(Reuters) - Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen, the boyish, frequently imperiled cub reporter on the 1950s U.S. television series “Adventures of Superman” who was oblivious to the fact that his co-worker was actually the man of steel, died at the age of 87.
Larson died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles’ Brentwood neighborhood, said Lieutenant Fred Corral of the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s Office. An autopsy was pending.
After abandoning acting out of frustration in the early 1960s, Larson went on to be a playwright, lyricist and movie producer. But he made his most lasting impression as television’s Jimmy Olsen, the enthusiastic young reporter in the bow tie at the Daily Planet newspaper, where he worked with Clark Kent, Superman’s alter ego, and Lois Lane in the fictional city of Metropolis.
Larson appeared in 101 episodes of “Adventures of Superman” during its run from 1952 through 1958. His Jimmy Olsen was eager and full of good intentions and gee-whillickers naivete but also a bit of a stumblebum who provided the show’s comic relief.
Larson described Olsen as “a bit dim” since he never figured out that Kent, his socially awkward colleague in the heavy-framed eyeglasses, was also the crime-fighting caped superhero soaring over Metropolis and often rescuing Jimmy and Lois from danger.
Larson, who was born on Feb. 8, 1928, and grew up in the Los Angeles area, had only a few minor acting credits when he was offered the Jimmy Olsen role. He took it in order to get enough money to move to New York to pursue deeper ambitions - writing plays and acting on Broadway.
Larson thought “Superman” would be short-lived and little noticed. He was stunned to realize it was an instant hit and he was a celebrity - a typecast celebrity. Jimmy Olsen became such a popular figure that his bow tie would one day be part of a Smithsonian display.
“To me, it was a nightmare,” Larson told the New York Times in 2006. “Everywhere I went, it was, ‘Jimmy! Jimmy! Hey, Jimmy, where’s Superman?’ Suddenly, I couldn’t take the bus or the subway anymore. It absolutely freaked me out.”
“Adventures of Superman” went off the air in 1958 and plans for a new season ended with the 1959 suicide of George Reeves, who played the man of steel. The show has enjoyed a long run in syndication.
Larson had little luck finding anyone who wanted to hire an actor so strongly identified with Jimmy Olsen. At the suggestion of one-time lover Montgomery Clift, he said he gave up acting and concentrated on writing.
His résumé would come to include works much headier than the formulaic “Superman” plots - plays, many of them written in verse, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a libretto for the Virgil Thomson opera “Lord Byron” and texts for classical music compositions.
He also had producer credits on the movies “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Perfect,” “Mike’s Murder,” and “The Baby Maker,” which he made in the 1970s and ‘80s with director-writer James Bridges, his companion of more than 30 years, who died in 1993.
Along the way, Larson’s attitude toward Jimmy softened.
“Everywhere I go, I get the warmest feelings from people about Jimmy,” he told the Times. “They love him and I grew to feel that I could never have done anything more special than be Jimmy Olsen.”
He even got to be Jimmy again in his later years, playing an elderly Olsen in the television show “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” in 1996. He and Noel Neill, who portrayed Lois Lane on “Adventures of Superman,” both appeared in the 2006 film “Superman Returns.” In that movie, Larson played a bartender who wore a bow tie.
Writing and reporting by Bill Trott in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Cooney