ack Larson pasted away last Tuesday at the age of 87. Jack was a playwright and librettist with a longtime reputation in the entertainment industry. So what, you ask? Jack was also an actor and a 1950’s television icon. Jack portrayed the Daily Planet newspaper cub reporter and photographer Jimmy Olsen on the original television version of “The Adventures of Superman” with George Reeves. In fact Jack and George became close friends and confidants, according to Jack anyway.
Larson was born on Feb 8, 1928 in Los Angeles, CA to George Larson, a milkman and Anna a clerk at a Western Union office. As a high school student he became involved with writing and drama, but he loved bowling and became quite proficient on the lanes. After his junior year in high school he dropped out to pursue a career as a professional bowler. A Warner Brothers studio talent scout saw him at a tournament and signed him to a movie contract. He was in several uncredited roles and then joined the Pasadena Playhouse for a year. He then went to New York in search of stage roles. While there he met James Dean, Dennis Hopper and some other up and coming stage actors. He also met Montgomery Clift and they became lovers. In 1951, his Hollywood agent called him and told him he had gotten him an audition for the role of Jimmy Olsen in the proposed Superman television series. Larson was really hesitant to audition for the part but his agent told him that there was only a one in twenty chance that he would get the role and since the show was syndicated the production company had no sponsor and would probably not be picked up, anyway. Larson got the role and the show was picked up and broadcast during the 1952 television season.
After the 1952 TV season the show was in limbo and Larson thought he had heard the last of it. However, in 1955 he was about to go on tour with a production of the play “Night Must Fall” when the Superman producers called him him and informed him that he was to report for work to film episodes of Superman for the 1955 television season. Larson was furious and tried to get out of it, but his lawyers told him that he had signed a contract with up to a five year option for his services. The Superman producers were exercising that option and he legally had no choice but to come to work as Jimmy Olsen.
The new show was filmed in color, a great rarity in the early days of television. He also found that Phylis Coates who had played Lois Lane in the first season wouldn’t be returning to the series. It seems she had signed a one year contract with no options and the producers would not meet her salary demands to resign. Noel Neill, who had portrayed Lois Lane in the Kirk Allen Superman serials took the role. The series continued through 1958. Larson portral of Jimmy Olsen became so popular that Superman DC comics released a Jimmy Olsen comic book. Larson refused to promote the comic. His relationship with the production staff was always rocky. The producers wanted him to stay out of the public eye with his romantic relationships and he refused.They threatened to fire him and he said go ahead make my day. He was tired of the Jimmy Olsen and wanted out. By this time, however, the role had done what Larson had been afraid it would do. It typecast him. As an actor he would forever be known as Jimmy Olsen.
By 1957, his relationship with Clift was over although they would remain friends. He met another actor named James Bridges and they became life partners. Bridges talents really were as a screen writer and producer. After the Superman TV shows run was over, Bridges encouraged Larson to retire from acting and take up music and writting. In 1971, he wrote and produced the libretti “Lord Byron” which was well received by audiences and critics alike. He worked with Bridges as a co-producer on several projects and from time to time even showed up on an occasional television show.
For a while Larson did do an occasional fan convention, but in 1988 an over zealous fan grabbed Olsen and ripped up his $1000 Italian suit so he said “no more”. He also appeared on several talk shows with other Superman cast members. When the book “Hollywood Kryptonite” was published in 1996 and made the claim that George Reeves had been murdered rather then committed suicide, an outraged Larsen hit the talk show circuit to denounce the book. He maintained that he had been closer to Reeves than anybody else and he knew his friend had been depressed about being typecast as superman and had indeed taken his own life in a fit of depression. Other people disputed his claim of closeness with Reeves, but Larsen stuck with his story.
Larson and his partner Bridges lived in the Frank Lloyd Wright designed home on a hillside in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Fans of architecture would often show up on the doorstep. Bridges passed in 1993. Larson took a role in an episode of “Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman” in playing an elderly Jimmy Olsen. In 2010 he appeared in an episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit as the rich grandfather of a young man spreading the AIDS virus through casual sex contacts. His performance as a man shocked and devastated by his grandsons conduct was critically lauded.
Jack Larson was a multi-talented man who lived a very fascinating life. But in my heart and in the heart of most of the Boomers who grew up with him, he will always be “Jimmy Olsen.”
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