According to the Los Angeles Police Department report, between approximately 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. on June 16, 1959, George Reeves died of a gunshot wound to the head in the upstairs bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home. He was 45 years old.
Police arrived within the hour. Present in the house at the time of death were Leonore Lemmon, William Bliss, writer Robert Condon, and Carol Van Ronkel, who lived a few blocks away with her husband, screenwriter Rip Van Ronkel.
According to all the witnesses, Lemmon and Reeves had been dining and drinking earlier in the evening in the company of writer Condon, who was ghostwriting an autobiography of prizefighter Archie Moore. Reeves and Lemmon argued at the restaurant, and the trio returned home. However, Lemmon stated in interviews with Reeves's biographer Jim Beaver that she and Reeves had not accompanied friends dining and drinking, but rather to wrestling matches. Contemporary news items indicate that Reeves's friend Gene LeBell was wrestling that night—yet LeBell's own recollections are that he did not see Reeves after a workout session earlier in the day. In any event Reeves went to bed, but some time near midnight an impromptu party began when Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel arrived. Reeves angrily came downstairs and complained about the noise. After blowing off steam, he stayed with the guests for a while, had a drink, and then retired upstairs again in a bad mood.
The house guests later heard a single gunshot. Bliss ran into Reeves's bedroom and found George Reeves dead, lying across his bed, naked and face up, his feet on the floor. This position has been attributed to his sitting on the edge of the bed when he shot himself, after which his body fell back on the bed and the 9mm Luger pistol fell between his feet.
Statements made to police and the press essentially agree. Neither Lemmon nor the other witnesses made any apology for their delay in calling the police after hearing the gunshot, but the shock of the death, the lateness of the hour, and their state of intoxication were given as reasons for the delay. Police said that all of the witnesses present were extremely inebriated, and that their coherent stories were very difficult to obtain.
In contemporary news articles, Lemmon attributed Reeves's apparent suicide to depression caused by his "failed career" and inability to find more work. The police report states, "[Reeves was]... depressed because he couldn't get the sort of parts he wanted." Newspapers and wire-service reports frequently misquoted LAPD Sergeant V.A. Peterson as saying: "Miss Lemmon blurted, 'He's probably going to go shoot himself.' A noise was heard upstairs. She continued, 'He's opening a drawer to get the gun.' A shot was heard. 'See, I told you so.'"' However, this statement may have been embellished by journalists. Lemmon and her friends were downstairs at the time of the shot with music playing. It would be nearly impossible to hear a drawer opening in the upstairs bedroom. Lemmon later claimed that she'd never said anything so specific but rather had made an offhand remark along the lines of "Oh, he'll probably go shoot himself now."
Witness statements and examination of the crime scene led to the conclusion that the death was self-inflicted. A more extensive official inquiry concluded that the death was indeed suicide. Reeves's will, dated 1956, bequeathed his entire estate to Toni Mannix, much to Lemmon's surprise and devastation. Her statement to the press read, "Toni got a house for charity, and I got a broken heart", referring to the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation.
A popular urban legend states that Reeves died because he believed that he had acquired Superman's powers and killed himself trying to fly. He is interred at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena, California.
Many people at the time, and many more in later years, have refused to believe the idea that George Reeves would kill himself. Laymen have commented on the fact that no powder stippling from the gun's discharge was found on the actor's skin, leading them to believe that the weapon would therefore have to have been held several inches from the head upon firing. Forensic professionals report that powder tattooing is left only when the weapon is not in contact with the skin, while a contact wound (which skull fracture patterns clearly reveal Reeves's wound to be) results in "a round entrance with blackened and seared margins, an entrance wound with a muzzle imprint around it, or a stellate entrance," but no powder tattoo. Followers of the case also point to the absence of fingerprints on the gun and of gunshot-residue testing on the actor's hands as evidence in support of one theory or another. Police, however, found the gun too thickly coated in oil to hold fingerprints, and gunshot-residue testing was not commonly performed by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1959; thus, no inferences can be drawn in support of any theory from these elements separately.
Reeves's incredulous mother, Helen Bessolo, employed attorney Jerry Geisler and the Nick Harris Detective Agency. Their operatives included a fledgling detective named Milo Speriglio, who would later falsely claim to have been the primary investigator. A cremation of Reeves's body was postponed. No substantial new evidence was ever uncovered, but Reeves's mother never accepted the conclusion that her son had committed suicide. Notably, she also publicly denied that her son planned to marry Leonore Lemmon, since he had never told her. However, he had announced this to any number of friends and strangers, even referring to her on occasions as "my wife".
An after-the-fact article quoted "pallbearers" at Reeves's funeral (actors Alan Ladd and Gig Young) as not believing that Reeves was the "type" who would kill himself. However, neither of these men actually served as pallbearers, and only one, Young, was a friend of Reeves. "Anti-suicide" proponents argue that Reeves would have no desire to end his life with so many prospects in sight.
The central thesis of the partially fictionalized Reeves biography Hollywood Kryptonite states as fact that Reeves was murdered by order of Toni Mannix as punishment for their breakup. This is illustrated as a potential scenario in Hollywoodland, with the blame more clearly leveled at Eddie Mannix than at Toni, although the film ultimately suggests the death was a suicide. However, the authors of Hollywood Kryptonite were forced to create a "hit man" to make the plot of their book work, and no such person appears to have ever existed.
In the Grossman book, Jack Larson was quoted as having accepted that it was suicide. Although he suggested in a 1982 Entertainment Tonight/This Weekend interview that he had had a momentary slight questioning of the verdict based on a comment from a friend near the time of the interview, he has stated publicly on several occasions that he always believed that Reeves had taken his own life and that quotations implying that he ever believed otherwise were either in error or deliberately falsified. "Jack and I never really tried to get anyone to re-open George's death," Noel Neill said. "I am not aware of anyone who wanted George dead. I never said I thought George was murdered. I just don't know what happened. All I know is that George always seemed happy to me, and I saw him two days before he died and he was still happy then."
Hollywoodland dramatizes the investigation of Reeves's death. The movie stars Ben Affleck as Reeves and Adrien Brody as fictional investigator Louis Simo, suggested by real-life detective Milo Speriglio. The movie shows three versions of his death: killed semi-accidentally by Lemmon, murdered by an unnamed hitman under orders from Eddie Mannix, and, finally, suicide.
Toni Mannix suffered from Alzheimer's disease for years and died in 1983. In 1999, following the resurrection of the Reeves case by TV shows Unsolved Mysteries and Mysteries and Scandals, Los Angeles publicist Edward Lozzi claimed that Toni Mannix had confessed to a Catholic priest in Lozzi's presence that she was responsible for having George Reeves killed. Lozzi made the claim on TV tabloid shows, including Extra, Inside Edition, and Court TV. In the wake of Hollywoodland's publicity in 2006, Mr. Lozzi repeated his story to the tabloid The Globe and to the LA Times, where the statement was refuted by Jack Larson. Larson stated that facts he knew from his close friendship with Toni Mannix precluded Lozzi's story from being true. According to Lozzi, he lived with and then visited the elderly Mannix from 1979 to 1982, and that on at least a half-dozen occasions he called a priest when Mrs. Mannix feared death and wanted to confess her sins. Mannix suffered from Alzheimer's disease and senile dementia, but Lozzi insists that her "confession" was made during a period of lucidity in Mannix's home before she was moved from her house to a hospital. Mannix lived in a hospital suite for the last several years of her life, having donated a large portion of her estate a priori to the hospital in exchange for perpetual care. Lozzi also told of Tuesday night prayer sessions that Toni Mannix conducted with him and others at an altar shrine to George Reeves which she had built in her home. Lozzi stated, "During these prayer sessions she prayed loudly and trance-like to Reeves and God, and without confessing yet, asked them for forgiveness." Lozzi's claim, however, is unsupported by independent evidence.