Superman Through the Ages



  •   forum   •   THIS WEEK'S CHAPTER: "THE ARRIVALS!" •   fortress   •  

"This is the perfect time for the release of a new Superman film," the smiling gentleman states.  "After all, we're living in a scientific age.  Space travel is becoming more and more commonplace.  It's only natural that we bring back a series that features an alien from another planet, since we're visiting planets ourselves."

The speaker is Kirk Alyn and if he seems a bit prejudiced in favor of the new Superman–The Movie release, he has good reason.  Back in the 1940s, Kirk Alyn was Superman.  In 1948 he became the first actor ever to portray The Man of Steel on the silver screen. Following a successful series of cartoons and a smash radio show, Columbia Pictures lensed a serial called Superman, starring Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent/Superman.  The serial proved such a box-office hit that, in 1950, a second cliffhanger, Atom Man vs. Superman, was released, again featuring Kirk Alyn.

Following those superhero days, the actor has busied himself with TV commercial work.  These days, however, his thoughts are once again focused on Metropolis because of the new, widescreen Superman motion picture"I'm in the movie," he says proudly.  "I play the father of Lois Lane when she is nine years old.  Noel Neill, who played the old Lois Lane in the TV show and the serial, is also in the picture.  She plays Lois' mother.  I guess that makes us Ma and Pa Lane."

The serial star is clearly pleased with The Man of Steel's update.  "Basically, they're sticking very much to the storyline of the original version," he says.  "They're playing it absolutely straight.  They're not spoofing it at all.  I'm glad they're doing it that way, otherwise it would offend a good many people who enjoyed the original series.  I've read the new script very carefully.  It's extremely good.  As for the special effects, they'll revolutionize the industry.  They will far outdo the likes of Star Wars and Close Encounters."

Appearing in the Superman motion picture has stirred up quite a few fond memories for Alyn.  "It was great fun playing Superman," he recalls.  "When I was a little child, my father never let me play cops and robbers. Now, there I was playing Superman.  I was getting it all out of my system.  It was marvelous."

Without too much prodding, the genial actor recalls how he fell into The Man of Steel role.  After a successful career as a New York stage actor/dancer, Alyn journeyed to Hollywood to seek his fortune in films.  "I had done about six films for Sam Katzman, the man who was going to produce Superman.  One day, he called and asked me if I'd like to do Superman.  I had never heard of it and didn't know what he was talking about.  'Is it a movie or a publicity stunt?'

"He told me it was a motion picture and if I was interested to go down to the studio right away and meet a couple of guys from the National Comics Syndicate.  They wanted to approve the guy who was going to play Superman on the screen.  When I got down there, they stared at me and said, 'Yeah, he looks like Clark Kent, but let's see what he looks like with his shirt off.' Fortunately, I was in good shape at the time.  'Kirk,' the guy said, 'take your pants off.'

"I was shocked.  'Now, wait a minute...' I began.  'Look, Kirk,' he said, 'you're gonna have to wear tights in the movie.  I have to see what your legs look like.'  The entire audition took about 15 minutes.  Sam told me to go downstairs and sign the contract.  When I got downstairs, a girl told me that they had auditioned 125 guys in the last two weeks.  'You mean I'm not the first one Sam called?' I winced.

"I found out later that I got the part because I looked the most like Clark Kent.  That must have helped a great deal.  That and the fact that a lot of the guys they interviewed could barely speak English; a lot of Greek wrestlers, fighters and big muscle men.  They must have gotten so tired of looking at those people that when I walked in they said, 'For cryin' out loud, sign him up, he's all right.'"

Once assigned the role of Metropolis' most celebrated citizen, Alyn found that his dancing career (which included the study of ballet) helped him in his crime-fighting duties.  "I had to do all my own stunts," he says.  "And the strong dancer's legs helped me a great deal.  I didn't need a trampoline to help me get off the ground.  And I did it gracefully! Being Superman, I had to do everything gracefully, because everything was supposed to be easy for him.  If I leaped off the top of a building, I had to land gracefully.  I couldn't land flat on my feet the way a stunt man would do it.

"They tried using a stunt man stand-in for me in the beginning, but once they previewed the rushes, they decided that the audience would never believe this guy was me.  He didn't look like me, move like me, or act like me.  So they asked me if I minded doing the stunts myself. I said, 'Sure, I'll do 'em.'  That's where all the fun was anyway."

As shooting progressed, Alyn found that his idea of fun and the studio's idea of fun weren't exactly compatible in terms of chuckles.  "There were several times when they forgot I was an actor," he grimaces, "when they thought I really was Superman.  I would pick people up, leap off cliffs, break things with my hands.  And you don't do those things in just one take.  You rehearse them four or five times.  Then you shoot the scene two or three more times until you get it right.  Well, it takes an awful lot of strength to do those things in a manner that's really convincing. My ballet training came in handy.

"I never got injured, but I damn near got killed.  Now, you might wonder how that's possible.  Well, in one scene, I was positioned 18 inches away from a railroad track with a train barreling by at 90 miles an hour.  Now, if you don't think that's scary, nothing is.  If the slightest thing had gone wrong, it would have been all over for me.

"It was a very dangerous scene to shoot.  I was supposed to be holding the track in place so the train could zoom by safely.  I had to hold it long enough for the train to pass.  And the train never slowed down.  Moreover, I had to pose for the cameras at just the right angle.  Fortunately, the train whizzed by me before I knew what was happening."

Alyn nearly had to change his name to Hercules during the rigors of serial work to perform some of The Man of Steel's other feats of skill.  "It was rough," the actor states.  "I carried real people around in various scenes–not dummies.  Of course, everyone assumed they were dummies, but they weren't.

"In one bit, I was supposed to turn in to a flaming building, pick up these two people and carry them off to safety.  Well, I picked each one up in a different arm.  We did a couple of takes, but for one reason or another, they had to shoot the scene several times.  After a while, our director, Spencer Bennet, came over to me and said, 'That was good, Kirk, except I saw the veins in your neck puff out a little bit.  You seem to be straining.' 'Dammit Spence,' I said, 'this is about the eighth time we've shot this scene.  You try to carry real people eight times.  They're not dummies, you know.'  He got totally flustered.  'Oh, jeez.  You're not supposed to carry the real people!  Where are the mannequins?  Bring out the dummies!'"

When not running, jumping, or smashing things, Superman spent his onscreen time flying; a task which presented some truly unique problems for novice alien Alyn.  "They used some animation in my flying scenes, especially when I was shown flying at a distance.  I would do the actual takeoff, at which point we would cut and the animation would take over.

"We also used wires... then again, we didn't.  At first, the special-effects department talked the producer into thinking that we could opaque the wires and light the scene in such a manner that you would never see the wires on the screen.  So, we proceeded with that formula.  They made me a breast plate, which I put on underneath my costume.  The necessary wires were then attached to the plate.  Boy, was that murder!  It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in show business.

"You don't know what it's like trying to hold your legs up in the air for nearly eight hours.  My neck hurt, my back hurt, my stomach hurt, everything hurt.  The day after we shot the scene, we looked at the rushes.  You could see every wire just as plain as you could see me! The producer hit the ceiling!  He fired everybody connected with the operation.  The next day we went into a special-effects studio, where I stood on the floor in front of a blue cyclorama, in order to convey the illusion of a sky.  I stood there, with fans above my head blowing straight down at me.  Smoke pots were set up in front of the fans so it would look like clouds were whizzing past me.  I looked straight up, with my arms raised, while the camera was turned on its side in order to create a flying effect."

After the two serials, Alyn was beginning to sense that his career as Superman was artistically a dead-end.  "When they shot the second serial, they discussed the possibility of a television series with me.  The casting director asked me if I wanted to do the TV version, but in a manner that discouraged me from doing it.  You know, 'Kirk, now we can't pay you a lot, and we don't know if it will catch on or not, and...'  So I said, 'Well, if you don't know how it will do, then there's no use prolonging the agony.  I've got enough troubles anyway.  I'm going back to New York.'"

As it turned out, the phenomenally successful Superman serials paved the way for an equally popular Superman show starring the most famous Man of Steel ever, George Reeves.

Alyn returned to New York.  "The fact that I had played Superman wasn't a problem.  Everyone remembered me from my earlier days in New York.  When I went back, the same casting directors were there, the same agencies were there, the same studio people were there.  As a result, when I walked into the offices, it was like old home week.  I started where I left off."

These days, Alyn is once again immeshed in Supermania.  Deluged with daily fan mail, he has just written an autobiographical look at his Man of Steel days entitled A Job for Superman, and his appearance in the new film is sure to please his legions of stalwart fans.

"I was delighted to do the new film," he says, grinning. "You know, as I look at Superman today, I can see how important those films were to American audiences.  In fact, when Superman comics came out, they practically revolutionized the comic book industry of the 1930s. Before Superman, we never had any comic book heroes other than cowboys and detectives.  Now, all of a sudden, we were bringing men to Earth from outer space.  Many comics tried to imitate him, but they never really succeeded.  The kids went crazy over Superman... and they have never stopped going crazy."

Reflecting on his historical appearances as The Master of Metropolis, Alyn flashes a heroic, thoughtful look, not unlike the expression used by ace reporter Clark Kent while timing a Superman entrance.  "You know, if I were given the chance, I'd do it all over again.  The money wasn't much.  It was mostly a labor of love, but today especially, I'd relish the chance to play Superman.  The role has taken on a special importance.  It's a vital part of Americana.  It's an exciting role, a challenging role, a fulfilling role."

Standing next to a poster from Atom Man vs. Superman, the tall, gray-haired actor sighs.  "Sure, I would love to do it again."

Buy the Serial! Kirk Alyn's Phone Booth! Buy the 2nd Serial!
Entrance ·  Origin ·  K-Metal ·  The Living Legend ·  About the Comics ·  Novels ·  Encyclopaedia ·  The Screen ·  Costumes ·  Read Comics Online ·  Trophy Room ·  Creators ·  ES!M ·  Fans ·  Multimedia ·  Community ·  Supply Depot ·  Gift Shop ·  Guest Book ·  Contact & Credits ·  Links ·  Coming Attractions ·  Free E-mail ·  Forum

Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
The LIVING LEGENDS of SUPERMAN! Adventures of Superman Volume 1!
Return to SUPERMAN THROUGH THE AGES!
The Complete Supply Depot for all your Superman needs!