Before Henry Cavill became the latest actor to don the famous red cape and blue spandex of Superman, before Brandon Routh's mostly-forgotten 2006 turn as the Man of Steel, before Dean Cain and Christopher Reeves and Gerard Christopher, there was George Reeves.
The Iowa-born Reeves had ambitions of movie stardom, but took on the role in 1951 when he starred in a backdoor pilot for what would become The Adventures of Superman.
The wildly successful show straddled the black and white and color eras of television, made Reeves a national icon, and inspired what the Guardian called "a kind of proto-Beatlemania," with Reeves "facing riotous crowds 20,000-strong at department store openings and celebrity galas, fending off kids who jabbed him with pins, punched him in the stomach and, on one queasy occasion, even aimed a loaded .38 at the Man of Steel."
For crazed fans who had difficulty separating reality from fantasy, seeing Reeves in the flesh provided an opportunity to test whether the Man of Steel really could withstand the kind of blows and injuries that would stop other men cold.
On June 16, 1959, they got their answer with news of Reeves' tragic death. The actor, just 45 years old and a year removed from his run as Superman, was found dead in the bedroom of his Hollywood home, with a single .30-caliber gunshot wound to his head and a Luger pistol near his feet.
The police arrived in the early morning hours to find a handful of drunken houseguests, including Reeves' fiancee, Leonore Lemmon. Reeves was slumped back on his bed, with blood "spreading across the sheets beneath him like a billowing red cape," as the Independent described the scene.
Cops conducted "perfunctory" interviews with Reeves' intoxicated friends -- who said they'd been downstairs when the gunshot rang out -- and then processed the crime scene.
Soon after, police declared Reeves' death a suicide, which didn't sit well with his friends and admirers; not only did they fail to test the actor's hand and head for gunpowder residue, they were unable to explain a series of bruises on the former Man of Steel's face and chest, and Reeves' body was inexplicably washed before it was delivered to the coroner for an autopsy, according to the Guardian.
Reeves' friends couldn't believe it. They said he was a jovial guy who loved life, was enjoying his new relationship, and was three days away leaving the country with Lemmon for their "honeymoon." He didn't leave a suicide note, and friends said there was nothing different in his demeanor in the days before he died.
More than 50 years later, Reeves' death remains a confounding mystery, one that's been revisited by journalists, amateur sleuths, and believers in the so-called "Superman curse" that attributes the deaths, injuries and misfortunes of former actors and crew members to their participation in various Superman incarnations on TV and in the movies.
There are three main theories about Reeves' death despite the fact that, as the Guardian notes, "all the witnesses are dead or scattered," and the case was officially closed a half century ago.
One compelling theory revolves around Reeves' longtime lover, Toni Mannix. Toni was the husband of MGM Vice President Eddie Mannix, and the two allegedly had an open relationship. Toni, who was eight years older than Reeves, was essentially his sugar mommy, paying for his home, his furniture, his clothes, exotic vacations and most other things in his life, according to biographies. As the wife of a powerful studio figure, she also helped propel his career.
But then Reeves left her for Lemmon, and she was despondent, according to friends and acquaintances who were subsequently interviewed in press accounts and books about Reeves' life and death.
In the 2006 film "Hollywoodland," Diane Lane plays the jealous Toni, a woman who "sequestered herself at home, cried for weeks, and phoned George up to 20 times a day" after the break-up, says the Guardian.
In the 1996 book "Hollywood Kryptonite: The Bulldog, the Lady, and the Death of Superman," writers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger argue that it was Toni Mannix who hired a hit man or hitmen to kill Reeves.
"We put together what we think is a very strong circumstantial case," Schoenberger told USA Today in 1999. "We feel that Toni Mannix was the only person who had a motive. This was a stalking that got out of control."
That same year, Edward Lozzi, a Hollywood publicist, told Extra that Toni Mannix had confessed to the killing on her death bed. He said she was finally speaking out because none of the people involved in the murder were still alive. In a 2006 interview, Lozzi elaborated on Toni's alleged confession, telling the Los Angeles Times that she "was absolutely terrified of going to hell" and felt compelled to confess before she died.
A second theory follows almost the same curves as the Toni Mannix narrative, but places the blame on Eddie Mannix, her husband. As a powerful studio boss who grew up in mafia-dominated New Jersey, Eddie was known for his hot temper and his ability to fix scandals for the actors and actresses who worked for him, employing a small army of mob-related enforcers to do his dirty work, according to reports.
"If strong-arm men were needed to seek vengeance for the aggrieved Toni, Eddie Mannix had them on retainer," the Guardian's John Patterson wrote.
Finally, some believe it was Lemmon who pulled the trigger. The New York-born socialite was known for her "Vesuvian" temper, and had previously admitted to firing a gun during an argument with Reeves, making bullet holes in the floor and wall of the actor's living room.
In the 2004 book "The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine," writer E.J. Fleming says the Lemmon theory is the most plausible.
Lemmon, Fleming wrote, "had a terrible temper, and liked guns and knew how to use them."
According to some reports, Lemmon and Reeves had gotten into an argument at a Los Angeles restaurant, which spilled over to Reeves' home when they both returned. Fleming says Lemmon could have shot Reeves in his bedroom, then staged the scene to look like a suicide. There's also the inconvenient -- for Lemmon -- fact that she skipped town immediately after the murder, taking $4,000 in traveler's checks with her that had apparently been reserved for the couple's "honeymoon."
But Lemmon, the Guardian noted, was known for being volatile and changeable, and fleeing the city after the death of her lover wouldn't have been out of character.
Ultimately, the mystery behind Reeves' death may never be solved, a reality of forensic limitations in an era when CSI-watching audiences expect every case to reach a neat conclusion.
"No one really knows for sure what happened," "Hollywoodland" producer Glenn Williamson told the Los Angeles Times in 2006. "A lot of people who were there have died and, frankly, the way forensics works is different now."