Lex Luthor! The greatest criminal mind of our time! Superman‘s biggest and most enduring pain-in-the-ass! Mr. Luthor has a screen history almost as storied as that of his caped nemesis, and he’s about to be reborn once more on Supergirl, played by Jon Cryer.
Jon Cryer has just been revealed in all his glory as the next bald scientist on the block, but he’s certainly not the first. We look back at some of the notable actors who have played Luthor on the big and small screen. While this list isn’t comprehensive (we offer our apologies to Super Friends voice actor Stanley Jones, and a number of talented actors who have given voice to Luthor in a number of DC Universe animated movies, for example), these are the guys who made the most impact portraying Superman’s greatest foe.
So, fasten your wigs, it’s off to the lab!
Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Atom Man vs. Superman was released right on the cusp of the golden age of sci-fi b-movies, and Lyle Talbot’s Lex Luthor was a mad scientist at a time when that really meant something. How many other actors can say that they played Commissioner Gordon AND Lex Luthor? None, that’s how many.
Not only was Lyle Talbot the first actor to play Lex Luthor (arguably the first live-action interpretation of any legitimate “supervillain” this side of Flash Gordon‘s Ming the Merciless), he was also the first to sit behind Jim Gordon’s desk (in 1949’s Batman and Robin serial). Talbot gleefully wears the rubber bald cap for his time as Luthor, and sports a bizarre, Easter Island like headpiece for his part as the Atom Man.
It’s tough being the first, but the veteran character actor is as accurate a representation of the post-WWII Lex Luthor as you can hope for.
Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1981), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Despite being easily the most well known actor to ever play Lex Luthor, Gene Hackman’s performance has always been a little divisive. While there’s no questioning Hackman’s acting chops, some have cited the series’ questionable decision to make Luthor and his associates less menacing than they might have been. Hackman’s refusal to go bald for the role (except for a handful of scenes) necessitated this version of Lex Luthor to sport a variety of elaborate hairpieces, several of which were used to great comedic effect by his co-star, Ned Beatty. Nevertheless, Mr. Hackman brought an arrogant charm that worked perfectly against Christopher Reeve’s perfectly earnest, no-nonsense Superman.
Hackman’s Luthor, while clearly well-versed in science (we see more of this in the otherwise unfortunate Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, where he creates Nuclear Man out of some stray Superman genetic material), is more concerned with lining his own pockets with beachfront property (via a real estate scheme that would wipe out the existing West Coast of the United States in Superman: The Movie, and his desire to co-opt Australia for his services in Superman II) than eliminating Superman or advancing the cause of mad science.
Scott James Wells
In 1986, DC Comics reinvented Lex Luthor. No longer was he a mad scientist intent on destroying Superman at ever opportunity in between stints in maximum security prisons. Lex became a billionaire and a well-respected man, who hid his evil deeds behind charitable works and an army of lawyers. Scott Wells was the first actor to take on the role in live-action (Michael Bell beat him to the airwaves by a few weeks as the voice of an animated Luthor cut from this mold in the criminally underrated Ruby-Spears Superman cartoon that ran from 1988-1989) in the first season of the syndicated Superboy TV series.
Wells’ Luthor, who took on a young Superman during their years in college, was an obnoxious frat boy, involved in everything from petty campus crime to fixing basketball games to black market dealings. Unfortunately, this Lex often came off more like a heavy in a Revenge of the Nerds sequel than a foe really worthy of the Boy of Steel. After the first season, both John Haymes Newton (who played Superboy) and Wells were replaced.
Which brings us to…
The Adventures of Superboy (1989-1992)
Sherman Howard (Bub the zombie from George Romero’s Day of the Dead) gave comic book fans a more familiar Lex Luthor. Gone was the big man on campus, replaced by a mad scientist with nothing to lose. Early in his tenure, Howard occasionally overplayed the part, taking Lex into realms of psychotic glee usually best reserved for the Joker, but in the post-Nicholson/Keaton Batman world, who could really blame him?
By the third and fourth seasons, Howard had grown into the role nicely, and the show (which shifted its tone dramatically) became a remarkably accurate live-action interpretation of the Superman mythos. Combining the “classic” Luthor sensibilities of mad science and deathtraps with the “Gene Hackman” Luthor’s taste in bumbling assistants, Howard delivered one of the most faithful representations of the character we’ve ever seen. (image courtesy of SuperboyTheater.Net)
Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997)
Often overlooked, John Shea is a truly formidable Lex Luthor. Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman premiered at the height of Luthor’s “well-respected businessman” phase. John Shea, particularly in the show’s first season, played Luthor as an impossibly charming, witty, debonair man, who was not only a rival with Superman for the best interests of Metropolis, but also a legitimate competitor for Clark Kent in the affections of Lois Lane.
It’s almost impossible to dislike Shea’s portrayal of Luthor, full of icy cool humor and always with a glass of cognac, a cigar, or a beautiful woman at his side. This is Lex Luthor as Bond villain: charming, urbane, and as deadly as a cobra.
Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000), Justice League Unlimited (2000-2006)
There have been plenty of other actors to give voice to Lex Luthor in animation (most recently Rainn Wilson in the excellent Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen animated movies), but none have put in the hours that Clancy Brown has. Featuring in nearly every episode of Superman: The Animated Series, and as a recurring baddie on Justice League Unlimited, this Lex Luthor is of the “billionaire industrialist” variety, but has plenty of hands-on scientific knowledge at his disposal. By the end of Justice League Unlimited, Luthor certainly puts that scientific knowledge to bad use, and this character had none of the aversions to getting his hands dirty sometimes displayed by other “corporate” versions of Luthor.
Mr. Brown was smooth, menacing perfection in the role, and the show’s design (Luthor is at least as tall and broad as Superman) offered just the right of physical intimidation to mesh with Clancy’s voice.
The small screen’s most famous Luthor, Michael Rosenbaum perfected the art of the slow heel-turn for TV supervillains. While you may have liked John Shea’s Lex Luthor in spite of his clearly devious nature, Rosenbaum’s Luthor actually made you question whether you ever really wanted to see him go down the dark path that we all knew was inevitable.
In many ways, Smallville was as much a show about Lex Luthor as it was about Superman. Often the most interesting character on the show, and free of the doe-eyed romantic tension and existential wonderings that plagued Clark Kent, Smallville‘s Lex was self-assured enough to want to forge a destiny apart from that of his notorious father (Lionel Luthor, played to perfection by John Glover), and was often fiercely loyal to his best friend, Clark Kent.
Nevertheless, by the time the show started giving viewers glimpses of Lex’s villainous future, Rosenbaum rose to the occasion admirably.
Superman Returns (2006)
In many ways, Superman Returns is a continuation of the previous big screen Superman franchise. There are familiar story and design elements, the return of John Williams’ soaring Superman theme tune, and a Lex Luthor who is obsessed with real estate profit potential, hairpieces, and inept assistants.
While not as shy about going bald as Hackman’s character, and perhaps a little more involved in the scientific end of things, the Lex Luthor of Superman Returns also has more of a dark side. Just witness his savage beating of a Kryptonite-shivved Man of Steel, and you’ll see echoes of a man who has been hardened by years of prison. While this is destined to remain Spacey’s sole outing as Superman’s greatest foe, it’s a memorable performance.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Justice League (2017)
Jesse Eisenberg’s casting as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was divisive from the start, even before everyone realized what a divisive movie Batman v Superman itself would turn out to be. But despite a script that often gave him some bizarre dialogue to chew on, Eisenberg brought a manic, boy genius quality to the role that definitely fit within the larger tapestry of the character’s history. Given what a malevolent force Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (who Eisenberg had portrayed in The Social Network) has turned out to be, this was a brilliant bit of casting.
Eisenberg returned, looking and acting very much like a more traditional version of Lex Luthor in the post-credits scene of the Justice League movie, offering a tantalizing glimpse of what Lex might look like as he tries to assemble a Secret Society of Super-Villains to counter the League. Will we ever see Eisenberg as Luthor again? Given the ongoing state of flux that the DCEU is in, that’s unclear, but he may deserve another shot at the role.
The Supergirl TV series has been flirting with the Luthor family almost since day one, notably by bringing in Lex’s sister Lena Luthor as a series regular as a friend to Kara Danvers and sometimes-ally of Supergirl herself, and having Luthor technology (such as the powersuits) turn up from time to time to bedevil the heroes. Jon Cryer is the first actor to portray Lex Luthor in the Arrowverse, but he has a history of his own with the Luthor family, having portrayed Lex’s idiot nephew Lenny Luthor in the dreadful Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Fortunately, there’s none of Lenny in Jon Cryer’s Lex. Cryer plays Luthor as calculatingly evil, but not a blabbering madman. There’s a charm there somewhat reminiscent of both Gene Hackman’s performance and the super scientist arrogance found in Elliott S! Maggin’s two prose Superman novels, Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday. We’re looking forward to seeing more of him, but this could turn out to be a Lex Luthor performance for the ages.