As he celebrates his 80th Anniversary, we find ourselves thinking about the actors that have played Superman. But even beyond the Superman actors, there’s also the moment that started it all: the April 1938 debut of Action Comics. At the time, it cost one thin (perhaps not-so-thin then) dime, and in 2014 that same same comic book sold for $3.2 million. Now that’s an investment, although 80 years ago no one really expected the guy who adorned the cover of that comic, Superman (created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster), to have the impact that he did. Or that he would still be thriving so many decades later, the character appearing in virtually every non-print medium, including radio, television, animation, the big screen, and even on the Broadway stage. And in that time, the “S” adorning his chest has proven an inspiration to people around the world.
“You can take the ‘S’ and a cross into the jungle, and you’re going to have pretty much 50/50 recognition,” offers Bryan Singer, director of 2006’s Superman Returns, in an exclusive interview. “It’s pretty amazing. Such an iconic figure. Even little kids who don’t know anything about Superman, never grew up with Superman, they see the ‘S’ and they know.”
(Actor Henry Cavill holds a copy of the comic book that started it all; Photo Credit: Getty Images)
The late David Newman, who co-wrote the scripts for the first three Christopher Reeve Superman films, says of the character’s long-standing appeal, “The notion of a god who walks among men disguised as a man occurs in every mythology, and there are biblical connotations in this legend as well: a father says, ‘I will send my only son to Earth to save mankind.’ We all know where we’ve heard that story before. It has such resonance.”
“The thing that got to me,” adds Richard Donner, director of Superman: The Movie, “is the idea of Superman appealing to our daydreams. How many of us have had a great desire to be Superman? To be impervious to pain and accomplish anything you set out to do? He’s there to help us, and wouldn’t we all like to be him for one minute? It’s a mythology that reaches what is real today. Most mythology is period in its setting. He just seems to have gone along with time so very well.”
Driving home that point, what follows is a guide to many of the actors who have worn the character’s blue and red uniform and played Superman over the years — some of whom will no doubt surprise you, perhaps even bringing a smile to your face.