1977 was the year that Marvel properties entered the world of Prime Time television and stepped away from the Saturday morning animation ghetto. In April, CBS premiered the pilot for The Amazing Spider-Man (as discussed here), and then, seven months later, on November 4, 1977, Marvel’s second feature-length, live-action film debuted: The Incredible Hulk.
Everything that made Spider-Man such a trial to get through, and would ultimately make that series short-lived and forgettable, is deftly avoided by writer/director Kenneth Johnson in his launch of The Incredible Hulk. The pilot dedicates its entire attention to building the character of David Banner and telling the origin of the creature called The Hulk. Then, on November 28, a second pilot aired that really captured what the coming ongoing television series would be all about.
But, just as with Amazing Spider-Man, there’s not a lot of detail from the source material that makes it into the final product. However, whereas most every change made in Spider-Man undermined the central themes of the comics, making the pilot generic and boring, Johnson’s changes to The Incredible Hulk, including losing nearly all of the comic’s trappings and supporting cast, perfectly captured the comic’s themes. And even though it’s a story of a man turning into a musclebound green guy in a Beatles wig, it’s probably the most mature comic adaptation that we’ll see for years.
The first step in making The Incredible Hulk something special was in the choice of creative talent. Kenneth Johnson was offered a deal to develop a show based on his choice of a variety of characters Universal Television had licensed from Marvel Comics. According to a number of sources, he wasn’t initially interested, but then, while reading Les Miserables he found his inspiration and decided to develop The Hulk into a series.
Sure, he originally wanted to make The Hulk red instead of green, and maybe changed his name from Bruce Banner to David Banner because Bruce was “too gay” (although Johnson claims it was to honor his late son, David). None of that mattered. Johnson was a proven talent and an unarguable friend of science fiction television.
He had worked on The Six Million Dollar Man, and created the character Jamie Sommers, spinning her off into her own series, The Bionic Woman. If that weren’t enough, he was also responsible (after his work on The Incredible Hulk) for creating the original mini-series V (although he wasn’t involved with the ongoing TV series), as well as producing the Alien Nation series, writing some and directing all of the Alien Nation TV movies that aired throughout the nineties.
The most impressive and inspired decision that Johnson made when developing The Incredible Hulk was casting Bill Bixby as David Banner. Others might argue that it was casting Lou Ferrigno as The Hulk, but I politely disagree.
Television success is all about befriending the audience. If the viewers feel comfortable with the actors, and especially if they like the actors, they’ll put up with most anything. And Bill Bixby had built up a lot of positive feelings with television audiences over the years.
The character of Banner needed to have the audience on his side. He needed to be played by an actor who the audience would feel not just sympathy for, but empathy. He needed to be played by an actor the audience could accept as someone likeable trying to make the best of a situation beyond their control. Bixby’s claim to fame before this was in two successful series from the Sixties: My Favorite Martian and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. These were both stories of ordinary guys dealing with extraordinary circumstances.
My Favorite Martian (1963-1966), for those who don’t know, was a comedy about a fellow living with a Martian (Ray Walston) who was passing himself off as human while he tried to find a way home. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1969-1972) was a comedy-drama about a thirty-something widower trying to raise his young son, who repeatedly tried to wrangle a new wife for Bixby (and mother for himself).
He also played Illusionist/Philanthropist Tony Blake in 1973’s The Magician which garnered Bixby good will but poor ratings. Then, after a few years spent mainly as a game show panelist, he returned to dramatic television with a role in the 1976 miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, which put him back in the mainstream television limelight. After being offered, and accepting, the role of Dr. David Banner in The Incredible Hulk, Bixby would find himself identified with this series more than anything else in his career, for bad or worse.
So, with a readily identifiable and likeable actor in the lead and a writer/director/producer with a science fiction pedigree, The Incredible Hulk had, going out of the gate, a much better shot at being quality programming than any comic book property that had been brought to the small screen at that point in time. I mean, come on. Batman and Wonder Woman however fun they may have been, weren’t really serious attempts to approach the material. Spider-Man wasn’t any better. If anything, it was worse.
But from the moment The Incredible Hulk begins, with its dramatic silence (as opposed to cheesy action music) and the quotation “Within each of us,/ofttimes, there dwells/ a mighty and raging fury” (is that a quote from something? I can’t find any reference other than this film???), it was clear that this was going to be a work that took its source material seriously. This was a comic book film for adults.
Sure, we open with a remarkably cheesy montage of Banner and his girlfriend/then wife, Laura, in soft focus with horrible “love” music, but that soon changes as there’s a car accident, Laura is trapped in the car, and Banner is too weak and powerless to get her out. Then we get the obligatory explosion and Banner awakens from this recurring nightmare.
You see, rather than being a government scientist working on bombs for the military, like in the comics, this iteration of Banner is merely a physician/scientist who has spent the years since the accident studying incidents where ordinary people were able to summon superhuman strength in times of dire need. He’s tormented by the fact that he was unable to do the same and needs to know why.
He discovers that due to a quirk in their biology, he and the others are receptive to a combination of sunspot activity and increased gamma radiation, which, when combined, can trigger these bouts of super strength. When Laura died, the sunspot activity was low, thus his inability to save her.
In order to test this theory, Banner subjects himself to an exposure to massive amounts of gamma radiation, without realizing that the machinery had been upgraded beforehand. Instead of giving himself a dose within dangerous, but acceptable, parameters, he a
ctually exposes himself to an absurd level of gamma radiation.
And while nothing happens immediately, when his car breaks down in the middle of a rainstorm, he finds himself transformed into a seven-foot tall, 330 pound, green-skinned monster (Lou Ferrigno). After an attempt to befriend a little girl (shades of Frankenstein?) and being shot by her father, The Hulk retreats and eventually transforms back into Banner.
From this point on, the film focuses on his and his partner, Dr. Elaina Marks’ (Susan Sullivan), attempts to figure out what’s going on, why, and how to stop it from happening ever again.
The second transformation is very nicely built up to, with Banner and Marks holing up in a lab out in the middle of nowhere that luckily is supplied with an experimental pressure chamber designed for deep sea use. They lock Banner in, plugged up to machines to keep track of his biological reactions and try to recreate the original transformation by soaking him in water and then messing with the electrical system (in case it was the rain or lightning that caused him to change). What Banner doesn’t remember, though, is that he hurt himself trying to change his tire and it was the rage that triggered the metamorphosis.
Now this is the point that really makes this story interesting. When nothing works to cause him to change, Banner goes to sleep and dreams. His recurring nightmare about his wife’s death starts sending the sensors into overdrive and before Dr. Marks knows what’s happening, The Hulk is once again large and in charge.
The tension in this scene is very well orchestrated as The Hulk tries to bust out of the pressure chamber and Marks tries to keep her wits about her, which, luckily, she does. She records the whole process in a stream-of-consciousness narration that Banner will be able to use later to help him figure out what’s happening to him. When the Hulk finally pounds his way out of the pressure chamber and confronts Marks, she is able to talk him down and get a blood sample from his bleeding hands.
You see, the TV Hulk isn’t as powerful as the Hulk in the comics. It’s another change made that, while sometimes a little annoying, makes sense with a television budget and Seventies special effects. It adds a bit of vulnerability that when added to the fact that he doesn’t speak (he only grunts and roars) and behaves like a mentally challenged child, can by turns make his appearance both frightening and a little silly.
It’s mainly frightening here, though.
Once calm, The Hulk changes back to Banner and things are ready to wrap up. And by “wrap up” of course, I mean go from bad to worse.
A tabloid reporter named Jack McGee (played to annoying perfection by character actor Jack Colvin), who’d been pestering the scientists for an interview about their research, shows up again. This character is where we see an overt Les Miserables influence, as he was modeled on the character, Javert. Javert was the prison guard turned police officer who follows the main character, Jean Valjean, throughout the book. Valjean, incidentally is characterized by his enormous strength and gloomy demeanor, and at one point performs an act of heroism by lifting a loaded cart to free a man trapped underneath.
Sound familiar? No wonder Johnson became inspired.
Anyway, to make a long story short (too late!), McGee sneaks into the lab, hides in a closet, overhears the scientists talking about their “dangerous visitor,” and thinks he’s got the scoop of the year. Unfortunately he accidentally knocks over a chemical container in the process. Banner and Marks hear him, find him, and Banner walks him out the front door. This sets the stage for the most memorable line in the film, as Banner rejects him. When McGee presses, Banner says, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
Hell, I watched this series regularly as a child, and although I found it boring most of the time and can’t remember a single episode, the one thing I remember is that line. Well, that and the hauntingly depressing piano music.
It’s about that time that the chemicals burst into flame. Banner tries to save Marks, but is unable to get back inside, which triggers another Hulk-out and a last-minute rescue. But he’s too late.
Once outside and alone, a dying Dr. Marks talks to the David Banner inside the monster, telling him that she’s always loved him. Surprise! Then she dies. Double surprise! Sure it’s cheesy, but it’s true to the more tragic elements of the comics and ultimately works very well here.
Because, McGee sees The Hulk carrying an unconscious Dr. Marks out of the burning building just before it explodes and runs with the story of an “incredible hulk” that kills both Marks and Banner (as Banner’s body isn’t found). McGee becomes obsessed with finding the “killer” and Banner ends up on the run. Interestingly enough, when Banner shows up at his own grave sight, we see that in a nod to the source materials, David Banner’s middle name is Bruce.
It’s a nice touch, and with that Banner stalks off into the world to find a way to cure himself and never turn into the Hulk again. And we all know how well that turned out.
All in all, though, this is an excellent piece of work, particularly for the genre at the time. Clearly, having one personality in charge of all aspects of creating the series was a benefit. As was having that person friendly and familiar with episodic Science Fiction to begin with. When that is combined with almost perfect casting, it’s hard to see The Incredible Hulk NOT becoming a hit.
One of the most beneficial things that ABC did here, though, was not rushing the premise. Instead of going the route of The Amazing Spider-Man and spending the first half hour to forty five minutes on the origin story and then spending the last half of the film on a generic adventure, The Incredible Hulk was given room to breathe. Spending the entire pilot on building character, tone, and working out the origin story alone, we get a much stronger piece of work.
Then, two weeks later, another pilot aired, this time called The Incredible Hulk: A Death in the Family, that established the narrative format for the ongoing series. Basically, it goes like this: David Banner hitchhikes into town, stumbles across someone in trouble, assumes a generic identity (this time as a migrant worker), and sticks around to solve whatever problems his new-friends are dealing with. He Hulks out a couple of times when roughnecks and hoodlums threaten him with a beating, and when everything’s resolved, Banner wanders off into the world anonymo
usly. Until next time.
If that sounds familiar, sans Hulking out, then you’re probably familiar with the TV series The Fugitive, or the Harrison Ford film of the same name. Of course, every episode didn’t follow the formula exactly, and under Johnson’s hand, the show lasted for five seasons. But Death in the Family would serve as a basic model for how the show worked.
This time out, Johnson wrote the script but Alan J. Levi directed. Johnson and Levi had worked together extensively on The Bionic Woman and he would go on to direct episodes of the original Battlestar Galactica, Simon & Simon, Airwolf, Quantum Leap, Lois & Clark, and one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, amongst other, more mainstream shows like JAG, ER and Navy NCIS.
The reason I mentioned Simon & Simon in that list is because one of the brothers Simon, Gerald McRaney (Major Dad himself), is a co-star of A Death in the Family, by the way.
So the story here is pretty much what I outlined above. Banner hitchhikes into town, on his way a local hospital with a big, new experimental radiation therapy lab, where he hopes to try out the X-Ray treatment that could cure him. In the meantime, he runs into a young woman Juliet (played by Laurie Prange, who would return to play another character in the two-part episode, “Prometheus”) who’s father has recently died, leaving her heir to his fortune. Of course, there’s a step-mom involved, and Juliet is suffering from what was originally diagnosed as a psychosomatic inability to use her legs.
You see, she used to run with her father all the time, and seeing him get blown up on their boat broke her brain for a while. Now, however, she can’t walk because the evil step-mom and the corrupt doctor treating her, are slowly poisoning her so step-mom can take over the company.
Being a doctor himself, Banner happens to notice that the “medicine” being given Juliet isn’t the right color for what its labeled as. When he brings this to the attention of Step-Mom, he earns a right beating by Major Dad and the farm hands. I suppose you can guess how that turns out.
Anyway, there’s not a lot to this story, so I’m not going to spend too much time talking about it. The most interesting developments are the interactions between Juliet and The Hulk, and the introduction of the old drunk guy, Michael.
Oh, and The Hulk fights a grizzly bear.
Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that.
One of the things that Johnson wanted to bring to the series, the thing that actually sets it apart from other comic book inspired shows to this point, is recurring thematic elements that echo the whole Banner/Hulk relationship. Essentially, the theme of the show was that everyone had a “hulk” inside that needed to be overcome in order to live a good life. Sometimes its rage; sometimes its jealousy; sometimes its alcoholism.
In this case, we get guilt with Juliet and the demon liquor with Michael (and a bit of guilt). In the end, Banner’s struggle with The Hulk serves to provide the inspiration for Juliet to walk again, as well as take her family business back from the murderous step-mom. And Michael begins dealing with the loss of his son in Vietnam, stepping up to help save Juliet’s life.
She actually saves his life too, sucking the poison out of a rattlesnake bite. You see, Juliet, Michael, and Banner have to escape the evil Step-mom’s murderous henchmen by fleeing through the swamp, where they must contend with a rattlesnake, quicksand, and the aforementioned grizzly bear.
And much like the acclaimed battle between a zombie and a shark in Lucio Fulci’s 1979 classic, Zombie, this battle doesn’t live up to the hype. Oh sure, there’s a real bear, and Ferrigno seems to really be wrestling with it a little. Then two problems crop up. The first is that they’re fighting in a river, so Ferrigno’s green body paint begins washing off, staining the bear’s fur green.
What are you gonna do?
The other problem is the fight’s conclusion. The Hulk gets a good hold on the bear and then tosses it away. The sight of the stuffed bear flying through the sky was pretty funny and completely ruins the moment. Especially when we then cut to a scene of the real bear staggering to its feet and wandering off, wherever he may have landed.
See? No bears were harmed in the filming of this episode.
And that’s about that. They escape, Step-mom and evil doctor go to jail, and almost as an afterthought, Banner gets to try out his X-Ray treatment thanks to some lax security at the hospital. Sure, Major Dad turns out to have been an innocent pawn who wound up hospitalized with serious injuries, but he survived and we never find out if he and Juliet made up.
McGee makes a token appearance in this film, too. He mainly just buzzes around saying there’s a big green monster/murderer and making the local law enforcement officers feel uneasy. The Sheriff, by the way, is played by Mills Watson, who would later show up as Deputy Perkins in the truck driving classic series B.J. and the Bear (1979-1981), and reprise that character in the spin-off series, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo (1979-1981).
Man. I’d forgotten all about The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo.
This second pilot may not have been the mature, character-oriented piece of work that the first pilot was, but for all my ragging on it, wasn’t half bad. The actors all did good jobs with what they were given and Bixby again demonstrated why he was perfect for the role. His righteous indignation and underlying self-loathing are a fascinating combination that in another situation could play out quite interestingly.
We’ll get to see some of that in future columns, as The Incredible Hulk is, to this day, the property that wrangled the most airtime, not only running for five seasons as a regular series, but returning three more TV movies. The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) served as a backdoor pilot for a never-actualized Thor series. Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) introduced Daredevil to the viewing audience in another backdoor pilot. And Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990) served to wrap up the overall story of Banner and The Hulk. Not to mention the two feature films so far.
But more on those when we get to them.
Before then, I’ll be wrapping up Marvel’s live-action output of the Seventies, writing about Doctor Strange, and both Captain America films, before moving on to 1986’s George Lucas masterwork, Howard the Duck.
Until then, keep checking back with us every two weeks as I, Jason Sacks, and others fr
om the Comics Bulletin Bullpen bring you more Flashbacks of Ol’ Marvel!