The Man Who Saved Movies returns in his new guise as Why Would You Post That, with a retro review of one of the most beloved versions of a superhero – The Incredible Hulk. The show, starting in 1977, is still highly regarded today. Here is what he has to say.
The Incredible Hulk
Dr. David Banner (Physician, Scientist) is haunted by the death of his young wife whom he was unable to save after a horrific road accident. Blaming himself for this loss – he throws himself into researching the Hysterical Strength Phenomenon at his research lab along with his colleague Dr Elaina Marks.
Interviewing subjects who have experienced the phenomena in times of great stress – he stumbles across what he thinks may be the explanation. High levels of gamma radiation in the atmosphere during every one of these events. Somewhat recklessly – he decides to bombard himself with this radiation. He is unaware that the concentration and intensity has been recently upgraded.
Feeling no effects at first, he angrily begins to drive home. Then he gets a flat tire. Trying to replace it in the pouring rain, he hurts his hand when it slips on the tire iron.
Inexplicably he undergoes a startling metamorphosis. A biological change into a muscular creature with green skin, limited intelligence but supernatural strength. This Incredible Hulk smashes the car to pieces and wanders into the night to cause more chaos. After which he reverts to his original form with little to no memory of the events.
Enlisting the help of Dr Marks they travel to a remote lab to research this affliction further. They discover that anger triggers the transformation. But when the investigative reporter Jack McGee begins snooping around – tragedy awaits.
After the success of The Bionic Woman – CBS offered writer/director Kenneth Johnson the chance to make a series based on a Marvel Comics character. Johnson was reluctant at first but after reading Les Miserables’ he thought maybe there was something he could do with the Hulk character.
Time For A Change
But some changes needed to be made. Johnson did not want to do an out and out comic book style series. He wanted to create something that was as grounded and down to earth as possible.
He disliked the trope of alliterative names often used for comic book characters. So, he changed Bruce Banner’s name to David Banner. He ditched the entire supporting cast of the comics and the larger-than-life villains – and created a new antagonist in the form of sleazy tabloid hack Jack McGee, a character inspired by Hugo’s Javert from Les Miserables’.
Gone was the old origin – caught in a nuclear explosion. Johnson changed it so that it was Banner’s own fault that he was stuck this way. It was a curse and a poetic punishment for daring to play God.
Also, he needed an actor who could make the audience buy it. Enter Bill Bixby. A highly acclaimed performer of stage and screen. At first Bixby (like Johnson) was not really interested in pursuing this project – but when Johnson explained to Bixby what his intentions were, he noticed the story telling possibilities.
Bixby signed on. And after discovering the bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno and casting him on the role of the creature itself. Television history was made.
Such was the quality of the pilot episode it was released in cinemas in certain foreign markets, a fairly common practice at the time, and the resulting show would go on to be a resounding success.
As I said above Johnson was inspired by the work of Victor Hugo. He was also inspired by the old Universal Monster movies, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson. He drew influence from Greek tragedy and created an enduring masterpiece of dramatic science fiction.
Usually when the source material is changed so much for an adaptation it prompts outcry from fans. But that was not the case here. Due to Johnson’s canny instincts, he created a show that would appeal to a wider audience than just the usual hardcore comic fans.
Stan Lee had even gone on record numerous times to state that he felt Johnson had made the right call in his approach to the property.
The key to this success is Bixby as David Banner. We believe in Banner. We like Banner and we feel his pain. We want to see him succeed. He is sympathetic and has a core of pure, raw humanity. He is the glue that holds the whole enterprise together. It would not have worked if it wasn’t for him.
Jack Colvin was inspired casting as sleazy tabloid journalist Jack McGee. McGee is no villain however – he is just a guy doing his job. Colvin succeeds in making McGee just as sympathetic as Banner in many ways.
Susan Sullivan also gives a wonderful performance as Dr Elaina Marks – and the dark fate that awaits her is the perfect catalyst for the continuing series.
Surprisingly perhaps – Lou Ferrigno is compelling as the Hulk himself. In the comics the Hulk could speak but wisely Johnson did not think this was appropriate for the show. Despite this limitation and only being able to communicate in grunts and growls supplied by another actor – Ferrigno expresses his feelings with an actor’s most powerful tool – his eyes. We sympathise with this creature and despite his initially terrifying appearance we come to love him. We know he only wants to do good.
A Blast From The Past
This TV movie is almost 45 years old now but still holds up well considering the limitations on visual effects at the time. Very simple techniques were used to convey the transformation from Bixby to Ferrigno – and are pretty much just as effective now as they were then.
A few years ago, I showed this to my young daughter. She had already seen the character in Hulk (2003), The Incredible Hulk (2008) and in Avengers (2012). She enjoyed them of course. But when I showed her this and we got to the scene of the first roadside transformation – her jaw dropped, and she said “Wow!”.
I think that says it all.
We now live in an age where superhero stories are everywhere in modern entertainment. Big screen or small, there are many to choose from.
And whilst a lot of them are pretty good – I can think of very few examples that have the excellent writing and lead actor that is the beating heart of this ninety minutes of late 70s television.
And Joe Harnell’s piano led ending theme “The Lonely Man” is a melancholic masterpiece.
Things like that seemed to matter more back then than they do now. For any youngsters out there reading this – see if you can move past the flares and sideburns and psychedelic carpets and wood finish banisters. Check this out. It’s the real deal.
If you don’t I’ll get angry. And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.
Why Would You Post That?
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