It might seem odd to, after all the folks that have passed away this year, to honor an actress from a television show that debuted thirty year before I was born. But you have to understand, Noel Neil represented something that, to a boy growing up in the 80s, seemed rare and magical: a superhero TV show.
Sure, I had Superfriends and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, but I was too young for Wonder Woman, which had been off the air for three years by the time I debuted in 1982, and five years after The Shazam!/Isis Hour sang its swansong. Hell, even superhero films were rare: sure, I had the first three Superman films, but there were only so many times I could watch those and the Captain America TV movie my dad had taped for me.
When I discovered Adventures of Superman in reruns – including a Thanksgiving day marathon that I would have to leave kicking and screaming to go to my aunt’s for dinner – it was such a formative moment in my fandom. The show didn’t feature any real villains who could’ve been threats to Superman, but it wasn’t really about that. It was about how Superman fit into the world, and the supporting cast that surrounded him.
And that’s where Noel Neil came into my life.
Neil didn’t debut the role of Lois Lane on the show – in the first season, Phyllis Coates played the reporter – but Neil was the first person to ever play Lois on screen, in the serialized adventures that starred Kirk Allyn. Her Lois still remains, to my mind, the definitive version of the character: smart, tough, taking shit from no one, beautiful, and tenacious. You always got the impression that she was the smartest person in the room and, if even she couldn’t see that Clark Kent was Superman, than you believed that no one could. It was a wonderful bit of acting that sold the secret identity in ways that a lesser actress could never have pulled off.
Even after Adventures of Superman was cancelled, Neil didn’t put Metropolis behind her. She, along with Allyn, played Lois Lane’s parents in Superman: The Movie, and she popped up in various Super-media for the rest of her life: popping up on Superboy (another show that I was truly obsessed with when I was young) Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and, in her final Super-role, as Lex Luthor’s elderly wife in Superman Returns.
One of my strongest memories of Neil came from the campy (and bizarre) Superman 50th Anniversary TV special, hosted by Dana Carvey, which I watched and rewatched dozens on times in 1988. The whole thing is on YouTube, and it’s a weird watch. But there was a segment in which Neil reprised her role of Ella Lane, Lois’s mother, in a satirical piece. I remember being blown away that they got the “real” Mrs. Lane to be in such a goofy special (I was 6 – cut me some slack).
She, along with her co-star, Jack Larson (who played Jimmy Olsen, and who passed away last year) became ambassadors of Superman culture, popping up everywhere that something Superman was, frequently visiting Metropolis, Illinois (where a Lois Lane statue, modeled after Neil, was erected in 2010) or, in Larson’s case, hosting the aforementioned WPIX New York Adventures of Superman marathon. That marathon is one of my fondest childhood TV memories; as soon as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was over, the Salvatore TV would pop over to Channel 11 to watch Larson introduce each episode of the marathon. He seemed like an old man almost 30 years ago, I’m amazed he lived until 2015.
You have to remember that, when Larson and Neil were embracing their role as parts of the Superman mythos, it wasn’t hip to do that. In fact, for both of them, it was partially what led to their careers stalling. Coates, Adventures‘ first Lane, distanced herself from the role whenever she could, but Neil never did. Seeing Neil pop up here and there over the course of my childhood showed me, in a small way, that being a comics fan wasn’t a stigma. She and Larson, along with Mark Hammil being an avid collector of comics and toys, really helped me to not feel ashamed about my love of something that, for my entire childhood, was regarded as about the lamest thing a ‘cool’ kid could like.Continued below
I’d like to think that the current place that superheroes hold in our culture wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for Neil’s embracing of her Superman past. For creators of my general age group – and there are many – I’m sure it was important to see their beloved characters treated with such love and care from someone who, in all reality, probably could have moved past her role in the series with little notice at all.
If you enjoy watching The Flash on Tuesdays, or seeing Captain America: Civil War in the theater, a small part of that is due to Noel Neil.