On this Day in Movie History, June 16, 1959 : Superman Dies

On this day, June 16, 1959, the death of a screen icon rocked Hollywood. According to the Los Angeles Police Department report, between approximately 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. on June 16, 1959, George Reeves died of a gunshot wound to his head in the upstairs bedroom at his home in Benedict Canyon. George Reeves was best known as Superman, “the Man of Steel.”

Present in the house at the time of the incident were Leonore Lemmon (who had been Reeves’ fiance at the time), William Bliss, writer Robert Condon, and Carol Van Ronkel, who lived a few blocks away with her husband, screenwriter Rip Van Ronkel.

According to these witnesses, Lemmon and Reeves had been dining and drinking earlier in the evening in the company of writer Condon, who was ghostwriting an autobiography of prizefighter Archie Moore. Contemporaneous news items indicate that Reeves’s friend Gene LeBell was wrestling that night—yet LeBell’s own recollections are that he did not see Reeves after a workout session earlier in the day.

In any event Reeves went to bed, but some time near midnight an impromptu party began when Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel arrived. Reeves angrily came downstairs and complained about the noise. The house guests later heard a single gunshot from upstairs.

In contemporary news articles, Lemmon attributed Reeves’ alleged suicide to depression caused by his “failed career” and inability to find more work. The report made by the Los Angeles Police states, “[Reeves was]… depressed because he couldn’t get the sort of parts he wanted.”

Many people have refused to believe that George Reeves would kill himself It’s argued that no gunpowder from the gun’s discharge was found on the actor’s skin, leading them to believe that the weapon would therefore have to have been held several inches away from his head upon firing.

Forensic professionals say that gunpowder tattooing is left only when the weapon is not in contact with the skin while Reeves’ skull fracture pattern shows that it was a contact wound.

Followers of the case also point to the absence of fingerprints on the gun and of gunshot-residue testing on the actor’s hands as evidence in support of one theory or another. Police, however, found the gun too thickly coated in oil to hold fingerprints, and gunshot-residue testing was not commonly performed by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1959.

The shot? This statement may have been embellished by journalists. Lemmon and her friends were downstairs at the time the shot was fired with music playing downstairs. Could they have heard a gunshot?

Reeves’ incredulous mother, Helen Bessolo employed attorney Jerry Giesler and the Nick Harris Detective Agency. A cremation of Reeves’s body was postponed. No substantial new evidence was ever uncovered, but Reeves’s mother never accepted the conclusion that her son had committed suicide.

Reeves is inurned at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena, California.

1890 – Stan Laurel (Arthur Stanley Jefferson) (actor, comedian: Laurel & Hardy: made over 200 films together; died Feb 23, 1965)

1907 – Jack Albertson (Academy Award-winning actor [1968]; Tony Award-winner [1965]: The Subject was Roses; Emmy Awards: Cher [1974-75], Chico & The Man [1975-76], Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory; died Nov 25, 1981)

1943 – Joan Van Ark (actress: Knots Landing, Tainted Blood, Frogs)

1962 – Arnold Vosloo (actor: The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, Morenga, Darkman II: The Return of Durant, Darkman III: Die Darkman Die)

1975 – Frederick Koehler (actor: Mr. Mom, Kate and Allie, A Kiss Before Dying, Pearl Harbor)


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