She’s been a singer, dancer, model and portrayed dozens of roles from cowgirl to an island girl, but for Baby Boomers and others who have seen her in the classic ’50s TV show, The Adventures of Superman, Noel Neill will forever be known as Lois Lane, Superman’s love interest and intrepid girl reporter.
“I’m still stopped by women who thank me for my role as Lois,” said Neill. “She (Lois) was one of the few women on television who had a real job and could compete with a man. She helped these young girls dream of careers and become more than they thought they could. I’m proud to be part of that.”
At 88, the Minneapolis native is still active, appearing in 10 to 15 fan conventions annually, and recently appeared at the Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Ill., where she is fondly known as the “first lady of Metropolis.” Although these days she calls Santa Monica home, she enjoys coming to Metropolis because it’s like “returning to your home town.”
Although she’s known for her acting, Neil’s career began as a singer and dancer. At 10, she began performing in vaudeville at Minneapolis’ RKO Orpheum Theatre and performed with the then-unknown Andrews Sisters. She continued to perform in shows throughout the Midwest in the 1930s before heading to Los Angeles, where she began singing at a hotel. She didn’t work there long, however. Bing Crosby was so taken by her voice, style and smile, that he hired her to perform at his place, The Turf Club.
When she wasn’t singing, Noel became a self-described beach bum, and was always playing volleyball. She also developed a passion for surfing and became a pioneer in women’s surfing and continued to compete well into her 40s.
As her singing reputation grew, she sang at other venues. While singing at a Phoenix hotel, she began to consider appearing in motion pictures when she stumbled on the film crew for the Bill Holden Western Arizona. A publicist took photos of her sitting on one of the horses, and although she didn’t appear in the film, the photos were used in promotions and seen by studio heads who were intrigued by the red-haired beauty.
Soon, Noel was cast in Monogram’s Henry Aldrich for President, and appeared in two other Aldrich films and small parts in movies starring Shirley Temple, Noah Berry Jr. and other more known stars before she signed a seven-year contract with Paramount.
“I appeared in everything,” said Neill. “In those days, if you wanted to work, you got work. The studios would say I want a tall blond, or I want a short brunette, and the next day you were filming.”
One of her first roles was appearing with her old friend Bing Crosby in The Road to Utopia. At that time, she only knew Crosby from a business standpoint, she soon found him to be a warm, engaging man who took an active interest in others.
“I was walking through the set one day, I was either going to or from a job, when I heard someone behind me singing my name from the Christmas song, The First Noel, recalled Neill. “It was Bing. He was riding a bike to get to the next set and he stopped and said, ‘If anybody gets fresh with you or gives you any trouble, you call my brother, Ernie or me. He’s an agent and we’ll take care of you.’ I never needed his help, but it was comforting to know that he was there for me if I needed him.”
Between film roles, Noel found time to model and was surprised to find that one of her photos became a favorite of GIs, second only to Betty Grable’s famous pinup. She continued to work steadily though the 1940s, appearing in many Western movies, where she would often “kiss the horse and go home,” in addition to Hal Roach shorts, and the Monogram Studios Teenage series. However, it was in Columbia serials like Brick Bradford and The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James that Neill won the role that would later define her career.
“I didn’t know anything about Superman or Lois Lane, but I was offered the role in the 1948 serial and I thought, ‘Why not? It’s work,’” said Neill. “I thought I’d better learn all I could about the role, so I bought a comic book which was unusual because they’re mostly for boys.”
The serial became Columbia’s most successful venture that year and actually saved the company from bankruptcy. The cast returned in 1950 for the follow-up serial, Atom Man vs. Superman, to even more success. However, star Kirk Alyn decided not to appear in the next project, a Superman feature film called Superman and the Mole Men. The project would lead to the television show, but with Alyn’s departure, Columbia decided to have an entirely different cast. George Reeves became the Man of Steel, and Phyllis Coates took over as Lois, while Neill returned to appear in other films and television. When Coates decided not to return after the first season, Neill took over and has been Lois ever since.
“My house is decorated with all kinds of things from fans have friends who send pictures of me as Lois or Superman-related things,” said Neill. “I have a whole room of throws and pillows with Superman insignias and lots of Superman clocks.”
Work in the series was similar to the serial – long days and a demanding schedule. To save money, filming all of the scenes taking place in Perry White’s office, or any other particular location, were completed for all 26 episodes at one time. This left little time for the cast to hang out after filming, but Neill said George Reeves was always professional but helped alleviate the stress with jokes.
“One time, George was supposed to crash through the wall and help me and Jimmy who were tied up,” said Neill. “Our special effects man, Thol Simonson, created the walls to be able to stand up, but they were soft enough that George could break through them. I guess there was a mistake in the way it was made because he couldn’t break through. We waited and waited for George to smash though, but he never appeared. Finally, one hand popped through, then one foot. Eventually, George pulled out from the wall, walked around to the crew, gave a bow and said, ‘That’s it for today.’ We couldn’t film until a new wall was built, so he made us laugh about not being able to work that day. He had such a great sense of humor.”
After each season, the cast had a couple of years off while waiting for the studios to air the series and decide if they wanted to continue. During that time, Neill landed jobs in other movie roles and appeared in one episode of The Lone Ranger with her old friend Clayton Moore. Years later, Moore would contact her to find out how he too could appear at fan festivals. Thanks to Noell’s guidance, fans got to see the Masked Man at hundreds of conventions before passing away in 1999.
As the series entered its sixth season, Reeves confided to Neill that he was getting ‘a little too old to be running around in my underwear’. He decided to expand his options and began directing some of the episodes, and used the time off between the seasons to appear with Neill in a vaudeville routine. Reeves financed the venue and played bass while Neill sang songs and they both performed in skits. The duo appeared in county fairs and other locations briefly before Reeves realized it was a financial failure.
They returned to Los Angeles and received word that the series was picked up for another season. Neill said Reeves was very excited to return because he was going to direct more episodes, however it was not to be. Two days later, Reeves was found dead. The events surrounding his death are still a mystery although the official findings are that he committed suicide.
With Reeves’ passing the show folded and Neill retired from show business. She continued to surf and enjoyed the beach life, but eventually returned to work in the MGM publicity department helping to sell TV programs to individual stations. In 1974, she was invited to Monmouth College to speak about her experiences as Lois Lane. She had expected a small crowd, but was surprised by a crowd of over 1,000 students who overwhelmed her with love and affection. After showing a clip from the show and a short presentation, Neill took questions from the audience.
“I loved the college shows. They were so fun, and the kids liked the question sessions,” said Neill. “They would come right out and ask ‘Didn’t you and George…?’ with no hindrance. Of course we never got together, but I always got that question.
Neill appeared in campuses throughout the ’70s and made a brief appearance with Kirk Alyn in the 1978 Superman starring the late Christopher Reeve. She would occasionally appear in other television shows, but continued to work in the publicity department at United Artists until the department was terminated following the failure of Heaven’s Gate, which almost bankrupted the studio. A friend offered her a job answering fan mail for a television actor who was falling behind due to film demands in Hawaii. She became the coordinator of Tom Selleck’s mail and has been his friend ever since.
She and neighbor Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olson, voiced introductions for the TV series’ DVD release and appeared together in 2006’s Superman Returns. Larson doesn’t like to travel, but Neill convinced him to come to Australia for his role in the movie.
“Jack is a serious actor and didn’t even plan on playing the role of Jimmy Olsen,” said Neill. “He was set to go back to New York or Europe to return to the stage when his agent said ‘Don’t go. I’ve got a job for you. You do it, take the money and run. No one will ever see it’” Well, he’s still doing it.”
At first, he resented being at being typecast as Jimmy Olsen, but he has since come to embrace it and fondly looks back on the series.
For Noel, the admiration continues as she was honored with a formal ball held at the Metropolis Superman Celebration. Neill and agent Larry Thomas Ward judged the ball costumes and Neill was greeted with a rendition of a song she sang at all of her auditions.
“This is my 60th year as Lois Lane, so they surprised me with a wonderful orchestra and girl singer who sang my favorite song, Exactly Like You, said Neill. “I was given flowers and sat on the stage. It was so wonderful. Just like the old times.”
Next year, the city hopes to immortalize Neill with a statue of her as Lois Lane which will appear near the Superman Statue in the city square. The city has approved a life-size bronze statue of Neill in her business suit, and is selling personalized bricks for the base and walkway. (To place your order, contact the Metropolis Chamber of Commerce at 618-524-2714, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Reflecting on the impact of Superman and Lois Lane, Neill said she’s proud of the program because it gave people heroes, and the show was something people could watch and enjoy.
“People grew up watching me, and I grew up with them,” said Neill. “I’m proud of our work and I guess others are too because people will come up to me and say they wish we had more shows like it on now. We did something right, so I guess I’ll be Lois Lane until the day I die.”
For More Information
Noel’s current biography, Beyond Lois Lane, is a pictorial history of Noel’s career, through the writings in studio press releases, magazine articles, and newspaper commentaries in the 1940s and 1950s. It is available at her personal appearances. Another biography, Truth, Justice, and The American Way, is currently out of print, but a new updated edition will be issued in 2010 to celebrate Noel Neill’s 90th birthday.