Jack Larson: Actor who played Jimmy Olsen to George Reeves' Superman but gave up his career to write for the stage

 

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The Independent Online

Jack Larson was reluctant to play Clark Kent’s bow-tied sidekick, Jimmy Olsen, in Adventures of Superman, the first television incarnation of the comic-book stories. With aspirations to become a Broadway actor and playwright, he worried that he would become typecast in the role of the Daily Planet newspaper’s wide-eyed, enthusiastic junior reporter in the fictional city of Metropolis.

He took the part after his agent informed him that although the series was going into production, it had no sponsor and was unlikely to see the light of day. Kellogg’s then emerged as the programme’s backer and the series became hugely popular, running from 1952 to 1958, with George Reeves starring as the Man of Steel.

Larson brought comedy to the role of Jimmy, who is often seen being caught by the villains and placed in peril – once being put in a runaway car heading for a cliff – before reporter Clark Kent switches to his Superman costume (not, in this series, in a telephone box) and comes to the young photojournalist’s rescue.

In 1959, a year after Adventures of Superman was axed, plans to revive it were abandoned following Reeves’ suicide. Larson took with him from the studios Jimmy’s bow-tie as a memento of a series he loved making – but found his original expectations had been realised.

“To me, it was a nightmare,” he said. “Everywhere I went, it was, ‘Jimmy! Jimmy! Hey, Jimmy, where’s Superman?’ Suddenly, I couldn’t take the bus or the subway any more. It absolutely freaked me out.”

He switched to writing and producing, though he was later persuaded to make cameo appearances as an old Jimmy in a 1996 episode of the TV series The New Adventures of Superman and as a bartender serving drinks to Jimmy (Sam Huntington) and Clark Kent (Brandon Routh) in the 2006 film Superman Returns.

Larson was born in Los Angeles. His father George, of Swedish and English descent, was a milk-truck driver and his mother Anita (née Calicoff), the daughter of Russian and German Jews, a Western Union clerk. The couple divorced while he was young.

Brought up in Montebello, California, Larson became a state bowling champion at the age of 14. He considered bowling as a professional career but also enjoyed poetry and drama, and was encouraged to write at Pasadena Junior College, where he acted in plays.

He was spotted by a Warner Brothers agent while starring in a college production of his own musical comedy Balguna Del Mar. He signed with the studio and made his screen début in the 1948 war film Fighter Squadron as a young lieutenant. A string of small roles followed before Adventures of Superman.

With difficulty shedding his Jimmy Olsen persona, he gave up acting in the early 1960s on the advice of the Hollywood star Montgomery Clift, with whom he once had a relationship. Instead, he wrote plays distinctive for their rhyming verse, and librettos for operas. His mystery play The Candied House, performed in Los Angeles, in 1966, was a modern version of the Hansel and Gretel story featuring characters who do not live happily ever after. It was produced by James Bridges, Larson’s partner from 1958, and praised by critics.

This led to the composer Virgil Thomson commissioning Larson to write the libretto for his opera Lord Byron, which opened to mixed reviews at the Juilliard Theater, New York, in 1972. It was Larson’s proudest achievement.

His other works included Chuck (1968), about an epileptic magazine sales representative, Cherry, Larry, Sandy, Doris, Jean, Paul (off-Broadway and at the 1969 Edinburgh Fringe Festival), about being gay, and the chamber opera The Astronaut’s Tale (Suffolk University, Boston, 1998), with music by Charles Fussell.

He was also associate or co-producer of films written and directed by Bridges (who died in 1993), including The Baby Maker, Mike’s Murder, Perfect and Bright Lights, Big City. He donated Jimmy Olsen’s bow-tie to the Smithsonian Institution.

ANTHONY HAYWARD

Jack Edward Larson, actor, writer and producer: born Los Angeles 8 February 1928; partner from 1958 to James Bridges (died 1993); died Brentwood, California 20 September 2015.

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