Phyllis Coates, the First Lois Lane on TV’s ‘Superman,’ Dies at 96

Phyllis Coates, who played the reporter Lois Lane, one of the most enduring characters in popular culture, in a theatrical film and the first season of the popular “Adventures of Superman” television series, died on Wednesday in Woodland Hills, Calif. She was 96.

Her daughter Laura Press confirmed the death, at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s retirement community.

Ms. Coates was a busy if not well-known actress when she became the second onscreen Lois. Noel Neill had played the role in two 15-part movie serials, “Superman” (1948) and “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950), in which Kirk Alyn played the Man of Steel.

“But when there were talks about making a theatrical film — which would become ‘Superman and the Mole Men’ — Kirk Alyn didn’t want to do the role anymore,” Larry T. Ward, the author of “Truth, Justice & the American Way,” a biography of Ms. Neill, said in a phone interview. “He felt he had been typecast. So rather than just replacing Superman, they replaced the entire cast.”

In “Mole Men” (1951), Lois and her fellow Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, who is also Superman (George Reeves replaced Mr. Alyn in the role), witness the panic in a small town when two small, glowing, balding underground beings emerge from their home deep in an oil well.

The “Adventures of Superman” TV series debuted the next year, with Ms. Coates, Mr. Reeves, Jack Larson as the cub reporter Jimmy Olsen and John Hamilton as Perry White, The Daily Planet’s cantankerous top editor.

Ms. Coates’s Lois was serious and sometimes bullheaded. But she sometimes needed Superman to save her; Lois was an archetypal damsel in distress (and was even more so when Ms. Neill played her). This was the case when she was trapped in a mine, held on a ledge outside the newspaper’s building by a man who had strapped dynamite to himself, and captured by thugs smuggling fugitives into Canada.

The series was not lavishly produced, as was evident in the characters’ wardrobes, which rarely changed.

“Oh boy — I had one suit! One suit, and a double in case I got egg on it!” Ms. Coates told The Los Angeles Times in 1994 when she was cast as the mother of another Lois, Teri Hatcher, in an episode of “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” “George’s dresser dressed me. My makeup man was Harry Thomas, who made up every monster in Hollywood.”

In a statement, Ms. Hatcher said, “I’m sure she was aware of how much the fans would enjoy that inside nod to her work on the original TV series.”

Ms. Coates stayed through the show’s first season but did not return in the fall of 1953, Mr. Ward said, because she had a commitment to film a pilot, which was ultimately not picked up as a series.

In the book “Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes” (2006), by Tom Weaver, Ms. Coates was quoted as saying that the producer of “Adventures of Superman,” Whitney Ellsworth, offered her “about four or five times what I was getting if I’d come back, but that she “really wanted to get out of ‘Superman.’”

Ms. Press said that difficult working conditions and a desire to play other roles led Ms. Coates to leave the series.

Re-enter Ms. Neill, who played Lois until the series ended in 1958.

Mr. Reeves died of a gunshot wound a year later. The death was ruled a suicide.

Ms. Coates “got a lot of fan mail,” her daughter said, “most of it for ‘Superman,’ but also for the westerns she did with Whip Wilson and Johnny Mack Brown.”Credit…Everett Collection

Phyllis Coates was born Gypsie Ann Stell on Jan. 15, 1927, in Wichita Falls, Texas, to William Stell, known as Rush, and Jackie Evarts. After graduating from high school, Gypsie moved to Los Angeles, where she was a chorus girl in shows produced by Earl Carroll and acted in sketches in a variety revue. She also performed on a European U.S.O. tour. In 1948, she signed a contract with Warner Bros.

Ms. Coates’s credits include Alice McDoakes, the wife of Joe McDoakes (played by George O’Hanlon), in a long-running series of comedy shorts, with names like “So You Want to Be a Baby Sitter” and “So You Want to Get Rich Quick,” between 1948 and 1956. She was also the star of a serial, “Panther Girl of the Kongo” (1955), in which she rode an elephant; a guest star on episodes of TV series like “Gunsmoke,” “Rawhide” and “Perry Mason,” as well as “Leave It to Beaver,” which was directed by Norman Tokar, her husband at the time.

“She got a lot of fan mail, most of it for ‘Superman,’ but also for the westerns she did with Whip Wilson and Johnny Mack Brown,” Ms. Press said.

In addition to Ms. Press, Ms. Coates is survived by another daughter, Zoe Christopher, and a granddaughter. Her marriages to Richard Bare (who directed the McDoakes shorts), Robert Nelms, Mr. Tokar and Howard Press all ended in divorce. A son, David Tokar, died in 2011.

In 1953, while she was still portraying Lois Lane, Ms. Coates told The Times that her 4-year-old daughter questioned (as many fans did) why Superman’s Clark Kent disguise fooled people, even though it was just a pair of glasses, a hat and a suit over his Superman outfit.

Her daughter, Ms. Coates said, “just can’t understand why I can’t see through Superman’s disguise in the telecasts. She thinks I’m quite stupid about the whole thing.”

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