|The Celebrity Collector
Noel Neill, Superman's "Lois Lane" Collects
By Ken Hall
Around the mid-1970s, with
her acting career over and plenty of time on her hands, Noel Neill
decided she would do some travelling. The actress who gained fame as
"Lois Lane" in the hit '50s TV show The Adventures of Superman set
off for some of the world's most exotic destinations, often roughing
it in the process. She bought lots of "tchotchkes" (knick-knack
items) along the way.
"I would buy things for
people back home, but by the time I returned to the States I had
pretty much decided to keep them for myself," Neill said with a
chuckle. "I know that sounds terrible, but in some cases I earned
those little items." She displays her knick-knacks (she's got about
75) in an open hutch at her Santa Monica home in southern
California. Few have value, save for sentimental.
Like the metal figure she
bought from a child street vendor in Indonesia. "Kids were always in
the streets, selling things, and I paid a dollar for this heavy,
black metal piece showing a multi-armed woman -- like Medusa -- with
a helmet on. It's a very interesting looking thing, and that's what
the customs people thought, too, when they detained me at a check
point and asked me about it."
The customs officials
initially took the item for an antiquity. Removing it from the
country would have been against the law. They apologized to Neill
and told her she'd have to give it up. "I was on the verge of
missing my bus, so I said, "Fine, keep it,'" she recalled. "But they
must have had a change of heart, because at the next customs check
point it was right there waiting for me."
Like Noel said, she's
earned some of those little figures. Another time, she was on a
trans-Russian train trip and just settling in for the night in her
sleeping compartment. "All of a sudden I heard this terrific noise,"
she said. "I flipped on the light and saw this bullet hole right in
the double-pane window of my compartment. Some Russian hillbilly
just decided to fire off a round, I guess."
She calmly notified the
train officials, who had the window replaced the following morning.
Then it was on to Ulla Baton, a large city in Mongolia, where Neill
and her travel companion Barbara King (who accompanied Noel on most
of her trips over a 20-year period) stayed in kurd huts. As stated,
Neill often roughs it. "I'd much prefer to experience a country like
a native, not a tourist."
While in Mongolia, Neill
picked up some little hard rubber figures. "They're wearing fur
hats, muffs and babushkas (head scarves), just like the people there
do," she said. "One's a girl, with braids." In Russia, she bought a
foot-tall statue with a Russian star atop it, as well as a nest of
dolls (one goes into another, which goes into another, etc.). All
occupy prominent positions in her hutch.
In Kenya, more spartan
living accommodations: "We stayed outside Nairobi in this canvas
hut," Neill said. "There was a strange contraption that dispensed
water, which was our shower. At night, it was very noisy -- lots of
clomping around. We never did learn what was making all the racket."
While there, she picked up ceramic elephants, giraffes and
rhinoceroses -- "all quite handsome."
In China, Neill purchased
some royal blue chopstick holders (similar to knife rests), with
hunching animals illustrations. She also bought a black-and-gold
sitting cat, direct from the factory that produced it, as well as a
couple of brown wood-carved fish and a mother-and-baby porcelain set
(mother about 2" tall, baby about 1-1/2"). Oh, and did we mention?
Noel was taken for a hooker!
"We were staying at a hotel
that must have been a bordello," she said, laughing. "These men kept
approaching us. At first it was puzzling, but then we figured out
what was going on. We just smiled a lot and shook our heads no." She
and Barbara had checked in to see the lifesize statues of military
men and their horses that were often buried with the actual deceased
warriors of long ago.
Noel loves Alaska, and has
been there several times. Once, she, Barbara and a small group were
transported by helicopter to a glacier and deposited there, to
experience what a glacier looks and feels like. "It was amazing, and
we had this guide explaining it all to us. But a long time passed
and the helicopter didn't come back for us. We really thought they'd
forgotten all about our group."
Eventually, the helicopter
did come back, permitting Neill time to buy a few tchotchkes: a
figure of a bear with a fish in its mouth, made from what she
believes to be a jade-colored soapstone; some totem pole figurines
(about 3" tall) and a clear ceramic paperweight filled with gold
flake from a local mine. "I did the mine-your-own gold tourist
thing," she pointed out, "but I didn't get anything."
Mexico is another place
Neill has visited numerous times. "I've got lots of stuff from
there," she said, "including a wine decanter that's used at
weddings. See? Two spigots, one for the bride, one for the groom!"
Ceramic pieces include a pink-and-white cat, a cactus, a small vase
and a turtle. One time, on a side trip to Puerto Rico, she purchased
an orange chariot-like ceramic push-cart.
In Bali, Neill picked up
"some really weird, futuristic-looking ceramic animals. They're
wildly painted, and look almost like pottery. I also got a neat
black reversible jacket, for casual wear." Other places Noel has
been to include Vietnam, Cambodia, the Galapagos Islands and Tibet.
"From those countries, either I didn't buy anything at all, or I
actually gave the stuff to the people I bought it for!"
Today, Neill's travel
itinerary has been less hectic, but not for lack of wanderlust on
her part. "Barbara has been such a great friend through the years,"
she said, "but lately she's just not up to travelling. Health
issues, you know." But Noel still has a burning desire to see the
Taj Mahal in India and Machu Picchu, in Peru. "I'll get there," she
promised. "It's just a matter of when and with who."
Noel Neill was born
Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1920, in Minneapolis Minnesota.
Remarkably, her father, David Neill, was a respected Minneapolis
newspaperman and editor in the 1940s and '50s, and wanted his
daughter to become a reporter. She would fulfill his wish, but not
in the way he expected! Meanwhile, young Noel dreamed of becoming a
singer and performer.
She tried out for school
plays, but more times than not failed the audition. Then, after
graduating from high school in 1938, Noel and her mother took a
motor trip to California, visiting relatives along the way. In
Hollywood, they stayed with a friend of a Minneapolis neighbor, who
was a musician. He arranged a singing audition for Noel, and she got
a job at the nearby Del Mar racetrack.
While there, singing at the
Turf Club, she met Bing Crosby, one of Del Mar's stockholders. Bing
introduced Noel to his brother, Ernie, a talent agent. Before long,
she was under contract to Paramount Studios. At 5' 2" tall, with
dark red hair and blue eyes, Neill found work in wholesome roles,
notably in the Henry Aldrich series starring Jimmy Lydon. She was
also a pin-up model.
Throughout the '40s, Neill
was cast in minor roles, most of them forgettable, in films like
Lady of Burlesque (1943, with Barbara Stanwyck) and Here Come the
Waves (1944, with Bing Crosby). She became a regular in Sam
Katzman's "The Teenagers" series for Monogram, playing Betty Rogers
(she was 26 at the time). She also posed for "sweater girl" and "leg
art" studio promo shots.
Then, in 1947, Katzman
began casting for a serial version of the popular comic book
character Superman. He liked Neill's work in "The Teenagers" and
wanted her as reporter Lois Lane. Neill's initial reaction: "Who's
Superman, and who's Lois Lane?" Nevertheless, she took the part,
becoming part of an ensemble cast that included Kirk Alyn as
Superman. Alyn once said of the young actress:
"When Noel Neill and I
worked together on the Superman serials, she must have had an awful
lot of faith in me. I carried this girl so many times through fire,
smoke, through all kinds of danger --and she'd dangle under one arm
while I did these things. But she didn't mind, she didn't wince, she
didn't say a word. She just believed I was Superman, and so I was."
The serial was a huge hit.
Neill's post-war film
credits included An American in Paris (1951, in which she played an
American art student); Invasion USA (1952, which also featured a
budding starlet named Phyllis Coates -- more on her in a moment);
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (with Marilyn Monroe); The Greatest Show on
Earth (Oscar winner for Best Picture); and Superman and the Atom Man
When TV burst on the scene
in the early '50s, it was natural for the Superman series to make
the transition to the small screen. But when it came time to cast
for the show, Noel Neill was passed over. No one is sure why. The
best guess is that since Kirk Alyn refused the role, the producers
decided to wipe the slate clean with an entirely new cast. Phyllis
Coates got the part of Lois Lane.
But Coates' contract was
just for the first season, and she elected not to return. When
Whitney Ellsworth, the show's producer, heard of the decision, he
sought out Neill, who was given the part without even having to
audition. She held the role the rest of the way, until 1959, earning
$225 per episode. It all came to an end with the suicide death of
the show's star, George Reeves.
Neill, devastated, decided
to chuck acting altogether and entered the field of public
relations. She had no thought of ever taking the stage again, but in
the early '70s was contacted by someone at Monmouth College in New
Jersey. "They wanted me to go there and speak about my years acting
and playing Lois Lane. At first I said no. But I did go, and when I
got up there I just started to cry."
Energized, Neill started
doing the college circuit, speaking of her experiences and even
acting out scenes from Superman. "It was so much fun," she
remembered. "I'd bring a script from one of the episodes called
"Panic in the Sky." The students and I would act out a scene or two.
We'd even have costumes from the 1950s that they'd wear. The kids
were really into it. It was wonderful."
In 1977, Warner Brothers
went into production for the feature film Superman: The Movie,
starring Christopher Reeve in the lead role (and Margot Kidder as
Lois Lane). Neill and Kirk Alyn were recruited to play the parents
of a young Lois Lane in a flashback scene. Alas, nearly all of the
footage from that scene ended up on the cutting room floor, and
neither actor received a credit.
Nevertheless, Noel Neill
will forever be remembered as the Lois Lane that millions of Baby
Boomers watched while growing up in the '50s. Today, she plays golf
and bridge and works part-time for Tom Selleck, helping him answer
his fan mail! She also makes occasional guest appearances, always in
connection with the Superman show and often with longtime friend
Noel Neill was married and
divorced twice and has no children. Fans of Ms. Neill may write to
the star c/o ICARE, Inc., P .O. Box 324, Guffey, CO 80820. ICARE is
owned by Larry Ward, who is writing a biography of Ms. Neill to be
titled "Truth, Justice and the American Way: The Life & Times of
Noell Neill -- The Original Lois Lane."
Superman cast (left-to-right): John Hamilton, George Reeves, Jack
Larson and Noel Neill.
and cat live in
harmony on a tile step-up
I travel I buy things for my friends back home, then I can't bear to
part with what
was so devastated by
George Reeves' suicide she
Neill makes appearances in connection with the Superman show, often
with Jack Larson.