Actress Noel Neill, the First Lois Lane of the Screen, Dies at 95

Noel Neill - H 2015
Courtesy Everett Collection

Noel Neill - H 2015

She starred as the intrepid Daily Planet newspaper reporter in 1948 and '50 movie serials and in TV’s 'Adventures of Superman.'

Noel Neill, who played foolhardy Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane on the 1950s TV series Adventures of Superman, then walked away from show business, has died. She was 95.

Neill died Sunday at her home in Tucson, Ariz., after a long illness, her friend, manager and biographer, Larry Thomas Ward, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Neill became the first actress to play the legendary damsel in distress on the screen when she starred opposite Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel in a 15-chapter serial for Columbia Pictures that played in movie theaters in 1948.

The pair then reunited in 1950 for another serial, Atom Man vs. Superman, which spanned 15 chapters as well.

Phyllis Coates played Lois in the first season (1952) of the syndicated Adventures of Superman, but when she committed to another project and could not return to the series, Neill reclaimed the role in 1953. She was rescued a countless number of times by George Reeves’ Superman in 78 episodes until the show’s conclusion in 1958.

Neill’s favorite episode was said to be the 1956 installment “The Wedding of Superman,” where the hero proposes to her. But alas, it was only a dream.

“She had this wonderful, perky touch to Lois Lane,” her late co-star Jack Larson (who played Jimmy Olson) said in 2003, “and she could basically do everything in one take, which is what they liked. If you blew a scene and had to do four takes, everyone was disgruntled."

Neill, who earned $225 an episode, quit acting after the series ended in 1958. “I just figured I’d worked enough, I didn’t have any great ambition,” she told The New York Times in a 2006 interview. “Basically, I’m a beach bum. I was married, we lived near the beach, that was enough for me.”

Neill was born on Nov. 20, 1920, which was Thanksgiving Day. Her father was an editor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and wanted his daughter to become a reporter, arranging for her to write for Women’s Wear Daily, but she wanted to be a performer. She played banjo in a musical trio on the fair circuit, and during a visit to Southern California, she got a job singing at a restaurant at the Del Mar racetrack.

Bing Crosby, who was a Del Mar shareholder, spotted her and helped her land a contract with Paramount Pictures, for which she appeared in bit roles in such films as Henry Aldrich’s Little Secret (1944), with Crosby in Here Come the Waves (1944) and in The Blue Dahlia (1946).

Later, you could spot her in The Big Clock (1948), the Charlie Chan film The Sky Dragon (1949), The Greatest Show on Earth (1950), American in Paris (1951), Invasion U.S.A. with Coates (1952) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

The 5-foot-2 Neill, who had dark red hair and blue-gray eyes, was past 25 when she played bobbysoxer Betty Rogers in a series of breezy “Teenager” musicals for Monogram Pictures that included Junior Prom (1946), Freddie Steps Out (1946), High School Hero (1946), Vacation Days (1947), Sarge Goes to College (1947), Smart Politics (1948) and Campus Sleuth (1948).

Sam Katzman, who had produced several of these films, thought she’d be just right for Lois in the first Superman serial, the first time the superhero was portrayed outside the comics or radio. (Later, Katzman produced the 1949 serial Batman and Robin, starring Robert Lowery as the Caped Crusader.)

“I had never heard of Superman,” Neill said in a 2003 interview. “Back then, comics were read mostly by boys.”

Neill had fulfilled her father’s wish that she become a reporter.

She kept her connection to the character when she briefly appeared as the mother of Lois (Margot Kidder) in Superman (1978), the hero’s return to the big screen that starred Christopher Reeve. (Alyn played Lois’ father in the Richard Donner film.)

Neill also showed up on a 1991 episode of the syndicated series Superboy, and she was Gertrude Vanderworth, who on her death bed signs all her money over to bad guy Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), in the opening scene of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), starring Brandon Routh.

Neill lectured at colleges and was a hit at comic-book conventions and fan gatherings through the decades, and in 2003 she was the subject of Truth, Justice and the American Way: The Life and Times of Noel Neill, the Original Lois Lane, an authorized biography by Ward.

"She did whatever she wanted to do," Ward said. "That was the beauty of her skill. Ultimately, only she truly knew what was best for her, and that came out time and again. She was very smart, quite astute about the acting business."  

In 2010, the real-life city of Metropolis, Ill., unveiled a life-size bronze statue of Lois modeled on Neill, who came in from California for the occasion. (She also lived in Metropolis briefly a few years ago, Ward said, before moving to Tucson.)

Located along the Ohio River, Metropolis, Ill., was founded and named in 1839, long before the fictional Metropolis was first identified as Superman’s home in Action Comics in 1939. In addition to the Lois statue, there’s one of the Man of Steel in the middle of Superman Square a couple of blocks away.

A tribute to Neill will take place Nov. 5 in Metropolis.