One hundred years ago Friday, John Feggo Jr. was born in Oxford, N.J., but he is far better known by two other names – Kirk Alyn and Superman.
This week, Warner Bros announced that Zack Snyder , director of “300” and “Watchmen,” will be handling the latest relaunch of Superman as a silver-screen brand name, which makes it even more fitting to look back on Alyn, the very first cinematic Superman but a sinewy star who gets overshadowed by those other Men of Steel, Christopher Reeve and George Reeves.
Alyn was born Oct. 8, 1910, to Hungarian immigrant parents and attended Columbia University. Early in his career he was a song-and-dance man in the chorus of such classic 1930s Broadway musicals as the George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” and “Of Thee I Sing.”
He married MGM singing star Virginia O’Brien, who was best known for her deadpan singing style, in 1942 (they had three children before they divorced in 1955) and made the big jump to Hollywood after working in vaudeville. The going was rough, though, and his career stagnated with small roles in forgettable films. He scored a decent role in the 1946 Republic serial “Daughter of Don Q.”
Finally, at the age of 37, lighting struck and he was chosen to play Superman in the 15-chapter 1948 serial “Superman” and its 1950 sequel, “Atom Man Vs. Superman.” Produced by Sam Katzman, “Superman” was the most successful movie serial of its time.
The film was advertised as being based on the Superman and Action Comics magazines and on the “Superman” radio program which was broadcast over the Mutual Network. The original poster declared, “THE ONE AND ONLY ‘SUPERMAN’…Rocketing to ‘REAL LIFE’ in a Mighty SUPER-SERIAL!”
The serial (see a sequence in the video below) followed his arrival on Earth as an infant and the last survivor of the planet Krypton, his transformation into a superhero and then his first nemesis: The Spider Lady, played by Carol Forman. Noel Neill, who would play Lois Lane for five seasons on the “Adventures of Superman” television series, originated the role in the serial. Tommy Bond, who had played Butch in the “Our Gang” comedy series, was Jimmy Olsen, and Pierre Watkin was Perry White.
Because Alyn wasn’t a familiar face to most audiences, his name was kept off the credits because the studio felt that no one should know who was playing Superman. In fact, Columbia spread a rumor that Superman himself was playing the part. Alyn was initially just credited as playing Clark Kent.
Thanks to “Superman,” he got a starring role in the Republic serials “Federal Agents Vs. Underworld Inc.” (1949), which starred Rosemary La Planche, the Miss America of 1941, , and “Radar Patrol Vs. Spy King” (1949).
Alyn wanted more money to continue on as Superman but Columbia didn’t cave. Reeves took over the role in 1951’s “Superman and the Mole Men” and then began working on “Adventures of Superman” for television. Alyn made one more serial for Columbia, “Blackhawk” (1952). Over 40 at the time, he found he was typecast as Superman — a wrenching issue that Reeves also faced – so he eked out a living doing minor parts in TV shows and movies, many uncredited. He moved to Arizona in the late 1950s, appearing sporadically thereafter in bit parts.
As Superman began a renaissance in the 1970s, Alyn was in demand to tour and talk to fans about his years wearing the cape. He even had a cameo as young Lois Lane’s father on the train (with former costar Neill as Lane’s mother) in Richard Donner’s “Superman” (1978), which had Reeve handling the cape work. He appeared in a few acting parts – he popped up on a 1979 episode of “Battlestar Galactica” and as Professor Machen in a 1983 film called “Scalps,” directed by cult filmmaker Fred Olen Ray.
Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the first Man of Steel on the silver screen died of natural causes in The Woodlands, Texas, on March 14, 1999.
– Susan King
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