June 7, 2012: Larry Tye Talks "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero"

One of the highlights at the 34th Annual Superman Celebration in Metropolis, IL this weekend will be the debut of author Larry Tye's new book, "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero."

In the following interview, Superman Super Site contributing writer Chris Brockow recently had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Tye about his new book as well as share some fan submitted questions in regard to Tye's thoughts on different aspects of the Man of Steel in general. Here's what he had to say:

Chris Brockow: Why did you write or what inspired you to write about Superman?
Larry Tye: I am fascinated by why Americans embrace the heroes they do and decided that one way to explore that would be to look at the longest-lived hero of the last century, Superman. I wanted to understand what his endurance said about him and, even more, about us. That’s the serious reason. The other reason is that I wanted to be 10 again, and writing this book let me. It was comfort food for my soul.

Brockow: How long did it take you to write this book?
Tye: About two years of research and writing.

Brockow: Is this your first time here in Metropolis?
Tye: Yes, it is my first time in Metropolis, although I spent two years working for the Courier-Journal newspaper in Kentucky and during that time I was nearer to here than I realized.

Brockow: Was it hard getting interviews?
Tye: At first. Everyone understandably wanted to know what qualified me to write this book and why they should give up their valuable time to talk to me. But the more people that did, the easier it was to get others. In the end I did more than 200 interviews.

Brockow: How did you go about your research?
Tye: I did what any journalist would: I asked smart people who ought to know about what made Superman special and what made him last. I started with historians, clerics, and psychologists who have written and lectured about Superman’s God-like attributes, his corrupting influences, and why children and their grandparents continue to embrace him. I spoke with writers and artists who brought Superman to life in comic books, comic strips, novels, and graphic novels, as well as on radio, TV, film, and animation. Ninety-two-year-old ghostwriter Alvin Schwartz told me how he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone that he was the man behind the newspaper strip, but then the New York Times outed him. Jack Adams, who was about to turn one hundred and was there at the beginning, talked about how, before they peddled comics, Superman’s publishers were peddling pornography. Jack Larson and Noel Neill explained why they initially did all they could to escape their Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane personas from the wildly-popular TV Adventures of Superman, but now – like Superman’s other aging midwives – they relish the attention the connection still brings. Aaron Smolinski recounted the way kids teased him for appearing naked as baby Clark in Superman: The Movie and the way people still ask, “‘How did you lift the truck?’ I say, ‘I’m Superman.’” I visited Superman’s publisher in New York. I went to his movie studio in California and his hometown of Cleveland. I talked to fanatic fans and casual ones, adolescents and octogenarians, here and abroad. They all agreed with Donald Wurzelbacher of Cincinnati that Superman is “the godfather of superheroes . . . the original, first, and greatest.” I listened to hour after hour of Superman’s old radio broadcasts and watched his early and recent TV shows, cartoons, and films. I read everything I could find about him in newspapers, magazines, and books over more than seven decades. Columnists loved to quote Superman in the financial and editorial sections as well as in the comics, in tabloids like the New York Sun and high-minded broadsheets like the New York Times. I pored over thousands of pages of public records and ones never released from the ongoing lawsuit against Superman’s publisher by his creators’ heirs. I read the unpublished memoirs of Jerry Siegel and Jack Liebowitz, Superman’s creator and patron, and talked to their friends and relatives. I reviewed yellowing police records and coroner’s reports on George Reeves, the TV Man of Steel, with forensic experts and researchers who have spent a lifetime looking into his death. I began by worrying whether, given all that has been written on him, I would have anything new to say. I ended by worrying how to fit into a single manuscript all I have to say on this unambiguous hero who is as much a part of our communal DNA as Paul Bunyan or Huckleberry Finn.

Fan Question: Your opinion on the actor who best portrayed Superman in the media.
Tye: Someone once told me your first Superman is the one you fall in love with, and my first and most cherished was George Reeves.

Fan Question: Your opinion on each of the following Superman/Superboy actors:

  • Bud Collyer: Brilliant at letting us hear the difference between Clark and Supe, and making us believe in him even if we couldn’t see him.
  • Kirk Alyn: The special effects were horrible then, but Kirk looked so determined that I couldn’t help but fall for him, even when he was making a lame attempt to fly. And great spit curl.
  • George Reeves: As I said above, he’s my first and, despite the similarities between his Clark and Superman, I still see him when I think of the Man of Steel. He also made me believe, as a six-year-old, that Superman really was a force for good and someone to emulate.
  • Christopher Reeve: He did, as the marketing line for his first movie said, make me believe a man could fly. He also made me believe he was in love with Lois, was capable of defending the planet, and could laugh even if I couldn’t quite envision him crying.
  • Dean Cain: Not bad, given the constraints he was under to make his role sexy as well as super.
  • Tom Welling: Pretty good, considering how long it took him to don the tights and take flight.
  • Brandon Routh: A noble film but didn’t make me forget Christopher Reeve.
  • Fan Question: Do you believe Kirk Alyn's story that he was originally asked to portray "The Man of Steel" in The Adventures of Superman TV show, or did Alyn try to rewrite history?
    Tye:No, and yes. But I hate to speak ill not just of the dead but of someone as nice as Kirk Alyn.

    Fan Question: Do you think Jack Larson and George Reeves ever got along, since Larson has been the biggest perpetrator of spreading the George Reeves suicide possibility? He did, after all, start the urban legend that in an advance screening of the film, From Here to Eternity, that the audience mocked Reeves when he appeared on screen and that his part was later butchered by the studio, a story that the film's director Fred Zinnemann denied.
    Tye: I have no reason to believe that they didn’t get along, and am not sure how his raising the possibility of suicide undermines that premise. Most of those I know who believe in the suicide story worshiped George.

    Fan Question: Do you believe Reeves committed suicide?
    Tye: Yes, based on my interviews with the current county coroner in LA, my presentation of all the evidence I could dig up to one of America’s leading forensic scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, and my interviews with the Reeves scholars who know all this material much better than me.

    Fan Question: Do you think Warner Brothers will ever make the ultimate Superman II revision incorporating the best scenes from the Donner version, especially the Marlon Brando footage, and combining it with Lester's work?
    Tye: I suspect they’ve probably gone as far as they will with restoring Superman II sciences from the Donner version.

    Fan Question: Did Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher get along on Lois and Clark?
    Tye: Wish I knew. Is there good reason to doubt it?

    Fan Question: What was your favorite episode on The Adventures of Superman and why?
    Tye: “Panic in the Sky,” because his everyman persona took center stage. He still was manly, but also was human and vulnerable.

    Fan Question: What was your favorite episode on Smallville and why?
    Tye: The pilot, because it was a great setup for what came after and who can forget the meteor show and the Red “S” on Clark’s chest.

    Fan Question: What was your favorite episode of Lois and Clark and why?
    Tye: The wedding, because of all the false starts and delays that led up to it. When it finally came I was relieved.

    Fan Question: How much was Marlon Brando asking for to allow his scenes in Superman II?
    Tye: A lot. I honestly can’t recall what Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler told me as to the specific amount.

    Fan Question: What is Hollywood's problem with Superman on screen? Is it the lack of talent for writing super heroes, or nobody understands Superman who tackles the product? It should not take a genius to write a great Superman film, yet Hollywood struggles on the subject.
    Tye: Donner showed it could be done with grace and energy. Not sure why it has been so difficult for others to follow suit. It isn’t for lack of writers, because so many of the best comic book writers have tried screenplays, or for actors, because Chris Reeve showed the way.

    Fan Question: Do you think there will ever be a Smallville film?
    Tye: Don’t know but wouldn’t be surprised.

    Fan Question: What was your take on the Smallville series dealing with a young Clark Kent and his relationship with Lex Luthor?
    Tye: I am fascinated by that new take on the story and delighted that it introduced my kids’ generation to a character I loved as a kid.

    Fan Question: When one walks around a theme park, mall, or even on the street, the Superman "S" symbol outranks any other super hero symbol by an easy 10-1 margin. Why does Warner Brother always drag their feet on Superman films, considering in every television incarnation, the character proves to be very popular?
    Tye: Not sure.

    Fan Question: Did you like the Superboy series?
    Tye: Yes, but not as much as the other series.

    Fan Question: Who do you think was the best actor portraying Superboy?
    Tye: Joe Shuster, when he looked in the mirror trying to imagine how he should draw Superman.

    Fan Question: Including television and films, who do you think was the best Lex Luthor portrayal?
    Tye: Michael Rosenbaum in Smallville.

    Fan Question: Who do you think was the best Lois Lane portrayal in the media?
    Tye: I loved Noel.

    Fan Question: Do you think Jack Larson was the best Jimmy Olson because he was so popular from the old TV series, or do you like one of the other actors' portrayal of the character from TV or films?
    Tye: Again, Jimmy was like Noel and George: my first and therefore my most cherished.

    Fan Question: Your opinion of the best Perry White portrayal.
    Tye: John Hamilton, for the reasons above.

    Fan Question: Do you think the lawsuit between Warner Brothers and the Shuster-Siegel estates will have any influence on Superman?
    Tye: I sure hope not, but I also hope they settle it and soon.

    Thank you Larry for this opportunity interview and taking the time to answer all of these questions.