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A Crush More Powerful Than a Locomotive

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I think I became a journalist because of Clark Kent. It wasn’t my first career preference, I assure you. Had I figured out how to fly, I’m sure I would have opted for Superman. Kent--at least as portrayed by the late George Reeves in the old “The Adventures of Superman"--seemed like the next best thing.

From the ages of 4 to 8 that TV show was the centerpiece of my life. I wore red capes, I stretched out my arms and whoossshed. I disguised myself with sunglasses. My mother used the promise of watching “Superman” to stop me from crying when I got tetanus shots. She sewed me a man-of-steel suit. Later, when I grew up, I became a Clark Kent kind of guy. You know, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper (the old Herald-Examiner, on a good day), with glasses.

Naturally, I’ve always been in love with Lois Lane.

No, I don’t mean Margot Kidder or Teri Hatcher or various others who have played the role well enough. To me, there is only one Lois Lane--the unflappable, perky, sweet version from the old 1940s serials and the majority of the “Adventures of Superman” series. I’m talking about the lovely Noel Neill.

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A couple months ago, while watching a late-night rerun of the “Mrs. Superman” episode (in which Lois marries Clark/Superman in a dream sequence), still feeling the ache of unrequited affection, I decided to do something about it. I’d been Clark Kent-ing around long enough. It was time to put away mild manners.

So I called her up and asked for a date. (All right, an interview.) Lois--I mean Noel. After repeatedly getting her answering machine (it chirped, “I’m off to the Daily Planet! Leave a message"--no kidding), I finally reached her. And she accepted.

She has beautiful, wavy silver hair now, and has aged as gracefully as the cliche hasn’t. Her voice--the clear, lyrical Minnesota, land-of-10,000-lakes variety--hasn’t really changed. We met at her charming Santa Monica Canyon home of 30-plus years, chatted in her sunny, orange- and yellow-highlighted living room, then strolled down the hill to famed Patrick’s Roadhouse for lunch.

“You know, George (Reeves) directed part of the ‘Mrs. Superman’ episode, where I dreamed I was going to marry him,” she recalled, sipping coffee and raising her voice above PCH traffic. “It was really quite a cute little thing. At the very end, before I realize I’ve been dreaming, George and Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen) and John Hamilton (Perry White) come to see why I haven’t come to work. I rush up to George and say, ‘Oh, darling!’ And then, when I find out it’s been a dream, I actually shed a little tear.”

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Which is exactly what Neill did as she retold this story, remarking apologetically, “certain little things make me misty.”

And well they might. Reeves died in 1959 of a gunshot wound in what was officially ruled a suicide. (Friends suspected foul play.) A dispirited Neill promptly quit acting and went to work in public relations. She and Larson, who later became a highly respected writer of plays and opera librettos, have since “carried the flag” for the beloved old series, touring colleges extensively in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Neill still makes the occasional appearance at the more well-run and dignified celebrations.

Her most memorable convention anecdote is so good it bears repeating:

“A fellow came up to me,” she told me. “Obviously, from the way he looked, he was with a rock group--and he was, shall I say, very ‘happy.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Oooohhhhhhh! You know what I used to do when I was little?’ I said ‘No, I don’t know what you did.’ He said, ‘Well, I used to run home from school, run in the house, crawl under our television set, and try to look up your dress!’ I loved that.”

We spent most of the afternoon talking of: her father, Minneapolis newspaperman George Neill, a respected editor of the ‘40s and ‘50s who wanted his little girl to be a reporter; how in a way, he got his wish. Of how placid L.A. and Hollywood used to be; of a more innocent Santa Monica beach where Neill and girlfriends played volleyball and “chased boys.” Of how her name is real, is pronounced like “the first Noel,” and had nothing to do with Christmas (she was born on Thanksgiving). And of her storybook career, a kind of hometown-girl-makes-good tale from a Hollywood that no longer exists.

“Mother and I drove out here (in the mid-'40s), visiting relatives along the way,” she said. “Through a friendly neighbor, we stayed a while in Hollywood. This neighbor was a musician who said, ‘Oh, I heard you used to sing a little bit.’ He said that an orchestra was looking for a singer--'why don’t you come down and audition?’ Anyway, I got the job, and it was for one season down at the Del Mar racetrack. Naturally, I met a lot of people, and agents, and the next thing I knew I was working at Paramount!”

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It was all on the up-and-up, she said. No casting couch stuff--thanks, in part, to Bing Crosby, whom she met while singing at Del Mar. (Crosby was one of the big stockholders of the track.) One sunny afternoon on the Paramount lot, der Bingle tooled up behind Neill on his bicycle, lazily buh-buh-booing to himself. “Hi, Noel,” he said, “how’s everything?” Fine, said Noel. “Well,” said Bing, “if anybody gives you any trouble or anything, you just call my brother and it will be taken care of.” Said Noel: “His brother Larry was an agent. I said, ‘thank you.’ Well, that probably helped a lot.”

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The Midwestern girl with the dark red hair and blue-gray eyes suddenly found herself much in demand. Often loaned to other studios (like many actors of the day), Neill wound up working for MGM, RKO, Warner Bros., Republic and Monogram by her mid-20s. Mostly, there were gobs of Westerns and bit parts and B movies (including a Charlie Chan movie called “Sky Dragon” and “Lady of Burlesque,” with Barbara Stanwyck).

“In the old days, you could get a job. It was, ‘Well, maybe we need a brunette or a blonde for the part'--it was simple. . . . If you had a break in shooting, you could always do a couple of days in a Western.”

I asked how Lois--er, Noel--became Lois? Like she said, it was simple. Someone merely tipped her off to the part in a Superman movie serial, starring Kirk Alyn as Superman, and she got it. The serial’s popularity led to the casting of a TV series in 1951. Neill joined the TV show when its first Lois, Phyllis Coates, quit after the first 26 episodes. Neill defined the part over the next 76.

“They were wonderful people,” she said. “George was a gentle, kind-spirited guy. That was his charm. That was him. He was like a Southern gentleman on the set. Always in a game of gin rummy on the set. John (Hamilton), who was in so many movies, was quite a storyteller. . . . Jack and I--he lives not far away--are closer than we’ve ever been.”

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As our talk went on, I still found myself blurring the actress and her famous character. I’d known Lois, after all, a lot longer than Neill. Then it hit me--the main difference between the two, perhaps, is that Neill wouldn’t have hung around waiting for Superman to get her out of a jam. This is a person who regularly treks off to such places as the Galapagos, to see those noble tortoises, or Komodo Island, to look at the famed dragons.

There’s a kind of super-analogy here; I think Lois was Noel’s mild-mannered alter ego. Although not so mild that Miss Lane didn’t have an unexpected impact on girls, way back when. A touch of surprise, even pride, slipped into Neill’s voice when she told me:

“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 said. “They said that’s how they got into journalism. It was very flattering that the character inspired them.”

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Late in the day, with a brisk breeze coming off the ocean, we walked back to the home she shares with her cat, Fang, and pored over a giant scrapbook. “There’s the kid,” she said with some amusement, as we scanned clipping after clipping of a long-legged starlet in newspapers and magazines (“what they used to call ‘leg art’ ”)--everything from Louella Parsons’ column to reports in the hometown Minneapolis press.

Looking at all the pictures, I must say I found myself wishing that my decades might have coincided a little more conveniently with those of Noel Neill.

But then, who was I kidding? She never had a romantic interest in Clark Kent kinds of guys anyhow. Or was that just her character’s preference? Either way, I might as well face it. To her I’ll always be another one of those little kids from the 1950s who crawled under the TV and tried to see up Lois Lane’s dress.

By the way, it didn’t work.


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