This article originally ran in 2013, but today is George Reeves' birthday, so we've dusted it off for another flight!
There are certain expectations that come with playing Superman. They aren't necessarily fair or easy ones. But a character with a history that spans more than 75 years means that every audience has their own idea of how the Last Son of Krypton should look, sound, and act. The good news is that virtually every major actor to wear the cape on the big or small screen has been worthy of the role in some capacity.
Before we get started, I should point out that this list isn't intended to be a comprehensive listing of Superman actors (sorry John Rockwell and Bob Holiday...I'll get to you in future articles, I promise). Instead, these are the guys who made the most impact in the cape. A list of Superman voice actors would be far too long for this piece, too, but I had to make an exception for one guy...because he's far too important to leave off.
Up, up, and away...
While it may seem unfair for Bud Collyer to be the only Superman voice-actor to make a list devoted entirely to guys who actually wore the tights, leaving him off would be a crime. Bud Collyer’s essential place in superhero mythology is based on several factors: he was the first actor to portray Superman in the media (both on the radio and in the classic Superman cartoons from the Fleischer and Famous studios), the strength of his performance, and the sheer volume of his years as the Man of Steel.
The seventeen animated Superman adventures aside (the FIRST superhero cartoons ever produced), Mr. Collyer took on the Clark Kent/Superman role for roughly 2000 (yes, you read that right) radio episodes that aired between 1940 and 1951. By dropping his voice nearly an octave as he announced, "This is a job...for Superman," Bud let radio audiences know in no uncertain terms that Clark Kent had made the dramatic switch. Collyer returned to the role once again in 1966 for Filmation’s The New Adventures of Superman animated series.
Bud Collyer, the only Superman of radio, the silver screen, and television, logged more hours as the Man of Steel than any actor in history, a record that will never be broken. So, with apologies to other great Superman voice actors like Danny Dark, Tim Daly, or George Newbern...Bud Collyer is the yardstick by which most other Men of Steel must be measured!
Now, on to the live action Supermen...
Surprisingly, it took Superman a full decade to make it to the big screen in live-action, with contemporaries like Batman and Captain Marvel beating him to the big show by several years. And while Kirk Alyn’s two serial outings as the Last Son of Krypton, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) aren’t exactly the highlights of Superman’s live action history, it wasn’t really his fault.
The muscular, athletic, and graceful Alyn (he was a dancer before taking up acting) brought an energetic grace to Superman, and he played Clark Kent as earnest and cartoonishly mild-mannered. While Mr. Alyn's flying scenes were accomplished via animation, watching him sprint around at top speed, toss bad guys, and leap into and out of the frame is certainly superheroic enough!
George Reeves’ portrayal of Superman/Clark Kent turned the traditional dynamic on its ear. The ruggedly handsome Reeves, with his broad smile and lantern jaw, turned Clark Kent, not his caped alter ego, into the central figure of The Adventures of Superman's seven season run on TV. Reeves' Clark was charming, confident, and (occasionally) rather two-fisted and willing to wade into danger in his business suit and glasses.
While Reeves wore a padded costume to accentuate Superman’s physical power, his deep voice and the easygoing authority he projected (no actor has yet matched Reeves’ looks of bored exasperation as some useless hoodlum empties his gun at Superman) made him the definitive Superman for a generation. Spend some time with the first season of The Adventures of Superman to see some surprisingly tough crime and newsroom drama that just happens to feature Kal-El every now and then.
Arguably the best known and most beloved portrayal of Superman belongs to Christopher Reeve, and with good reason. Despite only wearing the cape for four films, some of which were marred by uneven direction, scripts, and special effects after 1978’s unmatched Superman: The Movie, Reeve embodied the altruistic sincerity of the character like nobody before or since.
Christopher Reeve made audiences believe a man could fly thanks to what appeared to be his own absolute belief that he could do so, while his training as a pilot allowed him to turn his wire-and-blue-screen flight sequences into convincing displays. Even more impressive, Reeve hid his 6’4, 225 pound frame as Clark Kent with changes in posture, voice, and mannerisms that might actually make you believe that folks could be fooled by a pair of glasses and an ill-fitting suit. That's no easy task.
The syndicated Superboy TV series, which focused on the adventures of Superman while he was in college, ran for four seasons, but John Haymes Newton only stuck around for the first one. Newton’s Superboy was wise beyond his years, and had a tougher approach and lower tolerance for nonsense than we’ve come to expect from most screen Supermen, while his Clark Kent was more alienated outsider than mild-mannered klutz...a portrayal that predated Smallville by over a decade.
The Superboy TV show isn't for everyone, mostly because of occasionally subpar production values, bizarre scripts (especially in the first season), and some questionable performances. Newton did his best to bring something new to the role, though, but the first season of Superboy is mostly for the completists out there.
Often overlooked (like his predecessor), Gerard Christopher put in more hours as the Man of Steel (or Boy of Steel, in this case) than most of the other actors on this list. He put on the costume for an impressive 73 half-hour episodes over the course of three years. Mr. Christopher (much like Mr. Reeve) looked like a Superman comic come to life, and wore the most comic book accurate version of the Superman costume ever seen on screen.
By the time the show reached its third and fourth seasons (recently released on DVD for the first time from Warner Archive), it was a Superman show in all but name, right down to Clark and Lana (not Lois) working in a very newspaper-like environment. Gerard fought a series of equally comic book accurate supervillains throughout the show’s run and played Clark Kent as the traditionally clumsy also-ran. At one point, he was even considered as Christopher Reeve’s replacement for a rebooted Superman film franchise in the early '90s, and he auditioned for (and won!) the role for the Lois & Clark TV show before the showrunners learned he had already worn the cape.
Which brings us to...
Say what you will about Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, but when it worked, it worked. The first season of Lois & Clark is about as accurate a translation of the character dynamics found in the Superman comics of the early '90s as you’re ever likely to see, and the genuine chemistry between Dean Cain’s Clark Kent and Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane made for some real on-screen fun.
While Mr. Cain wasn’t done any favors by an odd-looking supersuit, his charming, everyman Clark Kent (who expected Lois to love him, not his cape-wearing alter ego) was a fresh take on the otherwise traditional Clark/Lois/Superman triangle. Like the George Reeves Adventures of Superman TV show, at the very least, Superman fans owe it to themselves to check out the first season of Lois & Clark, which in its best moments feels more true to the spirit of the comics of its era than many other attempts to bring Superman to life, and is even genuinely funny from time to time.
Smallville went to great lengths to pretend it wasn’t really a Superman show, but one look at Tom Welling, even in the earliest episodes, said otherwise. Welling’s chiseled features reminded some of Christopher Reeve, but by the end of Smallville’s impressive ten season run, he had carved out his own place in the Superman mythology.
While the show may have taken a little too long showing Clark’s journey to become the hero we all knew he could be, by the end of it, Welling had earned that cape. 218 hour-long episodes puts Mr. Welling in some pretty distinguished company as far as time spent as Superman...even if we never really got that "S" until the last shot of the show!
Superman Returns is a divisive film. On the one hand, its perceived lack of superheroic action and the controversial decision to have Superman father a child hurt its box-office returns and prevented a sequel. On the other hand, its thoughtful, reverential approach to the mythology established in the Richard Donner Superman film endeared it to many others.
What most fans agreed on, though, was Brandon Routh’s thoughtful, sincere performance as Superman. While his Clark Kent was as indebted to Christopher Reeve’s version as the rest of the film was to Richard Donner’s vision, Routh’s Superman, while not the physical man of action we’d see in later versions, was a quietly heroic figure, haunted both by his place as the last son of a forgotten world and by his own decisions about his personal life.
The most two-fisted Superman we’ve yet seen, Henry Cavill struck the balance between the haunted Last Son of Krypton and the altruistic hero that studios have been looking for for years. Nobody can doubt Cavill’s chiseled looks or incredible physique, and he not only made audiences believe a man could fly...but that he could punch people through buildings. Lots of buildings. Perhaps too many.
While we’ve yet to see much of Cavill in the “traditional” bespectacled Clark Kent role, his Superman runs the gamut from Christopher Reeve’s serene sincerity to George Reeves’ “don’t mess with this guy” cool. Warner Bros. are betting heavily that he's the guy to keep Superman alive on film for years to come. We'll next see him put on the cape for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, before he leads the Justice League into action in future DC superhero movies.