Jack Larson, the playwright and librettist who, as he often predicted with good-natured resignation, will be remembered best as the actor who played the cub reporter Jimmy Olsen in the television series Adventures of Superman, died Sunday at his home in Brentwood, Calif. He was 87.
The death was confirmed by Alan Howard, a longtime friend.
In 1951, Mr. Larson was offered the role of Olsen, an eager young reporter and photographer at The Daily Planet who idolizes his more mature, more experienced colleague Clark Kent (not knowing that Kent is secretly Superman) and constantly gets himself and his fellow reporter Lois Lane into perilous situations that require rescue by a superhero. At 23, Mr. Larson aspired to be a Broadway actor and playwright, and he hesitated to accept the role for fear of being typecast. After his agent told him the show had no sponsor and was unlikely to see the light of day, he agreed to film 26 episodes. The series had its premiere in 1952 and ran until 1958. There were plans to bring the show back, but George Reeves, who played Superman, died in 1959 in what was ruled a suicide.
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Although Mr. Larson was pleased that Jimmy Olsen developed into a comic role, his fears of being typecast were realized. After a particularly upsetting encounter with the producer Mervyn LeRoy, he was advised by the actor Montgomery Clift, with whom Mr. Larson was having a romantic relationship, to stop putting himself in those casting situations. So Mr. Larson gave up acting and made a new career.
He wrote the libretto for Virgil Thomson’s third and last opera, Lord Byron, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It had its premiere in 1972 at the Juilliard Theater, and some critics compared Mr. Larson’s work unfavorably with that of Mr. Thomson’s previous collaborator, Gertrude Stein.
Other reviewers, considering Mr. Larson’s work more directly on its own merits, often admired his writing skills. Walter Kerr of The New York Times referred to his play Chuck (1968), about a magazine salesman trying to save the printed word from television, as “what may be the evening’s most provocative sketch” in a collection of plays at Café au Go Go. When Mr. Larson’s verse play The Candied House, a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, opened in Los Angeles in 1966, a critic for The Los Angeles Times wrote, “It’s a joy to hear from a man who loves and respects words and does not see language as the enemy of images.”
His later works included The Astronaut’s Tale, a 1998 update and Americanization of L’Histoire du Soldat, with music by Charles Fussell; The Hyacinth From Apollo (1997), a monodrama with music by Gerhard Samuel; and a new narrative text for Berlioz’s Lélio (also 1997). Mr. Larson was the first playwright to be awarded a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Jack Edward Larson was born on Feb. 8, 1928, in Los Angeles and grew up in nearby Montebello. His father, George Larson, was a milk-truck driver and iceman, and his mother, the former Anita Kalikov, was a clerk at Western Union. Although Jack began writing and acting in his own plays in junior high school, he became a high school dropout, convinced that his bowling talent would lead to a professional sports career. Later, when he was in a program at Pasadena Junior College to earn a high school diploma, a Warner Brothers scout saw him in a play and signed him to a movie contract.
He made his film debut in Fighter Squadron (1948), a World War II action picture starring Robert Stack and directed by Raoul Walsh, and he continued to appear in films while he was in the Superman series. While filming Johnny Trouble (1957), a romantic drama starring Ethel Barrymore, he met a fellow actor, James Bridges.
Mr. Bridges went on to become an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and director, and Mr. Larson became his producing partner on films, including The Baby Maker (1970), Perfect (1985) and Bright Lights, Big City (1988), as well as his partner in private life. They were together 35 years, until Mr. Bridges’s death in 1993.
Mr. Larson’s home in Brentwood, known as the George Sturges House, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
One of Mr. Larson’s last television appearances was in a 2010 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He played an older man who finds a particularly noble way to punish his sex-offender grandson and help his victims.
But most of his last roles were Superman-related. Although he swore off fan events after a 1988 incident in Cincinnati in which Sharpie-wielding autograph seekers permanently stained a white linen suit he had had made in Italy, he came to terms with and embraced the Jimmy Olsen legacy in other ways. He appeared in a 1991 episode of the series The Adventures of Superboy; a 1996 episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, in which he played an unnaturally aged Jimmy; and as a bartender in the 2006 film Superman Returns.
But even for the continuing glory of Metropolis and The Daily Planet, Mr. Larson would not take on just any role. In a 2003 interview for the Archive of American Television, he mentioned a problem he had run into with casting directors: “I have to remind them I don’t play aliens.”
Kenneth Rosen contributed reporting.