The Rip Post


LOOKING UP LOIS LANE

by Rip Rense
(originally published in the Los Angeles Times.)


I think I became a journalist because of Clark Kent. It wasn't my first career preference, I assure you. Had I figured out how to fly, I'm sure I would have opted for Superman. Kent---at least as portrayed by the late George Reeves in the old "The Adventures of Superman" TV show---seemed like the next best thing.

From the ages of four to eight, "The Adventures of Superman" was the centerpiece of my life. I wore red capes. I stretched out my arms and "whooossshed." I disguised myself with sunglasses. My mother used the promise of watching the show to stop me from crying when I got tetanus shots (it worked.) She lovingly sewed me my very own man-of-steel suit, which promptly picked up grass stains and tears at the knees.   Later, when I grew up, I became a Clark Kent kind of guy. You know, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper (the old Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, on a good day), with glasses.

Naturally, I've always been in love with Lois Lane. No, I don't mean Margot Kidder or Teri Hatcher or various others who have played the role well enough. To me, there is only one Lois Lane---the unflappable, perky, sweet version from the old 1940s serials and the majority of the "Adventures of Superman" series. I'm talking about the incomparable Noell Neill.

A couple months ago, while watching a late-night rerun of the "Mrs. Superman" episode (in which Lois marries Clark/Superman in a dream sequence), still feeling the ache of youthful unrequited affection, I finally decided to do something about it. I'd been Clark Kent-ing around long enough. It was time to put away mild manners.

So I called her up and asked her for a date. (All right, an interview.) Lois---I mean Noell, that is.

After getting her answering machine repeatedly (it chirped, "I'm off to the Daily Planet! Leave a message!"---no kidding), I finally reached the lady. And she accepted! We met at her charming Santa Monica Canyon home of 30-plus years, chatted in her sunny, orange-and-yellow highlighted living room, then strolled down the hill to famed Patrick's Roadhouse for a couple of burgers.. She wore a black windbreaker given to her during a guest appearance on that pretty good "Superboy" series a few years ago---with, yes, a red-and-yellow "S" emblem on the back. Her once-reddish bob has turned long and silver, and she has aged as gracefully as the cliche hasn't. The voice---the clear, lyrical Minnesota, Land-of-10,000-Lakes variety---hadn't really changed.

"You know, George (Reeves) directed part of the 'Mrs. Superman' episode, where I dreamt I was going to marry him," she remembered, sipping coffee and raising her voice above Pacific Coast Highway traffic. "It was really quite a cute little thing. At the very end, before I realize I've been dreaming, George and Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen) and John Hamilton (Perry White) come to see why I haven't come to work. I rush up to George and say 'Oh Darling!' And then, when I find out it's been a dream, I actually shed a little tear."

Which is exactly what Neill did as she retold this story, remarking apologetically, "certain little things make me misty." And well they might. Reeves died in 1959 of a gunshot wound under mysterious circumstances that were officially ruled a suicide (friends suspected foul play.) Devastated, Neill quit acting and went to work in public relations, where she remained. Through the years, she and Larson (who went on to become a highly respected writer of plays and opera librettos) have since "carried the flag" for the beloved old series---touring colleges extensively in the 70s and 80s. Neill said she still puts in an appearance or two at the more well-run and dignified celebrations; Larson grants interviews.

Her most famous convention appearance anecdote is so good it bears repeating here: "A fellow came up to me," she told me. "Obviously, from the way he looked, he was with a rock group---and he was, shall I say, very 'happy.' He looked at me and said, 'Oooohhhhhhh! You know what I used to do when I was little?' I said 'No, I don't know what you did.' He said, 'Well, I used to run home from school, run in the house, crawl under our television set, and try to look up your dress!' I loved that."

We spent most of the afternoon talking of: her father, Minneapolis newspaperman George Neill, a respected editor of the 40s and 50s who wanted his little girl to be a reporter; and how, in a way, he got his wish. Of how placid L.A. and Hollywood used to be; of a more innocent Santa Monica beach where Neill and girlfriends used to play volleyball and "chase boys." How her name is authentic, is pronounced like "the first Noel," and has nothing to do with Christmas (she was born on Thanksgiving.) And about her storybook career, a kind of hometown-girl-makes-good tale that's straight out of the movies. . .

"Mother and I drove out here, visiting relatives along the way," she recalled. "Just through a friendly neighbor, we stayed a while in Hollywood. This neighbor was a musician who said, 'oh, I heard you used to sing a little bit.' He said that an orchestra was looking for a singer--- 'why don't you come down and audition?' Anyway, I got the job, and it was for one season down at the Del Mar race track. Naturally I met a lot of people, and agents, and the next thing I knew I was working at Paramount!"

It was all on the up-and-up, she said. No casting couch stuff---thanks, in part, to Bing Crosby, whom she met while singing at Del Mar (Crosby was one of the big stockholders of the track.) One sunny afternoon on the Paramount lot, der Bingle tooled up behind Neill on his bicycle, lazily buh-buh-booing to himself. "Hi, Noell," he said, "how's everything?" Fine, said Noell. "Well," said Bing, "if anybody gives you any trouble or anything, you just call my brother and it will be taken care of." Said Noell: "His brother was an agent, Larry. I said thankyou. Well, that probably helped a lot."

The Midwest girl with the dark red hair and striking blue-gray eyes suddenly found herself much in demand. Often loaned to other studios (like many actors of the day), Neill wound up working for MGM, RKO, Warner Brothers, Republic, Monogram by her mid-20s. Her first part was in one of those old Henry Aldrich movies, playing Henry's girlfriend's best friend. Mostly, there were gobs of B-movies, like the old Charlie Chan mystery, "Sky Dragon," or "Lady of Burlesque," with Barbara Stanwyck. In the old days, you could get a job," she said. "It was, 'well, maybe we need a brunette or a blonde for the part'---it was simple. If you had a break in shooting, you could always do a couple of days in a western."

I asked how Lois---er, Noell---become Lois. Like she said, it was simple. Someone merely tipped her off to the part in a Superman movie serial, starring Kirk Alyn as Superman, and, well, she got it. The serial's popularity led to the casting of the TV series, which debuted in 1951. Neill joined the show when its first Lois, Phyllis Coates, quit after 26 episodes over creative differences(!) Noell stepped in and defined the part over the next 76.

"They were wonderful people. We were like a family," she said. "George was a gentle, kind-spirited guy. That was his charm. That was him. He was like a southern gentleman on the set. Always in a game of gin rummy on the set. John (Hamilton), who was in so many movies, was quite a storyteller. . .Jack and I ---he lives not far away---are closer than we've ever been."

As our talk went on, I still found myself blurring the actress and her famous character. I couldn't help it. I'd known Lois, after all, a lot longer than Neill. Then came a breakthrough; it hit me that the principle difference between the two, perhaps, is that Neill wouldn't have hung around waiting for Superman to get her out of a jam. This is a person, after all, who regularly treks off to places like the Galapagos, to see those noble turtles, or Komodo Island, to look at the dragons, and who will soon leave for a jaunt around Tibet. In the decades since the series, she told me, hers has been a mostly independent existence doing public relations and making the occasional personal appearance---plus lots of (bogey) golf and bridge. Her personal life? Two marriages that ended in divorce, no children (a deliberate decision based on career, and overpopulation.) "There are gentlemen I date," she said, with a wink. "Life goes on."

A kind of super-analogy occurred to me; I think Lois was Noell's mild-mannered alter-ego. Although not so mild that Miss Lane didn't have an unexpected impact on girls, way-back-when. A touch of surprise, even pride, slipped into Neill's voice when she told me: "Quite a few of the little gals at the colleges would say they were inspired when they were growing up by the fact that Lois Lane could work with men," she said, finishing her coffee. "They said that's how they got into journalism. It was very flattering that the character inspired them."

Late in the day, with a brisk late afternoon breeze coming off the ocean, we walked back to the home Neill shares with her stray cat, Fang, and pored over a giant scrapbook. "There's the kid," she said with some amusement, as we scanned clipping after clipping of a long-legged starlet in newspapers and magazines ("what they used to call 'leg art'")---everything from Louella Parsons' column to reports in the hometown Minneapolis press. . .

Looking at all the pictures, I must say that I found myself wishing that my decades might have coincided a little more conveniently with those of Noell Neill.

But then, who was I kidding? She never had any romantic interest in us Clark Kent kinds of guys, anyhow. Or was that just her character's preference? Either way, I might as well face it. To her, I'll always be just another one of those little kids from the 1950s who crawled under the TV and tried to see up Lois Lane's dress.

(By the way, it didn't work.)

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