Feminism, boys' crushes and the original Lois Lane

Superman: Fifty-five years after she took the role, the former actress continues to revel in her fans' attention.

November 08, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

One woman told Noel Neill she had inspired all the little girls who wanted to heal patients and litigate rather than cook and clean. A graying gentleman said that as a child, he had dreamed of stealing Neill from her notably hunky on-screen boyfriend.

Another man cut to the chase. "You were hot," he told the 82-year-old Neill.

These are the things people say to you when they've thought of you as Lois Lane, star reporter for The Daily Planet and love interest of Superman, for the past 50 years. And Neill, who was the first woman to portray Lois on screen, eats it up.

At a book-signing Thursday night in Westminster, the former Hollywood pin-up girl let men kiss her hand and crouch in close for photos. She laughed and thanked them as they professed their boyhood affection for her. She expressed disbelief that some women view her as a feminist icon.

Beneath the signatures she affixed to more than 100 books, she wrote "Lois Lane" with a red felt-tipped pen.

Neill is touring the country with her biographer, Westminster native Larry Thomas Ward, whose Truth, Justice, & the American Way, chronicles the original Lois' life from birth to quiet retirement. The two are scheduled to appear at Barnes & Noble in Towson at noon today.

When Neill agreed to play the tough investigative reporter in the 1948 serial film Superman, she saw Lois as just another part, one of 15 film roles she would take on that year. She said that even when she had finished her run as Lane in the late 1950s, she didn't quite get how closely people associated her with the character.

It dawned on her in 1974, when she reluctantly took a speaking engagement at Monmouth College in New Jersey. She walked into the auditorium not sure what to expect. But hundreds of kids hopped to their feet and applauded.

"I stood up there on that stage and cried," she remembered. "I just didn't know how much it meant to people."

Neill's fans were eager Thursday to tell her how much she meant to them. The line, which snaked through Locust Books for more than an hour, included many who had grown up watching Neill on The Adventures of Superman, which aired on television from 1953 to 1957 and has appeared in syndication since, most recently on TV Land. Subsequent Lois Lanes such as Margot Kidder and Teri Hatcher couldn't measure up, fans said.

"Noel was better at carrying herself as the reporter she needed to be," said Drew Addison, 49, of Sykesville. "She was the Lois Lane."

Addison wore a T-shirt with a picture of Superman and the slogan "The Complete Story of the Daring Exploits of the One and Only Superman." He said he owns two Superman statues, one bust, six lunchboxes, a license plate, a lamp and too many comic books to count. He said the border at the top of his television room wall depicts Clark Kent transforming into Superman.

Others said Neill -- with her petite frame, sharply cut gray suits and dainty hats -- was their ultimate childhood sex symbol.

"I've come over here to take her away," said 65-year-old Charles Bosley of Manchester.

Bosley remembered rushing home from school in Cockeysville to watch Neill and her Superman, George Reeves, on a 10-inch black-and-white television. When asked whether she was a "dreamboat," Bosley said, "Well, to me she was, but how could you tangle with her boyfriend?"

Admiration for Neill extends to the Superman community at large.

"She brought a vibrance and a personality to the character," Steve Younis, who runs a Superman Web site, wrote in an e-mail. "Her portrayal of a head-strong working woman was revolutionary for its time and she became the role model of many a young girl."

Younis said he met Neill at a Superman convention this year in Metropolis, Ill.

"Her charm, humor and infectious smile warmed the hearts of every Superman fan, both young and old," he wrote.

Neill grew up in Minneapolis, entering a school for aspiring performers at age 4. She danced, sang and played the banjo at county fairs throughout the Midwest as a teen-ager. She planned to study journalism in college but never made it, becoming a singer and actress.

She sang in Bing Crosby's club, acted in a Charlie Chan movie and played a cowgirl in numerous Westerns.

"When you did a Western, you got your Western dress and your Western bonnet, you walked in and kissed the horse and then you left," she said with a laugh.

Neill said she knew little of Superman when she was approached to play Lois. "In fact, I had never even read the comic books," she said.

She played Lane in two serial films, but when producers cast a Lois for the first year of the television series, they picked another starlet, Phyllis Coates. Coates lasted one 26-episode season before Neill returned. She would star in 78 episodes.

Her favorite, she said, was one that had her dreaming of her wedding to Superman. "It's the ham in me," she told a fan Thursday. "I was in that one the most."

The series was scheduled to continue when Reeves died of a gunshot wound in 1959 in what was ruled a suicide, though many speculated the star had been killed.

After Reeves died, Neill quickly faded out of the limelight and became a homemaker. She said she thought hardly anyone remembered her until a Superman-related resurgence in the 1970s, when she was a popular speaker at colleges and played Lois Lane's mother in the 1978 film version of Superman starring Christopher Reeve. She also worked in the television department at United Artists, coordinating fan mail for her buddy Tom Selleck during his Magnum P. I. days.

She now lives a quiet life in California, regularly talking on the phone with her neighbor Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in The Adventures of Superman.

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