65 Years of ‘Super’ Stars

A look back at the six actors who played Superman in movies and TV

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The Men Who Wore the Cape

HENRY CAVILL as Superman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “MAN OF STEEL,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Warner Bros.

Unless you’ve spent the last year holed up in a Fortress of Solitude, you’re likely aware of a new Superman movie coming to cineplexes this summer. This latest cinematic re-interpretation of the visitor-from-Krypton myth, Man of Steel (in theaters June 14), stars Henry Cavill, the caped fellow in the photo above, and is directed by Zack Snyder, the geek auteur behind 300 and Watchmen.

The movie is also the subject of a story in the latest issue of TIME. For his behind-the-scenes feature, senior writer Lev Grossman interviewed Cavill and castmates Amy Adams (who plays Lois Lane) and Michael Shannon (the evil General Zod). Grossman also talked with the director — who had the considerable challenge of updating Superman for the 2013 world — and offered this observation:

The film’s most startling shots are those in which Snyder reimagines the iconic image of Superman in flight. Snyder gives him a vapor trail, like a de-orbiting space-shuttle, and he makes the camera appear to have a hard time keeping Superman in focus…Where Christopher Reeve played Superman with the winning, bemused confidence that comes with the knowledge that one lifted a truck as a baby, Cavill gives Superman an air of injured curiosity: he’s smarting at being misunderstood, but still hopeful that humanity will one day accept him.

Not only that, but movie’s impending release gives us an opportunity to present this gallery featuring the six actors who have played Superman in movies and on television.

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Kirk Alyn – The Original Hero

SUPERMAN, (Serial), Kirk Alyn, 1948.
                                                                                                                                                    Everett

He wore the cape in:
Two 15-part film serials — Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)

Before he played Superman…
Alyn was a song-and-dance man who performed in vaudeville and in
supporting roles on Broadway

His super-antagonists:
Spider Lady in the first series; Lex Luthor (a.k.a. Atom Man) in the second

What he brought to the role:
The serials in which he starred were made on the (very) cheap, but were buoyed
by Alyn’s game (if often wooden) performance.

How he “flew”:
Cartoon animation was often used, though in later episodes a camera,
placed on its side, would capture Alyn standing, arms outstretched,
with a wind machine blowing in his face.

Super-bonus trivia:
Alyn and Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the serials, have a brief cameo
(as young Lois’ parents) in the 1978 movie Superman.

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George Reeves – The TV Hero

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, George Reeves, 1951-57

Everett

He wore the cape in:
The film Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
and the television series Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)

Before he played Superman…
Reeves was a struggling actor whose first screen credit was a bit part
(as one of Scarlett O’Hara’s suitors) in Gone with the Wind

His super-antagonists:
A sizable rogue’s gallery, which ranged from gangsters and thugs
(in the noir-ish first season) to the evil geniuses, foreign agents,
and killer robots that populated later episodes.

What he brought to the role:
Reeves, an easygoing on-set prankster (whose violent death in 1959
is still shrouded in mystery), popularized the Superman-Clark Kent
duality we recognize today.

How he “flew”:
Numerous effects were utilized, including wires and rear-screen projection
(in which Reeves, laying on his belly, was filmed in front of aerial footage).
Scenes of Superman taking flight were achieved by having Reeves leap
onto — and off — an out-of-frame springboard.

Super-bonus trivia:
Reeves took very seriously his responsibility as role model to America’s
youth – the long-time smoker would extinguish his cigarettes whenever
he made appearance in front of kids.

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Christopher Reeve — The Gentleman Hero

SUPERMAN, Christopher Reeve, 1978.
                                                                                                                      Warner Brothers / Everett

He wore the cape in:
Superman (1978), Superman II  (1980), Superman III (1983),
and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Before he played Superman…
Reeve was a Juilliard-trained actor who, in addition to work on stages in
New York and Europe, had a three-year stint on a soap opera called Love of Life

His super-antagonists:
Lex Luthor (first two movies), a corrupted version of himself (Superman III),
and “Nuclear Man” (Superman IV)

What he brought to the role:
Reeve went for a contemporary interpretation, one that would show
“gentleness and vulnerability.” His Clark Kent (which he based on
Cary Grant) and Superman were more aligned in temperament
than was seen in previous portrayals.

How he “flew”:
Though still a good decade before Hollywood’s digital age,
the effects in Superman were state-of-the-art and included wire rigs,
mattes (in which Reeves was filmed against a blue-screen
with footage added later), and front projection.

Super-bonus trivia:
Prior to production, the 6-foot 4-inch Reeve (who would become a quadriplegic
after a 1995 horse-riding accident) was a self-described “skinny WASP.”
He added 30 pounds of muscle through a 2-month training regimen
supervised by David Prowse (the bodybuilder who played
Darth Vader in the Star Wars films).

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Dean Cain — The Romantic Hero

LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, Dean Cain, 1993-1997.
                                                                                                                     Warner Bros. / Everett

He wore the cape in:
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997)

Before he played Superman…
Cain was a student-athlete (who dated Brooke Shields while getting his BA
at Princeton) — after an injury cut short a pro football career, Cain turned to acting

His super-antagonist:
Lex Luthor

What he brought to the role:
As fit the concept of the TV show, in which the superhero identity
was secondary, his Clark Kent was anything but “mild-mannered”—and every
bit the equal of the series’ post-feminist Lois Lane (played by Teri Hatcher).

How he “flew”:
A limited number of “practical” effects were used, but this Superman
(and others that followed) was given flight through the
power of computer-generated imagery (CGI)

Super-bonus trivia:
Like Kirk Alyn, Cain made an appearance in another Superman franchise,
playing an immortal doctor in a 2007 episode of Smallville

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Tom Welling — The Small-Town Hero

SMALLVILLE, Tom Welling, Metallo, (Season 9, ep. 902, aired Oct. 2, 2009), 2001-2011.
                                                                                                    Jack Rowand / Warner Brothers Television / Everett

He wore the cape in:
Smallville (2001-2011)

Before he played Superman…
Welling was an athlete-turned–model who turned to acting
as a means of self-expression

His super-antagonist:
Lex Luthor (who begins the series as Clark’s friend)

What he brought to the role:
The biggest obstacles faced by Welling’s youthful Superman—never shown in
costume—were the kind familiar to any high schooler blessed with super powers.

How he “flew”:
The series was conceived as an extended origins tale — throughout
the show’s 10-year run, the producers (mostly)
adhered to a “no tights, no flights” policy.

Super-bonus trivia:
Welling, never a fan of the comic-book series that inspired his show,
made a conscious decision to not read any Superman comic books
while the show was in production.

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Brandon Routh — The Forgettable Hero

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                                                                                                                                 Everett

He wore the cape in:
Superman Returns (2006)

Before he played Superman…
Routh was a model and would-be writer who was signed by a talent manager
for his close resemblance to Christopher Reeve

His super-antagonist:
Lex Luthor

What he brought to the role:
A capable actor (who demonstrated some comedic chops in Scott vs. the World),
Routh turned in a strangely muted performance: his Superman-Clark Kent
didn’t advance either character in any real way

How he “flew”:
Computer magic

Super-bonus trivia:
Routh was raised in the small town of Norwalk,Iowa –
a short 100 miles from the birthplace of George Reeves

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Click here to read Lev Grossman’s full story on Man of Steel, available exclusively for TIME subscribers.

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