Friday, 8 July 2016

NOEL NEILL: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of the wonderful Noel Neill, the Lois Lane I and my generation grew up with, is online at The Guardian now, you can link to it here. But it's been revamped a bit by the paper from what I originally wrote--mostly a kind of reordering--and I think it makes better sense as originally written, so here it is. Phyllis Coates was more classically beautiful than Neill (in fact I saw a number of outlets who used a picture of Coates with George Reeves to illustrate their obits and one that had Neill posed with Kirk Alyn and billed Alyn as Reeves) but Neill had that wonderful combination of pizzaz and vulnerability that made the character work in the context of Saturday serials and the serials' offspring on early 50s TV. You could still see that energy in photos of Neill well into her 80s, making appearances and looking remarkably youthful, energetic, and, as ever, happy. RIP.

NOEL NEILL: THE GREATEST LOIS LANE



There may be some argument about who the best screen Superman was, Christopher Reeve, George Reeves or one of the more recent actors all have their proponents. But there seems an almost universal agreement that Noel Neill, who has died aged 95, was the best of all the actresses who played Lois Lane, the ace reporter who frequently required rescuing by Superman while serving as his love interest, but who ran circles around Superman's alter-ego, Clark Kent, at the Metropolis Daily Planet. Neill played Lane in two movie serials and then in 78 episodes of the hit television series, pitching her somewhere between struggling career girl and screwball comedy, particularly effective in her battles with the fiery editor Perry White (John Hamilton). As Jack Larson, who played cub reporter Jimmy Olsen on the TV show put it, 'she had this wonderful perky touch to Lois Lane, and basically she could do everything in one take.' She was the television show's last surviving member.

Her professionalism came naturally. Neill was born 25 November 1920 in Minneapolis, where her father David was news editor of the Star Tribune. Her mother, LaVere, had been a vaudeville dancer, and Noel began lessons at age four; she attended dance school with the young Andrews Sisters. By the time she was nine she'd made her debut singing on the radio, and while still in high school toured with the Andrews Sisters performing throughout the midwest. Her father would have preferred she pursue journalism; by the time she'd finished high school she'd written for Woman's Wear Daily. But after graduation she and her mother headed for Hollywood, where she got hired by Bing Crosby to sing at his Del Mar Turf Club. She also appeared with Bing's brother Bob's band, but another brother, Larry, became her agent, and landed her a contract with Paramount Pictures. 


She made her film debut, unbilled, in Mad Youth (1940) and got her first billing in a Henry Aldrich comedy Henry and Dizzy two years later. In October 1943 she married make-up artist Harold Lierley, but the marriage was quickly annulled. By that time she'd also become the second-most popular pin up for US servicemen, after only Betty Grable.  Her first substantial part came as the neglected and 'nubile' daughter of a party-girl mother in Are These Our Parents (1944), but despite her popularity with the troops, Paramount confined her to mostly bit parts; you can spot her, uncredited, playing a hatcheck girl in The Blue Dahlia (see below left). She moved to smaller studios, with her most notable role coming in Republic's Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948). But it was a series of seven 'Teen Ager' films she made at Monogram which proved crucial to her career. She played Betty Rogers, a reporter on the high school paper, and producer Sam Katzman remembered that when he recommended her for the role of Lois Lane in Columbia Pictures' 1948 serial Superman, starring Kirk Alyn.

The pair reprised the roles in a serial, Atom Man versus Superman, two years later, but in 1951, when producers put together a feature film as a dry-run for a TV series, Superman was played by George Reeves and Lane by Phyllis Coates. The show was an immediate hit in 1952, but other commitments forced Coates to leave after the first season and Neill took her place, making the part her own. She continued with small parts; oddly, she played bits in back-to-back Oscar winners: An American In Paris (1951) and The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), both times unbilled, sadly. Her last film role was Lawless Rider, released in 1954, but she also appeared in many of the early television programmes which were extensions of the B movie and serial factories, including The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid and Racket Squad. Neill remained with Superman until the show was cancelled in 1958 following Reeves' death, a presumed suicide, at which point she retired. 'I didn't have any great ambition,' she said. 'Basically I'm a beach bum. I was married, we lived near the beach, that was enough for me.'

She had married William Behrens in 1953; they divorced in 1962, and she married Joel Taylor. They would divorce seven years later. She went to work at United Artists' television department, at one point handling Tom Selleck's fan mail. She returned to the screen in Richard Donner's 1978 Superman movie, reunited with Kirk Alyn to play Lois Lane (Margot Kidder)'s parents. She was, of course, unbilled. But fans recognised her and she became a popular presence at film and comic book conventions and fan gatherings. She would also appear, with Jack Larson, in the 1991 TV series Superboy, and as a woman leaving all her money to Superman's nemesis Lex Luthor in Superman Returns (2006).

In 2003 her publicist, Larry Ward, published a biography of Neill called Truth Justice and the American Way. The following year Tom Selleck presented her with a Golden Boot award, for her acting in western films and TV. And in 2010 she was named First Lady of Metropolis, Illinois, and the following year a statue of her was unveiled in the town centre. It pictures her as Lois Lane, the first career woman many youngsters encountered in the Fifties, but one fated to be remembered as one who 'spent most of (my) time bound, gagged and waiting for the bomb to go off.' She died 3 July 2016, after a long illness, in Tuscon, Arizona, and leaves no survivors.

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