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Jack Larson’s Life As Superman's Jimmy Olsen in the 1950sJack Larson’s Suprising Life As Superman's Jimmy Olsen in the 1950s

By Billy Ingram

The Adventures of Superman is one of very few 1950s dramatic TV series that can be watched and enjoyed by each new generation. Almost 70 years old, it really holds up well. The actor who played Superman’s sidekick Jimmy Olsen, Jack Larson, was interviewed by the Television Academy about that experience. I invite you to watch the entire interview but here are a few highlights:

“Superman went on the air in 1953 in New York on ABC,” Larson said. “At the time, it became an instant success. I love Lucy was already a huge success, that went on the air, I guess in '52… I'm not aware of the timings of these things and I wasn't reading TV Guide or whatever at the time. But, we went on the air, and within a month… [I went] from being a young actor that was doing live television, reading things, I had become [what] People magazine called, the TV Teen Idol. And I'd become Jimmy Olsen and everything that I had been able to do before ... and I’d been in movies, but nobody cared like that. I wasn't a movie star or that kind of thing, but now I couldn't take the subway. If I went on the subway… it was a nightmare on the subway.”

Larson had gone from obscurity to being massively famous, at least with the younger set. “I was asked to leave the little restaurant…” Larson said. “I had taken a basement apartment off of Madison Avenue and I was having breakfast there one morning, a very late breakfast and neighborhood kids, they had their lunch break and they saw Jimmy Olsen in this place. And, suddenly the streets were crowded and the police had to come in and get me out from these kids who saw Superman's pal, and they took me around the corner to the Metropolitan Museum. So my life turned upside down and this was not my idea of a good experience. I got panicked by it and I refused to do any publicity.

“I know since later in life… how important it is for people to be gracious about doing publicity when working for them. But I wouldn't do anything. I wouldn't do a magazine interview. I wouldn't do anything because I thought everything I do as Jimmy Olsen publicity is just a further nail in my coffin as an actor, Jack Larson.”

As it turned out, no amount of avoiding the press would allow the actor to escape that iconic role. He became forever typecast as the goofy kid reporter. “I could have done everything,” Jack Larson said. “It didn't matter, because it never let up, and I was typed and I became Jimmy Olsen, which is why you are interviewing today, not because of a lot of things I did. I did good films."

That’s when Larson turned to other avenues of show business, “I freaked out about the whole thing for many, many years and decided to turn my attentions elsewhere, writing and such, but because I just felt I couldn't be acting because all the problems about being typed.”

Larson had tried to get out from under his Superman contract ,which was quite draconian by today’s standard. As long as National / DC Comics wanted to produce new episodes of The Adventures of Superman he had to be on set to play Jimmy Olsen.

“I tried to get out of the role,” Larson stated. “Because I had a contract and - it's not understandable now, the world being completely different - but in my point of view, the family I came from, when you signed a contract, you honored the contract. And I had a contract with them. It was a very peculiar contract in which they could exercise an option on me, at any point by sending me a telegram. And 30 days later, I would come to work.”

The shooting schedule lasted 26 weeks, 26 episodes. “So, presumably I had 26 weeks free. You come to work for them, in 30 days upon them exercising the option on my services. And I was once offered another show by ABC, a thing called Waldo. I guess this was in '54 or something, about a young man, a rich young man, who lived with a chimpanzee. But I don't know if they would have, let me out of my contract, anyway.”

“I never did what James Arness did, much to his credit, to walk out on Gunsmoke because I was very popular on this show and I knew I was popular on the show. There was no question. Then they started really writing the shows around Jimmy basically.” He’d ask for more money and get a begrudging $50 raise. “They'd say, ‘Well, you know what this is going to come from? Right off of our heads, we can't afford this kind of thing. But okay, if it makes you happy.’ Pardon me?”

In 1959, after 6 seasons (the last 4 of which were 13 episodes each) the producers had decided to film another 26 episodes to fatten the syndication package. “By that time I couldn't get a job in the United States. I went off to Germany and I was doing a film in Germany at Bavaria Film Kunst in Munich, and they [National / DC] exercised my option. And I was supposed to come back and they were in preparation for 26 shows.”

Then, in June of 1959, George Reeves was either killed or committed suicide. “And I got all [these telegrams] when George had died and then I thought, ‘Well, we're not going to film anymore.’" Larson said.

The Adventures of Superman TV ShowNational / DC had other ideas, with some scattered scenes filmed with George Reeves that weren’t used in the series, perhaps they could fake it.

“It turned out they wanted to talk to me,” Larson remembers. “And wanted me to come back to the United States. So I did come back to the United States, and there was some talk about filming 13 Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.

"Because we had a sponsor at the time, Kellogg's would give them the money… and there was talk about it, and I met with the story editor and they felt they could do that, not with 26, but with 13, and that was not agreeable with me to go on and do that. And there was some question whether I was contractually obligated.”

The concept was eventually dropped. “But [Whit] Ellsworth, was producing, also didn't want to do it. It was the idea of Mort Weisinger who was the story editor in New York. And so that was the end of the Superman show.”

 

 

 

Jack Larson's Suprising Life as Superman's Jimmy Olsen

The Adventures of Superman's first two seasons (episodes 1–52) were filmed in black and white; seasons three through six (episodes 53–104, 13 episodes per season) were filmed in color but were originally telecast in black and white. Adventures of Superman was not shown in color until 1965, when the series was syndicated to local stations. None of Superman's established foes like Lex Luthor appeared in the TV series.



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