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’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.
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.