Obituary: Kirk Alyn

KIRK ALYN was the strapping actor who in 1948 became the screen's first Superman, playing the comic strip "man of steel" in two enormously popular serials.

During the "golden age" of Hollywood, serials formed a major part of the industry. They were an enticing "added attraction" in many movie houses and a staple of Saturday-afternoon children's matinees, each episode having a colourful title ("Pit of Doom", "Ray of Death") and an ending in which the hero or heroine faced seemingly inescapable peril. Republic, Universal and Columbia were the most prolific studios turning out such fare, and the two most popular serials of all time were Columbia's two Superman entries. Their star discovered, though, that after he played Superman, producers could think of him in no other role and he had to give up movies. "Superman ruined my career," Alyn said later. "I was bitter for a number of years."

He was born John Feggo Jnr in Oxford, New Jersey, in 1910, and became a chorus boy on Broadway and played in vaudeville before making his way to Hollywood, where he was given a contract by Columbia. He made his film debut playing one of the Portuguese sailors who urge a reporter (Rosalind Russell) to teach them the conga in My Sister Eileen (1942). He also appeared in the Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth musical You Were Never Lovelier (1942) and played an airman in A Guy Named Joe (1943) with Spencer Tracy.

After war service in the US Navy, he was given a co-starring role with Adrian Booth in a Republic serial Daughter of Don Q in 1946, his first major role on screen. The handsome, well-built actor with a winning smile was popular with audiences, and Columbia, noting his physical resemblance to the comic strip hero Clark Kent, a reporter on the Daily Planet who in reality is the flying vigilante from the planet Krypton who fights for truth, justice and the American Way, cast him in Superman (1948).

America's best-known superhero had been invented by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1934 and had made his debut in Action Comics in 1938. His adventures had already been depicted on screen in a series of animated shorts by Max Fleischer, and were by 1948 being featured in both Superman and Action Comics magazines, as well as in daily and Sunday newspapers and on a radio programme, and fans flocked to see his escapades in live action on screen. Shown in sepia-tone and laced with humour, the 15-episode serial had Superman pitting his strength against the Spider Lady (Carol Forman), and was followed by Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). In both serials the heroine Lois Lane was played by Noel Neill.

Alyn got away from the Superman image in the serials Federal Agents vs Underworld Inc (1949) and Radar Patrol vs Spy King (1950) at Republic and another Columbia serial, Blackhawk (1952), in which he was an aviator rounding up a sabotage ring, but with television now showing similar material and the smaller cinemas closing, serial production started to dry up and Alyn found himself no longer in demand.

In 1942 he had married the actress-singer Virginia O'Brien, noted for her frozen-faced delivery of dialogue and songs, but their marriage ended in 1955. Alyn worked on the stage for a while, then retired to live alone on a lakeside in Arizona. In the Seventies, he found himself in demand to attend film conventions and talk with fans about his work in serials. "A new interest in Superman is booming," he said in 1976. "College and nostalgia groups all around the country are inviting me to appear before them." He added, "Should Hollywood decide to resurrect the Daily Planet reporter, maybe they'll want me to play the father of Superman."

Two years later, when Warners made Superman with Christopher Reeve, Alyn and Noel Neill were cast as the parents of Lois Lane, but their roles were cut from the final print. Recently, 49 minutes of out-takes were added to television prints, including the scenes featuring Alyn and Neill. In 1982 Alyn returned briefly to the screen to play the leading role of a doctor in a low-budget horror movie Scalps. In recent years he suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Alyn's disappointment with his career and lonely later life could be interpreted as a further example of what has become known as "the Superman curse". The creators of Superman sold their rights to DC Comics for just over $100 and spent much of their life fighting for royalties. Alyn's successor as Superman, the actor George Reeves, killed himself, and Christopher Reeve was paralysed in a tragic riding accident.

Tom Vallance

John Feggo (Kirk Alyn), actor: born Oxford, New Jersey 8 October 1910; married 1942 Virginia O'Brien (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1955); died The Woodlands, Texas 14 March 1999.