He was not faster than a speeding bullet. He was not more powerful than a locomotive. He was not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
In the great pantheon of characters to emerge from the “Superman” universe — Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Jor-El, General Zod — Jimmy Olsen probably ranks below even Richard Pryor’s wisecracking embezzler in the much-maligned “Superman III.” Jimmy just isn’t that cool. He’s often described as a “cub” reporter. He needs saving more than he saves. He says “Golly.” And he’s sometimes drawn as a redhead.
“Oh, I’m not going in there!” Jimmy whines when hustled into a secret prison after falling prey to the treacherous Von Klaven brothers, identical twins who steal radium, during the 1952 Superman adventure “Double Trouble.” Jimmy’s line when rescued by Man of Steel George Reeves: “Right now, you’re prettier to me than all the movie stars in the world!”
But in a franchise that’s seen its share of tragedy — George Reeves’s reported suicide, Christopher Reeve’s spinal injury — the woes of the actor who played Jimmy in the 1950s went underreported. Jack Larson, who died at 87 on Sunday, was a gifted writer and gay man whose talents and personal struggles were overshadowed by his role as Superman’s flunky.
Even worse: He knew it would turn out this way.
“If I won the Nobel Prize for Literature at 75 and died, they would still say, ‘Jack Larson, best remembered as Jimmy Olsen in the ‘Superman’ series,”’ he said in 1982.
Though Larson never won the Nobel, his swipes at literary greatness were more than the flailing of a teen star gone to seed. Born in California, Larson had dreams of making it big on Broadway as an actor and playwright. After being signed by Warner Brothers while still in high school and a stint in the Marines, the budding thespian found himself at a crossroads.
It was 1951. The old studio system was dying. Though just in his early 20s, Larson had done a few films, but was running out of work — and wanted to get to the Great White Way.
His agent came up with a solution: Play the terrible supporting role of Jimmy Olsen in “Adventures of Superman.”
“I didn’t want to do it,” Larson said, ”but my agent said, ‘Look, you want to get to New York. You don’t have any money. Nobody will ever see this show so take the money and run.”’
Larson did. For $350 an episode, he completed the show and went to the Big Apple. And he was living there when the show he had dismissed became one of the most iconic in TV history — even though it was pretty bad.
“Adventures Of Superman was frequently barely a superhero show — it was more like a dirt-cheap police procedural sprinkled with a few minutes of unconvincing special effects — but it still featured the most famous, popular superhero of all time,” the Onion’s A.V. Club wrote in 2013. “So what else was the nascent geek clan going to watch?”
Larson, meanwhile, became a would-be aesthete fixed in amber as a hapless hanger-on. With a terrible bowtie, no less.
“To me, it was a nightmare,” he said in 2006. “Everywhere I went, it was, ‘Jimmy! Jimmy! Hey, Jimmy, where’s Superman?’ Suddenly, I couldn’t take the bus or the subway anymore. It absolutely freaked me out.”
However, Larson rode the wave. He played Jimmy in 101 episodes of “Adventures of Superman” between 1952 and 1958. And after Reeves’s death — which Larson never believed was a suicide — they tried to get him to do more.
“I refused point blank,” he said. “It made me sick that George had died. He was Superman, and that was the show. I felt, ‘Why go on with it?’ I decided then to quit acting.”
Feeling typecast, he “took up the life of a playwright in New York,” he told the New York Times in 1976 — in a piece that identified him as a “bachelor.”
Larson was far from that. It seemed that one good thing had come of his time as Jimmy: a sexual awakening. While in Hollywood, he became involved with screen legend Montgomery Clift, and met his future longtime companion, director James Bridges (“The Paper Chase,” “The China Syndrome”).
“He realized, in retrospect, that some of his adolescent angst had been due to turmoil over his sexual orientation,” the Times wrote in 1998.
That turmoil would be given voice in “The Relativity of Icarus,” a dance piece that premiered at New York’s prestigious Joffrey Ballet in 1974. Larson wrote a poem that accompanied the work. Four decades ago, what some saw as an attempt to mask gay themes in the charged relationship between Daedalus and Icarus was met with controversy.
“It is strange in this day of liberation movements that a homosexual pas de deux has to masquerade as a duet between father and son,” the Times wrote.
Amid the “Icarus” publicity, Larson was outed — as Jimmy Olsen. But Jimmy, he found, was no longer repugnant to him. He began to work the TV nostalgia circuit, and was contemplating hosting a tribute show in 1982.
“I want to host it,” he said. ”I want very much to do it — join up my life with Jimmy Olsen. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
In the coming decades, he would produce films directed by Bridges and write more plays. And he would appear in what CNN called “winking roles” in “Superman” fare such as “Superboy,” “Lois & Clark” and the film “Superman Returns.”
His sexuality — once hidden — was now an asset.
“Gay fans are gushing over the fact that the director of the new ‘Superman Returns’ (opening June 28) is a gay man, Bryan Singer,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2006, “and that, besides the fact that Superman is a real hunk, a new trading card featuring scenes from the film shows the big guy — get this! — actually emerging from a closet.”
The paper, noting Larson’s sexual orientation, added: “What was fun about that show was just the ambiguity of it all. It wouldn’t have mattered if Clark was secretly in love with a co-worker named Lois or Louis Lane.”
Somehow, Larson had ended up with it all: a literary career bolstered by his status as a pop-culture footnote, and both inextricably linked to his life as a gay man.
In some ways, Jimmy had given it to him.
“Everywhere I go, I get the warmest feelings from people about Jimmy,” he said. “They love him, and I grew to feel that I could never have done anything more special than be Jimmy Olsen.”