Phyllis Coates became the second actress to portray the role of Lois Lane Superman's favorite female reporter, on-screen appearing in the movie, Superman and the Mole Men (1951) which starred George Reeves as Superman. This movie essentially served as the pilot for the television series and it's success lead to the immediate decision to begin production on a television series immediately following the movie, later in 1951. Ms. Coates was asked to reprise her role during the premier year of the television series. Due to conflicts with the producer and prior commitments Phyllis decided not to return to the role when filming resumed in 1953, and Noel Neill, who had played the role in the first two Superman serials, was called in to replace her.
Ms. Coates was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, as Gypsie Ann Evarts Stell. While still in her teens, she and her family moved to Hollywood with intentions of eventually enrolling at UCLA, however a chance meeting with Ken Murray in a Hollywood & Vine restaurant landed her a role in the comedian's vaudeville show.
Like many other young actresses of the 1940's, Coates began her career as a chorus girl and worked her way up to doing skits before joining the veteran showman Earl Carroll and later touring with the USO. Coates got some of her first motion picture experience playing bit parts in such films as Smart Girls Don't Talk (as the Cigarette Girl, 1948) and, My Foolish Heart (1949). In 1949, Coates joined the cast of the Joe MacDoakes series of comedy short subjects being produced by Warner Brothers. Coates appeared as the female lead in the reoccurring role of Alice MacDoakes in the series (You're Having In-Law Trouble (1949), So you Want to be A Cowboy (1951), So you Want to be A Plumber (1951)) which ran several until 1956.
In the spring of 1951, auditions were held for the film Superman and The Mole Men. Phyllis Coates was asked to read for the part of Lois Lane. She recalls that her audition for the part was routine and not overly memorable. "They auditioned a lot of people. I read for it, then was called back a second time. They felt I had the quality it was that simple." They started filming that afternoon. Once the film was complete, the cast immediately began working on the television series.
Phyllis Coates' version of Lois was tougher and darker than Noel Neill's portrayal, but probably closer to the original version of Lois in the comics. Coates was simultaneously beautiful and fiercely determined, not to be outdone by Clark Kent. Some have said that her version of Lois Lane was far ahead of its time and that she became a trendsetter on behalf of women's equality in the 1950's, much the way Jerry Siegel's version of Lois was in the 1940's comics.
Bob Maxwell produced the first season of The Adventures of Superman. A number of television critics have called these episodes the "Dark Series" of Superman, since they had more of a film noir approach to their production. In general, those episodes were more action-packed, had a more violent edge, and were far more dramatic.
The first series of episodes of Superman was actually filmed in 1951, but did not air until 1952. When the decision was finally made to proceed with a second season, a year had passed and Maxwell was now producing Lassie. Whitney Ellsworth assumed the role of producer of the series and immediately began making the show much lighter, almost comical. When Ellsworth approached Coates to begin filming the second season in 1953, she was having some personal problems, had a sick child and already signed with MCA to do a pilot with Jack Carson and Allen Jenkins. Coates recalls that she felt the series was not continuing as she had hoped it would, appearing less imaginative and having less production value. So, even though Ellsworth offered her a salary nearly five times what she had been making for the first season, and essentially insisting that she stay in the role, Coates decided that it was time to leave. Unfortunately for her, that pilot did not sell.
After her stint on Superman, Coates began to divide her time between TV, B-movie assignments and serials for Republic Studios. Some of her more memorable films include Canyon Ambush (1952) in which Phyllis Coates appeared with Johnny Mack Brown, Jungle Drums of Africa (Republic, 1952), which also starred Clayton Moore, remembered best as The Lone Ranger, Panther Girl of the Kongo (Republic, 1954), Girls in Prison (1956) and I Was A Teen-Age Frankenstein (1957). She also appeared with Noel Neill in the film Invasion USA in 1956.
During the 1950's and 1960's, Coates also appeared in a number of classic television series including Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, The Untouchables, The Virginian, Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid and The Patty Duke Show.
From time to time, Coates continues to appear in film and on television (Baby Maker (1970), A Whisper Kills (1988), Goodnight Sweet Marilyn (1989), Kiss Shot (1989) and Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love (1991)).
Most recently, in 1994, Ms. Coates appeared as "Ellen Lane", the Terri Hatcher version of Lois Lane's mother, for the first season finale episode of Lois & Clark. The episode was called. "The House of Luthor" (episode # 21 of season 1), originally airing 5/8/1994. This episode was the cliffhanger leading to season two, in which Lois considered marrying Lex Luthor.
In the nearly forty-years since she appeared on The Adventures of Superman, Phyllis Coates has been reluctant to do interviews concerning the series or George Reeves, and has appeared at only a few conventions or signings. She presently lives in California, and is active in the SPCA.