Monday, 21 September 2015

Forever A Cub Reporter

About ten years ago, Noel Neill and Jack Larson talked with a reporter for the Los Angeles Times about typecasting. Both of them knew about it.

“One I adjusted that I was going to spend my life as Jimmy Olsen...” Larson began. “...And on your tombstone,” Neill interrupted.

Unfortunately, that time has arrived. Larson died in his home in California on the weekend at the age of 87.

There’s a downside to being an actor on a smash success on television. The audience sees you on the screen, and that’s who you become. Audiences stereotype you. They won’t accept you as anything else. Producers won’t cast you as anything else. Larson is only one of countless actors who discovered that first-hand after spending much of the mid to late 1950s playing the Daily Planet’s most famous cub reporter in The Adventures of Superman.

That leaves the question: what do you do after the show which typecast you stops production? Especially when the residuals run out (Larson’s ended in 1962).

In the case of Jack Larson, he moved on, though he tried to bury Jimmy Olsen on the way for a while. In 1979, Larson told Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times: “I actually hid for a dozen years, even grew a beard...I was determined no one would ever know I was Jimmy Olsen.” But, in an extremely interesting choice of words, Rosenberg reported Larson “inadvertently came out of the closet as Jimmy” several years earlier, realising the role would always be associated with him.

Here’s an Associated Press feature story that appeared in papers starting December 29, 1975, where Larson talks about his career during and post Superman.

Superman’s copy boy now a playwright

NEW YORK (AP) – Playwright Jack Larson strolled into a Greenwich Village bookstore to buy one of his plays. The young clerk stared. As Larson left, the clerk stammered: "Hey, man, you’re Jimmy Olson [sic]. You’re a culture hero.”
Last fall in Tiffany’s, someone recognized the dapper Larson as the actor who played the overeager, scrape-prone copy boy, Jimmy Olson in the 1950s television series’ Superman.”
He was surrounded by autograph seekers whose children watch daily television reruns of the Man of Steel.
“The attention was for Superman and Jimmy Olson, not my poems or plays," admits the 41-year-old Larson who filmed his last “Superman” episode in 1960 and launched a serious career of play writing.
“I don’t mind talking about those days. It was great fun,” says the slightly graying Larson, sitting in his room at the Chelsea Hotel, New York nexus for artists and writers.
“But please, go easy on Jimmy Olson,” laughs the compact, energetic Larson, adjusting his brown velvet suit and heading for the Martha Graham anniversary gala.
His latest major work is the libretto for Virgil Thompson’s opera, “Lord Byron,” just published by Southern-Peer Music Co.
Next season the Geoffrey Ballet will perform Larson’s dramatic poem, “Orpheus Times Light Squared.” Last season a small scandal erupted over the choreography of his poem, “The Relativity of Icarus,” when some critics said it was an erotic ballet.
He has written numerous one-act plays and two well-received full-length plays in rhymed verse, “The Candied House” and “Cherry, Larry, Sandy, Doris, Jean, Paul.”
Next month the San Francisco Chamber Symphony will perform the premier of his monodrama, “Sunlike.”
Larson, a bachelor, lives in Los Angeles in a Frank Lloyd-Wright home, enjoys skiing and divides his time in Switzerland between long mornings of writing and long afternoons on the slopes.
“I always wrote, from the time I was 15,” Larson says, “but at first I didn’t think I could earn my living writing.”
He was discovered by a talent scout as he was costarring in his own play, “Balguna Del Mar,” about college students Easter week escapades in Balboa and Laguna, Calif.
Then for eight years he was Jimmy Olson in the early days of television.
“I was told ‘Superman’ wouldn’t amount to anything, and I might as well do it and take the money,” he recalls.
Larson never made much from his contract, sometimes $250 a week, or from small residuals which have run out.
“I absolutely believed no one would see it,” he says, “but it went right through the ceiling, and I couldn’t walk down the street without being mobbed. “Jimmy had so much good humor and high spirits,” he recalled, “because George Reeves kept us laughing.”
Reeves, who played Superman, “was a great lading man,” Larson says. “It was tough to have to wear a cape and tights on a set with a macho crew who gave him a hard time.”
Sometimes, Reeves came crashing through a wall to rescue Jimmy, “then, he would collapse in a mock faint as soon as the camera shifted.”
Larson’s favorite episode was “Jimmy Olson, Semi-Private Eye” where Jimmy thought he was a Sam Spade-type detective and did a Humphrey Bogart imitation. But eight years was enough.
“I didn’t want my world to be sound stage walls,” Larson says. “It was terrible work. I didn’t make money on the TV series and I was thoroughly typecast as Olson.”
“After Superman I quit acting and took up the life of a playwright in New York.” He received grants and commissions for work. At one time he was reluctant to discuss his Superman days for fear it would jeopardize his grant-income.
“But I don’t mind it now,” Larson says. “I used to idolize silent film comics like Buster Keaton. Now we’ve become mythical figures like the people I admired so.
“You’re in somebody’s unconscious, and there’s a real warmth and affection.”

Jack Larson’s passing reminds us of something else—the passing of Superman himself, at least the Superman that kids looked up to at one time. Despite the Cold War and the prospect of world annihilation by nuclear weapons, the Man of Steel on 1950s TV was positive, loyal, a true superhero. Today, superheroes are anything but. They’re scowling, vengeful, “more like Rambo” as the Washington Post once put it. The world’s more jaded and cynical today, it seems, and superheroes are, too. They’re bitter about their special gifts to do the good that superheroes are supposed to do. They’re unhappy with the hand life has dealt to them. They should get over it. A man who played a cub reporter did.


  1. Larson was briefly a regular in Season 2 of "Gomer Pyle, USMC" in 1965, but his tenure there as Sgt. Carter's assistant lasted even less time than Jack Burns' turn as Warren did in Gomer's old hometown of Mayberry.

    As for the comics, part of the problem today is the inability of many who loved them as kids to 'let go' when they become adults, even as they're now dealing with problems as an adult and not a child. The result was to not release the characters to the next generation of children by dragging them into their adult lives, now dealing with adult problems and the heroes themselves showing adult attitudes and frailties.

    1. Very well put, J.Lee. And RIP to Jack Larson,too.