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Look! Up on the Screen! It's . . . Lois Lane? : Television: But this time around, Phyllis Coates will play the reporter's mom on 'Lois & Clark' season finale.

April 05, 1994|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Lois Lane, meet Lois Lane."

The introduction of Teri Hatcher to Phyllis Coates should have gone that way, but it didn't. Instead, they met with a simple smile and an embrace on the set of ABC's "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," where Coates, who played Lois Lane for the first season of the old "Adventures of Superman" TV series, was to appear as--you guessed it--Lois' mom.

It's all part of the season finale May 8, "The House of Luthor," in which Lois is betrothed--not to the Man of Steel but to his archenemy, Lex Luthor. Ma Lane shows up at the wedding with one of those "you know, you can still change your mind" speeches. If the series is renewed, Coates will be a recurring presence.

"My son said this is a gestalt. And it is , it's kind of something going full circle," said Coates, a handsome blue-eyed still-petite sexagenarian whose alto voice is unchanged since 1951, when she received co-billing with George Reeves for the first 26 episodes of "The Adventures of Superman."

"I had no wardrobe mistress and no hairdresser in those days," she laughed, standing outside Lex Luthor's Deco-esque balcony on the "Lois & Clark" set at Warner Bros. "Oh boy--I had one suit! One suit, and a double in case I got egg on it! And George's dresser dressed me. My makeup man was Harry Thomas, who made up every monster in Hollywood."

It was a far cry, certainly, from Hatcher's careful coiffure and the five changes (in this episode) of cutting-edge '90s feminine attire. But Coates' portrayal of Lois Lane, in other respects, wasn't such a far cry from Hatcher's. She was feisty and independent--or, as "The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows (1946 to Present)" by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh put it: "Lois was, in fact, rather hard-nosed and aggressive when portrayed by Phyllis Coates, but became more sensitive and vulnerable in the latter characterization of Noel Neill."

Neill--who played Lois for 76 episodes of the series, from 1953-57 (and in the 1940s serial, starring Kirk Alyn)--is more identified with the character than Coates. (Coates quit the part, she said, in order to move on to other types of roles.) How, then, did "Lois & Clark" settle on Coates? It was Hatcher's doing:

"It came to me at about 1:30 in the morning on a Sunday night," Hatcher said, caught between takes. "It was during another of my regular insomniac attacks. My fiance has a friend who is friends with Phyllis. So I had known of her, and there had been suggestions that we should all meet for dinner or something. . . . I knew I was getting married in this script, and I didn't know if there was even a mother established, and that's when I woke up and thought, 'I wonder why my mother wouldn't be coming to the wedding, and if she is, it should be Phyllis Coates!' "

The next morning she phoned "Lois & Clark" executive producer-creator Deborah Joy Levine, and the script was immediately rewritten to include Mom Lane. Coates, who resumed acting in the mid-1980s after her marriage of 25 years ended in divorce, flew to L.A. from her home in Carmel on very short notice.

*

"It's true I was never as identified with Lois Lane as other people have been," she said, clad in Mom Lane's pink wedding suit and veil. "I've done other things. . . . And I'm not one to live in the past. . . . I was delighted that Teri would think of me. When I came on the set, I said, 'Make me look like her mother, not like her grandmother!' "

Coates moved to Los Angeles from Texas at age 16 and joined one of the last vaudeville shows, Ken Murray's "Blackouts," in the late '40s.

After "Superman," she starred in a Desilu series, "This Is Alice," did guest shots on shows including "The Untouchables " and "Perry Mason," then dropped out of the business to raise her three children. She returned to acting at the urging of her children, appearing in commercials, stage productions and a few small parts in series including "Midnight Caller."

She looks back on her stint as Lois--43 years ago--with fondness and a lingering hint of the frustration that made her quit the part.

"I would have shaped the character a little differently. I would have played her with a little more dimension," she said. "But in those days I couldn't even smile at Superman. If I even gave a knowing or suggestive look to him . . . I was like a horse with a bit in his mouth! But I played her tough and direct. . . . I had one or two attitudes and that was it. (Hatcher's) Lois is a woman of the '90s--she's sexy and she gets to play comedy--and I got to do none of that. It's great to see her fulfilling the role. She's the best Lois Lane, really, ever."

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