'Fresh Air' Remembers: Jack Larson, Who Played Jimmy Olsen On TV's 'Superman'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jack Larson, who costarred in the 1950s TV series "The Adventures Of Superman," died Sunday at the age of 87. He was 23 when he got the part of Jimmy Olsen, cub reporter at The Daily Planet where he worked with reporters Lois Lane and Clark Kent, who was, of course, Superman in disguise. Jimmy and Lois were constantly getting themselves into fixes where they were rescued at the last minute by Superman. After his days of getting rescued by the Man of Steel, Larson went on to write plays and librettos. He collaborated with such prominent composers as Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem, Charles Fussell and David Diamond. He was a producer of several films, including "Bright Lights, Big City," "The China Syndrome," "The Paper Chase" and "Urban Cowboy." We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Jack Larson in 1993. He told me that when he got the offer to play Jimmy Olsen on "Superman," he'd been trying to establish a stage career, but he was getting nowhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JACK LARSON: I wanted to go to Broadway. New York, here I come. I didn't have any money. You know, you got equity minimum for doing a play. And I was offered the "Superman" television show, which was one of the first shows ever filmed. Nobody knew what it was. There had been no film television, only live television. And so I was hesitant to do it, and the people that wanted me very much said, look, it's like doing a Saturday morning serial, you know, for theatre serials. No one will ever see it. You're a very difficult kid. You don't want another stock contract. You don't want this; you don't want that. You want to get to New York? Well, take the money and run, and do this. So I signed on to play Jimmy Olsen in "Superman." It didn't go on the air for two years. We shot that in the summer of 1951, summer and fall. And I was in New York working in live television when "Superman" went on the air. And it became instantly very popular, and my character became popular. And I became Jimmy Olsen.
GROSS: Well, you were interested in writing and serious acting. And here you were on "Superman" playing this golly-gee-whiz, naive cub reporter. It sounds like you were really nothing like the character you were playing. Did you enjoy playing that kind of role? Did it get annoying after a while?
LARSON: I loved playing Jimmy. And I now, all these years later, regard it as a fulfillment of myself as an actor. I think Jimmy was - it was my part. Being a pioneer in television like that - in film television - they were so busy technically learning how to film a show quickly that they let us all alone as performers. And they let me create Jimmy, and I had a wonderful time doing it and worked with first-rate character actors, people like George E. Stone, Sterling Holloway, Elizabeth Patterson. And you learn from these people who were major actors from the theater and in films. And I wanted to do comedy and comedy bits. And they'd let me alone. And once I became popular, they really let me alone to just do what I wanted to do. So you were like a pioneer in the early days of silent films, two reel comedy, doing television.
GROSS: How many times were you kidnapped as Jimmy Olsen?
LARSON: Oh, I don't know. Probably every third show I was kidnapped as Jimmy.
LARSON: (Laughter) And had a bomb - if I was ever kidnapped, I was either tied to a chair with a bomb at my feet or sealed in a room somewhere that Superman couldn't see through because there was mysterious lead in the brick or something. But that never bothered me (laughter). What bothered me was the writers and the producers, they liked to have Jimmy nearly drown. And they used to like to get me wet, like, put me in a cave. And the tide is coming into the cave. And the cave has bars. And Jimmy is going to be drowned. And the problem with that - I never mind being wet. I will do anything as an actor. But you get sick because once they get you wet, if you've got work to do afterwards, you stay wet. And in the next day work - if you're rescued, for instance, Superman would come in and rescue - would tear back the bars of the cave and carry Jimmy out, who would say, golly, Superman, I never thought you'd get here in time. I thought I was a goner for sure.
LARSON: And I'd be carried outside, dripping wet. Well, your next scenes - all your next work, the resolution, you're still wet. They come with a hose and wet you down. And I would always catch a cold.
LARSON: Soundstages are cold. And it drove me crazy, and they never cared. And I finally told them - it was about the second season and my 10th wet show (laughter). And I said, listen, I don't want to seem a spoilsport, but I don't like working sick (laughter). And I catch a cold in these cold soundstages. So quit. You can regard me from now on as a dry actor.
GROSS: You know how earlier you were telling us that when you started working in music - when you started working with opera and art song, that you kept your Jimmy Olsen part of your life a secret because you thought it would hurt your credibility and people wouldn't want to work with you? During the part of your life where you were keeping Jimmy Olsen a secret, did you make up a past or did you just not talk about the past?
LARSON: No, I didn't talk about it. And I was aware that people would stare at me in restaurants. And people would come up, and it would embarrass me to sign autographs or things. But nobody would say anything. So - and I didn't have a wide, you know, really wide circle of friends like that. My closest friend during all those years was Montgomery Clift, really. And Monty was very reclusive. And so socially, often, we'd go out to dinner and stuff. But when you're forbidding like that, people don't bother you. And I was certainly forbidding. And, as I said, on the off time I would grow a beard and do things. And I realized it was very neurotic behavior.
GROSS: Years ago - this was like the first year I was in radio. It was in the mid-'70s, I think. I interviewed Noel Neill, your co-star. She was...
LARSON: Oh, did you?
GROSS: She was Lois Lane.
LARSON: Yes, she's darling person.
GROSS: Well, one of the questions I asked her was this. I said, I remember all these episodes where you were kidnapped. And you were tied up, and you were wriggling around while you were, you know, in bondage, and...
GROSS: Sometimes you'd be dressed in the chiffon robe. And you were supposed to be sacrificed until Superman came and rescued you. And I said...
GROSS: You know, did you ever think about the kind of S&M type of imagery that that was? And she said, we never thought about those kinds of things.
LARSON: No, she's right.
GROSS: Did you really never think about those kinds of things?
LARSON: No, I really didn't. I know the show you're referring to where the - a ancient cult...
GROSS: Yes (laughter).
LARSON: Kidnapped both of us in a tomb. And they stripped me - I'm in, like, a jockstrap or something - little thing - and she's in a beautiful filmy thing. And we're tied to pillars or something (laughter). And they're going to kill us. And I guess it was wild S&M (laughter). I don't know. No, I never thought about it. We were too busy working. We never thought about a lot of things, you know?
LARSON: I always played Jimmy just - let me see - dumb enough. I felt that Jimmy was so dumb that he couldn't tell Superman was Clark Kent because Clark Kent wore a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.
GROSS: Right, right (laughter).
LARSON: And I thought, if you're that unaware...
LARSON: And in any kind of a thing - once actually, Clark Kent - there's one show where Jimmy's beside him. And he - Clark Kent is falling through his shower door, and he's in bed. And Jimmy seems to be showing sharing the apartment at that time or something. He's taking care of him. And Clark Kent does not have on his glasses, and Jimmy doesn't, even still, recognize him as Superman. And I pointed it out to the director and the producer. I said, well, now, you know, here we are, and he doesn't have on these glasses 'cause he's fallen through his shower - glass shower door. And they said, oh, don't think about it. That's opening up a can of peas (laughter). Just play the scene. So I did.
GROSS: Jack Larson played Jimmy Olsen on "The Adventures Of Superman." He died Sunday at the age of 87. Our interview was recorded in 1993. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Lauren Groff's new novel, "Fates And Furies." It's the current selection of the NPR Morning Edition book club. This is FRESH AIR.
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