By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
Despite the success of Mark Ruffalo as Banner and the Hulk in this year’s Avengers movie, for many there has always been and always will be only one face for Bruce Banner and his green rage filled alter ego, the Hulk.
In the seventies, amid a whirl of bionics, Hardy Boys, Spider-man and Wonder Woman twirls, came the idea for an Incredible Hulk television series. Kenneth Johnson, responsible for the success of the bionic duo at the time, wrote the pilot which aired in November 1977 and oversaw the series using the same qualities he brought to all his shows and his greatest weapon was to humanize the characters. How else would we fall in love with a raging green giant monster?
None of your jolly green giants ramming sweetcorn down your throat here. The role of Doctor David Banner (no Bruce, his comic name here) was taken by Bill Bixby, a well loved actor who had just finished his role as the Magician.
The only choice for the role, Bixby gave the perfect portrayal of Banner as a dedicated scientist devoted to his wife as much as his work and desperate to prove his theories as to why human strength increased in times of great stress, something he failed to gain when his wife was killed in a car crash. Everyone knows the story which leaves Banner, believed to be dead by everyone bar a determined reporter, Jack McGee (played by Jack Colvin), travels alone in search of a cure to his affliction.
McGee would plague Banner, desperate to prove to the world who the Hulk is and gain him the greatest story ever. He knew no bounds to get what he wanted but on occasion even Jack had to admit, the Hulk was one of the good guys. The trademark green eyes just as Banner transforms is still burned into the public consciousness to this day. It was homaged even in the new movies, the Hulk and the Incredible Hulk both of which featured cameos from big green himself, bodybuilder, Lou Ferrigno.
Ferrigno was actually second choice to play the Hulk. For the first week it had been played by Richard Kiel, Jaws of James Bond fame. Kiel had the height but not the bulk while Lou had the bulk but not the height but that’s what camera angles are all about.
Another interesting fact was that the famous Hulk growl was provided by Ted Cassidy, Lurch from the Addam’s family and who played Bigfoot in the bionic battles. He also provided the opening narration which was kept when he died, aged 46, before the series aired.
Now, the series ran for 82 episodes over five seasons from 1978 -1982, yet never had any other superhero elements until the later TV movies alongside Thor and Daredevil. Instead, Banner would help people from evil landlords, drug dealers and criminals with entries into sci-fi territory a rarity. One episode the First saw Banner meet another man who had become a Hulk years previous, leading to a Hulk fist fest in the climax. To be honest the other Hulk looked like something out of Carry On Screaming making it laughable to today’s audiences but to this young fan it was amazing. The other episode two parter entitled Prometheus. This classic saw Banner trapped in mid-transformation with only a blind girl to help him. Dogged reporter Jack McGee was closing in. McGee, you see, believes the Hulk to be a murderer and that Banner is still alive. He would go to any lengths to prove it, including in this case, screwing with a hostile secret military establishment. Despite the lack of sci-fi fantasy elements, the Hulk is highly regarded as a classic and, for many, the definitive version.
In the two-part story Prometheus the stakes have never been higher for Banner as he is stuck between transformations after being exposed to a meteorite that is giving off vast amounts of gamma radiation. The military are tracking e meteor as they believe it is actually a UFO. We begin when David rescues a blind lady, Kathleen (guest star Laurie Prange), from drowning in the wilderness where she lives alone, having lost her sight only seven months previously. They form a strong friendship before a meteor smashes into the forest. Investigating alone, David is exposed to the radiation and, when attacked by bees, transforms into the Hulk who is then also exposed when he touches the meteor. However, unknown to both of them, the military are on their way to retrieve the meteor and they have Jack McGee tagging along.
Finding his way back to Kathleen’s house, David reverts back to human form. Almost. He finds himself stuck in mid change with the aggressive rage of the Hulk and unable to speak properly. He cannot remember the name for a meteor calling it a ‘rock from the sky’ and things get worse when the soldiers arrive to evacuate Kathleen, leaving David trapped and alone. This scene is electrifying on so many levels, evoking the comic strips and allowing Bixby to be the opposite of his usual calm, collected David.
His slips into rage before reining himself back in are edge-of-your-seat stuff. David has become an almost semi-sentient caveman, struggling with words as his very intelligence has also been affected by the locked transformation. His voice is deepened and he becomes a shadow of his former self. The dialogue is wonderful as Bixby retains the green skin and slightly muscled body along with those iconic green ‘the Hulk is coming’ eyes. Every fanboy and girl wet themselves when those iconic green eyes stayed on screen for as long as they did. You know this is Kenneth Johnson writing – and also directing in this case – because he goes for epic every time, Here not only does the Hulk fling trees like matchsticks but takes on a trio of helicopters in the first episode’s climax, preceding the movies by years.
The military have a huge red metal dome hanging from the bottom of one of the helicopters to airlift the meteor but instead use it as a Hulk trap. They think he is an alien and their theories that the meteor was piloted seemingly are indeed correct. This really is comic strip stuff as the Hulk and the helpless Kathleen are hoisted into the air, stuck in the dome which the Hulk cannot break.
Transported to an underground lab designed for alien containment, experts on aliens are called in to see his new discovery with Jack McGee still in tow. The Seven Million Dollar Man himself, Monte Markham, is the complex’s chief, who traps the Hulk in a holding field made of microwave particles.
This complex is the titular Prometheus, a place created for the day alien contact was made and where it could be contained in the event of hostilities. Slipping in undercover, McGee is able to access deep into the complex where he finds the very monster he has been searching for. However, attempts to communicate end up with an enraged Hulk smashing through the floor, when exposed to a piece of meteor, and escaping.
McGee takes Kathleen but she refuses to betray David to his nemesis. The Hulk manages to rescue her from his clutches and evade the complex personnel. For once, Magee shows he isn’t all bad when he stops the all out assault on Banner and tries to persuade him to come peacefully to try and cure him. But the military do learn two things; never fire tranquilizer darts at a half-formed Hulk or hurt his friends. In a final rage filled smash up, the Hulk manages to cause a massive explosion which destroys Prometheus in truly spectacular fashion allowing him and Kathleen to escape. Free from the gamma filled meteor, David is able to revert to his human form once again. Kathleen gains the confidence to return to the city and David takes to the road once more to the tune of those solitary piano keys that can bring a tear from a stone. Any wonder this show was a runaway success?
Sometimes the best ideas come from the simplest of questions and this epic came from a very simple one. What if people thought the Hulk was an alien? And this is epic as only Kenneth Johnson could do it. He brought a hurricane down on the bionic heroes and here uses the elements of the Hulk mythos to great effect. The huge dome he is trapped in, the caveman mid-transformation, unable to break through microwave shields but can rip a floor up, toss a tree and bring a chopper down with one flick of his muscles.
This stands as a great example of sci-fi superhero TV that has lasted the test of time. Everything from the green radiation Hulk eyes to the lonely piano theme that broke our hearts week after week to the fact that the Hulk always morphed into pants that fitted. In the last years, when Hulk returned for the made-for-television movies we saw the introduction of Thor, Daredevil and the Kingpin.
The attempt was already being made for the Marvel universe to interact with itself and the Hulk television series did it first. I for one have no doubt a certain Mister Whedon had Bixby and Ferrigno in his mind when he was writing the script for the Avengers…