The Mysterious Death of George Reeves--suicide or murder?
The life and death of George Reeves
Whenever a celebrity dies under strange or suspicious circumstances, there will inevitably be years of endless speculation about what really happened. Even if it’s ruled an accident or suicide, there will always be doubt in some people’s minds about whether or not it was murder. Marilyn Monroe, Thelma Todd and others who have been found dead without witnesses to their demise have been topics of murder conspiracy theories.
One of the most popular and persistent of these ‘Was-it-a-murder-or-not’ celebrity deaths was the story of George Reeves, whose life ended at 45, due to a gunshot wound to the head. The question has been asked over and over, even since that day in 1959…Did Reeves commit suicide or was he murdered?
George Reeves started his acting career in a big way in 1939, appearing in Gone With the Wind, the most profitable film of its time and still considered one of the greatest ever. He played one of the Tarleton Brothers. He continued to work steadily for the next few years, and got critical acclaim for his appearance in So Proudly We Hail. The director of that film, Mark Sandrich, thought Reeves had the looks and charisma to be a leading man and had planned to champion Reeve’s career, hoping to turn him into “the next Clark Gable”
The plan was derailed in 1943, when Reeves was inducted in the army to fight in WW2. He ended up doing army training films. When he returned after the war, his mentor Sandrich died unexpectedly. Reeves had lost his access to the fast track. He was now lost among the throngs of returning actors, trying to resume their careers after the war. He took some temporary work on Broadway in a show sponsored by the Air force called Winged Victory. By the time the stage show ended, and he tried to get back into movies, Reeves was a forgotten man in Hollywood.
He spent the next five years struggling to find work in low-budget B-pictures and kiddie serials like The Adventures of Sir Galahad. Reeves was depressed and disappointed at the downward spiral his once-promising career had taken.
Reeves began a romance with society girl Toni Mannix, the wife of MGM Vice-President Eddie Mannix. Eddie and Toni Mannix had an open-marriage and were allowed to see other people. Toni fell in love with Reeves and even bought him a house.
Reeves was offered the role of Superman in a low-budget film Superman vs. the Mole Men, (1950) which was meant to be a test run for a potential weekly Superman television series. Reeves was reluctant to take the role, not considering it a serious acting part, but he needed the money, so he took the part. The film did well enough to lead to a series and Reeves became the star of The Adventures of Superman show in 1951.
The show became a big hit, especially with younger viewers. Reeves became a national celebrity. He even appeared as himself in an episode of I Love Lucy. He began doing live Superman shows around the country, and appearing in commercials (As Superman.)
Although the show was popular, Reeves’ salary was relatively low for a TV star. He was reportedly not happy with the quality of the scripts which he considered simplistic and juvenile. He wanted to bring more depth to the character of Superman/Clark Kent but he was over-ruled. He was angry at being stuck playing a one-dimensional comic book character. Worse still, Reeves had a clause in his contract that said he couldn’t take other work while he was under contract to do Superman. Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen on the series, claimed that Reeves once said, ‘If Mark (Sandrich) hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be in this monkey suit.”
By the mid-1950s, Reeves was in his forties, and was fed-up with the Superman series. He felt his career was slipping away along with his youth and that he would never get the chance to recapture the success he’d come so close to before the war. Although he took his image as a role model very seriously (He was careful never to do anything in public that would tarnish his image or disappoint his young fans) he was trying to get out of his contract. He was actually very happy when the series was put on indefinite hiatus after seven years, because of raising production costs and dipping ratings. In 1958, he was free of Superman. Or so he thought.
Reeves found it hard to escape the curse of type-casting. No one saw him as anything else but Superman. He tried to raise the funds to star in his own Independent sci-fi film, but the project never materialized.
Around this time, Reeves broke up with Toni Mannix, and hooked up with a younger woman named Lenore Lemmon. Mannix reportedly took the break-up very hard. Reeves and Lemmon were living together in the house that Mannix had bought for Reeves.
ABC planned to bring the Superman series back on the air. Reeves, unable to find work, reluctantly agreed to return to the role again, although he negotiated a big salary increase for the proposed eighth season.
On June 16th, 1959, Reeves and Lemmon had just returned home after a night out with three friends; William Bliss, Robert Condon and Carol Van Ronkel. Reeves said he was tired and had a headache, so he excused himself to bed at 9:30. The other four had a party downstairs that apparently got rather loud. Reeves came downstairs and got into an argument with Lemmon for her rudeness. The friends calmed him down and he stayed with them for a while, playing his guitar, and then went back upstairs alone after midnight. There was a gunshot at around 1:00am. The police received a phone call from Lemmon at about 1:45 and arrived at the scene at 2:00. Reeves was lying dead on his bed, from a gunshot wound to the temple. His was lying on his back, feet on the floor, with the gun lying next to him.
The guests were questioned and an examination of the body was done. The official ruling was Death by Suicide.
There are some unusual or circumstantial facts which have led many to believe that Reeve’s death was not suicide.
Fact One: Several people had a motive to kill him.
Toni Mannix, a very rich woman with many important connections, was reportedly very angry and bitter about being dumped. Also, her husband Eddie Mannix was rumored to have mob connections. Beyond that, some friends of Reeves say that he was planning to call off the wedding to Lemmon and he was afraid how she would take it. All three are potential suspects.
Fact Two: the car accident.
George Reeves had a car accident about a month before he died. His brake line was broken and he hit a tree. It may have been damaged by fluke chance or it could have been cut deliberately.
Fact Three: Where was Lemmon?
The testimony of Lenore Lemmon and the three guests placed her in the living room when the shot was fired. However, third party sources have claimed that Bliss and Condon confided to them that Lemmon was upstairs with Reeves when the shot was heard. These statement are off the record and unconfirmed.
Fact Four: The time discrepancy.
Everyone present agreed that they heard the gunshot at 1:00am, but they didn’t call the police until 45 minutes later. They blamed that fact that they were intoxicated and scared, and therefore delayed in calling the police.
Fact Five: The shell casing.
A shell casing was found on the bed, under Reeve’s body. Some people think it could only have gotten there if someone had moved him and placed him on the bed. However, police experts say it’s possible there was enough bounce when he fell backwards on the bed for the shell to have rolled underneath him.
Fact Six: No prints on the gun.
Reeves’ finger prints were not on the murder weapon. However, forensics professionals say that the gun was too heavily coated in gun-oil for finger prints to be present. (Also unusual was the fact that the police didn’t test Reeve’s hand for powder residue. Apparently, it wasn’t standard procedure for a suicide in the LAPD at the time.)
Fact Seven: The two extra bullet holes.
An investigation found that there were two extra bullet holes in the floor of Reeve’s room. That seemed to indicate that it wasn’t a suicide. However, Lemmon says that the holes were made several months earlier when they drunkenly caused the gun to accidentally discharge.
Fact Eight: The depression issue.
The suicide theory depends on Reeves’ reported depression. Some say that he was so depressed from his failed career and his bad relationship with Lemmon. However, others who knew him well, like Jack Larson and Reeves’ mother, adamantly maintain that Reeves was not especially depressed and was not the type to commit suicide.
It’s likely that we’ll never know what happened that night. No matter what further evidence may come to light, I doubt it will convince everyone. The mystery of George Reeves' death will continue to be a lightning-rod for theories and speculation.
What do you think?