Who killed Superman? An enduring Hollywood mystery
Eddie Mannix is portrayed as a swell guy in the hit movie 'Hail, Caesar!' but in 1950s Hollywood, he was a feared man... and the owner of the gun that killed superhero TV actor George Reeves. Gaby Woods looks back at an enduring mystery
Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30
The hero of the latest Coen Brothers film, Hail, Caesar!, is a cinephile's joke. Named Eddie Mannix (and played by Josh Brolin), he runs a Hollywood studio that looks much like MGM did in the 1940s. He's a decent, dependable guy - when not smoothing over scandals among the stars, he's at home for a meal with his sweet-natured wife.
Although many of Hail, Caesar!'s more unlikely set-ups are based on fact - foul-mouthed swimming stars, actors adopting their own illegitimate children and studio staff taking the rap for celebrity murders - this fictional Eddie Mannix is more or less the opposite of the real-life figure whose name he bears.
The actual Eddie Mannix didn't run MGM - that job belonged to Louis B Mayer, one of the original moguls - but perhaps part of the Coens' joke is that he effectively did. Mannix was general manager and vice-president of MGM.
Vice president, people liked to say, could be taken two ways: Mannix, a tough guy from New Jersey, was the studio's president of vice - its direct line to the Mob. Nicknamed "the bulldog", he was one of a duo of "fixers" at MGM: Howard Strickling, the studio's head of publicity, was the tactical mind behind every story that emerged about the stars; Mannix was the muscle. Strickling fed the press, Mannix fed the police. Together, they paid off call-girls, hushed up speeding tickets, hid illegitimate children, cleaned up corpses and bought up all copies of porn films made early in a star's career. "I spent my whole life inventing cover-ups," Strickling once told a friend. If Mannix had any crises of conscience, history has not recorded them.
But perhaps in all the time he worked at MGM, from the 1920s to the 1960s, no scandal was more convoluted, sinister or lastingly open-ended than the one in which Mannix himself was an unofficial suspect. In this story, Mannix does more than run a movie studio: he is a match for Superman.
In the early hours of June 16, 1959, two police officers arrived at 1579 Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles. They found a few drunken house guests and a body on a bed, shot through the head by a bullet that had left a hole in the ceiling and its casing beneath the victim's back. The Luger lay between his feet, which were still on the floor, as if he'd been sitting on the edge of the bed before falling back. He was naked, a burly 6ft 2in, and his blood was spreading across the sheets beneath him like a billowing red cape.
It didn't take officers long to identify the deceased as George Reeves, the 45-year-old actor who had become famous for playing the only bulletproof character on television: Superman.
Though Superman - as played by Reeves on echoing sets and in black and white - had become one of the most adored figures in America, the actor himself had always railed against the role. Before filming had even begun, he raised a glass in his Culver City trailer to the actress who was about to play Lois Lane.
"Here's to the bottom of the barrel, babe," he said, then held up production daily while he slept off the booze.
Reeves had been classically trained at the Pasadena Playhouse, as had Robert Mitchum and William Holden, and he'd made his big-screen debut in Gone with the Wind. He'd also shot a gangster film with James Cagney and a romance with Claudette Colbert. He'd worked twice with Fritz Lang - indeed, another actor might have felt sharing the credits of Rancho Notorious with Marlene Dietrich was enough for one career. But Reeves felt he was cut out for greater things, and attempted to preserve his matinee-idol dignity in this pioneering small-screen role.
While the Superman of the original comics had incredible strength, X-ray vision, a bulletproof body and the capacity for supersonic flight, his everyday incarnation, Clark Kent, was a bumbling fool. Not so in the TV series. Reeves refused to play the "mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper" as an idiot, surreptitiously transforming the story in the process. Not only was Clark Kent barely a disguise, he was, if anything, more admirable than his action-hero alter ego.
As Clark, Reeves wore a double-breasted suit and round, black-rimmed glasses with no lenses (they would have interfered with the lighting on set). He was well-built, with dyed slicked-back hair and a jaw so reassuringly strong it threatened to take over his mouth until he smiled and revealed, in close-up, perfect teeth.
As Superman, he wore a boiled-wool number that crinkled around his crotch; he would get so hot under the lights he lost up to 10lbs a day in sweat. Clark was practical. Superman was ludicrous. In the mid-1950s, this was something few people noticed.
At first, Superman went out at 8.30pm, and its plots were dark and violent, featuring conmen and kidnappers. It soon had to be adapted, because the audience turned out not to be hardened consumers of pulp fiction, but children, and the new storylines were played for laughs. The 104 episodes of Superman that aired from 1953 onwards were watched by 91pc of American households with children under 12 - by which time, Reeves's humiliation was complete. Reeves played Superman for a full third of his professional life. Kellogg's, which sponsored the show, forced him to make personal appearances, at which he would be mobbed by up to 20,000 children. Initially, he did these in his Superman costume, but when a small boy approached him holding his father's gun and asked to see if bullets really would bounce off him, Reeves refused to appear in the suit. Other children tried to emulate him. Reeves started doing "safety tours", during which he would give lectures to children explaining that it was impossible for humans to fly.
Filming on Superman began in 1951, but it didn't go out until 1953, and for Reeves, the two-year gap was critical. Before the series aired, he had played a part in From Here to Eternity, the post-war film starring Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster that would later be deemed a classic. By the time From Here to Eternity previewed, Superman was everywhere. The producers, it's said, thought Reeves's fame as a kids' TV character skewed their movie. They cut his part altogether before the film was released in August 1953, and Reeves never played anything other than Superman again. The last season wrapped in 1957, and by 1959 Reeves had been out of work for two years - unmoored, overweight, and typecast to death.
So who, exactly, was responsible for the events of June 16, 1959? Here are some of the things people said might have happened that night:
* Depressed by his lack of work, caged by his fame, and disappointed that a planned celebrity boxing tour had sold so few tickets that it'd been cancelled, Reeves committed suicide;
* Reeves, who tended to walk around his house naked, liked to play with guns and kept a Luger by his bed, died during a solo game of Russian roulette. (The fact that this is not possible with the kind of gun in question did nothing to stop rumours);
* A car accident that had almost killed him two months earlier had left Reeves brain damaged. High on the painkillers he took as a result, Reeves shot himself in the head;
* His girlfriend of eight months, the hell-raising New York society girl Leonore Lemmon, killed him during an argument;
* His spurned lover, Toni Mannix, who owned the house in Benedict Canyon, entered after midnight and shot him in a jealous rage;
* Toni Mannix's husband, Eddie, had Reeves killed because the actor had upset his wife;
* Toni Mannix had Reeves murdered using Eddie's underworld contacts; Eddie hushed it up.
In the days and years since, each of these theories has found supporters. Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberg's 1996 book Hollywood Kryptonite gathered the evidence and imagined the scene. The book became the basis for Hollywoodland, a film in which Reeves was played by Ben Affleck.
Everyone present told the two LAPD officers that Reeves had been depressed - they agreed on that straight away, this house full of near-strangers.
When word got out that Lemmon had predicted his death, many wondered why she had done nothing to stop it, and then she changed her story. She hadn't said that. She had said nothing. Either way, the police called it a suicide, and the body was removed. No one dusted for fingerprints. No one worried about tampering with evidence because it was not a crime scene. The gun, which was registered to Mannix, was oiled, devoid of fingerprints, and no one looked inside to see how many rounds had been fired or when. The body was washed and embalmed. None of the three coroners who eventually conducted an autopsy checked Reeves's fingers for residue to see if he had fired the gun himself, and no one investigated his wounds to see whether the distance the bullet had travelled before it made contact with his skull was greater than the length of his arm.
Though there is an inherent glamour in the demise of an invincible superhero, the presence of Toni Mannix in the story is what gives Reeves's death a frightening heft. Sleeping with the wife of one of the most dangerous men in Hollywood was playing with fire to such a degree that perhaps only Superman would dare to do it.
George Reeves and Toni Mannix had been lovers for a decade. She was seven years older than him, a former New York showgirl who had been spotted by Mannix in a line-up of Ziegfeld girls. She had a haughty accent and a generous manner. She wore white gloves and referred to Reeves as "the boy". Mickey Cohen, the West Coast's leading mobster, once said Toni Mannix was the only person in Hollywood who had any balls.
By 1959, Eddie was in a wheelchair, and had had several heart attacks. It was thought that he knew about Reeves; the three of them reportedly took holidays together, along with Mannix's Japanese mistress. Their friends later said Reeves and Toni planned to marry after Mannix's death.
When Reeves returned from a trip to New York in early 1959 with Lemmon in tow, he ended his affair with Toni and left her, by all accounts, desolate. She owned the house in Benedict Canyon, and she had decorated it herself. She couldn't believe he had installed another woman there. Revenge - if you can call it that - took the form of repeated silent phone calls in the middle of the night, surveillance by Toni Mannix herself from a parked car on the opposite side of the street and, possibly, the abduction and elimination of Reeves's dog.
But there's a problem with the theory that Mannix was trying to engineer a cover-up: the gun. In any other situation, the fact that the weapon was registered in Mannix's name would be incriminating. But Mannix, of all people, would not have left his own gun at the scene of the crime. The error is so amateurish that it almost proves his innocence.
The weapon was simply a little awkward, like the fact that Toni Mannix still paid Reeves's restaurant and liquor-store bills. It all added up to the same: everything Reeves had (house, car, gun, alcohol, food) belonged to Toni Mannix, and everything Toni Mannix owned was paid for with Eddie Mannix's money. She could always say - and she did - that Reeves "was like a son to Mr Mannix and me".
Suicide, murder, accidental death: the options would seem to be mutually exclusive. But what if the theories about Reeves's end don't actually contradict each other? After all, you don't need an intrigue, or suspicions of a cover-up, to know that he died as a result of these combined forces: fame as much as failure, heroism versus humanity, lies and alcohol, love, glamour, and powerful friends. Whether he killed himself or died on someone else's orders, Reeves's life was already a lethal cocktail.
© Daily Telegraph