As a 10 year old kid back in 1977, I remember watching the serious, somber TV-movie pilot of “The Incredible Hulk,” written, produced and directed by Kenneth Johnson (“The Bionic Woman,” “V,” “Alien Nation”). Unlike the primary colored “Hulk” comic books I read from the local drugstore, the TV movie pilot was horror movie in tone and execution. Bill Bixby played the role of Dr. David Banner with an intensity that truly sold it; this wasn’t going to be a Saturday morning kiddie show—this was adult stuff. While the titular creature, played by professional bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, was admittedly silly at times, he was lit in shadows and flames that made him seem more like a walking nightmare than a Marvel superhero. Gone was the Hulk’s Tarzan English (“Hulk smash!”), replaced with deep subhuman growls and roars supplied by “The Addams’ Family” costar Ted Cassidy (“Lurch”), and later by actor Charles Napier after Cassidy’s premature death at age 45 in 1979. The late Cassidy also supplied the iconic opening narration for the series as well:
“Dr. David Banner: physician, scientist; searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have. Then an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry. And now when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs…The creature is driven by rage and pursued by an investigative reporter. The creature is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. David Banner is believed to be dead and he must let the world think that he is dead until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him.”
As it went on, the series would sometimes lazily revert to its standard formula of David Banner wandering into town and getting involved with local drama before hulking out a couple of times, and then leaving. Occasionally, there were episodes which pushed the boundaries of this formula, creating exceptional, award-winning television. The series would go on for five seasons, with the fifth season getting the axe after only seven episodes. That premature cancellation would inspire three significantly inferior TV movie sequels later on, none of which were written or produced by Johnson.
For this exploration, I’m going to examine a few highlights from each season. I’d also like to hear your own favorite memories of the series in the comments thread below this column. Let’s dig in!
Personal Favorites of Season 1.
The pilot aired November 4th, 1977 followed by the second TV movie, “A Death in the Family” which aired a few weeks later on November 27th. With the pilot serving as an origins story, it was up to “Death in the Family” to establish the series’ “Fugitive”-style format, even if it wasn’t an example of the series at its best. The 10 episode first season stumbles more often than it succeeds, as the show was finding its footing.
Here are my favorites…
With its horror/sci-fi tone, the pilot episode, written & directed by Kenneth Johnson, is a moody, effective TV drama that launches the series with sufficient gravitas. Dr. David Banner is a grieving widower still tormented by a car crash that killed his wife (Lara Parker), 11 months earlier; a crash that he survived. Working with sympathetic colleague, Dr. Elaina Marks (Susan Sullivan, Kenneth Johnson’s wife), David is desperately trying to understand why some people seem to have massive surges of strength when needed—such as a young woman lifting a car to save her pinned child, or an old man kicking in a heavy steel door. After concluding that these people have a common DNA marker, he tests himself and learns he has an even greater percentage of said markers; yet he was unable to save his wife from the burning wreckage of their car. Almost by accident, David learns that high gamma activity from the sun might’ve unwittingly activated these genetic anomalies—allowing these people to have their freakish bouts of strength. Using himself as guinea pig, he accidentally overdoses on gamma rays at the research center’s radiology lab (a mislabeled dial is the culprit). Feeling no immediate aftereffects, he frustratedly heads home…
Note: David’s methodology is hopelessly unscientific (mistaking correlation as definitive proof), not to mention his utter lack of objectivity makes him useless as an impartial researcher, but movie has to movie, so shuddup and eat yer popcorn, right?
When his Toyota gets a flat in the rain, an increasingly angry David tries changing the tire himself. Slicing his hand with a tire iron, his whole world changes. Joe Harnell’s eerie choral music turns downright terrifying (shades of Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Requiem”), as David’s eyes go white, his skin turns green, and his clothes rip on his growing body. This is the first of many “hulk-outs” we’d see during the show (usually two per episode), and it’s by far the scariest. The newly formed “Hulk” (Lou Ferrigno) trashes the car in a rage, and wanders onto a campsite the following morning, where he’s shot by a hunter after saving the man’s daughter from drowning. Later, after calming down, the ‘creature’ reverts back to David Banner. The disoriented David then seeks Elaina’s help. Using their institute’s lab after hours, the two of them try their best to recreate the conditions of David’s transformation. The missing ingredient is rage, which David feels later as he has another nightmare of his wife’s death—destroying a heavy steel chamber designed to contain ‘the creature.’ A sci-fi twist on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Already intrigued by David’s research into super-strength and intrigued by the researcher’s freshly destroyed car, tabloid reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin) smells a story…
Note: In keeping with the series’ “The Fugitive”-style format, Jack McGee acts as a sleazier alternative to Barry Morse’s “Lt. Gerard”, who hunted fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble (David Jansen) across four seasons of that series (1963-1967). “The Fugitive” was, of course, remade into an Oscar-winning 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford as Kimble and Tommy Lee Jones as Gerard. The 2008 movie of “The Incredible Hulk” (itself a soft-reboot/sequel to 2003’s “The Hulk”) also used the TV series’ on-the-lam format.
David and Elaina’s research at the institute continues, as the tenacious McGee (who was denied an interview) sneaks into a closet at the facility and accidentally causes a fire. Soon, the fire engulfs the place, and David has another hulk-out in a desperate bid to save Elaina’s life, but he is unsuccessful. McGee escapes the place just before it goes up in a fireball, pinning both the blaze and Elaina Marks’ death on the mysterious green ‘creature’ which he dubs “the Hulk.” Realizing his newfound genetic mutation makes him a wanted man, David fakes his own death while he secretly begins the quest for a cure…
Note: The tombstone for David Banner lists his middle name as “Bruce”; a concession to the comic books grudgingly made by Johnson, who also wanted to deviate from the source material by making the Hulk red instead of green, arguing that red is the true color of rage. Johnson was overruled on that one. In his earliest comic appearances, the Hulk was actually gray but was changed to his more familiar green later on.
“Terror In Times Square.”
David “Blake” (one of many aliases he uses throughout the series) finds temporary employment working in a Manhattan gaming arcade (anyone else remember those…?). The owner is being shaken down for protection money by the local mob boss. David soon hulks-out to the rescue, with the otherwise mute and primitive creature still retaining David’s core decency and morality. Not an exceptional episode for its story or characters, but rather for the rare (and no doubt expensive) location shooting in New York City’s famed Times Square. This was in the grittier, seedier days before Times Square became a second Disneyland.
“747,” sees a stressed-out David Banner being forced to land a jet (using stock footage from the “Airport” movies) with the encouragement of a young passenger played by Brandon Cruz—Cruz was Bixby’s young costar from his former series “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” (1969-1972). Novelty casting was used now and then, with Bixby occasionally reuniting with old costars from his earlier shows. Despite the tired premise (even “Laverne & Shirley” had a ‘landing the plane’ episode), it still works—even if having a man prone to rage-induced blackouts land a plane isn’t the best idea ever.
Personal Favorites of Season 2.
“The Incredible Hulk” fully emerged in its second season, with the series realizing its full potential. Stories of the Hulk championing for social justice were no longer incidental, as they became the show’s raison d’être. The show was evolving beyond its action-adventure quest format into an Emmy award-worthy (and winning) dramatic series. The second season, in my opinion, saw the show hitting its creative apex.
“Married,” Parts 1 & 2.
Arguably the best episode of the series (its certainly my favorite), which deservedly won an Emmy for costar Mariette Hartley’s sensitive performance as Dr. Carolyn Fields; a researcher who uses the power of meditational focus to control the spread of terminal disease. David flies to Hawaii to see her (SoCal redressed), and she quickly gains his confidence…enough for him to confess his dark secret to her. Carolyn announces to David that she’s quitting her practice due to her own fatal (yet purposefully vague) condition that leaves her prone to grand mal seizures. As the two doctors quickly fall in love, they decide to spend whatever time they have left taking care of each other’s conditions. They soon marry, and for a few fleeting moments, we see David happier than he’s ever been (or will be) during the course of the series.
Note: Actors Bill Bixby and Mariette Hartley had amazing chemistry together. One could very easily see and believe them as a real-life married couple. The two would costar in a series of Polaroid ads together, as well as the short-lived sitcom “Goodnight Beantown” (1983-4). Mariette Hartley was quite possibly the most memorable guest star of the series’ run, and her Emmy was no fluke.
Using her image therapy combined with hypnosis, Carolyn tries to help David visualize his inner-Hulk in increasingly difficult cages and traps—but even the mental image of the creature always escapes somehow… its brute strength is just too great. The ever-tenacious Jack McGee, of course, flies to Hawaii when one of the locals spots the runaway creature on a beach, following a failed hypnosis session. With Carolyn’s condition worsening, her behavior becomes increasingly erratic, and David is eventually forced to chase after her during a violent tropical storm. She dies in his, or rather the Hulk’s arms. Pursued by McGee, David is forced to grieve alone…
Note: This episode punches me in the feels with an iron fist every time; I have some experience dealing with seizures (for someone I love as well), so you might understand why…
“Ricky” tackles the sensitive subject of intellectual disability well as possible for 1978 television. Some younger viewers may not understand that the term ‘mental retardation’ wasn’t a slur in those days; it was a commonly used medical term. That being understood, the titular character (Mickey Jones) is a cheerful young man who works with a demolition derby team where David has found temporary employment. The team’s rivals seek to sabotage their competition by tricking the gullible Ricky into driving the team’s car. Chaos ensues, as a panicked Ricky is trapped and pinned in a wrecked and burning car (a recurring motif in this show). Ricky is, of course, rescued by the Hulk, whom he befriended earlier over a soft drink. “Ricky” is outdated in its depiction of intellectual disabilities (like “Rain Man” and its depiction of autism), but its heart was in the right place, and it deserves kudos for the attempt. This wouldn’t be the first or last time the series would address a hot-button topic.
“A Child in Need.”
“A Child in Need” is one of those topical episodes that is so real it feels as if it could be happening down the street at this very moment. The subject of this episode is child abuse, and there were a string of TV-movies made on this subject back in the 1970s (“Sybil,” “Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night,” “When She Was Bad”), and this episode fits right in. Working as a grade school custodian, David befriends a young boy named Mark (David Dimster), who comes to school with unexplained cuts and bruises all over his body. David immediately suspects child abuse, but is incensed when no one will support his pleas on the boy’s behalf. Future Oscar-winner Sally Kirkland costars as Mark’s frightened, submissive mother. The Hulk finally confronts the bullying father (Sandy McPeak) in the school’s gymnasium, forcing dad to relive his own trauma as an abused child. Too often, the abused become abusers themselves. This episode was made before laws were passed expressly directing teachers to report any suspected child abuse. “A Child in Need” can be profoundly difficult to watch, as anyone who’s lived in a home with abuse can attest. Challenging, disturbing, and very courageous.
Guest star Mako plays a blind, elderly, jazz-loving martial artist/philosopher named Li Sung (with a bit of age makeup). Sung befriends David after the two of them share a near fatal hitchhike together aboard a freezer truck. Li learns David’s secret, and offers to teach him the disciplines of mental control he has acquired over his lifetime. The two form something of an Obi Wan-Luke relationship as they head to San Francisco’s Chinatown together. Sung learns that a former student of his has badly exploited his teachings (a Darth Vader-Obi-Wan thing), and the two eventually face off, with the Incredible Hulk’s timely help. Li is, in many ways, written like the cliched Eastern sage, though he is imbued with so much personal charm through Mako’s winning performance that it’s easy to overlook. The character was so popular, he returned a few episodes later in the disappointing followup, “The Disciple”; a step down from Li’s first (and best) appearance.
“Mystery Man” Parts 1 & 2.
David is badly injured in a car accident, which leaves him a “John Doe” amnesiac with his face in bandages. Jack McGee thinks “John” may have witnessed an encounter with the Hulk. The two charter a plane together which crashes in the wilderness, leaving the two of them to survive together. Over the course of this two-parter, the unknowing adversaries develop an unlikely friendship that makes one wonder how they might’ve gotten along under different life circumstances. As the two of them dodge a forest fire and a hungry pack of wolves, David experiences flashes of restored memory, and begins to realize that Jack McGee is pursuing him. As John Doe, David spends most of the two episodes with his face fully bandaged—a blank human canvas who is now receptive to a man he used to instinctively flee. David’s hulk-outs accelerate his recovery, and once his memory is fully restored, he breaks free from McGee once again.
Personal Favorites of Season 3.
The third season of the show continued the quality offerings of the second, though not in the same quantity. That said, there were some solid outings in the season, including a reunion with Bixby’s “My Favorite Martian” costar Ray Walston, a return to David’s family in the rural Midwest, a standalone episode for snoopy reporter Jack McGee, and an encounter with a psychic in an episode filled with real-life tragic portent.
“My Favorite Magician.”
David Barker (as in ‘carnival barker’) is now working as an assistant to a doddering old magician (Ray Walston) who’s lost his touch as he attempts increasingly desperate and dangerous tricks. In other words, a Merlin story. The story is so-so, but the stunt casting of Ray Walston, Bixby’s former costar from “My Favorite Martian” (1963-1966) makes it work. The episode’s name is, of course, a play on their former series’ title.
Note: There is one significant problem I have with David’s logic in this story; would a man who’s faked his own death really want to appear onstage as a magician’s assistant? What if someone in the audience took his picture? I suppose one could chalk that up to the innocence of the late 1970s; a time when not everyone carried a mobile phone/camera/computer/tracking-device in their pocket…
“Homecoming” offers the most in-depth glimpse into David’s past since the Pilot and “Married.” David returns home for Thanksgiving to be with his father (John Marley) and sister Helen (Star Trek’s Diana Muldaur). The Banners are in danger of losing their farm land in rural Colorado due to a crop blight. Working with his bright scientist sister, David relives painful memories (via flashbacks) of his mother’s passing and of his emotionally distant dad. Old wounds are partially healed as David saves the day, but is forced to flee once again. At the very least, his family knows David is alive and well for the time being.
Note: The backstory of David’s issues with his own father add a bit of weight to his earlier empathy for young battered Mark in the Season 2’s “A Child in Need.”
A rare episode focuses entirely on Jack McGee, as the put-upon tabloid reporter finds himself with a new publisher named Patricia (Caroline Smith) who is desperate to change The National Register’s image; her first decree—no more stories on the Hulk. Jack takes this as a terrible blow, as the Hulk has become his white whale. The wily reporter chooses to defy her and follow up a lead in Indiana on his own. This episode, along with the two-parter “Mystery Man,” offers our best look into the mind of David Banner’s wily nemesis, and the late Jack Colvin makes the most of the opportunity.
Note: Bill Bixby was unable to appear to in the episode, following legal complications in a divorce from his ex-wife Brenda Benet. Fleeting shots of David were achieved with a body double.
Bill Bixby’s soon-to-be ex-wife Brenda Benet effectively guest starred as a psychic named Annie, who realizes meek grocery store clerk David is “The Incredible Hulk.” David feels intense guilt after evidence leads him to suspect he accidentally killed a young boy during one of his hulk-outs. Things go from bad to worse when Annie has a vision of Jack McGee’s murder which forces David to save the life of his longtime nemesis.
*****POSSIBLE TRIGGER ALERT FOR MENTION OF SUICIDE*****
Note: This episode is absolutely devastating in its foreshadowing and portent. There is a scene where Annie talks a suicidal David off a ledge to prevent him from ‘executing’ the Hulk, whom David believes is responsible for a boy’s death. In February of 1981, a year after “Psychic” aired, Bixby and Benet lost their own 6 year old son, Christopher, when the boy died during a skiing trip to Mammoth, California (he had an undiagnosed medical condition). Christopher’s death sent the divorced actors into their own deep depressions. Brenda Benet lost the battle with hers when she tragically took her own life in April of 1982, just over a year after the death of her son. If any readers are facing similar struggles or thoughts of self-harm, PLEASE CALL the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Personal Favorites of Season 4.
The fourth season rebounded from the less impactful offerings of the third with an engaging mix of action adventure and personal drama. There were also new personal boundaries pushed for the character of David Banner, who battles an earlier Hulk prototype, his own inner demons, and even (temporary) paralysis following a car accident.
“Prometheus,” Parts 1 & 2.
In this two-parter, David befriends a blind hermit woman played by Laurie Prange (who also costarred in the show’s second pilot, “Death in the Family”), and the two of them investigate a fallen meteorite which gives off unusual radiation. Somehow, the rays cause David’s hulk-out to halt mid-transformation–leaving him a mix of David and Hulk, with most of David’s reasoning, but augmented with the Hulk’s strength. David and the woman are then abducted by agents of a top-secret government project called “Prometheus,” which mistakenly believes the Hulk to be an extraterrestrial scout deposited by the meteorite. Jack McGee somehow gains access to the shenanigans as well. Exciting premise is weighed down in the second half by overuse of stock footage padding and overlong countdowns. Not one of the series’ best two-parters, but the first half is certainly the more enjoyable hour.
Note: Worth watching primarily for the novelty of a partly transformed-Hulk, with Bixby playing the half-metamorphosed creature in closeups, while the body of an uncredited Rick Drasin was used for wide shots.
David is boarding with a dysfunctional couple (William Lucking, Rosemary Forsyth) and their teenage daughter Laurie (Philece Sampler). After testing a powerful new serum that David hopes will control his hulk-outs, something goes wrong; the injection unleashes a primal, psychotic side to David’s personality. Soon, David lusts after young Laurie, who is already nursing a teenage crush on this ‘mysterious’ older man. This episode goes to unexpectedly twisted and borderline kinky places. One of the original premises of the 1962 comic book was that Bruce Banner was supposed to be an atomic age variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, and this episode takes it a step further, with no Dr. Jekyll—just two versions of the same evil being; one human and one superhuman. Bill Bixby is truly menacing as the unhinged version of the otherwise stalwart David. One of Bixby’s most entertaining performances on the show, and that’s saying a lot.
“King of the Beach.”
The story of “King of the Beach” sounds like something from the episode archives of “Baywatch”; a hearing impaired bodybuilder named Carl Molino wants to win a local competition and become a self-made man instead of a dead-end fry cook at an oceanside greasy spoon. David urges him to go for it, but competitors seek to stop the ambitious young man (who’s clearly based on Ferrigno himself, if you’ve read his biography). The hook of this episode is that series costar Lou Ferrigno finally gets a speaking role on his own show—without green greasepaint. As with many of this season’s more memorable outings, most of the watchability hinges on a novelty, but it still makes for a guilty pleasure. Well worth watching for the final bodybuilding competition where Lou meets Lou, as Carl eyeballs the Hulk (a clever split screen where the Hulk is elevated above Carl’s eye-line to make him appear taller than the actor who plays him). Cheesy fun.
“The First,” Parts 1 & 2.
Next to “Married,” “The First” is the second best story of the series. David follows tracks down the research of a Dr. Clive, whom David suspected had a similar condition to his own. Arriving in town, he meets with the deceased doctor’s former fiancée Elizabeth (Lola Albright) and the late Dr. Clive’s groundskeeper, an arthritic, illiterate old timer named Dell Frye (Harry Townes). Frye knows where the doctor kept his research notes and agrees to help David, but Dell has a secret of his own…he was the test subject of Dr. Clive’s experiments; he was “the first” Hulk. But unlike David, Frye enjoys being able to change into a monster (Dick Durok) when provoked. The townspeople are spooked by any mention of their local monster, and even Elizabeth wants to leave the bad memories behind, but Dell is smitten with her, and tries to win her heart. When his advances are gently rebuffed, Frye goes into a rage, spoiling for fights in order to flex his dark power. Meanwhile, David has synthesized a cure using Clive’s notes and his own research with the lab’s solar collection device. Sadly, Dell’s Hulk destroys the cure and trashes the laboratory, leaving a sobbing David to hulk-out once more, in order to stop the amoral “First”…
Note: Clearly writer Andrew Schneider (“The Sopranos,” “Alien Nation”) was a great fan of 1931’s “Frankenstein,” since his main characters are named after characters and actors from that film; “Elizabeth” is named after Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée, while the unseen “Dr. Clive” is named for Colin Clive, the actor who played Dr. Frankenstein in “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935). “Dell Frye” is named after actor Dwight Frye, who played the Frankenstein’s clumsy assistant Fritz (the one who drops the ‘good brain’); actor Frye also played the mad Renfield in 1931’s “Dracula.” Both “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” were made for Universal Studios, which ushered in the golden age of the Universal monster movies, which ran from the early 1930s through the 1950s (ending with the “Creature From the Black Lagoon” films). Universal Studios also produced “The Incredible Hulk” TV series, as well as the first two “Hulk” features films in 2003 and 2008 before Marvel Studios joined forces with Disney.
“The Harder They Fall.”
“The Harder They Fall” is another episode that hits me where I live. David is injured as a car strikes him at a crosswalk, and he is paralyzed from the waist down. Sent to a rehab facility for ongoing physical therapy, the bitter, depressed David (doctors make the worst patients) is welcomed by the gregarious Paul Corton (Denny Miller), an optimistic, outgoing former athlete who is also paralyzed. Paul is waiting for word on a business loan, which keeps him hopeful for his future. Realizing he can’t do this alone, David eventually reaches out to Paul and the two become friends. Paul and David take their wheelchairs to a local watering hole, where they are picked on by local bullies. During a bar fight, David’s wheelchair is tossed down a flight of stairs, and he hulks out. After his transformation, a clumsy, coltish Hulk tries to beat his numb legs into working. Even without full use of his large body, the Hulk still terrifies the locals, and Jack McGee is on the scene. Following that first hulk-out, David starts to show improvement—apparently the creature’s freakish metabolism initiated a healing process in David’s body, slowly reversing his condition. As David’s spirits lift, Paul’s take a nosedive; his loan application is rejected. Racing against time, David tries to stop Paul from doing something foolish, just as McGee arrives at the rehab center. Sensitively and smartly written by Kenneth Johnson, the series once again tackles the subject of paralysis and the stigmatization of the disabled, which Paul faces as his business loan is rejected.
Note: The reason why this episode is so personal to me is that I went through something very similar following a 1994 motorcycle accident where I was hospitalized for over two months. I’d broken both legs, my hip and my right arm in multiple places. While I wasn’t paralyzed per se, I couldn’t feel my legs for several weeks due to temporary spinal trauma. My own rehabilitation process was very similar to David’s, and I felt a powerful empathy with Bill Bixby’s spot-on performance. All I can say is that Johnson really did his homework on this one…
Season 5: Hulk Smashed.
The fifth season, cancelled after just seven episodes, ended with a whimper, not a bang. By the early 1980s, the series faltered in the ratings, as the well-worn formula began to lose viewers. Even I became a casual viewer at this point, so it was no surprise that this once-great Emmy winning series was on the wane, despite some spectacular entries in previous years.
“A Minor Problem.”
While I have no particular standouts or favorites of the final seven episodes of the prematurely cancelled fifth season, the last episode was a typical middling entry of the series; David wanders into a deserted town that has been evacuated due to a leak of toxic gas. Now he has to contend with looters. Clearly this wasn’t what producer Kenneth Johnson, or anyone else in the production team had in mind for a final episode. After five years, the once-mighty, Emmy award-winning “Incredible Hulk” ended with a whimper.
For awhile, anyway…
The TV-Movie Sequels.
Following the unceremonious cancellation of the series early in its fifth season, a trio of made-for-TV sequels followed, “The Incredible Hulk Returns,” (1988), “Trial of the Incredible Hulk,” (1989) and “Death of the Incredible Hulk” (1991). Writer/director Kenneth Johnson, who worked very hard to ground his series in everyday realism, was not invited back to these projects (he went on to produce another compelling sci-fi series, “Alien Nation”, based on the 1988 movie). Without his input, the TV movie sequels went in the direction originally sought by the network and Marvel creator Stan Lee, with a heavier emphasis on outrageously silly characters and a less realistic approach to the material. The first TV movie, unimaginatively named “The Incredible Hulk Returns,” saw the Hulk teaming up with a meek scientist whose discovery of a certain Norse hammer allows him to transform into Thor (Eric Kramer). This was an element from the Marvel comic books that the more grounded Johnson would’ve never allowed on his series, and for good reason; the final result looked like something out of “Baywatch Nights” rather than Johnson’s Emmy award-winning series. Yes, the Disney-Marvel movies can do Thor convincingly now, but in 1988, he looked positively awful.
“The Trial of the Incredible Hulk” featured the introduction of Matt Murdock (Rex Smith), better known as Marvel’s “Daredevil”, the blind superhero who uses sonar-like hearing to stop bad guys outside the courtroom. Directed by star Bixby (who had a lucrative TV directing career as well), “Trial…” was slightly less silly than its predecessor, though still lacking in the grounded realism of Johnson’s series. The merciful “Death of the Incredible Hulk” finally came in 1991, after a fall from a plane following a battle with the forces of comic book villain “Kingpin” (John Rhys-Davies). This final, lackluster TV movie was little more than a “Knight Rider” episode without the car. Sadly, there would be no more opportunities to redeem the old series. Bill Bixby, whose own personal life was marred by horrific tragedy, would pass away two years later in 1993 at age 59, after a long bout with cancer.
Meeting the Men Behind the Hulk.
Stan Lee (1922-2018), along with Jack Kirby (1917-1994), was one of the men who first brought the atomic-age character of “The Hulk” into Marvel lore back in 1962. I used to read the Marvel Hulk comics back in the mid-to-late 1970s, off and on, before sci-fi and space operas (and girls) began to dominate my curiosity. I always enjoyed the Hulk’s bright, colorful adventures in the panels of the comic books, primarily because it’s every kids’ wish to rage out against the bullies in their lives and stand up for themselves. Superheroes, like the Greco-Roman gods, are modern fables and fantasies with lessons and morals for all generations. Unlike the more stalwart heroes (and heroines) of DC, the Marvel heroes were always a bit more screwed up… much like how many teenagers feel when they’re in the throes of puberty. SpiderMan was just a conflicted high school kid, the Fantastic Four were a dysfunctional found family, and Bruce Banner/Hulk were Jekyll & Hyde. Stan Lee understood this core human need for larger-than-life mythology very well, and delivered it with pulpy aplomb.
I had the privilege of meeting Stan Lee once, briefly, at WonderCon in Anaheim in 2014. I stood in a very long line (about three hours) for what was a four second meet & greet, and I was fine with that, since there was still a line of fans a mile long behind me, each waiting for their autograph. Before that encounter, I saw him at various other conventions, including San Diego Comic Con, where he arrival was usually heralded by a thick ring of bodyguards shouting, “Make way for Stan Lee!” as they created a human hurricane eye through the crowded corridors, with Lee at its calm center. There are heads of state who don’t have such protection. Then again, many heads of state are long forgotten after their terms expire. Stan Lee created a lifetime of characters and mythologies that will live on to entertain readers and audiences for generations. I consider myself lucky to have briefly shared airspace with the man.
San Diego Comic Con also afforded me the opportunities to meet Lou Ferrigno and writer/producer/director Kenneth Johnson. I met Ferrigno at my very first Comic Con back in 2004, and he was, at that time, still very close to his Hulk physique (see above photo). He signed a copy of his paperback biography “My Incredible Life as the Hulk” (2003) and a photo for my sister. We didn’t really chat, since the noisy din of the convention dealer hall made it difficult for the hearing-impaired actor to understand anyone (he’s since been the recipient of a cochlear implant, I understand). I got my autographs and thanked him. In 2006, I had a more personable encounter with Kenneth Johnson; attending his enthusiastic panel about his work on “The Incredible Hulk” (promoting its DVD release), and later talking with him personally both after the panel and the following day at an autograph signing. He appreciated my warped sense of humor when I mentioned how I used to torment my niece with fake ‘lizard skin’ inspired by his TV miniseries “V” (1983). We even exchanged email addresses. Johnson is a very down to earth guy, despite a list of TV credits that include “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “The Bionic Woman,” “V,” “Alien Nation,” and so many others. Basically the man created most of the television landscape I enjoyed as a kid. He’s also an author as well, with “V: The Second Generation,” and “The Darwin Variant.” Meeting Kenny Johnson was, and is, one of my favorite Comic Con memories.
A More Human-Scale Hulk.
One of the things I loved about “The Incredible Hulk” TV series as a kid was that the Hulk-out scenes were usually the icing on the dramatic cake—extra punctuation to an already compelling character drama. There were few visual effects to speak of, save for early, crude opticals that featured a green glow over Banner’s face during transformation/regression. Most transformations were achieved almost entirely through white contact lenses, closeups of ripping clothes and judicious editing, as well as Joe Harnell’s eerie, unsettling music. The stories felt like they could happen in my own backyard. David Banner and his Hulk alter-ego didn’t stop super-villains and save the universe every week; they saved homeless people, struggling business owners, women and little kids in danger from abuse, etc. Instead of fighting world-devouring megalomaniacs on alien planets, TV’s Hulk would help save a car wash from a drug dealer. The adventures were human scale and relatable…something largely missing from the current crop of Marvel output.
Kenneth Johnson’s scrappy, tight-budgeted series didn’t have the advantages of today’s visual effects to broaden the scope of its storytelling. That forced the series into greater ingenuity. Yes, sometimes episodes relied on stock footage, usually from other Universal films (“Never Give a Trucker an Even Break” used gobs of footage from 1971’s “Duel”), but in those days, the visuals existed to support the human drama, not to create it. Today’s Marvel movies are populated with many fine, A-list actors (Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Mackie, etc.), but much of the actors’ time is spent suspended on wire rigs in front of green screens. The newer movies allow but a few precious moments to peer deep into the characters before they’re whisked off to fire CGI lasers at an army of CGI robots. While I certainly appreciate the spectacle, excitement and energy of the current Marvel live-action universe, I also miss the days when the Hulk was just a bodybuilder in green paint—that Hulk somehow seemed a lot more real to me. Mark Ruffalo is an Oscar-caliber actor, but his Banner/Hulk is played mainly for laughs. I very much miss the simmering intensity of Bill Bixby, who always played it straight—those situations seemed real for him, and so they usually felt real for me. Actor Ed Norton admirably tried to bring some of Bixby’s intensity back for 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk” (even referencing the TV series in several onscreen gags), but unfortunately, he was replaced for 2012’s “The Avengers.”
In short, “The Incredible Hulk” TV series transformed the primary-colored panels and action of the comic books into a palette of earth tones grounded in everyday reality. What the TV series lacked in visual effects eye candy, it made up for it in raw earnestness.
All 5 seasons of “The Incredible Hulk” are available to purchase on DVD via Amazon.com. The series is also available to stream on Tubi.com and for downloadable purchase on Amazon Prime. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 602,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines are available and inoculations are widespread (whew!), which is greatly slowing the US mortality rate (though the new Delta variant is cause for concern). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy, it may take a while longer for eventual herd immunity. Even vaccinated, it may still be possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none. So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible and let us immunize our way out of the COVID pandemic.