PROGRAMS

Superheroes

They put on a costume to save lives and entertain a nation. They fought villains, rescued the innocent and became role models to viewers of every age. The superheroes of television lived so vividly in the public’s mind, that the actors would be defined by their larger-than-life portrayals. “I will never have a character that is that memorable. Very few actors have a character that is seared in to people’s minds.” said Lynda Carter of her starring role in “Wonder Woman.”

Wonder Woman was not only every girl’s heroine, but also a standard-bearer of the feminist movement’s message of equality for women. Superman was the man of steel who could overcome every physical obstacle while fighting crime and saving lives with his supernatural powers. The Hulk, a sharp contrast to other TV superheroes, only appeared when angry, but because of his instinct for justice and protecting the good, he was “like a green Santa Claus,” as the body builder-turned actor Lou Ferrigno put it.

Though they focused on the serious business of crime-fighting, some superheroes also provided comic relief. Characters on “Batman” delighted with tongue-in-cheek remarks and ridiculous expressions, such as Robin’s “Holy strawberries, Batman, are we in a jam!” The “Greatest American Hero” turned the hero persona on its head, casting a school teacher as the reluctant owner of an outfit that granted super powers.

“Batman”

Batman’s influence on American television was larger than almost any show of that period. As Adam West, the star of “Batman,” put it, “In the ’60s the three B’s were Bond, Beatles and Batman.” The combination of action and comedy, a star cast of heroes and villains and distinctive designs that dipped into the colorful Pop Art movement made “Batman” (1966-1968) a hit.

The comic book “Batman” was darker and more serious, but the television producers wanted something of a lighter touch for the show and found in Adam West the right man to convey competence and dry wit. One of its most famous scenes is when Batman tries to get rid of a bomb that is about to explode. Running back and forth on an amusement pier, Batman’s effort to toss away the bomb is foiled by everything from strolling nuns to a baby carriage to ducklings. “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb,” is Batman’s aside.

The chemistry between seasoned actor West and first-time actor Burt Ward (Robin) worked from the very start and even the villains became fan favorites. Cesar Romero played The Joker, Burgess Meredith played The Penguin and Frank Gorshin was The Riddler. Batman’s most vexing nemesis was Catwoman, played by Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar. Batman was also one of the first series to introduce a female superhero, Bat Girl, a character that marked an important milestone in TV.

“Wonder Woman”

The “Wonder Woman” TV series (1975-1979) was based on a comic created by William Moulton Marston. The character first came to television in a 1974 movie in which Cathy Lee Crosby played Wonder Woman. Her blond hair and petite size strayed away from the original comic book character. A year later, when the TV series went into production, the producers looked for an actor who more closely resembled the comic book character. Lynda Carter’s brown tresses, statuesque frame and honest attitude embodied the ideal “Wonder Woman,” and they hired her, despite her lack of acting experience.

Although a kids’ action show at its core, “Wonder Woman” did reflect feminist values and even critiqued aspects of the economic system. In one episode, a time-traveling scientist from 2155, played by Joan Van Ark, exclaims about her journey to the America of 1978, “They allowed individuals to accumulate a massive fortune back then. It will be fascinating to see a capitalistic society at work!”

The series launched one other career, that of Debra Winger, who played Wonder Girl. There were plans for a “Wonder Girl” spin off series but Winger wasn’t interested. “Wonder Woman” lasted just three seasons but it was an important launching pad for women in television.

“Adventures of Superman”

He’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—yes, it’s Superman, saving the day for humanity since 1952. George Reeves (Superman) did not want the role in the TV series “Adventures of Superman.” A film actor who had appeared in “Gone with the Wind,” he thought television was beneath him. However, without any other offers, he reluctantly signed on to play opposite Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane and Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen. According to Larson, Reeves’ favorite part of the job was crashing through walls that sent debris flying. In one episode, Jimmy Olsen exclaims, “Superman, you could’ve come through the door,” to which Superman replies, “Well this seemed a little more spectacular.”

Another trademark of Superman’s unusual abilities was his flying exit from a scene, which was accomplished by leaping onto an unseen diving board. “Adventures of Superman” (1951-1958) was a big hit, thanks to Reeves’ likeable persona. Superman was never worried or upset, and always confident in his ability to deliver justice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=703220850 Steve Brant

    This is an excellent article. And I’m very happy to see George Reeves written about in the same context as Adam West and Lynda Carter. Each was the superhero icon of their decade, but George was the pioneer! Without the “Adventures of Superman”, would there have been a “Batman” or “Wonder Woman”?

    Either way, I also want to mention that 2014 is George Reeves’ Centennial Year. He was born on January 5, 2014. And I think it would be fantastic if the Pioneers of Television show were to help celebrate George’s contribution to television on this special anniversary of his birth. After all, he was such a big star that an episode of “I Love Lucy” was written especially so that he could appear as Superman on that show!

    Thanks again for this great article… and for considering my request!

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.brockow Chris Brockow

      To many of us, George was Superman. He set the standard for all the others who followed. I agree with Steve that it would be fantastic if The Pioneers of Television were able to recognize George on his 100th birthday.

      This is such a great article because it showcases most of the Super Heroes of our time. Congratulations P.B.S for this show.

    • lonnie93041

      Hey Steve fancy meeting you here!

    • http://www.facebook.com/dean.griffith.54 Dean Griffith

      WOW..He hasn’t been born yet!!! Only kidding I know what you meant…

    • Robbie Moraes

      I am glad they did not talk about the so called Superman curse, where some nuts claim that actors who have played Superman useually have bad things happen to them later on. NONSENSE. It only happens because that’s life. and regretfully bad things happen to good people,

  • lonnie93041

    “Bond, Beatles and Batman” I remember reading that somewhere but could never remember who said it. I remember seeing Adam West in Robinson Caruso on Mars and the original Outer Limits episode The Invisible Enemy. Met him at ComiCon once where he autographed a photo of himself as Batman for my toddler Daughter. Really nice guy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jimcirile Jim Cirile

    Lou is STILL in action playing a superhero! Check out http://www.facebook.com/liberatormovie and “like” Liberator!

    • Robbie Moraes

      Lou will again do the voice of the Hulk in Avengers 2.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-David-Haskell/1427183336 Charles David Haskell

    I would love to know if the program Superheroes will be available on DVD and I would like to know the cost plus shipping and handling. Thank you and good luck in 2013.

    • Christina Knight

      Hi Charles, the Superheroes episode is is available in a Season 3 DVD package that includes the three other new episodes. Pre-orders can be made now for March shipping. Order via the PBS Shop online — or call 800-531-4727. The price is $19.99 and estimated shipping is $3.75 for a total estimate of $23.74. Thanks for your interest and the good wishes for 2013! We hope you can watch the premiere of Superheroes tonight at 8 pm!

    • http://www.facebook.com/dean.griffith.54 Dean Griffith

      I know the whole series is available on DVD…Not sure about individual episodes..

    • Robbie Moraes

      Yup, It’s already available at the PBS shop site on PBS.ORG

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.leach Gary Leach

    Just to note, the famous “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” line was in the feature film based on the Batman TV show, not the TV show itself.

    • lonnie93041

      Probably one of the funniest lines ever.

  • ADAM MENDENHALL

    Loved the one about Supper heroes….learned alot I did not know!

  • mrshark

    Saw this show and watched all these when they were on TV. Met Lou at Comic Con and he autographed a picture of himself as the Hulk for me ..Great guy very nice person. I loved that show and he really brought the character to life just like the comic book. I watch him on King of Queens now and he brings alot to that character as well. I love his sense of humor.

  • http://twitter.com/Skyhawk1 skyhawk1

    Some people ask Ginger or MaryAnn? My answer was Julie Newmar.

  • PB210

    It’s pure myth to say the Adam West series damaged the
    “grim avenger” persona of Batman in the comics. Batman had stopped being a
    ruthless vigilante back in 1940, just a year into his run, when Robin was
    introduced as his sidekick. (Soon afterward, his enemies largely ceased their
    homicidal ways, and became eccentric thieves with gimmick costumes.)

    For the next 25 years, including the lead-up to the 1966 TV series, Batman was a
    square-jawed boy scout, and his comics were full of absurd, barely coherent
    plots; giant appliances and other oversized props; and crazy “scientific”
    devices such as intention sensors and radioactive tire-track tracers.

    Regarding Adam West; the original print source introduced the sidekick with bare
    legs, pixie shoes, golden cape, and bright red tunic.

    Count Karnstein, a Yuku member, pointed out, those comic books: “had
    giant pennies and stuffed dinosaurs, was wearing caveman, zebra, and rainbow
    costumes, teamed up with Bat-Mite, split in two, melded with Superman, fought a
    living #2 pencil, drowned in giant gravy boats and menaced by giant sized water
    pistols, tennis rackets, and all sorts of insane absurdities long before the
    Batman movie or tv show were released….Dozier was bringing the characters to the
    screen in the manner in which they had been portrayed in the comics. Was there
    ever a silly, absurd, ridiculous Green Hornet comic book? If so, it’s escaped my
    attention for the better part of 40 years. Did we ever see a Caveman Green
    Hornet or a Green Hornet in a rainbox/zebra/dayglo red suit? Did we ever see
    Green Hornet being drowned in a giant gravy boat or being chased by aliens and
    dinosaurs? Was there ever an Ace the Green Hornet Dog? How about a
    Hornet-Mite?

    No? I didn’t think so. There’s your answer. It’s literally that simple. Dozier was taking characters and putting them on the screen. Green Hornet was always played straight and serious in the comics/strips/radio, so he was done that way for tv. Batman was as absurd, silly, goofy, and ridiculous as anything else that has ever appeared in comics, and so that’s how he appeared on-screen”.

    In Amazing Heroes#119 in 1987 (two years before the Michael Keaton film), Max
    Allan Collins had an interview. He said the following: “I’m afraid what I’m
    running smack up into is the old Batman TV show controversy: the old business
    about, Gee that was a TV show that made fun of Batman and made fun of comic
    books, so we have to show people that Batman and comic books are serious and
    they’re adult and accordingly all the fun goes out of it. There was a reason why
    that TV show was played for laughs and that is when you put actual human beings
    in those costumes and act out those stories, it looks stupid. They betray their
    juvenile roots. It can’t be done straight. I defy them to do the movie
    straight”. http://www.dialbforblog.com/archives/207/ During the course of
    its 120-episode run, the Batman TV show adapted several stories directly from
    the pages of Batman and Detective comic books. Below is a chart detailing
    exactly which episodes were based on which comics, with some of the relevant
    covers pictured above and below the chart. http://www.dialbforblog.com/archives/209/

  • PB210

    Alas, you did not profile the 1966 Green Hornet series from the same producer, William Dozier. See my post elsewhere.

    • Robbie Moraes

      They did not do that because that was worse. It made no one famous, and I think even Bruce Lee did not want to be remembered for it.

      • PB210

        It helped him get some work in Hong Kong. Also, “worse” than what? Did the Hornet have a boy sidekick in a golden cape and pixie boots?

  • Robbie Moraes

    Sometimes you just can’t get rid of a bomb. That pretty much describes DC Comics.