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Pluck, Pearls And A Pillbox Hat: Remembering Noel Neill

Noel Neill and George Reeves as Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman.
Hulton Archive
Getty Images
Noel Neill and George Reeves as Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman.

Actress Noel Neill died over the weekend at the age of 95 following a long illness.

When she took over the role of Lois Lane in the second season of TV's The Adventures of Superman, she helped take the show in a new direction.

Phyllis Coates had played Lois during the show's first, 1952-53 season, when the scripts possessed a harder, more violent and unapologetically crime noir/pulp edge. Coates' Lois reflected that tone; she was tough, resourceful and brassy.

But when Coates had a scheduling conflict that prevented her from returning for the second season, Neill stepped in to fill Lois' stylish yet sensible pumps.

Which only made sense; she had, after all, played the role twice before, in two Superman movie serials, opposite Kirk Alyn. In both, she'd brought a seriousness to Lois that risked coming off as sharp, even waspish. Ambition and determination are parts of the character's narrative DNA, and Neill absolutely nailed both with her unsmiling, Tracy-Flick-in-a-pillbox-hat portrayal.

That quality of grim resourcefulness helped to ground both serials in something like reality — which is saying something, given that they dealt with things like disintegration rays and hordes of Mole Men who looked about as terrifying as a gaggle of tax accountants.

But when Neill assumed the role of Lois Lane for the TV show, her marching orders were different. A new producer wanted to allay sponsors' worries about the first season's violence, so he set about pitching the show straight for the kiddie audience. That meant a growing emphasis on whimsical science-fiction plots and fewer straight-ahead crime stories. The comedy, and the characters, grew broader. The criminals Superman did still tangle with became feckless, mouth-breathing "dese and dose" thugs who'd empty a gun on his invulnerable chest and then throw it at him in frustration.

Neill's Lois was just as brave and resourceful as ever, but softer, sweeter and even — when it came to her interactions with her most frequent scene partner, Jack Larson's Jimmy Olsen — slightly maternal. (When faced with Olsen's "Jeepers, Miss Lane!" guilelessness, she often let a note of impatience creep into her delivery, because, really: Wouldn't you?)

The plots called for her to play the perpetual victim, constantly kidnapped by the bad-guy-of-the-week and rescued by George Reeves' Man of Steel. But if the writing assigned her that role, Neill's performance slyly rebelled against it.

She adopted a permanent vocal smirk that made her Lois seem, in any given scene, amused more than anything else, even knowing. On the page, Lois was Doris Day, but on the screen, she stubbornly edged closer to Eve Arden. The effect was subtle but unmistakable: the show certainly didn't consider her Superman's equal, but Neill did, and she let us see that, week after week.

The different screen Loises can't help but reflect their respective eras: Margot Kidder's frazzled, Dancing-As-Fast-As-I-Can Lois captured the Valium-popping 1970s and 80s. Dana Delaney's voice work on Superman: The Animated Series made for a sardonic 1990s Lois who wasn't easily impressed.

But to a generation that grew up watching endless reruns of The Adventures of Superman after church on Sundays (hi!), it's Neill who first staked out the patch of cultural real estate known as "Lois Lane." The part certainly didn't call on her to display much range (she gave up acting soon after the show's demise), but the broad strokes she brought to it still retain a primal, elemental quality.

And in that sense at least, she will always be linked to George Reeves' iconic performance, and seen as his equal: She did everything he did, after all, only in pearls and pink pillbox hat.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.