ByKit Simpson Browne, writer at
Writer-at-large. Bad jokes aplenty. Can be gently prodded on Twitter at @kitsb1
Kit Simpson Browne

There are a whole lot of different ways to become a legend in Hollywood. Some choose the path of infamy, and battle their demons in the public eye. Others opt to seek the greatest level of fame possible, making whatever sacrifices necessary to do so. Others still fight their way to prominence through decades of endless miniature roles, before finally getting their shot at the big time.

Jack Larson did none of those things. Instead, he became a legend - especially in the geek community - for being precisely who he wanted to be, and making no apologies for that fact. He faced life on his terms - and continued to do so up until his death, dying peacefully "with his beloved dog Charlie" nearby, according to long-time friend Alan Howard, who confirmed Larson's death.

If you had asked Larson whether he was living life on his own terms back in the 1950s, however, he'd most likely have laughed you out of the room. Born in 1928 in Los Angeles, the young man had by 1952 developed a burgeoning career as a film actor - one that he would have happily traded in for a shot at Broadway success.

Soon, though, his agent came to him with an offer from a new Superman TV series - the role of Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen, set to appear on screen for the first time. It wasn't well received by Larson:

"I didn’t want to do it...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.'"

Which, as it turned out, proved to be deeply, deeply untrue.

The Adventures of Superman proved a hit, and Larson soon found himself bombarded by nearly as much fan attention as the show's Superman-portraying lead, George Reeves.

As he told the New York Times back in 2006:

"To me, it was a nightmare...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."

And then, in 1958, it was all over - with George Reeves' death the year after placing the show's moment firmly in the past. Larson, though, found himself very much alive...and out of work.

Which, as it turned out, was where Larson's real life began. While things initially looked bleak...

"I was really bitter for years, about being [typecast], and it absolutely wrecked my acting career...They didn’t want Jimmy Olsen walking through their films."

...a major change in Larson's personal life prompted him to switch life in LA as a struggling actor for New York, and writing for Broadway. That change? The realization - and personal acceptance - of being gay.

Larson had become romantically involved with movie legend Montgomery Clift, and it was reportedly at the older actor's prompting that he shrugged off his casting struggles by heading to New York. That move, combined with meeting his longtime life partner, writer and director James Bridges, sparked a whole new phase of Larson's life.

Larson's greatest success as a writer came in 1972, when the opera Lord Byron - for which he wrote the libretto - opened at the Juilliard Theatre in New York, and he went on to produce several of Bridges' films, but it was a change in approach to his own past that arguably most defined his later years.

After years of struggling with having been so defined by playing Jimmy Olsen, Larson finally embraced the role that had made him famous, and was - by the 1980's - a fixture on the TV nostalgia circuit. What's more, he began to feel very differently about young Mr Olsen:

"Everywhere I go, I get the warmest feelings from people about Jimmy...They love him, and I grew to feel that I could never have done anything more special than be Jimmy Olsen."

By the 1990's, those feelings were warmly reciprocated not only by fans, but by filmmakers too. Larson found himself on the small screen once more, with a cameo role in Superboy back in 1991. In 1996, he even got the chance to play Jimmy Olsen once more, in an episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in which Olsen found himself preternaturally aged.

Flash forward to 2006, and Larson even found himself featuring in a major Superman movie, taking on a role as a bartender opposite yet another Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns.

What's more, throughout it all, he developed about as healthy an approach to his past as any of us could ever hope for:

"I know that, though I go on writing, and if I should win the Pulitzer Prize, and indeed the Nobel Prize, when they write my obituary it will say, ‘Jack Larson, best remembered as Jimmy Olsen on the popular 1950s Superman series’...I'm pleased with it, I'm proud of it, and I would certainly do it again in hindsight...It's nice not to be forgotten."

He may indeed be best remembered as Jimmy Olsen on the popular 1950s Superman series - and he may never have won that Pulitzer - but Jack Larson isn't going to be forgotten anytime soon.

And sometimes, even for a screen legend, that's enough.

What do you reckon, though?

via Washington Post, LA Times


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