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Actors Who Played The Role Of Superman For The Shortest Length Of Time

Since his debut in 1939 in the iconic "Action Comics" #1, Superman has been among the most popular, beloved, and well-known superheroes ever created. So it may come as something of a surprise to learn that Supes and his alter ego Clark Kent weren't among the first group superheroes to make the leap into live-action, having been pre-dated by the likes of Captain Marvel, Batman, and even Captain America. But once the Man of Steel arrived on the screen in 1948, the floodgates were opened and there was no looking back.

Over the years since, Superman has been one of the most frequently seen heroes on the screen, with a version of the character nearly always present on television or at the movies. He's been played by more than a dozen actors, some of whom have become iconic in their own right, and inextricably linked to the Big Blue Boy Scout. Long-tenured stars like George Reeves, Tom Welling, and Christopher Reeve made Superman their signature starring role. But not every actor who played him was so lucky. Some stars only had brief tenures as the Man of Steel, only appearing in a handful of films or TV episodes before being replaced.

Gerard Christopher

In the 1980s, actor Christopher Reeves helped bring Superman back to the movies in a series of live-action films. This led to a TV revival for the character, with a series centered on Clark Kent's early days as a hero. "Superboy" arrived in 1988, a year after Reeves' final appearance as the Man of Steel in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace," and two actors actually wound up playing the title role during the show's 100-episode, four-season run.

The second of those was Gerard Christopher, who arrived in Season 2 and played the role for Seasons 3 and 4 for a total of 74 episodes. Despite being titled "Superboy," make no mistake — the character is much more of an adult hero than the teenager you might expect, and Christopher for his part was actually 30 years old when he stepped into the red boots. This made him older than Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Brandon Routh, and Tyler Hoechlin were when they debuted as adult Supermen.

But Christopher was more than just an actor and also served as a producer and writer on the series. According to an interview with Christopher in 1994, after the show ended, Christopher actually auditioned for "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman." According to Newton, he was even almost cast to lead the series until producers realized he had already played the character.

Henry Cavill

Henry Cavill would first suit up as Superman in 2013's "Man of Steel." A more grim, action-packed film from Zack Snyder, it was the starting point for the entire DCEU. But despite the film's more somber tone, Cavill impressed with a mix of earnest charm and reluctant heroism. He was the right actor for a new generation, with many agreeing that he was one of the best actors to ever put on the red cape.

Cavill returned for "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," the first time Superman and Batman (here played by Ben Affleck) ever met on the big screen, which segued swiftly into the massive team-up movie "Justice League." Unfortunately, behind-the-scenes drama created problems, with extensive reshoots leading to Cavill infamously having to have a mustache — grown for another film — replaced with CGI, an embarrassment for both the film and its star.

Following "Justice League," there were years of conflicting rumors of Cavill coming back for a "Man of Steel" sequel or being considered persona non grata by the studio. Cavill would indeed return, with a cameo in 2022's "Black Adam." Afterward, Cavill teased plans for more appearances on social media, but just months later, newly installed DC boss James Gunn announced a reboot of the character, saying goodbye to Cavill for good. Ultimately, despite Cavill having the role for nearly a decade, he made just a handful of appearances and may be the Superman actor with the most wasted potential, with his incredible talent and love for the role never being given the chance to flourish.

Kirk Alyn

Kirk Alyn is most notable for being the very first live-action Superman ever on screen. Debuting in 1948, Alyn played Clark Kent and the Man of Steel in a 15-part serial that was played in movie theaters, simply titled "Superman." The serial covered his origins on Krypton, arrival on Earth, adoption by the Kent family, and emergence as a hero in Metropolis. He'd return in 1950 for a second serial, "Atom Man vs. Superman," which pit him against Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot).

Animation was used for flying effects, and the production values remained low across all the serials. Nevertheless, Alyn's legacy is a powerful one, though his actual performance is pretty raw. The formula for adapting superheroes into live-action hadn't been developed. Alyn's physical movements are stiff and his delivery often awkward.

Not long after the second serial in 1952, though, a TV series titled "Adventures of Superman" arrived, which refined the character for the screen. Star George Reeves played the role for six seasons and became the definitive take on the character for decades, making Alyn a relic of an older age. But he wasn't forgotten and was brought back in 1978 for a cameo in Richard Donner's "Superman: The Movie" (per The Independent) where he played Lois Lane's father in a deleted scene that was later included in home release and television versions.

John Haymes Newton

Before Gerard Christopher, it was John Haymes Newton, who led the initial cast of "Superboy" when it began airing in 1988. The series was produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who also produced the four "Superman" feature films, and for the series Newton donned a costume nearly identical to the one worn by Christopher Reeve. Here Newton played a younger version of the Man of Steel, and at just 22 years old, was close to the right age. He'd star in the show's debut season alongside Stacy Haiduk as Lana Lang and Scott Wells as Lex Luthor.

That first year, Superboy mostly contended with mad scientists, dastardly crooks, and a variety of newly created adversaries, far from the big-name villains from the comics, Luthor notwithstanding. Ratings weren't great, but the series was committed to continuing, and Newton went to the Salkinds to demand a pay increase after the first year. But the producers weren't budging, leading to his departure. For years nobody really knew if Newton was fired or why, but the actor himself set the record straight in an interview with the Superman Homepage.

"It was my choice to leave the Superboy series," he told the website. "The producers asked me back repeatedly. I asked for a small raise (20%) which had been previously promised to me and then retracted when the second season was to start." Decades later in 2011, Newton reprised his role in a pair of animated fan film shorts.

Brandon Routh

Superman was nowhere to be seen at the movies in the 1990s, and by the mid-2000s "Smallville" was a hit TV series centered on a teenaged Clark Kent. But a big screen return had been in the works for years, and after screen-testing a young Henry Cavill, and after Josh Hartnett passed on the role (per Deadline), the team behind "Superman Returns" eventually went with a mostly unknown actor named Brandon Routh.

Directed by "X-Men" helmer Bryan Singer, "Superman Returns" was a quasi-sequel to Christopher Reeve's "Superman" films, and Routh successfully recaptures the character's boyish charm and towering screen presence. Receiving strong reviews and a positive reaction from fans, Routh became a favorite in the role, and there was briefly talk of Routh's Superman and Christian Bale's Batman teaming up for a "Justice League" film. But all eyes were on a sequel, with rumors pointing to Kryptonian supervillain Brainiac as the film's big bad. Unfortunately, after the somewhat disappointing box office haul and disinterest from Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale in forming a cinematic universe (per the Los Angeles Times), the decision was made to move forward with a "Superman" reboot without Routh.

Despite a sequel never seeing the light of day, Routh got a second chance more than a decade later. In 2019, the CW series "The Flash" led a multi-series crossover event that loosely adapted the event storyline "Crisis on Infinite Earths," and Routh was brought back to play Superman. In the story, Routh returns as an older, more seasoned Superman with greying hair, and fans finally got the sequel for Routh they'd been longing for.

Johnny Rockwell

Television loves "Superman," and Hollywood has long looked for ways to expand the franchise over the airwaves. A popular twist on the format was telling stories set during the hero's younger days before he moved to Metropolis to work for The Daily Planet. This led to "Superboy" in the late '80s and later "Smallville" through the 2000s. But decades before either of those shows was a proposed series titled "The Adventures of Superboy," which would have followed just a few years after the conclusion of George Reeves' "Adventures of Superman."

Though it never did go to series, a pilot episode was filmed in 1961. That it followed so closely after Reeves' series ended is no coincidence, as that show's producer Whitney Ellsworth (a former DC Comics editor) spearheaded the new program in an effort to keep the franchise on television. Playing the title character was a young actor named Johnny Rockwell, and while 13 episodes were drafted (via CBR) only one was filmed. Over the years only a few images of the pilot episode have surfaced, but from what has been revealed we can see the then-23-year-old Rockwell in a faithful outfit and very Reeves-like posture.

Like the two later "Superboy" shows, this one also took place in Smallville and featured Lana Lang (Bunny Henning) as Clark Kent's love interest. Unfortunately, the pilot never even aired, and Rockwell is now little more than a footnote in Superman's live-action history, with his performance never having seen the light of day.

Nicolas Cage

Wait a minute, when did global superstar and living Hollywood legend Nicolas Cage play Superman? Well, you may never seen a movie or TV show where he starred as the Man of Steel, nor did he ever actually film one, but Cage infamously spent months preparing for the role and filmed plenty of test footage as a long-haired version of the hero. He did so in the mid-1990s, when former "Batman" director Tim Burton was recruited to give the same treatment to DC's other flagship hero.

The film that was developed was known as "Superman Lives" and was kicked off by a screenplay by "Clerks" creator Kevin Smith (per Yahoo Entertainment). To play the title role, Burton tapped Cage, who was unlike any most every other star who had ever played the role — far from the stocky, square-jawed actors of decades past. 

In 1997, pre-production was well underway, with costumes, props, and sets built. But problems among Burton, producers, and a series of replacement writers who clashed over the story quickly came to a head, and the project was eventually abandoned. In the end, all we ever got of Cage as Superman was a few screen tests and costume-fitting photos. Thankfully, Cage would get a chance to play the role in animation years later, voicing a cartoon version of Supes in the film "Teen Titans Go! To the Movies."