Actor considered the best Lois Lane to appear opposite Superman
Noel Neill as Lois Lane with George Reeves as Superman in the Adventures of Superman television series in the 1950s.
There may be some argument about who was the best screen Superman, Christopher Reeve or George Reeves, or even Henry Cavill, but most agree thatNoel Neill, who has died aged 95, was the best of all those who played the superhero’s love interest, Lois Lane.
Neill took the role of the Metropolis Daily Planet reporter who ran circles around Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, in two movie serials and 78 episodes of the hit television series, between 1948 and 1958. She pitched her portrayal somewhere between struggling career girl and screwball comedian, and was particularly effective in Lane’s battles with the fiery editor, Perry White. As Jack Larson, who played the cub reporter Jimmy Olsen in the TV show, put it, “she had this wonderful perky touch to Lois Lane, and basically she could do everything in one take”.
Neill 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. Her first substantial part came as the neglected daughter of a party-loving mother in Are These Our Parents? (1944), but, despite being voted by US servicemen as their second favourite pin-up, just behind Betty Grable, she was confined by Paramount mainly to bit parts: you can spot her, uncredited, playing a hat-check girl in The Blue Dahlia (1946).
She moved to smaller studios, her most notable role coming in Republic’s Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948). But it was a series of seven “teenager” films she made at Monogram that proved crucial to her career. She played Betty Rogers, a reporter on the high-school paper, and the producer of those films, Sam Katzman, remembered her when he was asked to recommend someone for the role of Lois Lane in Columbia Pictures’ 1948 serial Superman, starring Kirk Alyn.
The pair reprised the roles in another serial, Atom Man v Superman, two years later, but in 1951, when producers put together a feature film as a dry run for a TV series, George Reeves and Phyllis Coates were cast to play Superman and Lane. The TV show that followed, Adventures of Superman, was an immediate hit in 1952, but other commitments forced Coates to leave after the first season, and Neill took her place.
Neill remained with Superman until the programme was cancelled in 1958 after Reeves’s 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 was born in Minneapolis, where her father, David Neill, was news editor of the Star Tribune. Her mother, LaVere (formerly Gorsboth), had been a vaudeville dancer, and Noel began lessons at the age of four – she attended dance school with the young Andrews Sisters. Her professionalism came naturally. By the time she was nine she had 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 that she pursue journalism; by the time she had finished high school she had written for Woman’s Wear Daily. But after graduation she and her mother headed for Hollywood, where she was hired by Bing Crosby to sing at his Del Mar Turf Club. His brother, Larry, became her agent, and landed her a contract with Paramount Pictures.
Her last film role was in Lawless Rider (1954), and she played in many of the early TV programmes that were extensions of the B-movie and serial factories, including The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid and Racket Squad. She later worked in United Artists’ TV department, at one point handling Tom Selleck’s fan mail.
She returned to the screen to play the mother of Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman movie, reunited with Alyn as Lane’s father. She was unbilled. But fans recognised her and she became a popular presence at film and comic book conventions and fan gatherings. She also appeared 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 Selleck presented her with a Golden Boot award, for her acting in western films and programmes. And in 2010 she was named first lady of Metropolis, Illinois, commemorated by a statue in the town centre.
The sculpture is of her as Lois Lane, the first career woman many youngsters encountered in the 50s, but one fated to be remembered as having “spent most of [my] time bound, gagged and waiting for the bomb to go off”.
Neill’s first marriage was annulled. Two further marriages ended in divorce.
• Noel Darleen Neill, actor, born 25 November 1920; died 3 July 2016