The actress who was the first to play Superman’s love interest, Lois Lane, on screen has died. Noel Neill was 95. She died Sunday at her home in Tucson, Arizona, following a long illness.
Neill first took on the role as the Daily Planet reporter in the 1948 Columbia movie serial, “Superman.” She would reprise the part alongside George Reeves as the Man of Steel in the 1950’s TV series, “The Adventures of Superman.”
Noel Darleen Neill was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. David Neill; her father was a journalist, and her mother a dancer on the stage. When she was 4 years old, she enrolled at “a school for aspiring performers.” While still in her teens, “she danced, sang and even played the banjo at county fairs throughout the midwest.” She graduated from high school in 1938. She earned her first money by writing articles for Women’s Wear Daily.
Neill took up professional acting and modeling in the early 1940s before landing the role of Lois Lane. In her teens, she was a popular photographic model. While Betty Grable’s pin-up was number one among GIs during World War II, Neill’s was ranked number two. Neill also sang with Bob Crosby and his orchestra and at the Del Mar Turf Club, which was owned by Bing Crosby.
Signing a contract with Paramount Pictures led to appearances in many of the studio’s feature films and short subjects. In the mid-1940s, Noel had a leading role in one of Monogram Pictures’ wayward-youth melodramas, and she became a familiar face in Monogram features for the next several years, especially in the recurring role of Betty Rogers. She appeared in the last of the original Charlie Chan movies, Sky Dragon (1949), and also played damsels in distress in Monogram Westerns and Republic Pictures serials.
Overall, Neill appeared in more than 40 films.
She subsequently appeared in various productions of the Superman franchise, often playing the parent or another relative of one of the main characters, including the 1978 Superman feature film, the 1980s TV series Superboy, the 1990s primetime drama Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman; and the 2006 film Superman Returns.
In 1945, producer Sam Katzman gave Noel Neill the recurring role of Betty Rogers, the aggressive reporter for a high-school newspaper, in his series of “Teen Agers” musical comedies, beginning with Junior Prom in 1946. When Katzman was casting his Superman serial for Columbia Pictures, he remembered Noel Neill’s news-hawk portrayals and signed her to play Lois Lane. She played the role in the film serials Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950), with Kirk Alyn portraying Superman/Clark Kent.
When Adventures of Superman came to television in 1951, veteran movie actors George Reeves and Phyllis Coates took the leading roles for the first season. By the time the series found a sponsor and a network time slot, Coates had committed herself to another production, so the producers called on Noel Neill, who had played Lois Lane in the movies. She continued in the role for five seasons until the series went off the air in 1958. She was scheduled to appear in the seventh season with co-star Jack Larson in 1960, but after Reeves’s tragic and sudden death, the seventh season was canceled, officially ending the show. While Phyllis Coates generally distanced herself from the role, Neill embraced her association with Lois Lane, giving frequent talks on college campuses during the 1970s, when interest in the series was revived, endearing herself to audiences with her warmth and humor.
Neill continued to appear in Superman-related productions. She originated the role of Lois Lane’s mother, Ellen (alternatively, Ella) Lane, in a cameo for the 1978 film Superman, with Kirk Alyn as Lois’ father, Sam Lane – as was the case in reverse with the role of Lois in 1951, Phyllis Coates would later succeed Neill in the role of Ella in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman; Lois & Clark star Teri Hatcher continued the tradition when she made a guest appearance on Smallville as Ella Lane.
In an episode of the TV series Superboy, Neill appeared alongside her former cast-mate Jack Larson, who had played Jimmy Olsen on TV. Her personal appearance at the Metropolis, Illinois, Superman Festival was featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. As “Aunt Lois”, she made a guest appearance in the independent superhero film Surge of Power: The Stuff of Heroes and she played Gertrude Vanderworth (the dying elderly wife of Lex Luthor) in the 2006 film Superman Returns.
In 2003, an authorized biography of Neill was published. It was entitled Truth, Justice, & The American Way: The Life And Times Of Noel Neill, The Original Lois Lane by Larry Thomas Ward. A limited-edition, expanded version of the book was released in 2006. Ward later wrote another book, Beyond Lois Lane in 2007 which focused on Neill’s other acting work and modeling work presented in an array of rare publicity stills, studio press releases, film reviews, newspaper commentaries, and candid photographs.
Neill and Jack Larson donated their time to record commentaries for the DVD releases of the Superman TV episodes.
On the documentary Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman, Neill remarked that a frequent question she would get from children was, “Why don’t you know that Clark Kent was Superman, just wearing a pair of those darn eyeglasses?” She replied to the children (and later to college audiences), “I don’t want to lose my job!”
On June 15, 2010, the southern Illinois city of Metropolis (the city that calls itself the “official home of Superman”), unveiled a statue of Lois Lane. The Lois Lane statue is modeled on Noel Neill. Neill stated that she was honored to be memorialized with the statue.
Neill appeared in “Letter of the Law”, a 1951 episode of The Lone Ranger.
Neill’s performing career diminished rapidly after the end of the Superman TV program. She became a homemaker and worked in the television department at United Artists.
In 2004, Neill received a Golden Boot Award for her work in Western films.
Neill married makeup artist Harold Lierley October 3, 1943, in Hollywood, California. The marriage was annulled shortly afterward. Neill married William Behrens in 1953; the marriage ended in divorce in 1962. In 1963, Neill then married Joel Taylor. The marriage ended with the couple divorcing in 1971.
On July 23, 2010, Neill fell in her home in Tucson, Arizona, and broke her hip. She was hospitalized for surgery at Tucson Medical Center.