Superman (1948)

Noel Neill, the first actress to play a live-action Lois Lane, has died at the age of 95. According to Neill’s close friend and biographer Larry Ward, Neill died after a long battle with illness in her home in Tucson on Sunday.

The daughter of Minneapolis Star Tribune news editor David Neill and New York vaudeville performer LaVere Neill, Neill was born in Minneapolis in 1920 and got her start in theater when she was 5 years old. After graduating high school in 1938, she moved to California and started singing professionally at a restaurant at the Del Mar racetrack. There, she made connections that led her to the Paramount lot, and she appeared in several small film roles in the ’40s, many of which were uncredited.

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In 1948, she got her big break. Columbia Pictures borrowed Neill from her Paramount contract for 15 episodes of a comic book-based movie serial about a certain super-strong, super-fast alien who moonlights as a news reporter. Kirk Alyn was cast as the eponymous superhero, while Neill played Lois Lane, Clark Kent’s friend and co-worker at the Daily Planet whose work as a journalist often got her into sticky situations with villains, leaving Kent to change into his Superman gear in a phone booth and swoop in for the rescue. Alyn and Neill reprised their roles in the 1950 serial Atom Man Vs. Superman, which also starred ’30s movie star Lyle Talbot as the first on-screen depiction of Lex Luthor. In these early depictions of the character, Lois Lane is strong-willed and fiercely smart, but she also often found herself fulfilling the “damsel in distress” role in the story. In the television series, Lane eventually develops a crush on Superman and one episode even depicts a dream sequence where she imagines being married to him.

When Adventures Of Superman was adapted for television in 1950, both Alyn and Neill were dropped from the roles; George Reeves stepped in to play Superman, and Phyllis Coates took on Lois. After shooting wrapped on the first season of the show, though, Superman’s producers suspended production as they sought a national sponsor. The show didn’t resume production until 1953, and by that time, Coates was already signed onto another series, so Neill returned to the role of Lois Lane. She played Lois from season two until the show concluded in 1958 with its sixth and final season. Neill said viewers would often ask her why Lois Lane never fully caught on to Clark Kent’s secret life as Superman, to which she would respond: “I didn’t want to lose my job.”

Even though the show was canceled after six seasons, plans were made for a revival, but they were cut short when, in 1959, Reeves died of a gunshot wound that was eventually ruled a suicide. “Our George,” Ms. Neill reflected in an interview with the New York Times in 2006. “He will always be Superman to us.” After the conclusion of the series, Neill ended her acting career. “I just figured I’d worked enough, I didn’t have any great ambition,” she told the New York Times. “Basically, I’m a beach bum. I was married, we lived near the beach, that was enough for me.”

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Even though she was retired, every once in a while, Neill would step back into the Superman universe. She briefly appears in the 1978 Superman movie, which stars Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and Christopher Reeve alongside Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. She also appears with Jack Larson—who played Jimmy Olsen in the original Adventures Of Superman series alongside Neill—in the syndicated Superboy television series. Both Larson and Neill also had cameos in 2006’s Superman Returns. Director Bryan Singer extended casting invitations to them in person. While Larson preferred a quieter life after Superman, Neill managed to balance her life as a self-proclaimed “beach bum” with working the fan-convention circuit, which she continued to do late into her life. “People love the characters, they love the movies, they love seeing us,” she said. “So we must have done something right.”

After Neill’s death, Coates is now the last surviving main cast member of Adventures Of Superman.