A look at every live action Superman

16 mins read

The cultural impact of superheroes can be felt everywhere. Their iconic nature and heroic humanity makes them positive role models. Their very nature inspires greatness. This is true for the character that started it all, Superman.

Since his debut in Action Comics no. 1 in 1938, Superman’s rippling significant effects has caused a title wave of characters. Much of his success is thanks to professional portrayals that convinced citizens of the planet that there truly was a Superman in their midsts. The following is a list celebrating those who brought the Man of Steel to life. Including near misses, in person actors/models and iconic actors, our following list tells of Superman’s never-ending fateful journey from page to real life.

From blockbuster hits, to failed take offs, coincidences, tenacity and chance encounters all have built up to the character we know and love. Superman has been a symbol of truth and justice for nearly a century.

This article was inspired by Let’s talk Max Mercury’s Twitter thread.

Ray Middleton – 1939 New York World’s Fair

The New York World’s Fair, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s presidential inauguration, was a momentous occasion for New Yorkers and for the world, attracting around 45 million visitors over its two seasons in 1939 and 1940. The Expo was also a remarkable event for fans of superheroes, as it staged the first ever appearance of Superman. Previously confined to comic books and radio shows, it was on July, 3 1940 that visitors could come to the Expo and see the superhero in the flesh for the very first time.

Mayo Kaan – Fleischer Studios model for the original Superman shorts

Mayo Kaan stood in as a character model for Superman cartoon shorts in the 1940’s. The Fleischer Superman cartoons are a series of 17 animated short films released by Paramount Pictures. The series marked the first ever appearance of an animated Superman title. 

The shorts were originally produced by Fleischer Studios, who completed the initial short and eight further cartoons in 1941 and 1942. Production was resumed in May 1942 by Famous Studios, a successor company to Fleischer, who produced eight more cartoons in 1942 and 1943.

In November, 1997 Kaan placed several advertisements in various newspapers and magazines claiming to be the original model for the debut of Superman in comics. His ad said people willing to pay as much as $1,000 could share in the ”historic first-ever release” of original photograph reproductions taken of Kaan allegedly modeling for artists creating the series. Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster debunked these allegations.

Fleischer Superman cartoon “The Arctic Giant,” featuring the first appearance of the Daily Planet Globe (1942).

Kirk Alyn – Superman serials

Kirk Alyn is credited as the first actor to portray the Man of Steel in live action. The actor portrayed the iconic comic book character in two separate Superman serials, “Superman” and “Atom Man vs. Superman,” released during 1948 and 1950 respectively.

Alyn’s first performance as the man of steel is seen in “Superman,” (1948) where the last son of an advanced civilization comes to Earth as a child and grows up to be Earth’s first superhero. Faced with his first major challenge, Superman faces the villainous Spider Lady all while rescuing reporter Lois Lane.

After the serials ended Alyn wasn’t able to sustain a successful film career and, after playing small parts in a few movies, retired to Arizona. Following the sudden, unexpected death of George Reeves, the star of Adventures of Superman (1952), producers considered replacing the late icon with Alyn. The plan never materialized and the popular Reeves series was abruptly ended.

George Reeves – Superman & The Mole Men, Adventures of Superman (TV series)

American Actor George Reeves is probably one of the better known performers to take on the iconic mantle of Superman. Reeve’s first played the comic book character in the 1951 film “Superman & The Mole Men” and later went on to play the Metropolis Marvel for six years in the popular television series “Adventures of Superman.” (1952-1958)

For many, George Reeves was Superman. He made guest appearances, most notably on “I Love Lucy’s” Lucy and Superman episode, posed with fans of all ages and represented the character in life. Unfortunately, Reeves died from a gunshot wound at 45. His death remains a controversial subject with the official finding being suicide. Some believe that he was murdered or was the victim of an accidental shooting.

Even though George shares a similar last name as Superman Icon Christopher Reeve, the two are not related.

Johnny Rockwell – The Adventures of Superboy (unaired TV pilot)

Johnny Rockwell was the first to star as Superboy in the unaired pilot for 1961’s “Adventures of Superboy.” The unaired pilot’s plot revolved around Jimmy, a friend to Clark Kent and Lana Lang, being ashamed of his father’s job. Jimmy’s opinion quickly changes when Superboy is able to thwart a robbery with his father’s help. 

“The Adventures of Superboy” was to be a potential live-action television series that never materialized. The episode was directed by George Blairwith a script written by Vernon E. Clark and Whitney Ellsworth. It would’ve featured the first television appearance of Superboy and Lana Lang.

Only a pilot episode, “Rajah’s Ransom,” was produced, although 12 additional scripts had been prepared, however the series was not picked up by any network so production halted.

Bob Holiday – It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman! (Broadway musical)

“It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman” was a 1966 musical composed by Charles Strouse, with lyrics by Lee Adams and book by David Newman and Robert Benton. Actor Bob Holiday was the first to portray the character in such a format.

While the show’s original Broadway debut was well-reviewed, it did not catch on with audiences. Closing after three and a half months and costing an unprecedented $600,000 the show was, at the time, Broadway’s biggest flop.

The plot revolved around Superman’s efforts to defeat Dr. Abner Sedgwick, a ten-time Nobel Prize-losing scientist seeking vengeance for the scientific world’s dismissal of his brilliance by attempting to destroy the world’s symbol of good. Additionally, Superman comes into conflict with Max Mencken, a columnist for the Daily Planet, who resents Lois Lane’s attraction to Superman and later teams up with Sedgwick to destroy Superman. The play was reformatted for a TV special in 1975.

A song from the original musical.

David Wilson – It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman (TV special)

Advertised as the funniest superhero story ever in 1975, this TV adaptation of the campy 1960’s Broadway musical about the Man of Steel, his friends, his enemies and his self-image problems provided a funky and interesting take on the hero.

This show was based on the failed Broadway musical of the same name which closed after only 123 performances. The special was an attempt to make some of the money back that was lost due to the stage show’s lackluster performance but few people saw it as it aired at 11:30 p.m. (EDT) and was never rerun.

Wilson, 71, is the eldest surviving actor to have played the Man of Steel. Bob Holiday, the original Broadway Superman, was older but died in 2017 at 85.

Tayfun Demir – The Return of Superman

Tayfun Demir is the first non-American born actor to take on the mantle of Superman. This brief almost fan made movie was shot in the span of a week during winter, the shortest Superman production to date.

Also known as Süpermen Dönüyor, “The Return of Superman” saw a Turkish man of steel born out of a Christmas ornaments-filled heaven fight the mob in order to save the day. Christmas ornaments were literally utilized as stand-ins for planets and stars.

After a mysterious prologue in the Christmas tree ornaments-filled “starscape,” Turkish Clark Kent is told by his parents that he is an Alien and he must leave to accomplish his destiny. They give him a green gem which he takes into a nearby cave. Soon after, Jor-El appears and reveals to Clark that he is Superman.

A preview for Süpermen Dönüyor

Christopher Reeve – Superman Saga

Christopher Reeve is the defining Superman for entire generations and was the first actor to portray Superman in a block buster movie. Reeve played Clark Kent in Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.

Historically speaking, 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” was the dawn of superhero cinema. Reeve went on to portray the red caped wonder in three follow up sequels. In total, Reeve played Superman for nearly a decade, ending his run in 1987’s “Superman: The Quest for Peace,” second only to Tom Welling who portrayed Clark Kent for 10 years and Superman for 10 minutes. Statistically speaking, Reeve holds the title for longest run as Superman.

Like today’s superhero stars, Reeve underwent a strict bodybuilding regime to obtain the musculature to convincingly play Superman. The actor was supervised by David Prowse, the man who played Darth Vader in the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

Reeve’s loved playing Superman and took the role very seriously. He also recognized the responsibility and accepted the mantle of playing a hero with great fortitude.

According to Actor/Producer Roger Moore’s autobiography, he once witnessed Christopher Reeve walking through the canteen at Pinewood Studios in full Superman costume. Like Superman, Reeve was oblivious to the swooning female admirers he left in his wake. When he did the same thing dressed as Clark Kent, no one paid any attention. His performance as both Superman and Clark Kent was roundly praised in making the superhero’s secret identity seem surprisingly convincing.

Christopher Reeve proved to be an even greater asset than anticipated after being cast. Reeve flew gliders as a hobby and used his experience as a pilot to make Superman’s flying feel more realistic.

On May 27, 1995, Reeve was paralyzed from the shoulders down after being thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition. After his accident, Reeve turned to creative work and charitable endeavors. He also made recurring appearances on the hit CW series, Smallville. Christopher Reeve died on Oct. 10, 2004. He was 52.

John Haymes Newton – Superboy

John Haymes Newton was the first actor to portray college aged Superboy in the series that went by the same name. Newton played Superboy for one year during the shows first season.

Newton was a victim of the drastic cast changes that took place between seasons and was replaced by Gerard Christopher in the role for the remainder of the show’s run.

In 2011, Newton and his wife Jennifer lent their voices as Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane in the animated fan film “Superman Classic” by veteran animator Robb Pratt.

Gerard Christopher – Superboy

Cast to replace John Haymes Newton in 1989 for the series, Superboy, Gerard Christopher went on to play the titular character until the show ended in 1992.

Christopher was 30 years old when he made his debut as the lead in Superboy, making him older than Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Brandon Routh, Henry Cavill and Tyler Hoechlin when they made their respective debuts as Superman.

Interestingly enough, the actor was chosen to play Superman in “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (1993-1997), until the producer who hired him read his acting resume and discovered that he had previously starred in Superboy in 1988-1992.

According to Christopher, the producer said, “You’ve done this already, I want someone who hasn’t acted before!” He was then dismissed from the room and the role was given to Dean Cain.

Later in the series actor Ron Ely played an older version of Superboy but was never called Superman. His appearance resembled that of his late father, Jor-El.

Ron Ely as an aged Clark Kent/Kal-el

Nicolas Cage – Superman Lives (Scrapped Movie)

Nicolas Cage was set to play Superman in a scrapped Superman title proposed to be directed by Tim Burton. Superman Lives (previously titled Superman Reborn) was the title for the canceled Superman movie which intended to film during the 1990s.

The story would’ve feature Brainiac, Lex Luthor and Doomsday as the main antagonists. Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy wrote the screenplays that were nearly filmed. Cage finally got to play Superman in 2018’s animated film, “Teen Titans Go To The Movies.”

Dean Cain – Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

In this 90s spin on Superman lore the main focus was not solely on the action but on the romance. In an interesting twist, Clark Kent was viewed as the most important component to Superman rather than the other way around.

Dean Cain stared as Clark Kent/Superman and was deemed one of the most popular versions of the character at the time. An aspiring athlete, Cain was contracted to play for the Buffalo Bills but a knee injury ended his career so he moved on to play earths greatest hero. He represented the character for an entire generation. Currently he stumbles through controversial waters.

When “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” was in early development DC Comics was simultaneously conducting a Lois and Clark marriage story line for Superman titles of the time. Producers of the series wanted the comics to correlate with their upcoming show so the marriage between Metropolis’s finest was rescheduled and DC decided to work on a much different synopsis – the Death of Superman.

This series was the first to show Lois and Clark as parents, but only for a brief time. At the end of season four the couple discovers a baby wearing a classic shield representing the Kryptonian house of El. According to executive producer Brad Buckner, the baby that Lois and Clark found on their doorstep in what is now classified as the series finale was supposed to be Kryptonian royalty. Had the series gone to a season five, the storyline would have seen the duo protecting the baby from potential assassins.

Titular stars Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher both appear in this series, as well as “Supergirl” and “Smallville.”

Tom Welling – Smallville

Tom Welling starred as Clark Kent in the most successful superhero show in history. The series saw a young Clark’s coming of age story where the character discovered the truth of his origins. Over the course of 10 years Clark grew to become earths greatest protector. Smallville set the standard for multiple superhero platforms and is largely the reason the genre is so popular today.

Before being cast, Welling was not a major following fan of Superman. Brandon Routh auditioned for the role and would later move on to play Superman in “Superman Returns” (2006) and in The CW’s epic crossover event “Crisis On Infinite Earths” (2019).

Welling was asked to play the role of Clark Kent multiple times and the actor decisively turned down the part twice before finally accepting. The reason Welling turned down the position was because he believed the story to be bigger than him and more suitable for a highly recognizable actor.

Tom ended up taking the part due to a strong connection he felt with the character. He recognized that the show was going to be a major hit and wanted to be a part of it. Welling has played the role of Clark Kent longer than any other actor. Christopher Reeve holds the title for Superman but Henry Cavill is moving in on both mantles.

Welling refuted the idea of wearing a Super Suit and only appeared briefly with just the top and cape. Superman appeared in the series for around 15 minutes. Welling and Erica Durance, who played Lois Lane in the series, both reprised their roles in “Crisis On Infinite Earths.”

Henry Cavill & Brandon Routh –– Superman Flyby

Before “Superman Returns” or “Man of Steel” there was “Superman Flyby.” Scripted by J.J. Abrams, this unique Superman title failed to launch beyond conception and early production. The storyline was centered around a Kryptonian civil war, Superman’s emergence on earth and a death defying battle to the end.

Test footage was shot for the film featuring Henry Cavill and Brandon Routh as Superman. The film eventually died due to budget and creativity issues.

Brandon Routh – Superman Returns

In what seems to be a trending tradition among Superman actors, Brandon Routh originally auditioned for the role of young Clark Kent in “Smallville.” Routh lost the role to Tom Welling, who is two years older, and later went on to play Superman in “Superman Returns.” Henry Cavill auditioned for Superman for this movie and later landed the role in “Man of Steel” (2013). Coincidentally, Amy Adams auditioned to play Lois Lane for the 2006 blockbuster and was later cast as the character for “Man of Steel” as well.

Unlike his fellow Superman actors, Christopher Reeve and Tom Welling, Routh is a huge Superman fan. As a kid he collected comics, owned films and even wore Superman pajamas. When he was cast he was ecstatic.

“Superman Returns” Director Bryan Singer met with Brandon Routh at a café to talk about his possible casting. When they greeted each other at their table, Routh stumbled and spilled coffee all over. Panicked, Routh assumed he had just lost the part but Singer laughed and said it actually helped him secure the role. The incident convinced the director that Brandon could pull off the clumsy, bumbling Clark Kent.

Brandon Routh and Christopher Reeve were both 26-years-old when their first Superman films were released. Unlike Christopher, Brandon only performed as the title character in one film.

After “Superman Returns” was deemed a “flop” by the studio, Routh would move on to star as another DC Comics superhero, Ray Palmer/The Atom, in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (2016), as part of the DC television multiverse featuring Arrow (2012), The Flash (2014), and Supergirl (2015).

Brandon reprised his role as Clark Kent/Superman in “Batwoman: Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Two” and “The Flash: Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Three” (2019). In his reprisal we learn that the Joker murdered all of Clarks closest companions.

The last line of “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987) is Superman saying to Lex Luthor, “See you in twenty.” That scene was filmed in 1986. Coincidentally, twenty years later, “Superman Returns” (2006) was released.

Interestingly enough, Brandon Routh went to high school with Aquaman actor Jason Momoa.

Matt Bomer – Toyota Prius Commercial

Even though he was not publicly out at the time, actor Matt Bomer is the first openly gay man to have played the Superman in history. Matt stood in as Clark Kent/Superman for a 2009 Toyota Prius commercial. When Henry Cavill was rumored to be exiting DC Comics’ cinematic universe, Bomer was one of many actors eyed for the replacement role.

Currently, Bomer plays as negative man on Doom Patrol.

D.J. Cotrona – Justice League: Mortal

Donald Joseph “D.J.” Cotrona was cast to play Superman in the failed “Justice League: Mortal” movie featuring earths greatest heroes. The film never made it past production stages but the story would’ve had the mighty Justice League facing off against some of their most formidable foes.

The movie had cast D.J. Cotrona as Superman/Clark Kent, Armie Hammer as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince, Adam Brody as The Flash/Barry Allen, Hugh Keays-Byrne as Martian Manhunter, Teresa Palmer as Talia, Zoe Kazan as Iris Allen, Santiago Cabrera as Aquaman, Jay Baruchel as Maxwell Lord, Common as John Stewart/Green Lantern and Anton Yelchin as The Flash/Wally West.

D.J. Cotrona went on to play the adult Pedro Peña in “Shazam!”

Tyler Hoechlin – Superman & Lois

Tyler Hoechlin is one of two Superman actors currently playing the role. The other is Henry Cavill. Hoechlin has been playing Superman for nearly half a decade. His interpretation of the Man of Steel first appeared during the season premiere of “Supergirl’s” season two in 2016. Since then, Hoechlin’s Superman has made numerous guest appearances on his cousin’s show and guest starred on a slew of The CW’s annual crossovers.  

Tyler is best known for his work in “Road to Perdition,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Teen Wolf.” Zack Snyder once considered Hoechlin for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” but Hoechlin lost out to Ben Affleck. Ironically, Tyler’s real life prom date was Katie Cassidy, who plays Dinah Laurel Lance / Black Canary / Black Siren in both “Arrow” and “The Flash,” along with other CW series.

Tyler Heochlin’s debut as the last son of krypton was the first time Superman, suit and all, appeared on The CW, even though fans waited an entire decade for Smallville’s Clark Kent to put on the tights.

Henry Cavill – DCEU

Possibly one of the most popular Superman actors of our time, Henry Cavill has stared in the role since 2013. Henry has always dreamed of being an actor and pursued a career in the field for years before landing his break through role as Superman/Clark Kent in “Man of Steel” (2013).

In this universe building introductory movie, Henry played a more isolated Superman. Cavill was the first non-American actor to play the role of the Metropolis Marvel in a major motion picture. Henry tried out for the role previously for the failed flop, “Superman Flyby” and blockbuster film “Superman Returns.”

In being cast as Superman in “Man of Steel,” Henry becomes the third British actor to play the lead role in a reboot of a successful screen adaptation of an American comic book series. Before him Christian Bale was cast as Batman and Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man.

Zack Snyder cast the English actor in 2011 for “Man of Steel.” After initial tryouts, Snyder had Cavill model the historic Christopher Reeve Superman suit.

“Even though that suit was many years old, he put it in and stepped out of that trailer and everyone was in awe of him,” Producer Deborah Snyder once said. “And we knew at that moment that he was our Superman.”

Henry is an avid fan of DC Comics and used the American medium as the sole inspiration for his interpretation of Superman. His favorite Superman storylines/sources he used for inspiration include “Death of Superman,” “Return of Superman,” “Superman: Red Son” and “Earth-One.” Cavill’s favorite Superman story arc is “New Krypton” by Geoff Johns.

Like Christopher Reeve before him, Henry takes on the mantle of Superman quite literally. He loves the character and sees it as a great honor to portray him. Henry understands the responsibility and represents himself as Superman when greeted by fans.

Henry is the first actor since Christopher Reeve to play the role of Clark Kent/Superman in more than one film. He currently ranks third in number of years of operation as Superman/Clark Kent. Tom Welling is in the lead with a decade on screen, Christopher Reeve is in second with nine years and Henry places third with almost eight, but he’s quickly closing in.

Author Stephanie Meyer based the description of Edward Cullen in her “Twilight” novels on Cavill and even lobbied for him to play the role before “The Batman” star Robert Pattinson was cast. Henry was considered too old to play a 17-year-old by the time the film was produced.

Cavill’s favorite actor is Russell Crowe. This is due largely to the fact that one of Henry’s personally beloved films is “Gladiator,” in which Crowe stars. Ironically, Henry went on to play the son of Crowe’s charactermJor-El in “Man of Steel.”

In January 2014 Henry purchased an American Akita dog from Big Bear Arkansas and named him Kal after Superman. Fans have nicknamed the dog “Super Puppy.”

The original Twitter thread discussing every Super Suit

Zack Benz

Zack Benz has been a fan of the Daily Planet since he was eight years old. The Daily Planet has always been a beacon of hope for him and it’s his life’s mission to make it shine in a similar light to so many around the world. Zack graduated with a degree in journalism and art from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2019.

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