Allen Varney, writer and game designer


A "Blast From the Past" column from Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine:


by Allen Varney

[Published in Tuff Stuff Collect! magazine, July 1999.]

Look at actor George Reeves in the 66-card Superman card series Topps issued in 1965. Reeves starred in all 104 episodes of the syndicated Adventures of Superman TV series, which started production in 1951, first aired in early 1953, ran until '57, and killed Reeves's acting career forever after. In June 1959 the actor, despondent at his typecasting, committed suicide in his bedroom. Or so the four drunken guests downstairs told the Los Angeles Police Department. But Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, in Hollywood Kryptonite: The Bulldog, the Lady, and the Death of Superman (1996), say Reeves was murdered.

These Topps cards, with crisp black-and-white photos from many different TV episodes, show Reeves at his most characteristically superheroic: tall, powerful, assured as criminals futilely assault him -- just the guy who would attract Toni Mannix, hard-edged common-law wife of MGM Studios executive (and gangster) Eddie Mannix. Hollywood feared Eddie because he broke not just careers but legs. Eddie's previous wife had died in 1937 in a suspicious car accident outside Las Vegas, shortly after she'd sued for divorce. The studio bulldog found a better match with Broadway starlet Toni, who combined new-rich glamour with willful vindictiveness. In 1950 she struck up a ten-year love affair with Reeves. Eddie didn't mind, for he had health problems -- and a Japanese mistress.

Topps issued its Superman set in two versions: a rare 44-card test issue with white backs that now fetches $3000 a set, and a common edition (typically $2-6 apiece) with two variant orange-back designs. This parallels Reeves's love life. After a decade with Toni, Reeves left her in late 1958 and got engaged to a new "edition," though none too common: voluptuous New York socialite Leonore Lemmon, who had gone through two marriages and ruined several more. This tempestuous beauty's arrival infuriated Toni Mannix, who began harrassing Reeves obsessively. Mannix threatened his life. She stole his dog.

That Topps issued Superman in 1965, eight years after the series stopped production, testifies to the show's continuing popularity. It still runs today. Irrevocably identified as Superman, Reeves, a decent actor and a gentle and generous man, felt trapped. He hated the padding, the corset, the wires. But though he drank heavily and had money troubles (actors got slender residuals then), his friends noticed no suicidal depression.

The Topps cards draw from the whole Superman run, both the early black-and-white seasons and the later, color shows. Reeves directed the last three episodes himself, and by 1959 was pursuing new directing opportunities. But in April the brakes on Reeves's Jaguar suddenly failed, and he got badly cut in the wreck. The brake fluid had been drained. June 14, 1:20 AM: While Lemmon and three late-night guests drank downstairs, a bullet passed through Reeves's skull at the temple and hit the ceiling of his room. A rug hid two other bullet holes in the floor. Just hours later, well before the news broke, Toni Mannix tearfully called a friend, saying, "George has been murdered!" The LAPD didn't dust for fingerprints; the coroner mishandled the autopsy. The story vanished from the newspapers after a week, and Lemmon skipped town to return to New York.

Today, no one survives who might know what really happened. Kashner and Schoenberger speculate that Toni Mannix hired one of her husband's hit men to kill Reeves and frame Lemmon for the murder, but Lemmon foiled her by concocting the suicide story. Only Reeves's fame distinguishes this case from a thousand others; his death, like his life, is no less sad for that. The Superman TV series, and this Topps set, keep the tragedy, and the mystery, eternally fresh.