Urban Legends – Superman Curse

The Superman curse refers to a series of misfortunes that have plagued creative people involved in adaptations of Superman in various media, particularly actors who have played the role of Superman on film and television. The curse basically states,

If you intend to play the strongest man on Earth, you will either die or end up in the weakest position possible.

The curse is somewhat well-known in popular culture, largely due to the high-profile hardships of Superman actors George Reeves and Christopher Reeve. Other sources deny the curse, stating that several Superman-related actors, such as Bud Collyer and Teri Hatcher, continued with successful careers after their association with the franchise and that many hardships of “cursed” individuals are common in their respective fields.

Supposed victims of the curse

Siegel & Shuster

Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster created Superman in the 1930s but their employer DC Comics held the copyright to the character. In 1946, the two sued DC, arguing that they were inadequately compensated for the character. The New York Supreme Court limited their settlement to $60,000 each, a small sum compared to the millions of dollars Superman comic books, films, television series, and merchandise grossed. In 1975, in response to a campaign launched by Siegel and Shuster and joined by many prominent comic book creators, DC agreed to pay the two lifetime pensions of $35,000 a year and give them credit in every adaptation of the character. While Siegel and Shuster were respected in comic book fandom for Superman, neither went on to work on any other high-profile comic books after Superman. Some tellings of the curse state that Siegel and Shuster themselves cursed the character out of anger for the injustice.

The Fleischer Brothers

Brothers Max and Dave Fleischer founded Fleischer Studios, which produced the original Popeye, Betty Boop, and Superman cartoons. Shortly after bringing Superman into animation, the Fleischers began feuding with one another and their studio slumped financially until they were forced to sell to Paramount Pictures, which ousted the Fleischers and rearranged their company as Famous Studios. Although Dave Fleischer went on to a career as a special effects advisor at Universal Studios (which now owns many of Paramount’s sound feature films released before 1950), Max died poor at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital.

Kirk Alyn

Kirk Alyn played Superman in two low-budget 1940s serials but failed to find work afterwards, saying that casting directors thought he was too recognized as Superman. He eventually retired to Arizona. He made an uncredited cameo appearance in the 1978 film Superman: The Movie as the father of young Lois Lane, who witnesses young Clark Kent racing the train they are riding on (his wife is portrayed by Noel Neill, also uncredited, who played Lois Lane in the Kirk Alyn Superman movies as well as on The Adventures of Superman from 1953 to 1958). Alyn developed Alzheimer’s disease before passing away of related causes and old age in 1999.

George Reeves

George Reeves played Superman in the 1951 film Superman and the Mole Men and the ensuing television series Adventures of Superman. Like Alyn, he was recognized only for the role. On June 16, 1959, days before he was to be married, Reeves was found dead of a gunshot wound at his home with his Luger near him. The death was ruled a suicide but other theories persist. Alcohol may have played a part in his death. Reeves had a blood alcohol level of .27, which as any New York DWI lawyer knows is well past the legal limit. He was also taking pain killers for injuries that he had sustained in a recent car accident.

John F Kennedy

In 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s staff approved of a Superman story in which the hero touts the president’s physical fitness initiatives, scheduled to be published with an April 1964 cover date. On November 22, Kennedy was shot and killed but, at the request of successor Lyndon B. Johnson, DC published a reworked version of the story.


Richard Donner
Richard Donner was hired to direct Superman: The Movie and Superman II. With the completion of the first film and about 25% of the sequel left to finish, Donner was fired from the project and director Richard Lester was hired to finish and direct Superman II. Around 50% of Donner’s film was scrapped and re-shot by Lester, delaying the theatrical release until 1980. In 2006, Donner released Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut on DVD with all of his footage restored and most of Lester’s removed.

The notion that Donner was actually “cursed” by his association with Superman is a subject for debate. While his falling out with the Salkinds did lead to a re-working of Superman II, he has since directed all four Lethal Weapon films starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, the big screen adaptation of Maverick starring Gibson in the role once made famous by James Garner, The Goonies, and Scrooged with Bill Murray. Donner also co-wrote issues of the Superman comic book, Action Comics with his former assistant Geoff Johns

Christopher Reeve

* Christopher Reeve played Superman/Clark Kent in the Superman film series, Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). The actor was paralyzed from the neck down after being thrown from his horse in a cross country riding event on May 27, 1995. Reeve died on October 10, 2004 due to heart failure stemming from his medical condition.

* Dana Reeve, the widow of Christopher Reeve and co-founder of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation with her late husband, publicly revealed that she was diagnosed with lung cancer on August 9, 2005. She died of the cancer on March 6, 2006 at the age of 45.

Superman Curse
Margot Kidder

* Margot Kidder, who played Superman’s love interest Lois Lane opposite Christopher Reeve suffered from intense bipolar disorder. In April 1996, she went missing for several days and was found by police in a paranoid, delusional state.

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando, who played Superman’s biological father Jor-El in Superman (1978) underwent various personal tragedies later in his life:

* In May 1990, Brando’s first son, Christian, shot and killed Dag Drollet, 26, the lover of Christian’s half-sister Cheyenne Brando, at the family’s home above Beverly Hills. Christian, 31, claimed the shooting was accidental. After a heavily publicized trial, Christian was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Christian died 18 years later at the age of 49.

* The tragedy was compounded in 1995, when Cheyenne, said to still be depressed over Drollet’s death and over losing her child to Drollet’s parents, committed suicide by hanging herself. She was only 25 years old.

* Marlon Brando’s notoriety, his family’s troubled lives, his self-exile from Hollywood, and his obesity attracted considerable attention in his later career. On July 1, 2004, Brando died at the age of 80. The cause of his death was intentionally withheld, with his lawyer citing privacy concerns. It was later revealed that he died of lung failure brought on by pulmonary fibrosis. He had also been suffering from liver cancer, congestive heart failure, and diabetes, which was causing his eyesight to fail.

Lee Quigley

Lee Quigley, who played the baby Kal-El in the 1978 Superman movie, died in March 1991, at the age of fourteen, after inhaling solvents.

Richard Pryor

Comedian Richard Pryor, who had previously suffered from a drug addiction that lead to an almost fatal accident, starred as a villain in 1983’s Superman III, but later took Superman’s side near the end of the movie and became a hero. Three years later, he announced that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He died of cardiac arrest on December 10, 2005.

Mariel Hemingway

On July 2, 1996, on the anniversary of their grandfather’s suicide, Superman IV (1987) co-star Mariel Hemingway’s older sister, model and actress Margaux was found dead at age 41. She had taken an overdose of sedatives. Though Margaux’s death was ruled a suicide, Mariel disputed this finding.

Mark Pillow

Mark Pillow, who made his acting debut playing Nuclear Man in 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace never went on to star in another movie.

Actors from Superboy

* Both John Haymes Newton and Gerard Christopher, who starred as the title character in the Superboy television series (1988–1992), fell into obscurity after their respective tenures as the character.

* The same case can be made for Stacy Haiduk, who played love interest Lana Lang on the show and Ilan Mitchell-Smith, who played Superboy’s college friend Andy McAllister.

* Professional wrestler Lex Luger had a guest role on the show as the “New Superboy”. In 2007, he suffered a spinal stroke that initially paralyzed him in a quadriplegic state. He still remains paralyzed, but in a paraplegic state.

Lane Smith

Lane Smith, who played Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s boss Perry White on the Lois & Clark television series, was diagnosed with the rare Lou Gehrig’s Disease in April 2005 and died of the disease on June 13, 2005.

Jeph Loeb

Jeph Loeb, writer of Superman comics and the Smallville TV series lost his son, Sam Loeb, due to cancer.

Superman video game curse

Superman 64 is the most famous video-game to fall under the ‘Superman Video-Game Curse’, often considered in the titles of worst superhero game and worst game for the Nintendo 64.

One variation of the ‘Superman Curse’ is the Superman Video-Game Curse, which states that most, if not all, Superman-related games are one or more of the following:

* Having poor graphics

* Poor control system

* Generally not entertaining (thus, gathering much criticism)

* Containing multiple glitches

* Either considered far too easy or far too challenging

Possible refutations

* As a career, animation is a very cutthroat business. The fact that Max and Dave Fleischer started feuding shortly after acquiring the Superman license was likely nothing personal; just the nature of the business.

* The reason an actor who played the villain was not affected by the curse is because playing that role is much more difficult and requires very convincing acting. If the actor involved is playing the villain, it is their job to make the audience hate them, and in many cases, as film critic Roger Ebert noted, “Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.” The audience likes the hero by comparison.

Those who have “escaped” the curse

It can be noted that actors who played villains in the movies have not suffered from the curse. Some of the villain actors experienced just the opposite:

* Gene Hackman (who played Lex Luthor in Superman I, II, and IV) had a hugely successful acting career before and after the movies.

* Terence Stamp (who played General Zod in Superman: The Movie and Superman II) has had a long and successful career himself.

* Kevin Spacey (who played Lex Luthor in Superman Returns) has been a popular and distinguished actor for many years.

* Ned Beatty (who played Otis in Superman I) has enjoyed a long acting career and still active in Hollywood.

* Jon Cryer (who played Lenny Luthor in Superman IV) currently stars in the successful sitcom Two and a Half Men (produced by Warner Bros., owners of DC Comics).

* Teri Hatcher (who played Lois Lane in Lois and Clark) went on to have a successful career in the hugely popular comedy/drama series Desperate Housewives and also appeared in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies.
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