There are certain expectations that come with playing Superman. They aren’t necessarily fair or easy ones. But a character with a history that spans more than 75 years means that every audience has their own idea of how the Last Son of Krypton should look, sound, and act. The good news is that every major actor to wear the cape in the movies or on TV has been worthy of the role, with each bringing some essential component of the character to the forefront.
Before we get started, I should point out that this list is not intended to be a comprehensive listing of Superman actors (sorry John Rockwell and Bob Holiday…I’ll get to you in future articles, I promise). Instead, these are the guys who made the most impact in the cape. A list of Superman voice actors would be far too long for this piece, too, but I had to make an exception for one guy (our first entry!) because he’s far too important to leave off.
Up, up, and away…
Adventures of Superman radio show (1940-1951)
Superman animated cartoons (1941-1943)
New Adventures of Superman (1966-1970)
While it may seem unfair for Bud Collyer to be the only Superman voice-actor to make a list devoted entirely to guys who actually wore the tights, leaving him off would be a crime. Bud Collyer’s essential place in superhero mythology is based on several factors: he was the first actor to portray Superman in the media (both on the radio and in the classic Superman cartoons from the Fleischer and Famous studios), the strength of his performance, and the sheer volume of his years as the Man of Steel.
The seventeen animated Superman adventures aside (the FIRST superhero cartoons ever produced), Mr. Collyer took on the Clark Kent/Superman role for roughly 2000 (yes, you read that right) radio episodes that aired between 1940 and 1951. By dropping his voice nearly an octave as he announced, “This looks like a job…for Superman,” Bud let radio audiences know in no uncertain terms that Clark Kent had made the dramatic switch. Collyer returned to the role once again in 1966 for Filmation’s The New Adventures of Superman animated series.
Bud Collyer, the only Superman of radio, the silver screen, and television, logged more hours as the Man of Steel than any actor in history, a record that will never be broken. So, with apologies to other great Superman voice actors like Danny Dark, Tim Daly, or George Newbern…Bud Collyer is the yardstick by which most other Men of Steel must be measured!
Now, on to the live action Supermen…
Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
Surprisingly, it took Superman a full decade to make it to the big screen in live-action, with contemporaries like Batman and Captain Marvel beating him to the big show by several years. And while Kirk Alyn’s two serial outings as the Last Son of Krypton, Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) aren’t exactly the highlights of Superman’s live action history, it wasn’t really his fault.
The muscular, athletic, and graceful Alyn (he was a dancer before taking up acting) brought an energetic grace to Superman, and he played Clark Kent as earnest and cartoonishly mild-mannered. While Mr. Alyn’s flying scenes were accomplished via animation, watching him sprint around at top speed, toss bad guys, and leap into and out of the frame is certainly superheroic enough!
Mr. Alyn was the first actor to feel the sting of the Superman role, appearing uncredited in the serials (the role of Superman was listed in the credits as played by, wait for it…Clark Kent). He took another swing at serial stardom with Blackhawk (another comic book character, who will soon star in a Steven Spielberg movie) in 1952, and spent the next decades appearing in westerns and assorted small TV roles. He did return briefly to Superman, though, when he appeared in a brief cameo as Lois Lane’s father in 1978’s Superman: The Movie.
Superman & The Mole Men (1951)
Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
George Reeves’ portrayal of Superman/Clark Kent turned the traditional dynamic on its ear. Reeves had a prolific if undistinguished big screen career in the ’30s and ’40s, having appeared as one of the Tarleton twins in Gone With The Wind, and then in dozens of less prestigious productions. The ruggedly handsome Reeves, with his broad smile and lantern jaw, turned Clark Kent, not his caped alter ego, into the central figure of The Adventures of Superman‘s seven season run on TV. Reeves’ Clark was charming, confident, and (occasionally) rather two-fisted and willing to wade into danger in his business suit and glasses.
While Reeves wore a padded costume to accentuate Superman’s physical power, his deep voice and the easygoing authority he projected (no actor has yet matched Reeves’ looks of bored exasperation as some useless hoodlum empties his gun at Superman) made him the definitive Superman for a generation. Spend some time with the first season of The Adventures of Superman to see some surprisingly tough crime and newsroom drama that just happens to feature Kal-El every now and then.
Reeves only intended Superman to be a brief stopover in his career, rather than a defining role, and as he feared, he was severely typecast, and sadly committed suicide in 1959.
Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Arguably the best known and most beloved portrayal of Superman belongs to Christopher Reeve, and with good reason. Despite only wearing the cape for four films, some of which were marred by uneven direction, scripts, and special effects after 1978’s unmatched Superman: The Movie, the stage-trained Reeve embodied the altruistic sincerity of the character like nobody before or since.
Christopher Reeve made audiences believe a man could fly thanks to what appeared to be his own absolute belief that he could do so, while his training as a pilot allowed him to turn his wire-and-blue-screen flight sequences into convincing displays. Even more impressive, Reeve hid his 6’4, 225 pound frame as Clark Kent with changes in posture, voice, and mannerisms that might actually make you believe that folks could be fooled by a pair of glasses and an ill-fitting suit. That’s no easy task.
Like many Superman actors, Reeve feared being typecast in the role, and that did indeed play into his career throughout the ’80s, despite notable starring turns in gems like 1980’s Somewhere in Time (opposite Jane Seymour) and Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (alongside Michael Caine). A 1995 horseback riding accident left Mr. Reeve a quadriplegic and he spent the rest of his life as an advocate and activist, making public appearances and giving inspirational speeches. This author was lucky enough to attend one, and it was incredibly moving. During this time, he tried his hand at directing, and even returned to the Superman world as Doctor Virgil Swann on Smallville. Reeve died in 2004.
John Haymes Newton
The syndicated Superboy TV series, which focused on the adventures of Superman while he was in college, ran for four seasons, but John Haymes Newton only stuck around for the first one. Newton’s Superboy was wise beyond his years, and had a tougher approach and lower tolerance for nonsense than we’ve come to expect from most screen Supermen, while his Clark Kent was more alienated outsider than mild-mannered klutz…a portrayal that predated Smallville by over a decade.
The Superboy TV show isn’t for everyone, mostly because of occasionally subpar production values, bizarre scripts (especially in the first season), and some questionable performances. Newton did his best to bring something new to the role, though, but the first season of Superboy is mostly for the completists out there.
The Adventures of Superboy (1989-1991)
Often overlooked (like his predecessor), Gerard Christopher put in more hours as the Man of Steel (or Boy of Steel, in this case) than most of the other actors on this list. He put on the costume for an impressive 73 half-hour episodes over the course of three years. Mr. Christopher (much like Mr. Reeve) looked like a Superman comic come to life, and wore the most comic book accurate version of the Superman costume ever seen on screen.
By the time the show reached its third and fourth seasons (which is currently streaming on the DC Universe service), it was a Superman show in all but name, right down to Clark and Lana (not Lois) working in a very newspaper-like environment. Gerard fought a series of equally comic book accurate supervillains throughout the show’s run and played Clark Kent as the traditionally clumsy also-ran. At one point, he was even considered as Christopher Reeve’s replacement for a rebooted Superman film franchise in the early ’90s, and he auditioned for (and won!) the role for the Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman TV show before the showrunners learned he had already worn the cape.
Which brings us to…
Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997)
Say what you will about Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, but when it worked, it worked. The first season of Lois & Clark is about as accurate a translation of the character dynamics found in the Superman comics of the early ’90s as you’re ever likely to see, and the genuine chemistry between Dean Cain’s Clark Kent and Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane made for some real on-screen fun.
While Mr. Cain’s athletic frame (he played football at Princeton and had a brief stint with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills) wasn’t done any favors by an odd-looking supersuit, his charming, everyman Clark Kent (who expected Lois to love him, not his cape-wearing alter ego) was a fresh take on the otherwise traditional Clark/Lois/Superman triangle. At the very least, Superman fans owe it to themselves to check out the first season of Lois & Clark, which in its best moments feels more true to the spirit of the comics of its era than many other attempts to bring Superman to life, and is even genuinely funny from time to time.
Smallville went to great lengths to pretend it wasn’t really a Superman show, but one look at Tom Welling, even in the earliest episodes, said otherwise. Welling’s chiseled features reminded some of Christopher Reeve, but by the end of Smallville’s impressive ten season run, he had carved out his own place in the Superman mythology.
While the show may have taken a little too long showing Clark’s journey to become the hero we all knew he could be, by the end of it, Welling had earned that cape. 218 hour-long episodes puts Mr. Welling in some pretty distinguished company as far as time spent as Superman…even if we never really got that “S” until the last shot of the show! He even made an appearance on Crisis on Infinite Earths for a terrific cameo that neatly tied up the story of the Smallville Clark Kent.
Superman Returns (2006)
Crisis on Infinite Earths (2015)
Superman Returns is a divisive film. On the one hand, its perceived lack of superheroic action and the controversial decision to have Superman father a child hurt its box-office returns and prevented a sequel. On the other hand, its thoughtful, reverential approach to the mythology established in the Richard Donner Superman film endeared it to many others.
What most fans agreed on, though, was Brandon Routh’s thoughtful, sincere performance as Superman. While his Clark Kent was as indebted to Christopher Reeve’s version as the rest of the film was to Richard Donner’s vision, Routh’s Superman, while not the physical man of action we’d see in later versions, was a quietly heroic figure, haunted both by his place as the last son of a forgotten world and by his own decisions about his personal life.
Routh probably deserved another shot at the role, but these days, he’s found a new home as a different kind of superhero. Mr. Routh continues to gather acclaim as Ray Palmer in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow TV show. But even more importantly for the purposes of this piece, Routh has returned to the cape once again, playing the same version of the character he played in Superman Returns in the Arrowverse Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, albeit with a Kingdom Come flair to the costume.
Man of Steel (2013)
The most two-fisted Superman we’ve yet seen, Henry Cavill struck the balance between the haunted Last Son of Krypton and the altruistic hero that studios have been looking for for years. Nobody can doubt Cavill’s chiseled looks or incredible physique, and he not only made audiences believe a man could fly…but that he could punch people through buildings. Lots of buildings. Perhaps too many.
Cavill had flirted with the role much earlier in his career, having been considered for the role when JJ Abrams was in charge of a reboot in the early 2000s, and again when Superman Returns was in its earliest stages. While Cavill doesn’t spend much time in the “traditional” bespectacled Clark Kent role, his Superman runs the gamut from Christopher Reeve’s serene sincerity to George Reeves’ “don’t mess with this guy” cool. Warner Bros. bets that he’s the guy to keep Superman alive on film for years to come. While he caught some flack for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the studio pivoted to a far more traditional take on Kal-El for Justice League.
Unfortunately, it currently appears his time as the Man of Steel is finished. Hopefully the studio comes to their senses, because there should be room for lots more big screen Superman adventures.
Who would have thought that a werewolf would make such a good Superman? While as of this writing we’ve only seen former Teen Wolf star Tyler Hoechlin in a few episodes of Supergirl, it was apparent right out of the gate that he understands what makes Superman and Clark Kent special.
In fact, considering how little we’ve seen of Henry Cavill as Clark, let’s focus on Mr. Hoechlin’s Kent for a moment. He falls more on the George Reeves/Dean Cain end of the spectrum, in that his Clark is mild-mannered, but also quietly confident, and apparently a quite competent reporter (he also sports a tan Harrington jacket similar to the one Christopher Reeve wore in Superman II).
His Superman is friendly and completely at ease with his role as the world’s greatest superhero, and has real familial chemistry with Melissa Benoist’s Kara. And from a purely nerdy standpoint, after an easter egg from a season one episode, we also know that this is the first live action Superman in history who was also a member of the 31st Century superteam, the Legion of Superheroes!
We look forward to seeing more of him in the role in the final chapters of Crisis on Infinite Earths. And the best news? They’re even giving him and Elizabeth Tulloch their own Superman and Lois TV show!