In the early 1950s, when Jack Larson was offered a role in a new Superman TV series, he was loath to accept. Playing the hapless sidekick of a caped superhero on a kids’ show had no appeal for an actor with dreams of Broadway stardom.
But his agent prevailed, largely by arguing that the show would probably never be broadcast.
“No one may ever know you’ve done it. So just take the money and run,” Larson, recalling the agent’s words, told the Indianapolis Star decades later.
He took the money but, to his chagrin, “The Adventures of Superman” became a tremendous hit after its 1952 debut. The show indelibly fixed Larson in the public’s mind as Jimmy Olsen, the effervescent, cub reporter in a bow tie who works alongside Clark Kent and Lois Lane at the fictional Daily Planet newspaper.
For the Record, Sept. 21 3:15 p.m.: An earlier version of this story said that Jack Larson was 82. He was 87.
Larson, who turned to writing plays when he realized that he could not escape the character remembered for lines like “Golly, Mr. Kent” and “Jeepers,” died Sunday at his home in Brentwood. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by writer-director Alan Howard, a longtime friend. The cause was not immediately known, but Howard said Larson had not been ill and “died peacefully with his beloved dog Charlie” nearby.
Larson was born in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 1928, and grew up in Montebello. His father drove a milk truck and his mother worked for Western Union; they divorced when their son was a child.
He was interested in journalism as a career but was not a stellar student, often ditching class to go bowling. Encouraged by teachers to read Shakespeare, he began writing and directing plays at Pasadena City College. Discovered there by talent scouts from Warner Bros., he was cast in the 1948 film “Fighter Squadron,” directed by Raoul Walsh.
A few years later, he was offered the role of Olsen, the energetic cub reporter and magnet for evil-doers who truss him up, kidnap him and lock him in vaults until Kent as the Man of Steel comes to his rescue.
“The Adventures of Superman,” which originally aired from 1952 to 1957, cast Larson into the pop culture pantheon. The bow tie he wore as Jimmy Olsen later went to the Smithsonian, preserved along with Archie Bunker’s armchair, the Fonz’s leather jacket and a pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
At the time, however, being Jimmy Olsen felt like a trap.
“I was really bitter for years, about being typed, and it absolutely wrecked my acting career,” Larson told the New York Daily News in 1996. “I quit acting and wrote because I just couldn’t get a job. They didn’t want Jimmy Olsen walking through their films.”
He wasn’t the only cast member who was typecast. Noel Neill as Lane quit acting after the show ended. Opportunities for George Reeves, who had appeared in dozens of films, including “Gone With the Wind,” also dried up after “The Adventures of Superman”; his 1959 death from a gunshot to the head was ruled a suicide.
For years, Larson refused to give interviews about playing Olsen in the hope that the public’s memory of his portrayal would fade. One of his first major credits as a playwright was “The Candied House,” a play that retold the Hansel and Gretel story in verse. It opened in 1966 at the Bing Center Theater in Los Angeles and earned critics’ praise.
Margaret Harford, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called it “an enchanting discovery for young and old” created by “a young writer with a poet’s gift and an actor’s theatrical eye.”
His proudest achievement was as librettist for the opera “Lord Byron,” about the flamboyant English poet. Composed by Virgil Thomson and directed by Oscar-winning actor John Houseman, it opened at the Juilliard Theater in New York in 1972.
It received mixed reviews. One of the harshest notices came from Martin Bernheimer of the Los Angeles Times, who pronounced it “a colossal exercise in operatic ineptitude and pretension.”
In the 1980s Larson teamed up with his life partner, writer-director James Bridges, to produce a number of Bridges’ films, including “Mike’s Murder,” starring Debra Winger, in 1984; “Perfect,” with John Travolta, in 1985; and “Bright Lights, Big City,” starring Michael J. Fox, in 1988.
Larson lived with Bridges in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home known as the George Sturges House. After Bridges died of cancer in 1993, he donated $500,000 from the Bridges/Larson Foundation to upgrade a theater at UCLA and name it after his longtime companion.
Larson had no immediate survivors.
After years of trying to ignore the role that made him famous, he came to terms with his legacy and returned to acting.
In 1991, he appeared in an episode of “Superboy,” a syndicated show focusing on Clark Kent as a college student, although he did not play Olsen. He finally returned to the part several years later, portraying an older Olsen in an episode of “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” And in the 2006 film “Superman Returns,” he was cast as a bartender in a scene with actor Brandon Routh as Kent.
“I know that, though I go on writing, and if I should win the Pulitzer Prize, and indeed the Nobel Prize, when they write my obituary it will say, ‘Jack Larson, best remembered as Jimmy Olsen on the popular 1950s Superman series,’ ” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “I’m pleased with it, I’m proud of it, and I would certainly do it again in hindsight.
“It’s nice not to be forgotten.”
Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this article.