Before Christopher Reeve, there was George Reeves. Before George Reeves, there was Kirk Alyn. And before Alyn, in a 1938 issue of Action Comics, were Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel's drawings of reporter Clark Kent, who ducked into phone booths to become the Man of Steel and fight "a never-ending battle for truth, justice and The American Way."

Monday, CBS marks a half-century for America's hero when it airs an hour-long special, "Superman's 50th Anniversary: A Celebration of the Man of Steel," hosted by Dana Carvey.

Kirk Alyn was the first human incarnation of the incredibly strong, indestructable man from Krypton. He was 38 when he was selected from more than 150 muscular men to play Superman in two 15-chapter serials shown in first-run movie houses, the first time serials had appeared in top theaters. "Superman on Earth" (1948) and "Atom Man vs. Superman" (1950) raked in a fortune for Columbia Pictures, he said.

"I had made six pictures for the same producer {Spencer Bennett}. I had just finished one for him about two or three weeks before, so I was one of the fellows interviewed," recalled Alyn. "He called and said, 'Kirkie, do you want to do 'Superman'?' I thought it was a publicity stunt. He said, 'It's a picture,' So I got in my car and I ran down to the studio, and the producer and the director said, 'Take off your shirt.' I was in very good condition -- 6-foot-2, 197 pounds ... Then they said, 'Take off your pants.' I said, 'Wait a minute.' They said, 'We want to see if your legs are any good.' I told them they were."

Before pursuing a film career, Alyn had spent more than 14 years in New York appearing in musicals, including "Girl Crazy" with Ginger Rogers in 1930; dramas, revues, nightclubs. He did three shows with comedian Imogene Coca and became close friends with composer George Gershwin. He also got in on the ground floor of a new industry, television. "Before I came out to California and before I did 'Superman,' I was doing half-hour murder mysteries once a week for NBC. Only bars had televisions then -- great big things with little 8-inch screens -- and my friends went to the bars to see my shows. They told me I was driving them to drink."

Alyn also appeared at Radio City Music Hall. "I was a dancer when I first started, a hoofer, a tap dancer. Then I studied ballet -- I took two lessons a week for a couple of years. Then I started doing adaggio with girls, so I started working on my physique so I could catch these girls and throw them. I'd go to the gym, the YMCA. I worked with barbells every day."

Pumping iron paid off. "After they looked at me without a shirt, they said, 'Yeah, he looks great.' We had a lot of laughs."

But as Alyn developed his character, he worried about playing both Clark Kent and Superman. "It wasn't just a part you could walk through, being yourself," he said. "After all, I wasn't Superman. I said to the director, 'We can't use the tricks they used in radio {Bud Collyer had provided the voice of Kent/Superman in the 1940s}. I'm going to do Clark Kent very mild, so nobody would guess I was Superman. Then play him a little stronger, not overly rough: If they shot at me, I'd just grin at them. When four guys would attack me, I wouldn't hit them -- their heads would fly off -- so I just slapped them."

The movie serials were a hit, but as Alyn went around to the casting houses looking for more acting jobs, he found that none, not even Columbia, which was making money from Alyn's "Superman" serial, would give him another role. So he went back to New York. "I was there two weeks and I got the lead opposite Ilona Massey in 'Angel in Paris,' and we went on tour, and then I came back and did a show with Veronica Lake, 'Personal Appearance' ... I did four live shows and about 125 commercials, two and three a week."

Columbia producers asked Alyn to make a second set of serials, then proposed a television series. But they refused to promise a hefty paycheck, saying they weren't sure it would be successful. Alyn, believing that the popular movie serials guaranteed the television series' success, concluded that Columbia wasn't treating him fairly and declined.

In 1951, George Reeves took the role, starring in "Superman and the Mole Men," with Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane, a low-budget, 58-minute pilot for the TV series that ran from 1951 to 1957. "Poor George Reeves never made any money -- he made minimum," said Alyn. "They made two episodes a week for 18 weeks at minimum, and the rest of the time he couldn't get any other work."

Reeves made 13 episodes a year for three years, directed three shows and did promotional tours. In June 1959, two years after series production ended, Reeves was in a car accident. Two weeks later he shot and killed himself without explanation.

Noel Neill, who had played Lois Lane with Alyn, replaced Coates in the television series after the first 26 episodes. Later, when Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder played the duo in the 1978 movie "Superman," Alyn and Neill got cameo roles playing Lois' parents. Reeve and Kidder also starred in three sequels, "Superman II" (1980), "Superman III" (1983) and "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987).

Today Kirk Alyn is 78, has six grandchildren, and for the past seven years has lived on his 1 1/2 acres in Sun City, Calif., 120 miles south of Los Angeles. "I moved out of Hollywood because ... they were building apartments all around me. So I moved to a small town. Now they're putting 45,000 houses in here."

That's not all that's changed since Alyn started in vaudeville. "The business has changed so drastically," he mused. "When I was in the business out here, they'd call me direct. It was better then, smaller. Now they're shooting movies in Canada, building a big studio in Florida. They're leaving Hollywood altogether. And the movies: They shoot and kill each other -- there's no story any more. Sometimes you want a little boy-meets-girl ..."

Superman and Lois would understand.