Last week I wrote about Dick Gautier, and mentioned that one of his first major roles was on Mr. Terrific, CBS’ ill-fated attempt at grabbing some of the heat generated by ABC’s Batman. That got me to thinking about the fallout from Batmania. There were a few shows, specials, and most especially cartoon series that tried to get some bat-mojo going. I thought I’d dig up some of the ones I remember.
Now, the first thing I have to point out is that there are a lot of ’60s TV shows that I’ve never seen; I know about them, but never watched them. Back in those days, you really had to commit to a show; watching one show meant possibly never seeing another, unless it someday made it into syndication in reruns. There was no on-demand, no cable TV, no video rental, and no way of recording a program to watch later, home video recorders being at least 15-20 years in the future. All TV was appointment TV; watch it or miss it.
For example, I never saw Star Trek in its original run. It was on opposite My Three Sons, which my mom liked. There are dozens of other shows that I never saw until years later when they showed up on channel 9 or 13 in between Veg-O-Matic commercials. Like I said, watching a TV show was a commitment. If you wanted to see a particular thing, you had to hunt for it and watch it when it was on. I used to go through the newspaper’s TV listing supplement with a ballpoint pen every Sunday, marking everything I wanted to watch that week, then hope my brothers would also want to watch it or would find something else to do. Thanks to Wikipedia’s comprehensive index of TV schedules, I now know that the only reason I was ever able to watch Mr. Terrific was that nobody in the house gave a squat about I Dream of Jeannie or The Iron Horse, but Captain Nice often lost out to The Lucy Show and occasionally Rat Patrol.
If you were lucky enough to live near a decent-sized town, you might get all three major networks, and maybe even a local channel or two. Only a handful of cities had more than one local channel. I had the good fortune to grow up in a suburb of Los Angeles (pro-tip: LA is nothing but suburbs); We had the three networks and four local outlets on VHF (channels 2-13), with at least a couple of English-language channels on UHF (channels 14 and up). The local outlets broadcast pretty much anything they could get cheap; cheesy local programs, reruns of canceled network shows, off-brand import cartoons, and lots and lots of lousy movies going back to the 1920s.
So, with those caveats in place, let’s see what Batman wrought in the swinging sixties.
Nobody under 55 really understands how huge Batmania was in 1966; imagine if the last 40 years of Star Wars fandom happened all at once for two years and then suddenly stopped. It was like that. It came just as Marvel was getting a lot of press for being popular among college students, on the heels of the Pop Art movement in which artists like Andy Warhol and serial plagiarist Roy Lichtenstein were making big news with bright, boldly-colored art based on (in Lichtenstein’s case, shamelessly traced from) comics. Ben-Day dots were everywhere. And everyone wanted a piece of the action. Artists ranging from Sun-Ra to Jan & Dean recorded their own versions of the Batman theme. It was everywhere.
The first hero to follow Batman to TV was the Green Hornet, from the same producers and also on ABC, though it was played more as straight action-adventure than Batman’s arch comedy. Today the Green Hornet is best known for two things: Al Hirt’s great performance of the theme song based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” (featured in Tarantino’s Kill Bill) and introducing Bruce Lee to American audiences. It was Lee who invented the slow-motion fight scene, simply because he figured if a fight went as long as the director wanted, he’d have no doubt killed everyone by the end of it.Unfortunately, the audience didn’t want their heroics without comedy then, and the Green Hornet lasted only one season. We shall not speak of Seth Rogen’s desecration.
The other two networks’ first attempts, as I said last week, were Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice. Both shows premiered on the same night in January and were canceled on the same night in August of 1967. Both networks were smart enough to not go head-to-head and split the audience, so Mr. Terrific was on CBS at 7:30 (prime time used to start at 7:00) and Captain Nice was on NBC at 8:00.
Mr. Terrific was basically the same concept as Underdog, where a wimpy guy is secretly a hero when he swallows a special pill that gives him super powers for an hour. The main difference was that Mr. Terrific was supervised by a government agent (John McGiver) and many of his missions were assigned by his handlers.
Captain Nice starred William Daniels as Carter Nash, a police forensic scientist who accidentally discovers a super serum that gives him super strength, invulnerability and the ability to fly, but he’s too afraid of heights to do very much of it. He’s also incredibly clumsy and even moreso when his powers are activated. Carter was a very reluctant hero, only taking on the job because his mother badgered him into it and made him a costume. His clumsiness meant that he left a trail of destruction in his wake, often doing more damage than the villains. It was silly nonsense created by Get Smart’s Buck Henry, but it didn’t find an audience.
You might remember Daniels from his years as Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World (and Girl Meets World), or as the voice of KITT on Knight Rider; if you have any taste, you also know him as John Adams in 1776 or as Albert in A Thousand Clowns. He also won two Emmy awards for his role as Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere.
Apart from these two sitcoms, there wasn’t really a lot of live-action superheroing until the ’70s; ABC started broadcasting The Avengers, bringing John Steed and Emma Peel to American audiences, but other genres continued to dominate the airwaves, in particular westerns, gimmick sitcoms like It’s About Time and The Second Hundred Years, and James Bond knockoffs. (I really should defer to Hatcher on the subject of Bond knockoffs, since that’s really his jam, but the brief overview would have to include the aforementioned Avengers, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and its spinoff The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, and arguably It Takes a Thief, with shows such as Search following in the ’70s.)
One now-forgotten show that benefited from (and gently mocked) Batmania was a 1967 CBS comedy called He & She; it starred Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, who were and are married in real life, as Dick and Paula, a married couple. Dick is a cartoonist, creator of a comic book hero called Jetman, and Paula is a social worker, one of the first working wives on network TV. Jack Cassidy (David Cassidy’s dad and Katie Cassidy’s grandfather) plays Oscar North, an obnoxiously vain and fairly stupid actor who plays Jetman on a popular show within the show and argues constantly with Dick about the proper interpretation of “his” character. Oscar later served as the model (with the producers’ blessing) for the Ted Baxter character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Benjamin later became a director, beginning with the brilliant My Favorite Year. The premise of a show about a cartoonist would be revisited often in later years, with entries including My World and Welcome to It, Once a Hero, Too Close for Comfort, and Bob. Apparently Hollywood likes cartoonists, at least as comedic foils.
There was a short-lived Superman musical on Broadway in 1966 (which was done as a TV special in 1975, and got a brand-new script for a stage revival in 2010), and practically every sitcom and variety show on the air at the time did some kind of a superhero spoof in at least one episode, but the bloom was off the rose pretty quickly, and we didn’t see another comic hero themed show until Wonder Woman came around in 1975.
But in the world of Saturday morning cartoons, any hot trend has to be flogged to death, so there were a whole bunch of examples to haul out, some of them pretty weird.
A quick look at the Saturday morning schedules shows that in 1965, there were only two nominally superhero cartoons in the networks’ lineup, Atom Ant, which preceded Batman by several months, and Underdog, which debuted in 1964. By 1967, there were a whole bunch of them, and superheroes became a mainstay of the field for the next few decades.
There was of course the animated New Adventures of Superman, which was basically a revival of the ’40s Fleischer cartoons with more limited animation, even featuring Bud Collyer as Clark and Superman and several other voices from the original cartoons and radio show. That series eventually became part of the Superman-Aquaman Hour of Adventure, with a variety of other DC heroes filling the spots in between the two lead cartoons; Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, Hawkman, the Justice League, and Teen Titans all getting a turn.
Meanwhile, Marvel had jumped into the fray in 1966 with The Marvel Super Heroes (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and sometimes all of them together as the Avengers); Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four followed in ’67.
Hanna-Barbera staked out their own terrain with quasi-comics-themed action-adventure shows like Space Ghost, Birdman & The Galaxy Trio, Mighty Mightor and The Herculoids, as well as comedy-action superheroics with Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles. These two cartoons shared a half-hour, each of them trying to be a double-dipper; Frankenstein Jr. hit both the popular monster and superhero fads, while the Impossibles tried to capitalize on both comics and music fandom in a “what if the Monkees were superheroes” mashup, right down to the car.
For outright parody, there was DePatie-Freleng’s Super 6…
…and Ralph Bakshi’s The Mighty Heroes.
And then it gets weird.
By far the oddest superhero show of the lot is one that wasn’t played for laughs. Let me tell you about it… So there’s this guy named James Norcross who gets caught in a cosmic storm; it alters his body so that he is able to change his molecular structure into whatever he wants, be it steel, granite, water, ozone, electricity, or any other material he chooses. It also gives him super-strength. Naturally he decided to put on a costume and fight crime. It just so happens that James Norcross is President of the United States, so he’s got a nifty hidden doorway in the Oval Office that leads to his secret base beneath the White House, from which he fights crime as Super President.
Okay, so only his sidekick/chief of staff/”close companion” (wink wink nudge nudge), Jerry, calls him that. To everyone else, he’s just some anonymous guy in a super-suit. But you have to love the idea of the President running around in a mask and having people call him Super President and not being able to figure out who he is.
Hanna-Barbera had a couple of other tricks up their sleeves besides the double-dip; they were also big on “Tales from the Public Domain” (Three Musketeers, Arabian Knights, Sinbad Jr., etc.) and “Sounds Familiar,” in which a show would have a title that sounds like a different popular property, but would actually have nothing to do with it, as is the case with Shazzan. Obviously, they figured that since Captain Marvel was lost in limbo due to litigation, but his magic word was still in the popular consciousness because it was Gomer Pyle’s favorite expression, they should try to get some of that legitimacy to rub off on them. They came up with an Aladdin riff with a genie named Shazzan. It’s included here for three reasons: (1) I vividly remember watching the damn thing; (2) It’s stupid as hell; and (3) It was clearly intended to piggyback off the superhero fad of the time. So there it is. SHAZZAN!
Sooner or later, I’ll follow up with a look at superhero and comic-themed shows from the ’70s and ’80s; there were a bunch of them.