Fighting For Justice

Photo Credit: The Incredible Hulk: Courtesy of King Features Syndicate
Bill Bixby; Lou Ferrigno; The Incredible Hulk; CBS; 1977-1982

A Decade Dominated By Primetime TV Superheroes!
By Matt Roush, ReMIND Magazine

Here they come to save the day!

Apologies to Mighty Mouse, who had a bit of a comeback in the late ’70s (sharing a Saturday morning time slot with, of all creatures, those mouthy magpies Heckle and Jeckle). But when it came to rescuing the world from peril in the 1970s with super-strength and other fantastical powers, this was a decade dominated by primetime TV’s superheroes — from Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk to The Six Million Dollar Man and more.

For a generation that grew up watching mostly cartoon variations of their comic book icons, the time was ripe for flesh-and-blood — with a touch of bionics — heroism.

Introducing Steve Austin

Far from the campy “Biff! Pow!” antics of Adam West’s Batman in the 1960s, the new breed of superhero was more grounded and serious. The trend hit an early peak with The Six Million Dollar Man, a.k.a. Steve Austin (Lee Majors), that most quintessential of aspirational figures, an astronaut. Critically injured in a space accident, Steve had his right arm, both legs and left eye replaced with mechanical “bionic” implants, enhancing his human abilities manifold, rendering him one of TV’s first super-soldiers. (The reason his 60 mph super-speed was rendered in slow motion was, according to producer Harve Bennett, because “the tricks looked ridiculous when we filmed them at regular speed.”)

In a 1974 essay, esteemed science-fiction author Isaac Asimov described the character as “Superman born again … but Austin hits closer to home.” After all, he observed, “Improving this fragile and ultra-destructible body of ours is, in fact, the name of the game we call mankind.”

The name of the game in TV, of course, is ratings. And after an inauspicious beginning as a series of TV movies in 1973, The Six Million Dollar Man began airing weekly on ABC in 1974, finishing just outside the Nielsen Top 10 in its first season.

Along Came “The Bionic Woman”

Just as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. spawned The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. during the ’60s TV spy craze, Steve needed a distaff companion. Enter Jaime Sommers, The Bionic Woman, played by the lissome Lindsay Wagner, who ironically had her studio contract dropped midway through filming her first appearance as a doomed love interest in a multipart episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. (When the audience demanded her return after she was initially killed off, Wagner’s price tag went up significantly.)

Wagner, who won a 1977 Emmy as Jaime, spun off on her own in 1976 — and The Bionic Woman lasted two seasons before moving to NBC in 1978 for what would be its, and Man‘s, final year. (Years later, Jaime and Steve would marry in a 1994 TV-movie reunion.)

Once these bionic heroes awakened the networks to the appeal of superheroes as a draw at night, producers began scouring legends from comics for inspiration. Which is how Wonder Woman found her way to ABC, but not without trial and error. Cathy Lee Crosby first attempted to breathe life into a contemporary Diana Prince in a failed 1974 TV movie. (One report described her version as “more suited to modeling chemises at Bergdorf Goodman than hurling 200-pound men through the air like Frisbees.”)

Those Star-Spangled Hot Pants
When ABC went back to the drawing board, producer Douglas S. Cramer (a future maker of hits like Dynasty) conjured an image of his dream Wonder Woman: “She should be built like a javelin thrower, but with the sweet face of a Mary Tyler Moore.” They found what they were looking for in statuesque former beauty queen Lynda Carter. She filled out her all-American star-spangled hot pants and golden breastplate with an innocent sexuality that drew even the dads of comic book geeks to the TV.

Carter’s twirling pirouettes, transforming her from Yeoman Diana Prince to Wonder Woman, were nothing next to the contortions the show endured when ABC dropped it in 1977. CBS changed the time period from 1940s World War II to the 1970s for a retooled The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. (Lyle Waggoner, who originally played her boss, Maj. Steve Trevor, was now his own son, Steve Jr.)

The Giant Green Guy
Far less fetching was The Incredible Hulk, developed for CBS from the Marvel comic in 1978. The giant green rage beast was unleashed whenever mild-mannered scientist Dr. David Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby, the veteran sitcom star of My Favorite Martian and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) got overly angry or stressed. Professional bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno became such an icon as the monstrous growling Hulk that he parlayed his fame into memorable cameos in comedies including The King of Queens and the film I Love You, Man. (Legend has it that Arnold Schwarzenegger was rejected from playing the Hulk because he wasn’t tall enough.)

Not everyone found instant stardom in the genre. Patrick Duffy barely made a splash as NBC’s aquatic do-gooder Man From Atlantis in 1977-78, but he would soon have bigger fish to fry on Dallas.

And while Hulk roared his way through five seasons, with three TV movies carrying the creature into 1990, other Marvel adaptations of the time weren’t so lucky. A version of The Amazing Spider-Man, starring Nicholas Hammond as the young web-slinger, only lasted 14 episodes. TV movies of Captain America (Reb Brown) and Dr. Strange (Peter Hooten), also for CBS, never made it to series.

Bigfoot, Wildboy, Electra Woman And More
Still, the influx of primetime superheroes sparked a late ’70s renaissance of cheesy live-action knockoffs on Saturday mornings, including Bigfoot and Wildboy and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (featuring soap star Deidre Hall), introduced on The Krofft Supershow. An adaptation of Captain Marvel titled Shazam!, starring Michael Gray and Jackson Bostwick, was paired with The Secrets of Isis, about a science teacher (Joanna Cameron) who inherited the powers of the Egyptian goddess. These have largely been forgotten.

But today, in a multimedia age saturated with superheroes on big and small screens, the powerhouses of ’70s primetime live on, many through syndication, nostalgic cable repeats and DVD. But they also thrive in contemporary big-screen versions — Wonder Woman 1984, a sequel to Gal Gadot’s hit, is scheduled for release this fall, while the Hulk is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the Avengers movies.

There’s even a new Steve Austin movie that has been long in development — although he’s been adjusted for inflation into The Six BILLION Dollar Man.

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