“Try Try Try to Understand…He’s a Magic Man.”
Ben Richards, as played by Christopher George (1931-1982) is a race car test driver who learns that his blood–after donating some of it to a dying old industrialist named Jordan Braddock (Barry Sullivan)–has unique regenerative properties that will allow him to live virtually forever (barring unfortunate accidents, of course). When the aged, infirm billionaire (think “Mr. Burns” from The Simpsons) feels miraculously rejuvenated after the infusion of Richards’ 0-negative super blood, he tries to capture this two-fisted fountain of macho youth for himself, so that he may receive regular transfusions to extend his own life. Mr. Braddock offers Ben a gilded cage in his mansion, where he can eat the best foods, enjoy the finest entertainment and even the most beautiful women–there’s just one catch; he can’t leave. Ben Richards will be Braddock’s prized lab rat for the rest of his immortal life. Ben, of course, wants no part of this, and he bails, setting up a “Fugitive”/“The Incredible Hulk”-style ‘man on the run’ TV series that lasted for only 15 additional episodes before it was unceremoniously axed.
Based loosely on a 1965 novel called “The Immortals” by James Gunn, the series added fuel to the hero’s flight by having the orphaned Ben seek out his lost older brother, who may or may not share his ‘magic blood.’ Every week, the gravelly-voiced race car driver (convenient skill for future car chases) would do his best to elude the powerful Braddock’s tenacious private security force, led by ice-cold “Fletcher” (Don Knight), who was more of a Bond movie-henchman than a corporate rent-a-cop. Every week saw Ben trying to stay under the radar and “live free” (if one could call living on the run ‘free’), while seeking his long-lost brother, and maybe, someday, reuniting with his fiancée Sylvia (Carol Lynley), whom he cheats on nearly every week, following their enforced estrangement.
Created by Robert Specht, a TV writer who wrote for “The Outer Limits” as well as a few other gems, “The Immortal” also featured a flashy theme tune by noted composer Dominic Frontiere (composer for the haunting music of “The Outer Limits” first season), and writers such as Robert Hamner, Stephen Kandel and even Gene L. Coon; all veterans of classic “Star Trek” (1966-1969). With so much talent behind the screen, it’s too bad the series so quickly descended into a tired catch-and-release formula. Nevertheless, some of the series’ cheesy exploits were entertaining in a very undemanding way.
Here’s a few episodes I found vaguely interesting for one reason or another:
The pilot movie, which aired as a TV-movie of the week in September of 1969, was slightly more polished than the scruffier series that followed. Ralph Bellamy (“The Wolf-Man” “Trading Places”) stars as the doctor who first notices Ben’s peculiar blood and it’s effect on the dastardly rich Jordan Braddock (Barry Sullivan, in obsolete TV age makeup). We also meet Sylvia (Carol Lynley), the daisy-fresh fiancée of race car test driver Ben. Ben is later captured when Braddock’s men learn the identity of the mysterious blood donor who gave their boss a new, albeit temporary, reprieve from death’s door–much to the dismay of Braddock’s gold digging wife, Janet (Jessica Walter), who wanted the old bastard dead. Janet helps Ben escape from his gilded cage deep within Braddock’s estate, but at a price; he can never again return to his old life, since Braddock’s men will be stalking his old haunts. He also must say goodbye to Sylvia, again, for her own safety and freedom.
Note: So many actors from the ironically-tiled series have passed away. Christopher George passed away of a heart attack at age 51, and more recently, Carol Lynley passed away in 2019 at age 76, and Jessica Walter (“Play Misty For Me”) passed away in 2021 at age 80.
The first episode of the regular series aired in September of 1970, and of course, it concerned the very woman that Ben has to keep away from–his fiancée, Sylvia, whom he learns is getting married to a rich guy. Of course, Braddock’s men are hot on Ben’s tail, and car chases ensue, as does Ben’s soon-to-be-old habit of getting together with a sexy mystery woman (in this case, Sherry Jackson) in order to acquire information, steal her car, or (in some cases) seduce his way out of captivity. Sylvia, of course, admits to Ben that she still loves him, but he insists that they break it off–for her safety. Her wealthy fiancé (Glenn Corbett) even helps Ben escape, because he’s such a swell guy, right? Basically “Sylvia” is a lengthy reiteration of the Ben-Sylvia breakup we saw in the pilot, but with extra guests and a new car chase.
Note: Both Glenn Corbett and Sherry Jackson were popular guest stars on classic Star Trek; Corbett played “Zefram Cochrane”, the famed inventor of warp drive in “Metamorphosis,” and Jackson played the seductive android “Andrea” in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”
“White Elephants Don’t Grow On Trees.”
Colorful character actor Ross Martin (“Wild Wild West,” “The Twilight Zone”, “The Night Gallery”) is dumb-as-a-brick trucker Eddie Yeoman, who is transporting a truckload of dangerously unstable explosives, along with young son, Jud (Mitch Vogel). The boy’s aunt (Elizabeth Harrower) wants Jud out of his reckless father’s custody, and safely in her dull-but-safe care. Ben helps the ambitious-but-stupid trucker fix his rig until he realizes he’s agreed to sell his explosives to the very company run by Ben’s nemesis, Jordan Braddock. Soon, Mr. Fletcher (Don Knight) offers a handsome bribe to the gullible Eddie, who desperately needs the money, but he gallantly refuses, despite strong temptation. Ben and Eddie then use some of the unstable explosives to act as a distraction in order to help Ben escape. His good deed ultimately pays off, and Eddie is reunited with Jud, as they say their goodbyes to Ben.
Note: Ross Martin (1920-1981) also passed away far too soon. The man of a thousand faces played “Artemis Gordon” on the original “Wild Wild West” TV series, which took full advantage of the chameleonic actor’s ability to disappear inside of multiple roles. This felt less like a Ben Richards story, and more like a backdoor pilot for a series about the colorful Eddie Yeoman.
“Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow.”
In something much closer to the kind of story you’d see in “The Incredible Hulk,” Ben takes a job cleaning up at a blood research clinic, where an eccentric old scientist named Dr. Walter Koster (Jack Albertson) is trying to synthetically create the kind of youth serum that flows freely in Ben Richards’ veins. Trusting the doctor and his daughter, Dr. Anne Koster (Rosemary Forsyth), Ben is soon cornered by another rich billionaire named Arthur Maitland (David Brian), who is also after Ben’s type O-negative fountain of youth. This was the first episode where Ben uses his gravelly-voiced charms to seduce his way of a jam, with the initially-aloof, but succumbing Anne Koster.
Note: Actor David Brian, who plays the rival rich guy, Arthur Maitland, also played “Professor John Gill,” Captain Kirk’s former Academy history professor who set up shop as a Nazi overlord on an alien planet in TOS Star Trek’s “Patterns of Force.”
Ben falls into the care of a doctor named Annie Williams (Susan Howard) who treats a rapidly healing gunshot wound of his, before he falls in with a group of Mexican-American workers who are being exploited for cheap labor. This is one of a handful of episodes to tackle the issue of exploited migrant workers (“White Horse, Steel Horse,” and “By Gift of Chance” would be the other two). While I applaud any early 1970s action series for having the cajones to tackle this still-timely subject, it is done heavy-handedly, with Ben and Annie acting as the cliched ‘white saviors’ who make it all better in the end. In the similarly-themed episode, “By Gift of Chance,” our ‘hero’ Ben uses the racist slur ‘wetbacks’ several times to describe the Mexican laborers–and he’s supposed to be the f–king good guy (!). Ugh…
Note: Actress Susan Howard was also another veteran of TOS Star Trek; she played the Klingon science officer “Mara” in “Day of the Dove”–the wife of Klingon commander Kang (Michael Ansara, who would reprise his role in both “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager”).
“Man on a Punched Card.”
We see the inner workings of rich rival industrialist Arthur Maitland’s company, which also employs the devious and tenacious Fletcher. In this episode, Fletcher personally orders the computer division of the company repurposed from investment projections to finding Ben Richards, using its elaborate algorithms to plot his every conceivable move. This episode is one of many ‘evil computer’ stories so common at the time–from TOS Star Trek’s “The Ultimate Computer” to movies such as 1970’s “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” and 1973’s “Westworld.” Lynda Day George, real-life wife of series’ star Christopher George, plays computer programmer Terry Kerwin, who, naturally, defects to the side of the dashing rogue, Ben Richards, as he once again charms his way out of Fletcher’s reach.
Note: Utterly hilarious to see these giant, clunky, “advanced” room-filling computers furiously networking to do what an app on an iPhone could do today. Also amusing to hear the easily recognizable computer sound effects used for the original starship Enterprise’s bridge (to be fair, these sounds were not created for TOS Star Trek, and were used in many other TV shows, before and after Star Trek).
“The Queen’s Gambit.”
One of the rare times that Ben is outfoxed by the fox, as Lee Meriwether (“Batman”) plays crafty Sigrid Bergen, who cons the altruistic Ben into her clutches with the old broken-down car routine. Not resisting the impulse to help an attractive woman, Ben falls victim all too easily. Once back at her place, she drugs Ben and transports him (blindfolded) via chopper to a mysterious tropical island ruled by wealthy young Simon Brent (Nico Minardos), who also wants Ben’s magic blood for himself. Sigrid has fun playing with her food, as she is Ben’s first genuine ‘bad girl’. However, she eventually succumbs to his charms as well (Jeezus bleeding Cripes, who doesn’t??) just as Fletcher and Maitland arrive to make Brent a juicy counter-offer. As Ben is being haggled over, Sigrid helps the immortal to an easy escape when she reveals the ‘island’ was just outside of Los Angeles all along…!
Note: Lee Meriwether, who famously played Catwoman in the 1966 “Batman” feature film (based on the TV series), also guest-starred on TOS Star Trek as “Losira”, the destructive alien hologram with the fatal touch in “That Which Survives.” I met Meriwether in 2014, and she was just as lovely as ever. She is truly aging gracefully; maybe she could’ve played the titular “immortal”? “The Queen’s Gambit” is a definite cut above the usual fare for this series, due in large part to Meriwether’s charming bad girl. I would’ve loved to have Sigrid return, had the series lasted.
Ben wanders into an idyllic but largely deserted beach town, which is slated for corporate development. Finding one hotel left, Ben has to practically force the hotel’s proprietor Nancy (Tisha Sterling) into taking his money for a room. Following the trail of his mysterious missing brother, Ben wanders into town and befriends Nancy’s free-spirited, hippie twin sister Julie (also played by Sterling). The sexy-but-strange Julie suffers from a trauma-induced state of social immaturity, and she is fiercely protected by the town’s bullies. It’s up to Ben to figure it all out, as well as identify the mysterious buyers of the town, for his missing brother’s sake. Well, Ben doesn’t find his brother (no surprise), but he comes this close to seducing twins...
Note: Tisha Sterling (one of the massive delinquents of 1965’s “Village of the Giants”) has a flower child, Sharon Tate vibe about her. Sterling is the daughter of veteran actress Ann Southern, and played a younger version of her mother’s character in 1987’s “The Whales of August.”
Ben wanders back ‘home’ to the boarding house of Joe Carver (Richard Ward), the man who took in Ben and his older brother when they were orphaned. Practically a father figure to Ben, the older man is hurt when Ben refuses to stay, and even more hurt when Ben might have to betray him in order to stay off of Fletcher’s radar. Joe, who is black, faces a murder rap in the accidental homicide of a white man during a heated argument. Ben risks his own hide to help the man who practically raised him, and eventually all is forgiven.
Note: Another favorite episode of mine, largely for the new and unexpected insight into Ben Richards’ past, as well as a rare main guest star who isn’t a rich white man or a pretty white girl. Richard Ward, who also ‘raised’ the white Steve Martin in 1979’s comedy hit, “The Jerk,” passed away in July of that same year. Once again, the ironically-titled “Immortal” had so many of its cast and guest stars depart this Earth far too early.
“To the Gods Alone.”
Fletcher and Jordan Braddock finally corner Ben in a backwoods rural town, as Fletcher locks the other two men in a cabin together. While this episode marked the last appearance of the withering Braddock (Barry Sullivan in bad age makeup), we learn a bit more about the two men as they are forced to spend most of an episode together, sometimes on the same side. The Jeff Bezos-wealthy Braddock, who is also in hiding from the locals, is stripped of his ‘rich man’ identity as he’s forced to wear simple farmer’s garments. Incognito Braddock is now mistaken for some poor, senile old hillbilly with delusions of grandeur. One of those times when predator and prey are forced to rely on each other for their mutual benefit. While the aged, infirm Braddock doesn’t make it, the quest for Richards’ immortal blood is continued by others in the remaining few episodes of the series…
Note: One of the ill-tempered townies, “Luther,” is played by none other than Bruce Dern, who was (in addition to many other films and TV shows) the star of the 1972 ecology-themed space opera, “Silent Running.”
Summing it Up.
Like the aforementioned “Fugitive” or “Incredible Hulk,” every week saw Ben inserting himself into a new life (only rarely using an alias, oddly), where he would champion an underdog, save someone’s life with an infusion of his magic blood, and, of course, romance a beautiful woman who usually help the keys to his continued freedom in her pretty hands. Such man-whore sexploits (made very popular at the time by the hit James Bond franchise) also reduced the hero’s commitment to his ‘beloved’ Sylvia to a half-hearted promise he may, or may not return to… someday.
Lacking the pathos of Bill Bixby’s Dr. David Banner, or the inventiveness of David Janssen’s Dr. Richard Kimble, Ben Richards was little more than a hard-to-kill stunt man. Ben could get shot, beaten, stabbed, etc. with little more consequence than when my 8-year old self used to toss my Colonel Steve Austin action figure across the room in a simulated bionic leap. Needless to say, after one TV movie pilot and 15 total episodes, the formula quickly played itself out. Each episode had a cast iron sameness to it, only offering periodic glimpses into this otherwise shallow hero’s life. That said, the show was still modestly entertaining, and it feels as if there’s still a good idea in there, somewhere. I could easily imagine a smarter, harder-hitting, science-friendly miniseries reboot of James Gunn’s core concept someday.
Ultimately, “The Immortal” is little more than kitschy, early 1970s-nostalgic junk food TV; watchable mainly for fans of cheesy heroics, colorful guest stars, and all-practical car chases. “The Immortal” was created at a time when there were only three US TV networks and very few options for a night’s viewing, so audiences were a lot less demanding.
However, if I were an adult viewer back in 1970 trying to decide between “Green Acres” or “The Immortal”? I’d most likely choose to watch Ben Richards pop the clutch and make Fletcher eat his dust…
Where To Watch.
Individual episodes of “The Immortal” can be found on YouTube (YouTube may or may not decide to pull them someday, of course), and the entire 16 episode series can be ordered on DVD via Amazon.com (prices vary, depending on new/used copies available). Given the current COVID-19 pandemic (over 630,000 Americans dead, over 4 million worldwide) I would like to take this opportunity to ask any readers of this column to get vaccinated (or get their booster jabs/shots) as soon as possible, to at least reduce your chances of severe illness and/or hospitalization. I’m afraid that COVID-19 is one medical crisis we can’t cure with a simple transfusion of Ben Richards’ type-O negative.