(Corrects this July 4 story to deletes reference to Neill in “Superman and the Mole Men” in sixth paragraph.)
By Bill Trott
Actress Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane, the intrepid reporter on the “Adventures of Superman” television series who never quite figured out her Daily Planet colleague Clark Kent was The Man of Steel, has died at the age of 95, a friend said on Monday.
Neill died on Sunday at her home in Tucson, Arizona, after a long illness, Jim Nolt, the owner of “The Adventures Continue” website dedicated to the 1950s TV show, said in a statement.
Neill was born on Nov. 25, 1920, in Minneapolis, where her father was a journalist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Shortly after high school she traveled to California and found a job as a singer at a restaurant at the Del Mar racetrack. Her connections at the track led to a contract with the Paramount movie studio.
She had a series of small film roles, many of them uncredited, in the 1940s. There was no substantial work until 1948, when Columbia Pictures borrowed Neill to make 15 episodes of a comic book-based movie serial about a man from another planet who discovers he has super-human strength and is impervious to bullets.
Kirk Alyn was cast as the star of “Superman” and the petite red-headed, blue-eyed Neill was Lois Lane, his friend and co-worker at the Daily Planet.
Neither was cast when “Adventures of Superman” was adapted for television.
But when the original TV Lois Lane, Phyllis Coates, left the show after one season, Neill stepped back into the role that would define her career and make her part of one of American television’s most enduring series.
The show hit the air just as television was becoming a social force in the United States and became a favorite of generations of children, with a long life through reruns.
The TV Superman, as played by George Reeves, was faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive in his blue tights and red cape as he fought a never-ending battle for “truth, justice and the American way.”
But he was just a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper when he put on his suit and thick-framed glasses as his alter ego, Clark Kent, to work with Lois and cub reporter Jimmy Olsen.
Lois Lane was quite competent but her quests to uncover big stories for the Daily Planet always landed her in formulaic peril. It was up to Superman to shed his Clark Kent identity, often in a phone booth, and then swoop in late in the show and rescue her from a variety of evil-doers.
Along the way, Lane developed a crush on Superman - even dreaming in one episode that they were to be married - but she was oddly cool toward Kent. Lane never noticed that when Kent would disappear, Superman would appear suddenly to save her and that the two men were never seen together.
Neill said she was often asked why Lane never caught on to Kent’s secret identity, and would respond, “I didn’t want to lose my job.”
“Adventures of Superman” went off the air in 1958. Plans for a new season ended in 1959 with the gunshot death of Reeves, which was ruled a suicide. With that, Neill ended her career.
“I just figured I’d worked enough,” she told the New York Times in 2006. “I didn’t have any great ambition. Basically, I‘m a beach bum. I was married, we lived near the beach. That was enough for me.”
When the Superman franchise was revived in 1978 as a big-budget movie with Christopher Reeve in the starring role, Neill made a cameo appearance as Lane’s mother. In 2006, she had a quickie role in “Superman Returns,” as did Jack Larson, who had played Jimmy Olsen in the TV series. They both appeared in a 1991 episode of the “Superboy” show, and Larson died last September at 87.
Neill also served as the model for the statue of Lois Lane, poised with pen and notepad, that was unveiled in 2010 in Metropolis, Illinois, which promotes itself as Superman’s hometown.
Reporting and writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Peter Cooney and Dan Grebler