We talked about the history of superheroes on TV a couple of weeks ago, and got through the 1960s. Naturally we can’t leave off there, so here’s part 2, covering the ’70s and ’80s.
After Batman ended, the networks moved on to other genres. There were a lot of westerns, WWII shows, sitcoms, cop shows, doctor shows, detective shows, and a handful of sci-fi shows, some of which were close enough to superheroes for me.
The first of these in the ’70s was The Immortal, an ABC show from 1970, based on a science fiction novel, The Immortals, by James E. Gunn. Christopher George plays a guy named Ben Richards, whose mutant blood contains “all known antibodies and immunities”; he’s never been sick and ages at a much slower rate than normal people, with a possible lifespan five to ten times longer than average. As a bonus, anyone who gets a transfusion from him will experience the same robust health effect, at least temporarily, and since he’s O-Negative, he can donate blood to anyone. Unfortunately for him, a billionaire whose life he saved has realized that by keeping Richards on tap, he can also live forever. Also unfortunately, he’s got a brother he hasn’t seen in years who may have the same miraculous blood. Since the billionaire won’t take no for an answer and his blood won’t cure bullet holes, Richards has to go on the run, Fugitive style (imitation being the sincerest form of television), while trying to beat the bad guys in the race to find his brother. The show lasted a single season.
The next effort was more successful; another sci-fi adaptation from a novel, Martin Caidin’s Cyborg, became The Six Million Dollar Man. As Col. Steve Austin, Lee Majors did everything a superhero does except put on a costume, and his show ran five seasons, from 1973 to ’78, spawning a Bionic Woman, Bionic Kid, Bionic Dog and Bionic Sasquatch (no, I’m not kidding) along the way.
Another almost-kinda-sorta superhero show was The Magician, which aired for 21 episodes in 1973-74, in which Bill Bixby played a stage magician who used his skills to fight crime. Years later, an episode of The Incredible Hulk featured Bixby taking a position as stage assistant to a magician played by his former My Favorite Martian co-star, Ray Walston, in a nice two-for-one tribute to his previous shows.
The first actual superhero (powers, costume, secret identity) to show up on network TV after Batman was a Saturday morning show that premiered in the fall of 1974, the CBS series Shazam! The show differed somewhat from the comic, with young Billy Batson (Michael Gray) traveling the country in an RV with his mentor, an old guy named Mentor, played by veteran actor Les Tremayne. The eponymous wizard is nowhere to be seen; Billy directly contacts the “elders” who give him his powers by means of a nifty light-up dome thingy.
The following year, the Shazam! show was expanded to an hour, with the second half being the adventures of an original character, Isis, played by Joanna Cameron. Her debut in September of 1975 put her a month ahead of The Bionic Woman and seven months ahead of the Wonder Woman series, making Isis the first weekly American live-action superhero series with a female lead. The Shazam!/Isis Hour of Power was canceled in 1977, after which the two halves were syndicated separately as Shazam! and The Secrets of Isis.
In 1972, the first issue of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine featured Wonder Woman on the cover; inside, editor Joanne Edgar bemoaned the fact that Wonder Woman had lost her powers and become an adventurer in a white pantsuit, fighting bad buys through martial arts and just generally being the comics version of The Avengers’ Emma Peel, while being subservient to mysterious martial arts master I Ching, thereby having a reduced role and secondary billing in her own comic. Immediately, DC undid the depowering and returned Wonder Woman to costumed superheroing, and the character began to again rise in popularity. ABC responded in 1974 by producing a pilot for a possible series. But being the kind of idiots that network executives often are, the pilot featured Cathy Lee Crosby as a blond-haired version of Diana Prince that had just been rejected by DC, the readers and the national women’s movement, for whom Princess Diana had become something of a symbol. The pilot got decent ratings, but naturally it also got a lot of blowback from the aforementioned groups.
A do-over was clearly in order. The producers than made a second pilot, The New, Original Wonder Woman, with Lynda Carter as Diana, set during WWII, which aired in November of 1975. (David Bowie’s then-wife Angela campaigned for the role; she showed up at Warner’s in a Wonder Woman costume and jumped into a hallway, surprising the executives on their way to a meeting. One of them looked at her and said “put on a bra” as they walked past.) The new pilot was picked up and Wonder Woman made its series debut in April 1976. Because it was a period piece, and therefore more expensive to produce, ABC declined to renew the series after the first season. CBS picked it up and moved the setting to the present day, with Lyle Waggoner’s Steve Trevor was replaced by Steve Trevor Jr., the son of the original, now played by Lyle Waggoner.
NBC’s The Invisible Man was another entry in the “superhero in all but costume” genre. Airing in 1975, it starred David McCallum as a scientist whose self-inflicted invisibility made him an effective spy; it also meant he had to wear a special lifelike mask and gloves if he wanted to be visible.
Superheroines seemed to do well on TV; the next franchise to emerge was the Ruby-Spears creation, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, which appeared as a segment of the Sid & Marty Kroft Supershow. The other segments of the show were pretty lousy and well-forgotten, but Electra Woman’s sly parody of Batman elevated it a bit above Dr. Shrinker, Wonderbug, Bigfoot & Wildboy, Magic Mongo and even the host band, Kaptain Kool & the Kongs. Last year, YouTube stars Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart starred in a revival film of the characters.
Another attempt at almost-sorta-kinda-superheroes-mixed-with-another-genre was the 1976 series Monster Squad (not to be confused with the unrelated movie of the same name written by Shane Black), in which former Love Boat crewman (and future Congressman) Fred Grandy brings wax museum statues of the Universal Monsters to life and recruits them as a team of crimefighters. Yes, really.
According to various rumors and reports, NBC’s 1977 series, Man from Atlantis, began as an adaptation of either Aquaman or Prince Namor the Submariner, but either the rights were unavailable or the network decided that with enough changes to the plot they wouldn’t need the rights, mer-people being a concept that goes back as far as legends of the sunken city. The series starred Patrick Duffy as the fish-man of the title, an aquatic hero with webbed fingers and a convenient case of amnesia. He nonetheless fought crime underwater, of which there seems to be a surprising amount.
Around this time, Marvel started having some luck getting their properties placed in Hollywood, beginning with a live-action series, Amazing Spider-Man, in 1978-79. The CBS series starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker, with some cheesy effects and an array of mundane criminals where the supervillains ought to have been. The show was canceled because CBS was afraid of becoming known as “the superhero network” due to their lineup, which included many of the previously mentioned shows, a number of animated series, and the next few shows on our list. CBS had previously canceled a number of sitcoms with rural themes after network President William S. Paley’s wife overheard a restaurant patron refer to her as “the wife of the head of that hillbilly network.”
One of the most popular superhero shows of the time was The Incredible Hulk, starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, which ran from 1978 to 1982, and then returned in a series of TV movies: Incredible Hulk Returns (1988), in which Hulk meets Thor (Men in Tights’ Little John, Eric Kramer); Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989), wherein Hulk meets Daredevil (Street Hawks star Rex Smith); and Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990) in which Dr. Banner falls in love, it ends badly, everybody dies. A fourth film documenting the Hulk’s resurrection was planned, but low ratings for the third movie put an end to the series. Bixby died of cancer in 1993.
CBS also made a couple of other Marvel properties as two-hour pilots; Dr. Strange in 1978 and Captain America in 1979; Cap got a sequel later that same year later, Captain America II: Death Too Soon. I remember reading in one of the fan magazines at the time that Marvel was very unhappy with the liberties the producers had taken with the first film, particularly with the changing of Steve’s origin and costume. They forced the network to insert a title card before and after commercial breaks showing an approved drawing of Cap in his trademarked costume, and it’s entirely likely that the sequel was a “make good” on the network’s part, since it showed the hero in his proper costume.
You kids today don’t know; back in those long-ago days, we nerdy kids were so starved for comics-based shows that we’d watch anything that even looked remotely like it might have some connection to comics, and we’d always have a love-hate relationship with it. Yeah, it was great that there was a Captain America TV movie, but it was annoying as hell that they changed the costume, the origin, the villains, pretty much everything, and the motorcycle helmet looked silly and the shield being the detachable plastic windshield from his motorcycle and the plot being so generic that the same story could have been told with anyone from Charlie’s Angels to Barnaby Jones taking Cap’s place… It was frustrating.
It was especially frustrating if you paid attention and knew what was going on. Here’s a ‘frinstance. You may have seen the old Fantastic Four cartoons from 1978, featuring a robot named H.E.R.B.I.E. taking the place of the Human Torch; you may have heard the absurd urban legend that Johnny Storm got the axe because the network was afraid that kids at home might want to imitate him and set themselves on fire, or even that some kid did exactly that. Nope. Never happened.
What happened was Marvel had licensed a lot of their characters to Universal, including the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Dr. Strange, and the Human Torch. As previously noted, the Hulk became a series, Captain America and Dr. Strange got TV movies, and the Torch languished in development hell for a few years. Not long after the deal was made, NBC decided they wanted a new Fantastic Four TV series, but Universal had the rights to the Torch, so they had to fill the spot on the team, and H.E.R.B.I.E. won the gig.
But what happened to the Human Torch movie? Well, ya see, fire effects used to be really hard to do. There is a stunt man named Tony Cecere who used to specialize in setting himself on fire; you saw him as a flaming Freddy Kruger, a flaming Terminator, a flaming Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, and as a flaming Alec Holland running into the Everglades to become Swamp Thing. But he looked like a guy who’d been set on fire, not a guy made out of fire. Eventually, the studio realized that coming up with believable fire effects was pretty much impossible, so they said “let’s have him shoot lightning instead of fire.” They then renamed the TV movie “Power Man,” until Marvel noticed and said “nope, there’s a Power Man in the comics, and you didn’t pay for that one.” So The Human Torch became The Power Within, a terrible ABC TV-movie from 1979.
After Superman made a big splash in 1978 and had a successful sequel in 1980, there was renewed interest at the networks for a superhero series, but there were two key sticking points: (1) they didn’t think a straight dramatic action series would be successful, and (2) they obviously didn’t want to pay royalties for the rights to a DC or Marvel hero. The result was several years of characters that were vaguely reminiscent of established characters, most of them done as comedies.
One such was The Greatest American Hero, a 1981 ABC series that starts with an origin story that closely resembles Green Lantern’s; aliens give an ordinary guy a device that provides super powers. The new elements are that Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) loses his instruction book and has to figure out how to work the suit through on-the-job trial-and-error; he’s assigned an FBI handler, Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp), to provide support and backup; and the first thing he does is tell his girlfriend. No Lois Lane nonsense here. The show ran three seasons, and a few years later, NBC attempted a reboot, passing the costume to a young lady as The Greatest American Heroine. The pilot was not picked up, but it ended up in the syndication package and on the DVD collection. The show is mostly memorable for having the catchiest theme song ever. It’s also memorable for quickly changing the hero’s last name to Hanley after Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinkley, Jr.
NBC came up with Manimal in 1983; Simon MacCorkindale plays a guy who somehow knows “the secrets that divide man from animal,” which means he is able to shape-shift into any animal he chooses. He always chose a hawk, panther and some third animal that varied with each episode. Melody Anderson, better known as Dale Arden in the 1980 Flash Gordon, plays the police detective who assists our Beast Boy knockoff. Stan Winston provided beautiful transformation sequences for the hawk, panther, and snake transformations, entirely done with practical effects. For any other animals, the transformations happened off-camera. Naturally it only lasted 8 episodes.
Automan was a 1983 attempt by ABC to turn Tron into a superhero franchise. Desi Arnaz Jr. (son of Lucy and Ricky) is Walter, a police computer guy who invents an artificial intelligence in the form of a holographic man who can leave the computer and walk among us as a hero. Walter is able to merge with the “automatic man” to become one being.
Meanwhile, NBC decided to file the numbers off the X-Men, then at the peak of its popularity, recasting it as a comedy. Misfits of Science ran for one season beginning in 1985, and starred Dean Paul Martin (son of the Rat Pack singer), a young (post-Springsteen video, pre-He-Man) Courtney Cox, and Kevin Peter Hall, a 7’4″ actor best known for playing the Predator and Harry of Harry and the Hendersons.
Rex Smith, a former teen idol who we last saw in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, got to play a former cop turned motorcycle vigilante in Street Hawk, a 1985 ABC series. It’s pretty much the same premise as Knight Rider, Airwolf, Wonderbug and any other show with a super-special vehicle and somebody riding around in it being a do-gooder. I’m not even going to bother digging up a video for it.
Here’s an odd one. In 1987’s Once a Hero, Milo O’Shea plays a middle-aged cartoonist who writes and draws a comic called Captain Justice, but he’s getting bored; he’s practically phoning it in, recycling plots, repeating the same old bits, and the readers are noticing, the publishers are noticing, and even the characters are noticing. The people of Pleasantville are all too aware that their lives are becoming repetitive and dull, and with reader interest declining, characters are beginning to fade away, so Captain Justice (Jeff Lester) decides to breach the “Forbidden Zone” and enter the real world, where he is an ordinary human with no super powers. He’s followed by a hard-bitten detective called Gumshoe (Robert Forster). But powers or no, he’s still a hero, so Captain Justice begins fighting real-world criminals, reviving interest in the comic. Meanwhile, reporter Emma Greely (Caitlin Clarke) is snooping around looking for the story, unaware that her smartass kid Woody knows all about the whereabouts of the good Captain. Caitlin Clarke previously played Valerian in the 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer.
Only three episodes ever aired, which is a pity, because the fourth reportedly featured Adam West as a faded actor who used to play Captain Justice on TV and now ekes out a living making appearances at supermarkets and fairs, until the publishers sue him so they can promote an updated version of the character, mirroring a real-life incident in which TV’s Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, was barred from making costumed appearances by the producers of a staggeringly terrible remake.
Ever sit in front of your TV and try to will a show to be good? Yeah, that’ll work. I have to admit that was the case with Sable, an adaptation of Mike Grell’s brilliant adventure comic Jon Sable, Freelance. Apparently my control of time and space was not what I’d hoped, because Sable was, well, not good. So many bad decisions. It became just another trite vigilante-detective show, with the usual romantic subplot, cliched supporting characters and dull writing. The lead actor, Lewis Van Bergen, was cast late in production to replace the original star, Gene Simmons of KISS, who was the producer and had originally cast himself until somebody saw how bad he was. This was Rene Russo’s first major role. Ken Page did a good job in a thankless role as “Cheesecake,” a blind sidekick who sat in his room and told jokes to a recorded laugh track, but somehow knew everything about everything, so Sable came to him for information several times per episode. The show made it to episode 7.
Ilya and Alexander Salkind, producers of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, had acquired other rights along with the Last Son of Krypton, including Supergirl and Superboy; after Supergirl (starring Helen Slater) had tanked, they turned their attention to TV, and the result was a syndicated series that ran from 1988-92, when it was unceremoniously killed off to make way for Lois & Clark. What made Superboy unique among superhero shows was the number of comic book writers involved; Mike Carlin, Andy Helfer, Denny O’Neill, Cary Bates, J. M. DeMatteis and Mark Evanier all worked on the series.
With the Tim Burton Batman film in 1989, there was a whole ‘nother round of superhero shows, but by then there were so many syndicated programs, cable, direct-to-video and rentals that it would take a half-dozen posts to catalog all of them, and most are better forgotten. I’m sure I missed something here; scold me in the comments.
Come back next week and we’ll wade through the cartoons.