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Who shot TV's Superman?

BEHIND THE SCENES: TRUE-LIFE TALES

George Reeves' death was ruled a suicide, but suspicions of foul play continue 50 years later.

September 15, 2006|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Nearly five decades have passed, but the mystery of George Reeves' death still lingers in Hollywood.

Did the charming, husky actor who starred in the popular 1950s television series "Adventures of Superman" commit suicide in 1959 with a single gunshot to the head? Or was he shot accidentally? Or was he murdered on the orders of then-MGM studio executive Edgar "Eddie" Mannix, whose wife, Toni, had been having an affair with Reeves?

Those questions form the splintering plot-lines of director Allen Coulter's noir-like film "Hollywoodland," which re-creates Reeves' early TV superstardom as the Man of Steel -- and the difficulty a typecast Reeves had in finding work after the series left the airwaves.

The real-life investigation by the Los Angeles police and coroner concluded that Reeves committed suicide, but some believe the probe left more questions than answers. Crime-scene evidence was ignored or overlooked, critics say: Reeves' body was embalmed before an autopsy could be performed; there were bruises on the body that weren't accounted for; and police never tested for powder burns, a telltale sign if Reeves had held the gun to his head.

"They never really did anything but take the word of people there on the premises at the time of death," Coulter said.

In the film, Reeves is portrayed by Ben Affleck, former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Toni Mannix is played by Diane Lane and Eddie Mannix is played by Bob Hoskins. Robin Tunney plays Leonore Lemmon, an aspiring actress who came between Reeves and Toni Mannix. Adrien Brody plays an L.A. private eye who is a composite of real-life figures involved in investigating the actor's death, the filmmakers say.

Reeves died June 16, 1959, at his Hollywood Hills residence at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive. According to police reports, he had excused himself around midnight and went upstairs to bed, leaving Lemmon downstairs with another houseguest, a writer named Robert Condon, who was working on a story about Reeves and staying in a downstairs bedroom.

Around 1 a.m., another couple, William Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel, dropped in for drinks. But their late arrival upset Reeves, who came downstairs in a bathrobe and, saying he was in no mood for more company, ordered the couple to leave. Bliss told police the actor appeared drunk. An argument ensued. Eventually, both men apologized to each other.

At 1:20 a.m., Reeves excused himself to go upstairs to bed. Condon would later tell police that Reeves seemed despondent. But Condon added that he didn't think the actor was so despondent that he would commit suicide.

Lemmon later told police that as Reeves went up the stairs, she remarked to Bliss: "In a moment you will hear a gun." At that point, they heard a drawer opening upstairs and Lemmon said that he was getting a gun out of the drawer and "now you will hear the shot." Just then, a gunshot was heard. Bliss went upstairs and found Reeves lying on the bed. Newspaper accounts of the time quote Lemmon telling police she was "only kidding" when she made the remarks about Reeves' plans to kill himself.

According to the Los Angeles County coroner's report, the 45-year-old actor had shot himself in the right temple just above the ear with a German Luger, which was found lying on the floor between his feet. The bullet passed through his head and lodged in the ceiling. No notes or messages were found.

But the mystery deepened when police found two more bullet holes, fired by the same gun, in the bedroom floor under a rug. One of the bullets had lodged downstairs in the fireplace paneling. In newspaper accounts at the time, Lemmon told police that she had fired that bullet "accidentally" while "fooling around" with the weapon several days before. The other bullet remained unexplained.

"No one really knows for sure what happened," said "Hollywoodland" producer Glenn Williamson. "A lot of people who were there have died and, frankly, the way forensics works is different now."

One person who believes that Reeves was murdered is Beverly Hills publicist Edward Lozzi, who in the late 1970s would befriend Toni Mannix, by that time a widow in her 70s.

Lozzi told The Times that Toni Mannix worshiped the late Reeves throughout her life and kept her closets lined with his clothing. She also kept his shaving utensils and lotions, and even built an altar in the house with a crucifix, candles and an 11-by-14 photograph of Reeves.

Lozzi said that as her health declined, Toni Mannix made a startling confession to her priest, which Lozzi, holding his bedridden friend's hand at the time, overheard. He said she confessed that she and Eddie Mannix had had Reeves killed. Why the confession? "She was absolutely terrified of going to hell," Lozzi said. "I was holding her hand and the priest said to me, 'You can't say anything about this ... because your life would be in danger.' "

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