By Ed Garea
In one of the gentle ironies of life, a young woman with aspirations to follow her father into journalism became forever celebrated for playing one of the iconic women reporters in Hollywood.
Noel Neill, who brought the character of Lois Lane to life in three Superman serials and The Adventures of Superman, passed away in her Tucson, Arizona home on July 3 after a lengthy illness. She was 95.
She was born Noel Darleen Neill on November 25, 1910, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her father, David Neill, was a reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Journal and her mother, La Vere Neill, a dancer on the stage. At the age of four, she was enrolled at a school for aspiring performers, and among her classmates were Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne, who went on to great fame as The Andrews Sisters.
While still in her teens, she sang, danced and played the banjo at county fairs throughout the Midwest while modeling on the side. After graduating from high school in 1938, she first earned a living writing articles for Women’s Wear Daily.
Shortly after she traveled to Southern California with her mother, and at the age of 18, Neill was hired to sing with Bing Crosby’s band at the Del Mar Racetrack. Crosby, who was a part-owner of the race track, was impressed with her poise and arranged for an audition with Paramount. Paramount signed her to a contract and her first film for the studio was an uncredited role in Henry Aldrich for President (1941). However, her first film in actuality was an uncredited role as a teenager in the Willis Kent production of Mad Youth (1940), a lurid story of a young woman who leaves home after a fight with her mother only to join her friend in a prostitution ring. Her first credited role was as June in the Henry Aldrich comedy, Henry and Dizzy (1942).
As with most young contractees, Neill worked sporadically, mostly in uncredited roles, while modeling and singing to make ends meet. She was a popular photographic model, and as a pin-up in World War II was second in popularity only to Betty Grable. As a singer, she performed in such well-known Hollywood clubs as Ciro's, the Mocambo and the Trocadero.
In 1944, Paramount loaned her out to Monogram, with whom she had a featured part as a neglected teenager who gets into bad company in their 1944 teen drama, Are These Our Parents? with Helen Vinson and Lyle Talbot. Later that year, she also landed a good supporting role in the Bing Crosby musical comedy Here Come the Waves.
After a few more appearances in uncredited roles, Neill was again loaned out to Monogram, where she had a strong supporting role as Betty Rogers, aggressive reporter for her high school newspaper, in the musical comedy Junior Prom (1946). The film turned out to be a moneymaker for the studio and Neill appeared as Rogers in six sequels: Freddie Steps Out (1946), High School Hero (1946), Vacation Days (1947), Sarge Goes to College (1947), Smart Politics (1948), and Campus Sleuth (1948).
It was also in 1948 that she landed the role that defined her in the eyes of the public. Sam Katzman, who produced Junior Prom, was looking for an actress to take on the role of Lois Lane in his serialization of Superman for Columbia. Katzman remembered Neill’s portrayal of Rogers and signed her to play Lois. Neill co-starred in the 15-chapter serial with Pierre Watkin as Perry White, Tommy Bond as Jimmy Olsen, and Kirk Allyn as the Man of Steel. The serial proved so popular that Neill returned as Lois in the 1950 sequel, Atom Man vs. Superman, along with the same cast, as Superman battled his nemesis, Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot).
Over the next few years, Neill appeared in the last of the Monogram Charlie Chan films, The Sky Dragon (1949), Son of a Badman, with Lash LaRue and Fuzzy St. John, and as various damsels in distress in Monogram Westerns and Republic serials. At her home studio, Paramount, she continued to appear in small, uncredited roles. Her last film with the studio was in director Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) in the unbilled role of Noel.
In 1952, she was approached to take on the role of Lois Lane for the second season of the television series The Adventures of Superman. Phyliss Coates, who had played Lois with George Reeves as Superman in the Lippert production of Superman and The Mole Men (1950), played Lois in the first season of the television series. The series shut down for lack of a sponsor. By the time the producers had signed Kellogg as the sponsor, Coates committed herself to other projects and left the series. Neill replaced her and would remain with the show until its cancellation in 1958. Her interpretation of Lois was sweeter and more sympathetic in contrast to that of Coates, whose Lois was efficient and tough-as-nails, always looking to scoop Clark Kent on a story.
In 1960, the series was set to be renewed and Neill signed on once again as Lois, but the sudden and tragic death of star George Reeves ended all plans to revive the series. At that point, Neill simply walked away from Hollywood. She had married makeup artist Harold Lierley on October 3, 1943, and settled down to the role of homemaker, working in the television department of United Artists on the side.
She stayed retired until 1978 when the producers of Superman signed her to play Ella Lane, the mother of Lois. She also appeared in an episode of Superboy (1991) and Superman Returns (2006) where, as the wealthy Gertrude Vanderworth, she signs all her money over to Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) on her death bed.
Besides these appearances, she also kept herself busy by attending Superman fan conventions and signings. Unlike Phyliss Coates, who distanced herself from the role, Neill happily embraced it. She appeared on the college speaking circuit. During one appearance, a fan asked why didn’t she know that Clark Kent was Superman, just hiding behind a pair of glasses. She reportedly answered, “I didn’t want to lose my job.”
Of the many awards she received during her lifetime, she had two favorites. One was the 2004 Golden Boot Award, presented to her by Tom Selleck for her contribution to Western films, and a statue in her likeness dedicated by the southern Illinois town of Metropolis on June 25, 2010, for her love of the role and her many visits to the town over the years. The town also features a stature of Superman and is home to the Superman Museum. The dedication of the statue was featured on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
In 2003, an authorized biography was published: Truth, Justice, & The American Way: The Life and Times of Noel Neill, The Original Lois Lane by Larry Thomas Ward. In 2007, Ward later penned another book, Beyond Lois Lane, which featured Neill's other acting work and modeling work and contains rare publicity stills, studio press releases, film reviews, and candid photographs.