The Heroism of Stars Who Played Superheroes
A new PBS 'Pioneers of Television' special profiles the actors who played our most iconic superheroes
During a week when the image of heroes like Lance Armstrong and college football star Manti Te'o seemed to crumble like so many stale crackers, I was happy to hear a few stories about heroes who have endured in our consciousness for decades.
I'm talking about the actors who portrayed superheroes on our favorite childhood TV shows. On Jan. 29, as part of the third season of Pioneers of Television, PBS profiles a group of such stars, including Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin), Julie Newmar (Catwoman), Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen), Lou Ferrigno (the Hulk) and William Kaat (the Greatest American Hero … remember him?).
As a serious comic-book fan growing up, I had a conflicted relationship with some of these shows. I knew that I shouldn't really enjoy "Batman," for example, because it was so much sillier than the comic, which hadn't yet plumbed the depths of darkness it offers readers today, but was still far grittier than producer William Dozier's candy-colored vision of the character. On the other hand, it was a show with superheroes, it was on TV and sometimes it featured Julie Newmar and Yvonne Craig in impossibly tight costumes, so … I watched.
As for TV's versions of Superman and the Hulk, I was always frustrated that these characters with earth-shaking power were relegated to knocking out fairly pedestrian crooks. I was too young to realize that the shows simply could not afford to convey intergalactic threats as today's special-effects blockbusters can.
Still, those shows branded themselves on my consciousness, which means that like so many millions of other viewers, I forever typecast the actors who played the iconic characters, contributing to their well-publicized struggles to find satisfying work after their shows were canceled. Once you've played Superman, no one will buy you as a suburban doctor.
"For a lot of people, superhero shows are the first shows they watch," Pioneers of Television co-producer Mike Trinklein explains. "The first character you identified with was a superhero and you always remember your first, no matter what it is in life. You have a special attachment to those characters. It's much bigger than with a lot of other genre shows."
For the actors, he says: "Imagine if you did a really great science fair project in sixth grade and it's all anyone wanted to talk about for the rest of your life. We say they should be so grateful that they're famous, but when no one can see you outside of one dimension it can wear on you.
"Almost all the actors we spoke to said they didn't really get it when they started. It was a job. But as it went on, they came to understand that these are iconic characters who have been around before them and will live on after them and they were representing that. They all have come full circle and have a certain level of acceptance now. Being really loved by a large number of people is an accomplishment and all of the people we interviewed were past the bitterness."
What will be especially interesting for viewers of "Superheroes" is how well suited many of these actors were for their roles in the first place (which may partly explain their later typecasting problems). "They were picked for these roles because they had those characteristics," Trinklein says, "and they still carry those with them, I think proudly."
Burt Ward, for example, "is incredibly enthusiastic and energetic," Trinklein says. "He is Robin." Similarly, Julie Newmar is "a coquettish, Catwoman-y type of person," he adds, and of course, former Mr. Universe Lou Ferrigno is incredibly strong.
Ferrigno's story is perhaps the most compelling in the special. He speaks of being mercilessly teased about the bulky hearing aid he had to wear as a child, leading to schoolyard fights that he usually lost. "Anytime I felt devastated, emotionally insecure, I would just read the comics," Ferrigno says. "It would give me a lot of inspiration and hope." One of his favorite titles was The Incredible Hulk. "I got beat up a lot," he says, "so I wanted to be like the Hulk. I wanted to be so strong, so invincible that I could command the same power that the Hulk does."
While the Pioneers crew was preparing to film their interview with Ferrigno, Trinklein says, a family passing by recognized the actor and asked him to pose for a photo with them. Ferrigno agreed, then returned to his prep. But several minutes later, the family burst back into the room. "The guy said the photo was out of focus and wanted to do it again," Trinklein says. "Now, you or I might have been annoyed, but Lou smiled and said sure, and did the whole thing again."
(MORE: I Was a Childhood Superman)
It was a small moment, but the producer thinks it says a lot about the roles performers like Ferrigno, West and Carter carry with them. "If Lou acts irascibly, it reflects poorly not just on him, but on the character people see him as," Trinklein says. "They all feel a certain responsibility in their lives to represent their characters in a positive light."
They don't always succeed – none of us do – but at a time when real-life heroes fall so often, it might be worth spending an evening with some of the real-life people who do their best to keep fictional heroes alive for the rest of us.
"Pioneers of Television: Superheroes" airs on PBS stations nationwide beginning January 29. Click here to find air times in your area.
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