Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Episode #102: Happy Birthday, Noel Neill!

I would like to thank my friend Melissa Abrahamsen for allowing me to borrow her autographed copy of the book Truth, Justice, & The American Way: The Life And Times Of Noel Neill, The Original Lois Lane, An Authorized Biography by Larry Thomas Ward, published by Nicholas Lawrence Books in 2003. This book is probably out of print but is available from a vendor at, other internet source or a used bookstore.

Neill was born on November 25, 1920, on Thanksgiving Day! Her mother, LaVerne Binger, was a war widow whose first husband killed on a French battlefield during WWI. She made the heartbreaking decision to send her infant son, Eugene Binger, Jr., to grow up with his paternal grandparents. (Noel would not meet her half-brother until they were adults. He served in the Merchant Marine, and lived for many years in Alaska.) Noel's father was a journalist and later editor Her parents married in 1919 and moved to Minneapolis. As a single woman LaVerne had been a vaudeville singer and dancer. She enrolled her young daughter in the Seton Guild of Dance and Dramatic Arts in Minneapolis. Noel would attend six similar schools for the next decade. As a child performer Noel would be in a variety of stage presentations, and would perform for radio beginning in 1928, although she is unawate of any recordings of those broadcasts.

Her first paid performance was in the 1930 vaudeville production Kid Nite Follies, which was billed as a miniature music comedy, at the RKO Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Noel was part of a child song and dance trio with two male performers. Young Noel would meet another child performer, Rose Marie, who would achieve her greatest fame as Sally in the 1960's sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show. They would meet again seventy years later at a Hollywood Reunion at Studio City, California.

Noel described her mother as a typical stage mom, but in the best sense of the word. She encouraged her daughter to stay in the theater. While Noel enjoyed performing, it wasn't the whole world to her as it was to her mother. This was the era when children never questioned their parents, but Noel maintained a close relationship with her mother. Noel developed a lifelong love of athletics.

As a teen Noel sang, danced and performed at various State Fairs, and made her professional solo singing debut at the Blue Ribbon Nite Club in Albuquerque, New Mexico, escorted by her mother. Noel's career didn't interfere with her ability to be an excellent high school student. She was the secretary for the student council and the assistant business manager for her high school newspaper.

Her father's influence as a writer was passed on to his daughter, as she published a short story in the book Venture (maybe a high school publication?) and would later earn some money when the magazine Women's World Daily published an article she wrote.

After graduating from high school Noel and her mother took a car trip to Mexico and California. With her first taste of the California beaches she fell in love with the state and would eventually live there most of her life. Noel loved the beach and enjoyed tanning, surfing and playing beach volleyball. Acting on a neighbor's tip, Noel auditioned for, and was hired as, the job of singer at the Hotel Del Mar. Bing Crosby heard her perform and hired Noel and the band to play at his night club across the street, the Del Mar Turf Club. Noel performed there for two seasons. She found Bing always nice to her and upbeat. Once, when she did not feel well, Bing arranged for Noel to be taken to his beach house where his wife welcomed her and had the maid bring Noel herb tea.

In 1938 she applied for a job as a contract actor at Paramount Studio. She eventually hired Jack Pomoroy as her agent, for a 10% commission. He would later become agent for Jack Larson, who would play Jimmy Olsen on the 1950's Superman tv show. Noel's first film performance was an uncredited role in Monogram's Henry Aldrich For President. Her role in 1943's Lady Of Burlesque won Noel her first big studio contract with Paramount Studios for $75.00 per week. She would often be loaned to other studios, as was the practice at the time. One of her first roles under contract was in The Road To Utopia, one of the Hope and Crosby Road pictures. One day on the lot she heard someone behind her singing the Christmas carol Noel. It was Bing Crosby. He asked her if things were going well for her, and said that if she had problems with anyone to let him or his brother know, and they would take care of the situation. Noel never needed his help in that regard and felt his offer was genuine and his concern sincere.

Her biography credited Noel with 89 film roles in every genre. During WWII Noel was also a photographic model, and her biography credits her as being the second most popular pinup after Betty Grable. Noel acted in a number of Sam Katzman productions, which was how she won the role of Lois Lane in the Superman serials, Superman (1950) and Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950) for Columbia Studios. Harry Cohn, the studio head, stated that the Superman serials saved the studio from bankruptcy. At the end of her Paramount contract Noel had a role in the last Charlie Chan film, 1950's Sky Dragon.

Of the actors who portrayed Sueprman, Noel felt that Kirk Alyn, of the serials, was the most athletic, but also had the biggest ego of the Superman actors. She did say that, even though Alyn would get bruised from the stunts he had to perform on set, she felt safe on the set, and he was careful when he had to carry her. Jimmy Olsen was played by Little Rascals alumnus Tommy Bond. Noel performed more physical stunts in the second serial that the first one. (Listen to episode #43 for more about the Superman serials and actor Kirk Alyn.)

After the serials she continued in minor film roles. Among the more notable films she appeared in were, American In Paris, starring Gene Kelly, and Submarine Command, starring Bill Holden, both in 1951, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) which starred Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. One of Noel's best dance routines ever was cut from the film because Russell felt the female dancers were too good and had them replaced with beefcake.

Noel's earliest TV performances were not for the Advnetures Of Superman series in the 1950's, but back in 1943 while she was under contract for Paramount Studios. TV pioneer Klaus Landsberg produced an early TV show, Variety Hour in one of Paramounts older studios with rondown dressing rooms. Klaus trained kids from the mail room to run the cameras and other equipment in exchange for their help. Noel MC'ed the show and also sang and danced. She expressed her athleticism by hosting an exercise program.

She returned to the role of Lois Lane with the second season of the TV series. Phyllis Coates (subject of episode #56), Lois for the first season, had taken a job with a TV pilot that would not be picked up. Whiney had called Noel himself to ask her to join the show. The production had a very tight budget. After wardrobe Noel had to fix her own hair because there was no money for a haridresser. She also had to bring her own stockings and shoes from home. Noel did not meet George Reeves until rehersal for their first scene together. Director Tommy Carr kept having Noel repeat a line because he wan't satisfied with her delivery. Noel became frustrated because she knew that she was delivering the line right, but the director would not let it go. George came to her defense and told Tommy, "Why don't you give the kid a break. It's hard to come into an established family and do this just the way you want her to." Carr backed off and this seemed to be the only problem she had with Carr for the rest of the production.

George and John Hamilton (Perry White) had a racy sense of humor and would sometimes flub a line in a naughty way to relieve the stress on set. Then they would nail their lines on the second take. George and John would trade blue humor off the set, but not in Noel's presence. Noel liked Hamilton, who was a private and aloof man off the set and preferred to be called Mr. Hamilton. but he was great to work with on the set. Noel became very close friends with Jack Larson, who she had a lot of respect for his talent as a writer.

Kellogg's was the series sponsor, so the cast would supplement their meager salaries from the show with the more lucrative comercials, except for Noel. The situations depicted in the commercials, showing the actors having breakfast together, would imply that someone spent the night at someone else's house. It would not be appropriate, the sponsors felt, for Noel to possibly have spent the night at an unmarried man's house, which did not help her bank account. Noel's favorite episodes were The Tomb Of Zaharan, The Wedding Of Superman and Panic In The Sky.

After the end of production in 1957 Noel joined George Reeves in a song and dance troupe he financed. She sang while George and others played instruments, and George did a wrestling skit with another member of the troupe. It was not a success. George felt his agent did not promote it enough and they performed to dwindling crowds. Eventually the troupe broke up and went home. Noel convinced George to keep her fee because she knew that he lost a lot of money in the venture.

Some time after John Hamilton's funeral, the TV show was scheduled to resume production for a seventh season. Noel met with Reeves and director George Blair. Reeves looked forward to directing more episodes and appeared very upbeat. Two days later Noel received the news that George was dead from a gunshot wound to the head. While his mysterious death was ruled a suicide Noel and Jack Larson became resigned to the fact that the whole truth around his deise would probably never be learned.

She retired from full time acting around 1960 and bought a home at Santa Monica Canyon, where she lives today, near Jack Larson. She became a world traveler, and indulged her love of the beach and beach volleyball. In the late 1960's Noel became bored and decided to go back to work. She joined a temp service and eventually was hired by the United Artists Studio, not as an actor but as part of the staff of the publicity department. She would later join the television division, selling programs to stations west of the Mississippi River.

In 1974 Noel Neill received a call from a student of Monmouth College inviting her to speak at the college about her years of portraying Lois Lane. After agreeing on an appearance fee she was surprised on the turnout for her presentation. That led to over fifty appearances at colleges and universities across the country in the next four years. The travel became a grind and was interferring with her job, so she stopped making appearances.

She would make a cameo appearance in Supernan: The Movie, in the train scene portraying Lois Lane's mother. Kirk Alyn also had a cameo as Lois' father. Noel Neill became the only performer to appear in all three film versions of Superman, the 1940's serials, the 1950's TV show and the 1970's motion picture. She would also portray the dying widow Luthor married to scam her fortune in 2006's Superman: Returns.

Noel Neill would be laid off from United Artists when the movie Heaven's Gate almost banrupted the studio. An old friend contacted her about a young actor who needed someone to coordinate his fan mail. He was Tom Sellick, star of the TV show Magnum, P. I. She continues in this role at least part time. Noel describged Sellick as hardworking, considerate and loyal.

She has made many appearances, often with Jack Larson, promoting and remembering the TV show. Noel has appeared at many Superman Celebrations in Metropolis, Illinois (subject of episode #26). Both actors have also appeared in many documentaries, and even co-starred in an episode of the Superboy TV show, starring Gerard Christopher, in 1992.

Her travels in the last several decades have included Tibet, the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the waterways of Alaska and the Galapagos and Komodo islands. She also enjoys playing golf and bridge.

Next week: Episode #103: Superman In Exile, Part IV: Action Comics Annual #2, 1989!

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