We grew up watching Adam West as Batman, and were saddened to hear of his passing last month. Although campy as hell, outside of George Reeves’s 50’s Superman, Batman was the only superhero show there was at the time. It had ridiculous plots, great guest stars as over the top villains and the knowledge that the creators knew exactly what the show was. So we thought it would be a good time to honor Adam and take a retro look back at some of our favorite TV series growing up that fell into that comic book, fantasy, sci-fi genre.
A few years back I had a chance to see Adam West at NY’s Comic Con. He was appearing with Burt Ward, which would have been an added bonus, but I am cheap and didn’t want to spend the money and besides the line was pretty long. As a side note, Carrie Fisher was also there and unfortunately I made the same bad decision, which of course now bums me out, although I did wait in line with Mike G so he could get Lou Ferrigno’s autograph. My childhood had so many cool shows that just would not hold up to the more realistic approach in today’s action adventure shows like Daredevil, The Flash, and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Although any kid today would think the old shows ridiculous, they were cool to me. To name a few: Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, Battlestar Galactica, Mission Impossible, The A-Team, Spiderman and the ones I have included below.
The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-1978)
The Six Million Dollar Man was one of the earliest TV shows I remember as a kid. Lee Majors, a poor man’s Steve McQueen, played astronaut Colonel Steve Austin, the Bionic Man. Based on a book called Cyborg, Austin, in the pilot, crash-lands and loses an arm, an eye, and has to have both legs amputated. You hear in the opening credits “We have the technology, we can rebuild him” and that’s exactly what they do. His arm has super strength, his legs super speed, and his eye super vision. The fictitious OSI department then uses him as a super spy of sorts, battling all things sane and insane. The original pilot movie has a completely different tone than the rest of the series – more serious, less campy, and frankly somewhat boring. In the episodes following the pilot, you get the iconic sound effects and the super slo-mo when he uses his bionics that we all loved. Eventually, they introduce the Bionic Woman and a villain known as Bionic Bigfoot. Not sure if this was due to the mild Bigfoot craze of the 70’s but this thing freaked me out and I loved these episodes. I can’t even explain why there is such a thing as a cybernetic Sasquatch but it was awesome. Bigfoot was first played by Andre the Giant and later by Ted Cassidy – Lurch from the Addams Family. This show was completely ridiculous at times (A Christmas Carol parody?, Bionic Pillow Fighting?) but still so much fun. It had great cameos of future stars, Farrah Fawcett, Rick Springfield and Kim Basinger to name a few. It became a cultural phenomenon, it had a bunch of cool merchandise and then spun off The Bionic Woman, which was also a fun show. One of my favorite toys as a kid was my Steve Austin action figure, my friend’s brother ripped off the arm and I am still devastated to this day. I hear a mint condition one is hard to find.
Bonus: In 2007 NBC revived the franchise with The Bionic Woman, which ran only 8 episodes. I did watch it and it was ok, but they may have been better served using Katee Sackhoff in the Jaime Sommers role instead of as the villain. She had a better screen presence than whoever the other girl was.
MG: I loved this show as well, although my memories of it are much less than yours. I’ll always remember bigfoot being in it (which my memory didn’t include it as being also bionic, but now I know). It’s surprising that no one ever tried to turn this concept into a feature film. Arnold should have tried it in the 80’s or 90’s. There was a certain fantastical innocence to shows like these, and it’s too bad no show creators will go down that path anymore.
Lost in Space 1965-1968
Lost in Space was a 70’s rerun show for me but like the Six Million Dollar Man, I loved it. It was people in space before Star Wars, and Star Trek was too boring and serious for me as a young kid. Lost in Space did start as a somewhat serious space travel show, then quickly moved to a campy show with some nonsense infused mayhem. It was a space version of the Swiss Family Robinson, and the Robinson family gets “literally” lost in space. The family consisted of patriarch John Robinson played by Guy Williams, the mother Maureen, children, Judy, Penny and Will, their pilot Major Don West, the stowaway Dr. Zachary Smith and up until Star Wars premiered the most iconic robot of all time. It takes place in 1997 (it’s amazing where TV producers thought we would be in 30 years) and the Robinsons set out in their spacecraft Jupiter 2 to colonize Alpha Centauri, Dr. Smith as he tries to thwart the launch gets stuck on the ship as it launches and his extra weight gets the ship “lost in space”. Season 1 is comprised of them crash landing on a planet and they go on adventures. Dr. Smith is evil, but with every episode, he becomes less evil and more bumbling, cowardly, and incompetent and often is the one that causes the most conflict. Season 2 got them back in space and colorized, landing on another planet and getting even campier. This was due to being up against Batman. Season 3 also got them back in space and allowed them to visit more planets. Although the show had good ratings, it was too expensive and canceled. A lot of this show is ridiculous and would never be able to be on today but as a kid of the seventies and eighties, this was fun stuff. I hated Dr. Smith and loved him “getting his” in each episode. It had the great catchphrase “Danger Will Robinson!” that I still hear today. I was lucky enough to get Jonathan Harris’s (Dr. Smith) autograph before he died. I also met Mark Goddard (Major West) and had a good talk about what he had done in his years after acting (gym teacher!) and the passing of his close friend Harris and now feel somewhat sketchy that I actually negotiated down the price of an autograph from him. God, I am cheap. This is a show that keeps coming back, it was remade as a mediocre movie a few years back and Netflix is working on a 10 episode reboot.
Bonus: One of the later episodes was called “The Great Vegetable Rebellion” and had Tybo a giant talking carrot. Guy Williams who had been TV’s late 50’s Zorro, and expected a more serious show, literally retired to Argentina after cancellation.
MG: Wow, the talking carrot! I don’t remember ever watching this show, although I did see the mediocre-at-best movie with Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith. You really enjoyed getting these B/C-list actor autographs at the sci-fi conventions we went to (the forerunners of ComicCons). Negotiating the price down was great. The look on his face was classic.
Kung Fu 1972-1975
Another one of my favorites was the Emmy-winning Kung Fu, also seen in syndication. Kung Fu starred David Carradine in the role of Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk in 19th-century China, Caine had an American father and a Chinese mother. When Caine’s mentor Master Po (played by Keye Luke, of the old Charlie Chan movies and Gremlins) is murdered by the Chinese emperor’s nephew Caine, in a rage, retaliates and kills him. Being a wanted man, Caine flees to the American Old West (yes this takes place in the late 1800’s) and seeks out his half brother Danny Caine. There is a myth that this was a Bruce Lee idea and it was stolen from him, that has been partially debunked but Bruce Lee was considered for the role. Later his son Brandon Lee would star in the reboot. I loved Bruce Lee growing up and so naturally I gravitated to this show. It combined martial arts movies with westerns – how could this not be great? It used the flashback for its narrative often using Taoist philosophy to show lessons from his youth. It wasn’t as action packed as the rest but the action it did have was good. I can see the kids of today thinking this show is too slow. It used the same slow motion effects you see in the Six Million Dollar Man. Caine is trying to lay low wherever he goes but just like David Banner in The Incredible Hulk he is constantly being attracted to trouble and has only his Kung Fu to help him and the innocent out. These were pretty well done for the time and seemed like mini movies, good fight scenes, and award-winning cinematography. The series was always highly rated and only ended because David Carradine quit. I always thought Carradine knew martial arts but apparently, he did not and had to learn it. Kung Fu set him on his way as he did multiple 80’s and 90’s action flicks playing a bad guy. One of my favorites is the Chuck Norris movie, Lone Wolf McQuade, which is laughingly horrific. Growing up I actually had some Kung Fu trading cards, still have one now. Also if you watch enough episodes you will see a young Harrison Ford.
Bonus: This is another show that keeps on ticking, it’s been rebooted several times, with TV movies, a couple new series, all also incorporating David Carradine. In 2011 Bill Paxton had tried to reboot Kung Fu and as late as 2014 Baz Luhrmann was going reboot it as a film franchise. I am just hoping he does not turn it into a musical.
MG: Cool that Harrison Ford had a role in this. For whatever reason I was averse to all things martial arts when I was a kid. I truly didn’t get it at all. I don’t even recall enjoying The Karate Kid, but I did like Big Trouble in Little China, if that counts.
Action/Adventure shows were a big staple of my childhood. In the days before DVRs and even VCRs, it was essential to plan your week around your favorite shows, or you’d be stuck having to try and catch a missed episode during summer re-runs. I was lucky to have (mostly) my own TV in our lower-level family room that was rarely used due to its awkward layout. Right next to it was the antennae controller, which often needed to be used to get a decent broadcast picture – and only for the big 3 networks. Anything on the channels like 56 or 38 that carried syndicated shows was a snowy mess – thanks to all the pine trees surrounding our house. Anyway, here are some of my favorite TV shows as a kid.
The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982)
During these years, Friday nights on CBS featured my favorite 2-hour block of TV: The Dukes of Hazzard and The Incredible Hulk. The intro to the Hulk was classic – it quickly told the tale of Bruce Banner’s experiment gone wrong, complete with a snippet of a lightning bolt (repeated 4 times throughout) for dramatic effect, and the scene where Banner’s eyes turn bright in anger and the transformation into the green Hulk occurs. The intro also includes the enduring line “Don’t get me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Bruce Banner, played by Bill Bixby, says this line to a reporter (Jack McGee) who works for the National Register tabloid. Early on, McGee spies the Hulk monster, famously played by Lou Ferrigno and makes it his life’s work to expose the existence of The Hulk.
As Bruce Banner wandered the country trying to find a cure, he stumbled into various circumstances where people needed help and he came to their aid. Inevitably, a bad guy would push it too far, despite Banner’s warnings for him not to, and the green menace would be unleashed. I liked this version of the Hulk because he embodied the uncontrollable id – the unleashed rage – and he was kind of scary because of it. I realize that Ferrigno, impressive as his gigantic pecs were, was not the size of the creature in the comic book, nor did he have the ability to do 50-foot leaps and such, but for me, this incarnation of Banner/Hulk is still the best. In all 3 movie versions in recent years, CGI has been used to make the Hulk and I haven’t bought any of it. I like the actors – Eric Bana, Edward Norton, and Mark Ruffalo, but once they are replaced by the CGI creation, I’m checked out. The creature also comes across as too controlled and jokey for my taste. I look forward to someday seeing another version of the Hulk that I can get on board with.
Bonus: DJ and I met Lou Ferrigno at NY ComicCon a couple of years ago and I got his autograph. He seemed like a nice guy and was still really fit, considering he’s now 65. I always admired the success he had with being Mr. Universe and then show business considering he lost 80% of his hearing as a child. I read that he had been helping Michael Jackson get in shape for his big London shows before Jackson’s untimely death in 2009
DJ: I don’t get it. So the reporter went from town to town looking for the Hulk and consistently ran across Bixby, what newspaper did he work for? This show was a staple of mine as well, also a lot of great guest stars, a lot in common with Kung Fu, the wondering man helping out the innocent. I love Ferrigno on King of Queens playing himself.
MG: So I wondered about the reporter’s job/motivation as well, but he worked for a tabloid like The National Enquirer, so getting a photo/story of the Hulk monster would have been a big career thing for him. Thin, but a little more plausible.
The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983)
This show was a tongue-in-cheek take on the superhero theme but avoided being a parody of the genre. The intro again tells the story: Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) is a substitute teacher who, while on a school field trip, meets some aliens that give him a suit that has superhuman powers. The conceit of the show is that he loses the instruction manual, so he has to try and figure out how to unlock the abilities of the suit in order to fight crime and injustice in the world. He is aided by an FBI agent (Robert Culp) and a beautiful attorney, played by Connie Sellecca.
Katt was a great choice for this role because, with his skinny body and blonde perm, he’s the polar opposite of Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent. His trial and error in trying to use the suit provided the comedy of the show, particularly when he would forget how to fly and crash back to earth, arms flailing madly. It was also a welcome change that he was a public school teacher, to special education kids no less, and at times those kids, led by Michael Pare, became involved in the show’s plots. Connie Sellecca’s character was the will-they- or-won’t-they love interest for the hero, who also sometimes needed saving. She was way out of his league, but eventually the nice guy won her over. Probably the most lasting legacy of the show is the theme song, “Believe It Or Not”, composed by 80’s theme-song staple Mike Post and sung by Joey Scarbury. The song reached #2 on Billboard’s top 100 in 1981, and was referenced in Seinfeld when George uses the theme for his answering machine greeting: “Believe it or not, George is not at home….”
Bonus: After Ronald Reagan’s assassination attempt by John Hinckley, the character’s last name was changed to “Hanley”, with the school kids mostly referring to him as “Mr. H”. In season 2, they inexplicably went back to Hinkley as the last name.
DJ: That’s a bizarre bonus factoid, never heard of that. I loved this show too, it was funny and had just enough action. This is another show where a reboot has been talked about for years. This one should be left alone.
The A-Team (1983-1987)
The A-Team was both my favorite action TV show of my childhood, and essentially my last – since by the series end I was working nights at the grocery store, as well as hanging with friends and eventually girlfriends instead of planning my week around TV. Like The Greatest American Hero, this was part of the Stephen J. Cannell Productions empire, who’s iconic logo of Cannell typing, grabbing the paper and throwing it in the air, became TV legend (and often parodied).
The A-Team was one of his biggest hits, holding an enduring place in TV history and still airing today on cable channels. The premise is well known: a group of Vietnam vets were framed for “a crime they didn’t commit”, escape from military prison, and live on the run, one step ahead of the military police and available for hire to those in need. The distinctive characters of the show were what I loved and account for the show’s continued popularity. There was George Peppard’s “Hannibal”, the man with the plan, Dirk Benedict’s “Face, the charming con-man, Mr. T’s “B.A.” Baracus, the badass but lovable strong man and mechanic, and my personal favorite, Dwight Schultz’s “Howling Mad” Murdoch, the team’s pilot and crazy man. The show was known for always having a scene where the team would fashion some sort of weapon out of common items to battle the bad guys. My favorite was when they were trapped in a barn on a farm and they crafted a cannon that fired heads of lettuce. Yes, the show was corny at times, but it was lighthearted and fun, and never took itself too seriously. When the writing was weak, the charismatic cast made it work and the show became the biggest part of the legacy of Peppard, who passed away in 1994 at 65.
Bonus: During its broadcast run, the show initially garnered strong ratings, which began to drop off, partially due to the show being repeatedly moved to different days and timeslots on NBC. In syndication, it developed a cult status and gained audiences all over the world.
DJ: This show was ridiculous and I ate it up. I loved the shows from the Cannell production company, along with the two here, there was Wiseguy, Hunter, and a personal favorite Hardcastle and McCormick. Another show you just couldn’t make today, people wouldn’t believe it, the plots were sheer nonsense. The fact that this was a unit that could get the bad guys is ludicrous.