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Noel Neill dies at 95; first actress to play Lois Lane

Noel Neill dies at 95; first actress to play Lois Lane
Noel Neill, pictured with George Reeves in a still from the television series "Adventures of Superman," circa 1955, died at her home in Arizona. She was 95. (Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images)

Noel Neill, the petite, red-haired actress best known for playing spunky Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane on TV's "Adventures of Superman" in the 1950s, died July 3 at her home in Tucson, according to the Associated Press. She was 95.

A minor Paramount contract player and a World War II GI pinup girl, Neill had appeared in nearly 40 movies before she had her first encounter with Lois Lane: playing her in the 1948 Columbia Pictures movie serial “Superman,” starring Kirk Alyn as Clark Kent/Superman.

Neill reprised her role opposite Alyn in the 1950 serial "Atom Man vs. Superman." She then reclaimed the role for the second season of television's "Adventures of Superman" in 1953, after Phyllis Coates was unable to return to the series.

She later said that, at first, she viewed playing Lois Lane on TV as just a job. She remarked that she and Jack Larson as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen spent much of their time "bound, gagged and waiting for the bomb to go off."

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It wasn't until much later that she discovered Lois had been a role model for girls at a time when few professional working women were portrayed on television.

"Quite a few of the little gals at the colleges would say they were inspired when they were growing up by the fact that Lois Lane could work with men," she told The Times in a 1994 interview. "They said that's how they got into journalism. It was very flattering that the character inspired them."

She saw Lois Lane as a working girl like herself, said Larry Thomas Ward, author of the authorized 2003 biography "Truth, Justice & the American Way: The Life and Times of Noel Neill: The Original Lois Lane." She said, 'I basically patterned her after me.'"

"One thing I learned about Noel from working with her," Ward told The Times, "is she really is exactly the same person you saw on the screen. She really did play herself."

Neill always spoke highly of Reeves, whom she described as a good-humored Southern gentleman who treated her well during the run of the series, which ended production in 1957.

When Reeves died of a gunshot wound to the head in 1959, the coroner who participated in the autopsy confirmed police findings that his death was a suicide. But Neill and others doubted that Reeves killed himself.

"I don't have the facts either way," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1997. "But I know that a couple of weeks before his death, we had been called by Mr. Ellsworth, who told us that he had some new scripts and we were going to do the show again. George was happy as a bug; he was going to direct half of the next 26 episodes. He wasn't depressed at all."

Neill retired from acting in 1960.

"I just figured I'd worked enough; I didn't have any great ambition," she told the New York Times in 2006. "Basically, I'm a beach bum. I was married, we lived near the beach; that was enough for me."

Playing a reporter on television wasn't much of a stretch for Neill, who once had journalistic ambitions.

The daughter of a journalist who became news editor at the Minneapolis Star, she was born in Minneapolis on Nov. 25, 1920.

Her mother was a former vaudeville dancer in New York, and Neill began taking singing and dancing lessons at age 4.

She appeared in plays and musicals as a child and gave her first professional performance in the vaudeville production of "Kid Nite Follies" in 1930 at the RKO Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.

In her teens, she was a singing and dancing banjo player in a trio that played state and county fairs throughout the Midwest, and she began singing professionally with Midwestern bands while still in high school.

Neill, however, planned to major in journalism at the University of Minnesota. But that changed after she took a post-graduation road trip to California with her mother in 1938.

Hired to sing with a band at the Hotel Del Mar while in California, the 17-year-old Neill quickly caught the attention of Bing Crosby, co-owner of the Del Mar Race Track, who hired her and the band to sing at the Turf Club.

Neill went on to sing with a number of other bands before appearing in her first film in 1941.

Signed to a contract with Paramount in 1943, she worked steadily, including appearing in a few of the "Henry Aldrich" comedies. Frequently loaned out to other studios, she appeared in more than a dozen westerns and played high school newspaper editor Betty Rogers in Monogram's low-budget "Teen Agers" series.

But "Superman" remained Neill's enduring claim to fame, thanks to reruns and nostalgia-minded fans who grew up watching the old series.

During the nostalgia boom in the 1970s, Neill became a popular speaker on the college circuit, talking about her days as Lois. And she appeared at comic book conventions and collector autograph shows over the years.

Beginning in the late '60s, Neill spent nearly eight years working for a Los Angeles auctioneer and real estate firm. She later worked in the publicity department for United Artists and wound up in the television division, helping sell shows to TV stations in the West.

Neill, who also spent many years handling fan mail for actor Tom Selleck, returned to the big screen in a cameo as Lois Lane's mother in the 1978 movie "Superman."

She also made a guest appearance in a 1991 episode of "The Adventures of Superboy" and played a dying wealthy widow in the opening of the 2006 movie "Superman Returns."

For many years, Neill made regular appearances at the annual Superman celebration in Metropolis, Ill., the self-proclaimed "Hometown of Superman," where she was dubbed the "First Lady of Metropolis."

In June 2010, she was on hand for the city's unveiling of a larger-than-life-size bronze statue of Lois Lane modeled after her, complete with pen and notepad.

The twice married and divorced Neill had no children.

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UPDATES:

July 10, 11 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details.

July 5, 7:31 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 6:26 a.m. on July 5.

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