He Found A Stranger In His House
Reeves and Lemon went out to dinner to celebrate their upcoming wedding and came back to Reeves’ home. Maybe it was the recent attempt on his life, but Reeves wasn’t in a great mood and went upstairs to bed, leaving Lemmon downstairs drinking with a houseguest, Robert Condon. A few hours later, when Reeves came back downstairs, he found the party had expanded to include neighbor Carol Van Ronkel and someone Reeves didn’t know: William Bliss.
The night was already miserable for Reeves—but you can bet it was going to get a whole lot worse.
37. His Last Moments Came With Narration
Reeves was in a foul mood, so he left the partiers to their drinking and went back up to bed. According to reports from that night, as he climbed the stairs, Lemmon ominously announced that Reeves was going to kill himself. The drinkers then heard a drawer slide open upstairs, and Lemmon said that Reeves was getting a pistol. Then Lemmon said: “He is going to shoot himself.” The next thing they heard was a deafening bang.
38. The Shot Barely Stopped the Party
After the loud bang from Reeves’ bedroom, for some reason nobody did anything. His fiancee, his houseguest, and his neighbor all just continued to party. Eventually, it was William Bliss, a stranger to Reeves, who went upstairs to check on the star. Doesn’t it seem strange that someone who didn’t even know Reeves was the only one concerned enough to check on him? Sure that’s odd—but whatever his reasoning, what Bliss found was absolutely sickening.
39. They Found Him On His Bed
Bliss called the authorities and they found Reeves up in his bedroom lying face up on his bed. He had no clothes on and suffered a fatal wound to his head. They also saw a pistol between his feet. It looked like a self-inflicted wound and they quickly deemed the case closed. But weren’t there four people right downstairs when it happened? What did they have to say?
40. The Witnesses Couldn’t Remember Anything
The drinkers downstairs weren’t much help when it came to giving accounts of what happened on Reeves’ final night. They were simply too intoxicated to relate a coherent story. But that’s not even the suspicious part. Strangely, officers only asked a few questions before letting the partiers leave—even though a murderer may have been among them. And that wasn’t the only gaping hole in this investigation.
41. His Body Arrived In A Strange State
There were more than a few odd occurrences that implicated the authorities in a cover-up of Reeves’ murder. The most glaring is that the actor’s body arrived at the coroner’s office completely clean. Great, except the best way to confirm a self-inflicted firearm wound is to check for gunpowder residue. It seemed that nothing was normal about this case. But was it due to human error—or something more sinister?
42. His House Was Full Of Bullet Holes
For some reason, detectives working on the Reeves case didn’t find it strange that there were bullet holes in walls around his house. They seemed to simply believe Lemmon’s outrageous statement that she had previously shot at Reeves during an argument. Wouldn’t that at least make her a suspect? But there were more incriminating points against Lemmon.
43. A Suspect Crossed A Line
Reeves’ home had a seal on it like any murder scene would. But somehow officers allowed Reeves’ fiancee to break the seal and walk on in. Lemmon not only entered their house, but managed to leave with $4,000 dollars in traveler’s checks. When officers asked, Lemmon said Reeves had gotten them for their honeymoon—though no one else could corroborate her story. She then took off to New York and never returned.
44. There Were The Usual Suspects
There’s more than one theory that points Reeves’ demise from taking his own life to murder. Suspect number one is Lanier’s husband Mannix. Remember, as a notorious Hollywood fixer, Mannix could cover up just about any misdeed. In addition, he adored his wife Lanier and, even though they had an open relationship, would take care of anyone who harmed her. But how could he shoot Reeves if he wasn’t at the house?
45. A Stranger Was There At The End
William Bliss arrived at Reeves’ house the night of his murder. He had a very tenuous relationship with the drinkers downstairs and no tie to Reeves. Many speculate that Bliss was at the house as a hired hitman, sent by Mannix to get back at Reeves for dumping his wife. Either Bliss did it himself or he distracted the drinkers while someone else did it for him. But was Mannix at the reins or was it someone else?
46. Did He Die For Dumping The Wrong Girl?
Suspect number two is Toni Lanier. As a spurned lover she certainly had the motive and she must have known some of her husband’s strong-arm men for hire. Also, Reeves had recently taken out a restraining order against her, maybe pushing her over the edge? There was no shortage of suspects or clues, but the authorities weren’t budging on their own pet theory.
47. Another Shocking Detail Surfaced
Years later the mysterious William Bliss—the stranger at the party—may have decided to come forward with a revealing story. He allegedly told a friend that on the last night of Reeves’ life, when the shot rang out upstairs, Reeves’ fiancee Lemmon wasn’t downstairs with the partiers, but upstairs with the actor. Right after they heard the shot, Lemmon came down and said: “I was down here, tell them I was down here.”
So, case closed? Not so fast. We’ve still got a couple more twists and turns to go.
48. There Was A Startling Deathbed Confession
Decades after Reeves’ demise there was yet another startling revelation. Beverly Hills publicist, Edward Lozzi, told tabloid TV show Extra in 1999 that he had witnessed a confession. Toni Lanier was close to the end of her life and she was afraid of facing the devil for her sins. Lozzi claimed she told her priest that she arranged for Reeves’ murder. In this version, his end was simple revenge—he’d betrayed the wrong girl.
49. His Murder Inspired A Film
The story of Reeves’ demise has so fascinated the public that a 2006 movie, starring Ben Affleck and Adrien Brodie, tried to answer the puzzling questions associated with his life. Hollywoodland points to three distinct theories: An accident, a mob-style hit, and actually taking his own life. Unfortunately for us, the case remains a mystery.
50. He Was Part Of A Curse
Reeves’ tragic end sadly isn’t that unique. The curse on actors who play Superman is infamous. The most notable example, aside from George, is another Reeve(s): Christopher Reeve, who played Superman in four films in the 1970s and 80s. Reeve fell off his horse and became paralyzed from the neck down. He eventually passed due to complications of his condition at 52 years old.
51. He Received Posthumous Accolades
In 1960, Reeves received his Hollywood Walk of Fame Star for his work in television. He also was one of the honorees by DC Comics in their 50th-anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great. Sadly, we never got to see what more this super man had to contribute to TV and film.