June 22, 2006 — -- In comic books, Superman is indestructible. But in Hollywood, it's a role that requires nerves of steel. For many actors, fighting for truth, justice and the American way has been career Kryptonite.
Other comic book heroes have been great career steppingstones for young stars. "Spider-Man" raised Tobey Maguire's profile. Michael Keaton proved he was more than a comic actor with his performance in "Batman."
But Brandon Routh, the star of "Superman Returns," might want to consider the careers of the other crime fighters who wore the big "S" on their chiseled chests, only to learn that their greatest adversary was not Lex Luthor -- it was typecasting.
"Superman is unlike any other superhero. It's kind of like playing God," says movie historian Bob Madison, president of Dinoship publishing. "It's a role the public never forgets, and they may not ever accept you as anything else."
Like Routh, Christopher Reeve was largely unknown when he was selected to play the Man of Steel, and the 1978 blockbuster turned him into a major star.
Reeve was well regarded as an actor. But he was so closely identified with his iconic role that it hampered his efforts to be a leading man in a big-budget film. He was largely relegated to "Superman" sequels and work as a supporting player, most notably with Anthony Hopkins in "The Remains of the Day."
It's possible that Reeve might have turned his career around had he not suffered a horseback riding accident in 1994 that left him paralyzed in the decade before his death. But at the time of the accident, his acting career clearly was not on the rise.
The prospects were much less promising when other Men of Steel pulled off their tights.
Kirk Alyn, the first big-screen Superman, was a rising Broadway star in the early 1940s when he donned the famous blue cape.
After "Atom Man vs. Superman" in 1950 -- his second turn as the superhero -- he found himself out of work, simply because the world wouldn't accept him as anything else.
"I couldn't get another job," he told the Associated Press in a 1988 interview, turning to a career in voice-overs, commercials and dozens of uncredited screen roles.
But 27 years later, when it was Reeve's turn to soar over Metropolis, Warner Bros. brought him back to Hollywood to play Lois Lane's father. "This minor part looks like a job for Superman!" a studio executive allegedly said.
In the 1950s, George Reeves starred in the classic Superman TV series, and he, too, became a star.
Reeves had earned his stripes with supporting roles in "Gone With the Wind" and other well-regarded films. But as "The Adventures of Superman" series was winding down, Reeve found he was out of options and was contemplating a career in professional wrestling.
On June 16, 1959, Reeves was found in his Hollywood home with fatal bullet wounds and a .38-caliber Lugar by his side in what police determined to be a suicide.
Still, it's hard for a young actor to pass up playing the all-American hero, even if it's a dead-end job. Dean Cain, the star of the '90s show "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," still might break the Superman curse, but he has yet to find the right role.
If Cain needs inspiration for his comeback, however, he might turn to his own Lois Lane, Teri Hatcher, who found a second life as a "Desperate Housewife."
Maybe one day soon on Wisteria Lane, someone will point a finger and say, "Look in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Dean Cain's second career!"