Monday 4 July 2016

The First Miss Lane

Such is the power of the past that one’s career can begin to flourish 20 years after it ended. That’s what happened to Noel Neill.

She played Lois Lane, first in the movies, then on non-network, black-and-white TV. It was strictly B-list fare, maybe C-list. It doesn’t appear critics took Superman seriously; I can’t find any interviews with Miss Neill about it from the ‘40s or ‘50s, though there are some pin-up shots in newspapers during her time at Paramount from 1941 to 1946 to promote whatever she was appearing in for that studio. But that all changed in the mid-‘70s. Nostaglia was big then. So was Superman. Together they proved an unbeatable combination and, suddenly, Neill’s role as Lois started paying off.

I’ve come across a bunch of wire service/newspaper interviews with her starting in 1975. I’ve picked two at random. The first is from November 7th.
Great Caesar’s Ghost! It’s Lois Lane

St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
Lois Lane didn’t ask to be resurrected. She was yanked from the past by the cresting nostalgia wave and surprised the daylights out of Noel Neill, mild-mannered assistant for a great metropolitan auctioneering firm.
Faster than a speeding bullet, the call came about two years ago from a small upstate New York college. “Noel Neill?” a young voice asked. “The same Noel Neill who played Lois Lane on the ‘Superman’ TV show? We’d like you to come to our college for a personal appearance.”
One thing led to another college date and another and another until Miss Neill suddenly found herself mobbed and loved and most of all REMEMBERED by an entire generation of college students who devoted every juvenile afternoon to “Superman,” dumb Jimmy Olsen, glaring Perry White and lovely Lois Lane.
Now, between college dates, Noel Neill is in St. Petersburg to lend 20-year-old memories to the International Speed, Sport and Custom Auto Show at the Bayfront Center tonight through Saturday.
“When I stepped out on that stage the first time,” she says, “it was a thrill that I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think they would remember me or be so enthusiastic. But one student said to me, ‘Remember, we grew up with you.’ I thought ‘What can I do that students would be interested in.’ I don’t sing or dance and I hadn’t thought about the show in years.”
What she does is help us remember all the “Superman” afternoons and youth and innocence when we believed George Reeves could really, truly fly instead of figuring out he was supported by a metal plate contoured to his body. She helps us remember things we never knew: that “Superman” was a low-budget show paying her $200 per and shooting two episodes a week for six years; that after Reeves died in a puzzling suicide in 1959, Jack Larson was offered a pittance to star in a “Jimmy Olsen” series, a deal that turned him sour on Hollywood; that Superman once got an arm and a leg stuck in a wall while the cameras recorded the embarrass[ment] but it was never printed as a blooper film; that 54 episodes were filmed in color, revealing for the first time the true identity of Lois Lane’s hair, red.
“It was hard to be so nasty to George,” she says. “I’d look up at that cute face and I just couldn’t be mean to him. Lois was supposed to be aggressive and I found it hard to do, so we made her more human. I hadn’t thought about it, but when a student asked me, ‘Weren’t you a libber?’ I said I guess I was. I was working on my own, but there was much complaining and groaning during those long hours on the set.”
New-kindled fame is admittedly an ego trip for Miss Neil, who protects her age as Clark Kent did his secret identity, but finally admits to 54 years of living without looking it in face or figure, or those always shining eyes.
“College students are the best audiences because they remember, but some of the questions they ask are surprising. One wanted to know if Superman was making it with Lois Lane. We were very real to them on television. A student told me he used to rush home after school and crawl under the television to try to look up my dress.”
This fine piece appeared in papers on various dates; this one is from February 23th.
Students welcome Superman Star

Washington Post Service
WASHINGTON, D-C—Noel Neill wasn't the first actress to play Lois Lane, star reporter for the Daily Planet, on the "Superman" TV series of the '50s, but she is the one most people remember in the role.
And the people remembering best are probably the students on college campuses currently packing auditoriums whenever Miss Neill appears with a night of illustrated reminiscence.
She’s proven a top draw, which is a surprise to her. When she first went on the college circuit, and first heard roars of applause for her and Louis, she was dumbfounded.
“I just stood there crying,” she said. “I was so thrilled they remembered.”
Miss Neill was paid a piddling $200 per episode when she made the "Superman" shows from 1953 through '57, and the residuals ran out in 1960, but she now picks up $1,000 a night for her in-person appearances.
She was in Washington recently for the National Entertainment Conference, which helps decide who gets booked into college halls. So far, Miss Neill has played more than 30 schools, a hit at all of them.
The "Superman" show is more than a memory as well. In Washington, it has returned to the air and it is also being revived in other cities. In the first 26 episodes, however, Lois Lane is not played by Noel Neill.
"Do I have to tell you who the other actress was?" asks Miss Neill jokingly. "Okay. It was Phyllis Coates, but don't give her any publicity."
Miss Coates is now retired, said Miss Neill, who went on to play Lois in the succeeding 78 episodes.
And what of the other "Superman" regulars? George Reeves, who played Superman, shot himself with a pistol in 1959, three days before he was to be married. Miss Neill said he had been scheduled to make 26 more "Superman" shows.
"George was such a wonderful person," said Miss Neill. "They tried to keep it very quiet when he committed suicide. For the good of the show. They didn't want children running around asking, 'How can Superman be dead?'
"George had a fine sense of humor when he was doing his Clark Kent thing, but when he'd get into his union suit his eyes seemed kinda glazed over, as if he were hoping he was somewhere else. He was such a good actor, I think it was like being with the Royal Ballet and coming out to do a Charleston for him to play Superman."
John Hamilton, who played Perry ("Great Caesar's ghost!") White is also dead; but Jack Larsen, once Jimmy Olson, cub reporter, is now prospering, said Miss Neill, as a writer.
Miss Neill was leading a little noticed life in Santa Monica when she got the call for her first college appearance.
“I said, ‘Gee, do you think anybody’ll want to see me?’ and they said, ‘Oh yes, they will, they will.’ And they did.”
Now 54, Neill seems to mean it when she speaks with affection of the college audiences.
"Bless their little hearts," she said tenderly. “They'll say anything that comes into their heads. They’re usually expecting a little old lady with gray hair, not a redhead, and they’ll say things like, ‘Gee, you look great!’ and ‘Hey, you still got great legs!’ It’s really fun, and I guess it’s a kind of ego trip, too.
"Most students know more about the darn show than I do. And the questions! Like there was one show where Jimmy inherits a million dollars, and of course he and I end up doused and sopping Noel Neill wet and left to die in a basement somewhere. So we decide to send up a smoke signal — but what was there to burn? So we start burning up the money. Now one of the college kids asked me, 'Why didn't you burn up that crummy old suit you always wore?' " She laughs.
"Well, I got the producer on the phone the next day and said, 'See! I told you you should have bought me a new suit!'"
Students also want to know why Lois, who had a 78-week crush on old Mr. Mighty, never even kissed him.
"Kellogg's wouldn't like it," Miss Neill explained. The sponsor held firm control over the show and reviewed all scripts. "They were very, very careful about violence," said Miss Neill, and about sex, too.
Miss Neill was scratched from a proposed cereal commercial featuring the show's characters because, she said, "Kellogg's thought it would just be wrong for us to be sitting at a table eating breakfast together. I was so unhappy about that because I’d thought, ‘Oh, wow, gee, a little extra money!’"
Miss Neill obviously relishes her newly reactivated career—certainly more than she liked the real estate business, which she tried for a while after “Superman” expired.
“It was office work, but I did get to go to auctions and auctioneer,” she said. “And that’s almost show biz.”
Some of Miss Neill’s mainly minor movie roles occasionally come up. She played a stuffy snap in “An American in Paris” and also appeared in one of Hollywood’s goofiest films, “Invasion USA,” an Albert Aubsmith fantasy produced during the height of McCarthyism.
In the film, Communists take over the United States by sneaking in through Canada.
“It was so long ago, I don’t remember it,” said Miss Neill.
“I’ve been told I played a travel agent in one scene and that when two people come up and ask for tickets to Denver, I tell them Denver isn’t there any more.” But it is “Superman” that the kids want to hear about. “They don’t hesitate to ask whatever they want. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Some of those shows were so dumb, they were just terrible. How could you read those lines?’ and I tell them, ‘Well, we thought of payday, and we just did it.”
The name of the first person to appear on screen as Lois Lane has been added to the list of the far-too-many people in the entertainment business who have passed away this year. What strikes me about those like Noel Neill, or Janet Waldo, or Bill Schallert, is that they may never had had their name over the title, but all of them are remembered by their peers as hard-working and skilled actors who were also nice people. Conversely, today’s over-exposed show biz folk are viewed in many cases as tawdry, rude and self-indulgent. Is it any wonder people want to look back?


  1. I was in the audience in that small NY upstate college when we saw Noel Neill. That was quite awhile ago.....

  2. back in the mid 70s I had a brief correspondence with Ms. Neill- asking her to sign some photos, etc. I found out that she was going to be at my school, Queens College in NY, and wrote her saying that I hoped we could meet. After the show she signed some autographs in the lobby of the school theatre, and much to my surprise, asked the assembled masses if I was in the crowd..remembering my name, etc. We got to meet, and my friend and I accompanied her to the college radio station to be interviewed. Ironically I now work in the Daily News building in NYC, which was used as the Daily Planet in the Chris Reeve movies, although the REAL Daily Planet building is of course the tv version- LA City Hall. I could see the possible clashing of Noel and Phyllis Coates, but always had wished they'd acknowledged each others existence and admitted that they were both great in their own way as Lois..