Mike Gold: Jack Larson, Jimmy Olsen, and My Generation

Jack LarsonI’m guessing it was 60 years ago. I was a mere tyke; five years old. My sister was eleven. We lived in an apartment on Chicago’s mid-northwest side, and we had a television set. There were “only” five VHF stations and one of them was educational – a betrayal of my sensibilities. I hated school, even if it was merely kindergarten, and the idea that someone would waste one of those few precious teevee channels on school was simply beyond my ken.

At that time I was only interested in cartoons and in Jack Benny. Yeah, I’ve been a Jack Benny fan since the light from the cathode ray tube first shined in our living room. And I wanted to watch Bugs Bunny. Being six and one-half years older, my sister had more sophisticated taste. She wanted to watch Superman. And, being six and one-half years older, my sister usually got her way. So I watched Superman with her, as though I had a choice.

The show wormed its way into my heart, not so much because of Superman or Lois, although Perry White and Inspector Henderson were pretty cool. No, the character that appealed to me most was Jimmy Olsen, as portrayed by Jack Larson.

Jimmy was, indeed, Superman’s pal and who wouldn’t want to be that? He was a bit of a doofus, but in a very endearing way. He was one of those guys who could fail upwards and turn a crisis into a victory. He was swell enough to enjoy Superman’s confidence (but not his secret identity) and to help Clark and Lois in their work – and share their danger. Even though I didn’t want to be him as I knew Superman didn’t really exist, I sure as hell wanted to live next door to him.

Just like every other baby boomer. Jack Larson helped raise my generation.

I first met him in 1977, give or take a year, in Neal Adams’ studio. There were about a dozen of us, and Jack was polite, funny, informative and charming – even more so than his alter-ego. This was before he became convinced that George (Superman) Reeves committed suicide, and his analysis of the various conspiracy theories was fascinating.

I’d seen him at conventions and various DC functions since then and became aware of his career as a producer and a writer, often working with his life-partner James Bridges. But it was his previous lover, Montgomery Clift, who told him he was hopelessly typecast as Jimmy Olsen and he should move behind the camera, where he was quite successful.

Due to Jack Larson, Jimmy Olsen became even more successful. Roughly mid-way through the television run, DC came out with their first Superman spin-off book, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. It ran for 163 issues, with subsequent revivals.

When DC was forced to abandon the Superman series due to the death of its star, they asked Jack if he would be interested in starring in his own Jimmy Olsen series. By then, John (Perry White) Hamilton had died, so they could take the show in just about any direction. Understandably, Jack declined.

Jack Larson had a major impact on an entire generation – and that was a damn large generation. He was the first television actor to make bow-ties cool.

We mourn for Jack, who died last Sunday at the age of 87. Thanks to him, Jimmy Olsen lives on.