NPR reported today that Jack Larson, who portrayed Jimmy Olsen in the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Superman, has passed away. Larson played one of the most famous cub reporters of all time in 101 episodes of the highly successful program. But, afterwards, he found himself so badly typecast he was forced to all but give up acting and spent the remainder of his career writing plays and librettos. For those of you unfamiliar with opera, a libretto is the textual part of the art form. Larson also produced several films. George Reeves, who portrayed Superman in the same series, also found typecasting a crippling problem. Unfortunately, Reeves was unable to adapt as well as Larson and died in 1959 in what Jack publicly claimed was a suicide.
In 1988, Larson did a profile with People Magazine and talked about his struggles at the time.
“Jack Larson was disappearing into Jimmy Olsen. It can be wonderful to have people give you a lot of attention for the right reason. But at the time, ‘Superman’ didn’t seem to me the right reason. I wanted to act. And I couldn’t even take the subway anymore. People pulled at me during rush hour, mobs followed me. I didn’t like it.”
Other actors who have taken on the role of Olsen have managed to avoid it ending their careers.
In 1978, a new series of four Superman movies, with Christopher Reeve in the title role, saw Jimmy played by Marc McClure. McClure went on to appear in the Back to the Future franchise as well as Apollo 13.
Justin Whalen stepped into Jimmy’s shoes for Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1994-1997. Whalen’s career since has not been entirely stellar; he played the lead in the critically slammed Dungeons and Dragons movie and, according to IMDb, has no credits since 2009.
The 2001 series Smallville had a surprising twist on the Jimmy Olsen character. Played by Aaron Ashmore, already a well-established actor at the time, Olsen appeared in 52 episodes between 2006 and 2009, only to be killed off. The series later explained this shocking twist by having Olsen’s younger brother take up the moniker and career of his sibling and go on to become the famed Superman sidekick. Jack Larson actually appeared in Lois and Clark, playing a future version of Jimmy Olsen.
In 2006’s Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer, Jimmy was played by Sam Huntington. The homage to the 1980s Superman films grossed $200 million in the U.S., received a mixed reaction (76 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but only 61 percent audience approval) and did not warrant a sequel. Since then, Huntington has appeared in Cavemen and Being Human. Larson also had a cameo in the film, playing a bartender.
Surprisingly, Jimmy Olsen was not even included in Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, the most recent theatrical Superman movie. Currently, Mehcad Brooks has taken on the Olsen role in CBS’s new series Supergirl. IMDb describes Brooks as “one of Hollywood’s most promising stars,” and it seems unlikely taking the role is going to derail that.
It’s clearly inaccurate to call the Jimmy Olsen role cursed. But for one man, at one time, it certainly backfired. We can only hope Jack Larson, and his long time romantic and business partner James Bridges, found satisfaction in the direction his life took afterwards.
[Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images]