As dowager Gertrude Vanderworth, Noel Neill has the distinction of delivering the opening lines to Bryan Singer's Superman Returns...and for good reason. Neill originated the role of Lois Lane on film, opposite Kirk Alyn's Superman in the serials Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). Neill returned to the role (supplanting Phyllis Coates) in the second season of TV's smash hit The Adventures of Superman; Neill spent five years as Lois to George Reeves' Superman and Jack Larson's Jimmy Olsen. Later, Neill would make a notable cameo in Richard Donner's Superman feature (1978) and guest-star on TV's Superboy (1991). Neill also appeared in over sixty feature films, including The Greatest Show on Earth, An American in Paris, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I spoke with Neill at the 2006 WonderCon in San Francisco.
Groucho: I guess I'll start at the end.
Noel Neill: Okay.
G: You're to appear in Superman Returns.
G: How were you approached, and will you be rubbing elbows with Jack [Larson] again?
NN: Oh, no, we're working in separate cameos. So we've done it already, of course, in Australia. It's still—it'll be, I think, a great movie. I don't know any more, and of course, we are sworn to secrecy about everything, so—
G: Right, right.
NN: You know, until it comes out. (Laughs.) But it was fun.
G: What was your impression of Bryan Singer?
NN: Oh, he's very nice. Saw him a bit here yesterday—you know, they were upstairs. And he's very nice—speaks very well, and he's good on his feet. And I think he's—well, naturally, hope he's going to do well, because it's a tough thing for him. But he's an awfully nice person.
G: It's a tough act to follow, right?
NN: Oh, yeah, George Reeves is a tough act to follow.
G: Over the years, you've worked with many famous directors, or been on the set with many famous directors: Howard Hawks, DeMille, Minnelli, and of course, more recently, Donner and Singer. Who made the greatest impression on you?
NN: Probably none of 'em. Let's see. Somebody asked about him yesterday, Tommy Carr, of course. And George Blair. They're the ones that worked as often with us. And DeMille—of course, I was at Paramount for four years, and DeMille was there. (Rolls eyes.)
G: (Laughs.) A handful?
NN: It was interesting, one thing, I went down to Florida in The Greatest Show on Earth. They were filming in the Winter Quarters part of the movie. You know, they took some of the kids from Paramount down to identify them there...and so a couple of gals and myself are riding the elephants, one on each elephant. And I learned how they—you know how they trim elephants? With a blowtorch. I couldn't believe it. But it's true, you know—with these thick hairs, like nails. But anyway, it was fun: I was in the front elephant, walking in, and all of a sudden, the parade stopped. "What happened? What happened?" Well...DeMille said, "Stop, stop, stop," and he said, "Now I want it done this way," or something or other. So Arky—I'll never forget his name—was head of the elephants, for the circus, for years, y'know. So he walked up to Mr. DeMille, who was sitting on his high chair, way up above, and shook his big elephant hook at him: "Don't you dare speak to me like that again." Out went all the elephants, and out we went.
NN: They wouldn't finish the shot, even. Oh, yeah. Mentally, everybody was "Yayyyy!" but nobody—usually [DeMille] picked on little people that were working in the cast and reamed their little ass and made them feel whatever, but, boy, this time he picked the wrong guy.
G: Usually, it's the actors who storm off the set, not—.
NN: (Laughs.) Yeah, right. Dear Arky. He was nice.
G: You, of course, were the first Lois Lane to go before the camera.
G: And when you first landed the role, you knew little about the comics. Did that change at all over the years?
NN: No, I just, um—when my agent called—and, of course, I had worked with [producer] Sam Katzman...[and] for this director. So I had worked for him before, so I didn't have to interview or anything. It was, "Oh sure, Noel can play Lois Lane." So I just went out—and I had never read a comic book—and I went out and found one on Lois Lane, to see what she looked like and what she wore and whatever. So it was just a matter of playing a working woman. And so many people say, "Oh, you were the one we believed in because you were the first woman's libber." Ho ho, don't call me that!
NN: But anyway, it's just nice, these little gals said, "Oh, because of Lois Lane," that they got into show business or in their school newspaper or whatever, or their little town theaters or whatever. And so I said, "We did something good!" (Chuckles.)
G: Oh, yeah. And you really set the standard for that strong reporter type.
NN: Right, right.
G: What were the relative merits of Kirk Alyn and George Reeves, in front of and behind the camera?
NN: Well, Kirk was actually a dancer back in New York. A ballet dancer, I think. So actually he made good leaps and jumps and whatever. No he was fine—a little hammy, but anyway. And of course, George was such a good actor, 'cause he'd been in Pasadena Playhouse and done some big movies with big movie stars. And before, and—he was so good. I think that's just sort of the main—. One time, Jack and I were back in New York doing interviews—some station, I forget who it was, but this gal—and Kirk went, too. And Jack said, "Oh, well, I didn't work with Kirk. You know, why should I—?" So there were just the three of us, and Jack said, "Oh, gee, I don't think I should go because I never worked with him." You know, he was—he had worked with what's-his-name...Anyway, unfortunately, Jack finally...I said, "Oh come on. Go with me. We'll carry the flag." So the three of us were starting to be interviewed, and unfortunately, she picked Kirk Alyn first. And he talked and he talked and he talked and he talked. And Jack and I are sitting there looking at each other, and finally I said, "Gosh, he sure talks a lot, doesn't he?", not realizing I was miked!
NN: And all over the United States. Ooh! But anyway. So that's the difference. George would not do that. (Laughs.) Actually, he was pretty good. You know, I've watched, occasionally, some of the old ones, to check up on something, and he did a good thing. I think with the dancing, you know, for running down, up Corrigan's Ranch, and up for the outside stuff. He was very good at it. Really.
G: And the role was very physical for you, as well. You actually did fist-fights the first time, didn't you?
NN: Uh, no, that was the other gal. I did one with Sterling Holloway! A little short thing, to take a box or whatever. No, mostly Jack and I were always tied up. Or Jimmy Olsen and I were always tied up, and waiting for bombs to go off or something. George has to crash through the walls to save us. (Laughs.)
G: With so little variance in the plot and the costumes over the years, how did you entertain yourselves?
NN: We worked so fast. I mean, we did two shows a week. And, you know, we worked from eight to eight, just fast, fast, fast. And with the heavies, fast, fast, fast. And the last two weeks, we did all the interior stuff, with John Hamilton: y'know, in the office. And we'd walk in, we wouldn't know what series we were in, what show we were in, whatever. Just the dialogue, and we'd rehearse it outside and dash in and dash out. So we didn't—in fact, Jack and I are better friends now than when we worked together, 'cause after working twelve hours a day, we were just so glad to get home and away from the whole thing and have dinner and see friends. And then come back the next morning, crack of dawn, and start all over again. So it is fun, but we worked fine together, just—you know, we got to used to each other, like a family group. (Laughs.)
G: Were mishaps common in the shooting of action scenes?
NN: Not really. The only thing that I can remember, because everybody was so well trained, you know, after a while of same thing, same thing he would always do, with jumps out the window. And "Si" Simonson was our special-effects man. He was so good. Jack Larson always said, "I owe him my life!" (Laughs.) Because he said, "I was always tied up with a bomb at my feet." (Laughs.) But the only one thing that happened was kind of funny at the time. See, John Hamilton and Jack and I were down in a cave or whatever, and all the walls around us. You know, stuck down there, and just waiting, hoping for Superman. And all of a sudden, he is supposed to come crashing through the wall, the first shot in the morning. They have two cameras covering it, which is unusual, because they couldn't afford them. But so the director said—it was George Blair—and he said, "Now, first, everybody, this is one take only, you know, 'cause when that, whatever, wall comes down, we're through for the day." Okay, so we sat, then we waited and we waited and we waited, and nothing happened. And he said, "Roll 'em," and whatever. And all of a sudden, one hand came through the wall, and one foot. And nothing else. And we still sat there. George Blair didn't say a thing, and finally he said, "Oh, I'm sorry, George. Cut, cut, cut, cut, everybody." George came out from around the wall. And he had—shaking one hand, and then took a little bow, and said, "Thank you, everybody. See you tomorrow." Augh! And of course the panic: "What are we going to do now?! We've got a whole day!" (Chuckles.) That was the only thing that went amiss.
G: Were there any qualities of the character that weren't necessarily on the page that you wanted to bring out in Lois?
NN: No, I would say not. It was all pretty well—[I] just read what was written, printed, because we'd screw up the other people; you know, they wouldn't know how to answer you. But they didn't do anything out of the ordinary, just a working girl and wanting to get the credit ahead of Kirk Alyn, of course—I mean, Clark Kent. You know, and she's always saying, "You and Superman, I wonder now," and whatever, but never goes any further. In fact, the last time we looked, he came swimming up out of the ocean—he'd been pushed in or something—he was on the diving board, under the deck, and he said—. Oh! No, I said, "Well, where's Superman?" or whatever. And he said, "Oh, he'll be all right." And she said, "Sometimes I wonder." And he said, "Oh, Lois, would you give me your hand." So I gave him my hand; he pulled me into the drink with him. Ha! But anyway. It was supposed to be Jack, but he said he did enough water junk! (Laughs.)
G: You have a passion for travel. What's your favorite place on the globe?
NN: Oh gosh. We did so much. In fact, the gal I travel with just passed away recently, and we were gonna...but anyway. Well, I don't know, we went to Russia. And then over into Kurd country. And Galopogos. And then, oh, I don't know, China. Of course, we went into China when it first opened, you know, for the peasants. And that was interesting. But, um, Indonesia. Of course, I loved Moraya—it was nice. You have those little houses over the water, you know, and can look down—they have a big glass floor in each one. And you can look down and see the fish going by and the little steps outside and all the equipment—you can swim there. So Moraya was nice. Oh, then Honolulu a few times, but that's gotten so darn big now, I don't even know it. But we had a lot of wonderful trips.
G: Do you make it a point to keep up with the depictions of Superman and Lois Lane over the years?
NN: They don't do anything, do they, that I don't know about? (Laughs.) Oh, no, I don't watch the other shows. I guess—not professional jealousies—I don't care. But occasionally, I watch Smallville. Just on occasion, to see how what's-his-name is doing, but, um. Of course, Thatcher [sic] went on to doing Desperate Housewives now, and she's doing fine. But I don't really, um, you know, care. Selfish of me, but it's honest! (Laughs.) But I just wait to find out where I'm going next.
G: Right, right. Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you.
NN: Well, thank you!