Jack Larson, Jimmy Olsen on First Superman TV Show, Dies at 87

Jack Larson - H 2015
Courtesy Everett Collection

Jack Larson - H 2015

Typecast after the series ended in the late 1950s, the actor turned to writing plays and librettos and produced several James Bridges films.

Jack Larson, forever typecast as the overeager cub reporter Jimmy Olsen on the 1950s television series Adventures of Superman, has died. He was 87.

Larson, who later produced several films written and/or directed by his longtime companion, the late Oscar nominee James Bridges, died Sunday at his home in Brentwood, The New York Times reported. Further details of his death were not immediately available.

In 1951, Larson signed up to play the hapless Olsen for $250 an episode on Adventures of Superman, the first TV show to feature the Man of Steel from the comics. At the time, he wanted to go to New York to tackle Broadway and didn’t think the series — then one of the few to be filmed, not done live — would amount to anything.

"The casting man and my agent talked to me very seriously about doing this," he recalled in a 2003 interview with the Archive of American Television. "They said, 'Look, you’re a very mixed-up kid, do this. It’s 26 shows, it’s a season’s work, and you’ll have enough money to go to New York. It’s probably like doing a Saturday morning serial. No one will ever see it. Take the money and run.' "

After wrapping work on Superman in about five months, he did get to New York, did live television and appeared in Kid Monk Baroni (1952), notable for giving Leonard Nimoy his first major role.

Meanwhile, Superman had premiered in syndication and had become an instant sensation. Larson suddenly was getting recognized on the subway as Jimmy, the wide-eyed, bowtie-wearing kid who kept running into trouble at The Daily Planet — only to be bailed out by Superman (George Reeves).

Once, Larson said, the police had to rescue him from a restaurant after kids recognized him from the show. "My life had turned upside down," he recalled, "and this was not a good experience."

Larson refused to do publicity for the series, hoping it would just go away. It didn’t.

"I wouldn’t do a magazine interview, I wouldn’t do anything, because I thought everything I do as Jimmy Olsen publicity is just a further nail in my coffin as an actor," he said.

His contract kept him from doing much of anything else, and Larson would appear on Superman for six seasons (a seventh was shelved because of the sudden death of Reeves in June 1959; Larson believed it was suicide).

He was forever typecast as Olsen and rarely worked as an actor again.

Jack Edward Larson was believed to be born in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 1928 (though he often said his birth year was 1933). An only child, he was raised a bit east of L.A. in Montebello.

At age 14, he became a California state bowling champion in his age group and considered a career as a pro. He appeared in an MGM short film as a “kid kegler” with champion bowlers Ned Day and Hank Marino in a Santa Monica bowling alley owned by Harold Lloyd.

After Larson was sent to Pasadena Junior College, his instructors discovered that he had a gift for writing and motivated him to put together plays and star in them as well.

When Larson wrote and then appeared in a musical comedy about college kids on an Easter Week vacation, he was spotted by a Warner Bros. talent scout and given a screen test.

"It sounds like an amazing thing to happen," he recalled in an interview for the school’s archives, "but Hollywood discovered me at PJC’s Sexson Auditorium. For a young stage actor like myself, movies really meant something, so you can imagine the excitement I felt."

The audition led a contract and a role as Lieutenant "Shorty" Kirk in Raoul Walsh’s Fighter Squadron (1948), a film that also marked the big-screen debut of Rock Hudson.

After Superman was finished — he said his favorite episode was the Maltese Falcon-inspired "Semi-Private Eye" from 1954 — there was talk about doing a 13-episode show called Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. "But it was not agreeable with me to go on and do that," he said in the TV Archive interview.

Larson took to writing plays, including The Candied House, a mystery that was based on Hansel and Gretel and opened the L.A. County Museum of Art’s Leo S. Bing Theatre in 1966, and Cherry, Larry, Sandy, Doris, Jean, Paul, a comedy about being gay that Bridges once helmed in London.

Larson also wrote librettos for various operas like Virgil Thomson’s prestigious Lord Byron, which premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1972.

Larson couldn’t resist the call of the old days and appeared in 1991 in the syndicated series Superboy. He played "Old Jimmy Olsen" (an older version of Justin Whalin) in a 1996 episode of ABC’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, then was seen as a bartender in Bryan Singer’s 2006 film Superman Returns.

He also appeared in a 2010 episode of NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Larson and Bridges met when they were supporting players in the cast of Johnny Trouble (1957), starring Ethel Barrymore in her final film. They later formed a production company, and Larson produced such Bridges films as The Baby Maker (1970), Mike’s Murder (1984), Perfect (1985) and Bright Lights, Big City (1988).

Bridges died of cancer in June 1993 at age 57.

Larson, who also was close with actor Montgomery Clift until his death in 1966, shared a historical Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home on a Brentwood hillside with Bridges for years.

"It was obvious to anyone that since we lived together we were partners," Larson told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. "We always went places together. We never pretended. I always did what I felt like doing. I never did publicity when I was very popular as Jimmy. The question [about being gay] never came up."

Twitter: @mikebarnes4