John Hamilton, George Reeves, Jack Larson, and Noel Neill. (From "Truth,
Justice, and the American Way.")
The San Francisco Adventures of Lois Lane
by Hank Donat
a single career woman on television 20 years before Mary Tyler
Moore. As Lois Lane in the 1950s series The Adventures of Superman,
Noel Neill may have left audiences wondering what use this feisty, strong-willed
woman would have for a man of steel in the first place.
Now in her 80s and still able to leap Margot Kidder in a single bound,
Neill visited San Francisco last week to promote a new book about her
life and career.
Witnessing the affection that San Franciscans have for the star and
her unforgettable character was a rare treat. The spirited Neill seemed
to charm everyone in her presence, from the Marina to City Hall to the
Castro, during a week-long tour of the city, her first visit here since
At Boboquivari's steak joint on Lombard Street, planning commissioner
Bill Lee, Supervisor Fiona Ma, redevelopment commissioner Benny Yee,
port commissioner Pius Lee, insurance agent Jason Gee, and Jack and
Judy Yu of the new Sake Lab on Broadway have gathered around to hear
a memory of Superman or to share one of their own.
Foreshadowing her TV gig as a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper,
Neill had every intention of becoming a journalist in real life until
she was hired by Bing Crosby to sing at the race track at Del Mar. "I'd
still be in Minneapolis if it weren't for Bing," she says.
Neill, who now lives in Santa Monica, sang at both the Fairmont and
the Mark Hopkins on her way to becoming famous around the world as "Superman's
It's a staple of Hollywood history that Betty Grable's
pin-up was #1 among G.I.s during World War II, but it may be news to
you that the #2 poster girl
was Noel Neill. Her career is detailed in the new biography by Larry
Ward titled "Truth, Justice, and the American Way."
As the sun sets in Superman colors over the distant Presidio behind
her, Neill discusses such juicy topics as co-star George Reeves alleged
suicide - she doesnÕt believe it was - and Neill's take on Phyllis Coates,
the actress who played Lois Lane in Superman's first season. (Neill
created the role in a 1948 serial, making her the original Lois.)
"I read in an interview once that Phyllis visited the set after leaving
the show," says Neill, "She said she came to see me in my dressing room
and that I slammed the door in her face. If we had had any kind of budget
I might have had a dressing room!"
Neill says she's still friends with Jack Larson, who played cub reporter
Jimmy Olsen. "I visit him from time to time with his... other," she
said. "Do you mean 'significant other?'" I ask. "Yes," Neill says, "but
everyone's significant." At this time I could be counted among those
so charmed by the vibrant actress, a veteran of 90 films. (The Internet
Movie Database names 70, but Ward says he has uncovered a number of
Neill's earlier roles and bit parts.)
I catch Neill rolling her eyes when someone, without a trace of irony,
calls her Lois, but Neill says she doesn't really mind. She's seen her
share of comic conventions.
This is an opening for me to take my glasses off and on a few times
and say, "See, it's still me. Couldn't you tell he was Superman?" Neill
is already in on the act, "I knew it all along," she says, "I just didn't
want to lose my job."
The next day, Neill is standing in front of the Hotel Diva on Geary
Street with publicist Stefano Cassolato and Diva owner Yvonne Lembi-Detert.
Along comes John Handlery, general manager of the Handlery Union Square
Hotel a block away. Handlery recognizes Neill at once and introduces
himself as an admirer.
Cassolato is on the ready with a camera, but would Handlery allow himself
to be photographed in front of someone else's hotel? "You bet," says
Handlery, "but I wouldnÕt for Della Street."
At City Hall, Neill soaks in the atmosphere under the magnificent dome
and marble stairs. When I tell her that City Hall is second only to
the U.S. Capitol in stature among municipal buildings Neill is impressed.
"I was honored by the city of Los Angeles once but the place was a little
trashy," she says, "That's L.A." Well said by a woman second in stature
only to Betty Grable.
Later, the Board of Supervisors is in session. Supervisor Tom Ammiano
has been fanning himself with a report. He is clearly ready for a break.
Reading Neill's name from a proclamation, Supervisor Ma announces that
Lois Lane is in the chambers. Ammiano springs to life. Supervisor Bevan
Dufty is also beaming.
Ammiano says he was chastised in Catholic school for watching Superman
because the nuns said the character had godlike powers. Dufty professes
that it was vicariously through Lois Lane that he first discovered his
own penchant for men in tights.
Before leaving City Hall, I introduce Neill to Ronald
East, the cable car grip operator who won the 40th Annual Cable Car
Bell Ringing Championship a few days earlier. "Lois
Lane, meet the Ding Dong Daddy," an only-in-SF moment to be savored!
Cassolato and company keep Neill on the run and well fed with stops
at Judy's Cafe, Il Destino, Tommaso's, Firenze by Night, and New Delhi.
At the U.S. Restaurant, Neill, who is petite, tells me she has a sweet
tooth and proves it by polishing off a tiramisu and a cannolli.
After just a few days in the city Neill had already
signed 75 autographs, with an
appearance at Books Inc. on Market still ahead of her. Compliments
on her good looks and vitality come in endless succession.
Throughout my encounters with the visitor from Metropolis, I ask myself
what would cause so many people to adore Neill and Lois Lane so deeply
and so openly.
On Tuesday evening at Tommy's Joynt on Geary, the theatrical producer
Jack Anderson remarks that we are living in an era with a critical mass
of religious, political, and cultural institutions that have fallen
into ruin and discredit. Superman is paralyzed.
It is obvious then that Lois Lane has become a great icon for optimism
and survival. It just feels right that the character would have gone
on as a strong, fun, happy senior lady. Noel Neill is, as always, perfect
in the role.
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