The Amazing Spider-Man 1970s TV series review
|REVIEWS - TV|
The Other Amazing Spider, Man!
As (500) Days Of Summer (2009) director Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man swings into cinemas, with The Social Network and Never Let Me Go wunderkind Andrew Garfield wearing the red and blue pyjamas and Zombieland actress Emma Stone bringing Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy to life while Rhys Ifans goes all Jekyll and Hyde on them as Doctor Curt Connors and The Lizard, it already feels as though Sam Raimi and Tobey McGuire's well received trilogy of barely a decade ago is 'old' Spidey.
However, nearly thirty years before The Evil Dead auteur finally put a human (as opposed to animated) version of our favourite webhead on the big screen, Spidey had made his live action debut on the small screen in 1974 in a series of short skits on the popular children's show The Electric Company. Played by puppeteer Danny Seagren, these three minute sketches which spanned a three year period had absolutely nothing to do with Spidey's comic canon, and don't even really merit a mention but for the fact that a certain Morgan Freeman narrated five of the first season's offerings, something that in common with pretty much everybody else in the world the Oscar winning actor has probably forgotten himself.
What hasn't been forgotten, however, though Stan Lee has been very vocal over the years in his dislike of it, and probably wishes you would forget it (not that it stopped him from picking up a credit, and presumably a fee, as a script consultant for each episode), is the first serious attempt to create a credible Spider-Man television series. Appearing on the CBS network in 1977, The Amazing Spider-Man (pedants please note the capital M) ran for thirteen episodes until its cancellation in 1979 and featured The Sound Of Music's (1965) Friedrich von Trapp himself, actor Nicholas Hammond in the titular role, although while he got to do the talky scenes wearing the iconic costume the action sequences were performed by stuntman Freddy Waugh.
Back then it was actually a golden time for superheroes on television, with Marvel's The Incredible Hulk, featuring the late Bill Bixby and bodybuilder Lou Ferringo (who appears in cameo roles in The Incredible Hulk (2008) and 2010's Iron Man 2, sharing a brief screen moment with Stan Lee himself in the latter) in the roles of David (not Bruce) Banner and, well, the Hulk, and DC's Wonder Woman, featuring ex-Miss World Lynda Carter in the titular (the costume emphasising the first syllable of that word) role.
Hammond was picked for the debut live action appearance of Peter Parker after a CBS executive saw him performing in repertory at the Center Theatre in Los Angeles, and he gives credit to the late Christopher Reeve for his portrayal as Superman in Richard Donner's superb 1978 film adaptation in helping him make the decision to accept the role, telling the Washington Post in a recent interview that Reeve “somehow gave everyone else permission to go into that world and not feel like you were going to be doing something beneath you that would put you in cartoon-land.”
Drawn to Parker's vulnerability and the fact that “he has asthma, he lives with his Aunt May, and he’s the nerd of all nerds”, Hammond was a firm believer that the stories being told were not about Spidey, but rather about the moral and social dilemmas that Peter found himself in as he discovers that with great power comes, well, you know.
While this aspect of the character was very much in sync with what the diehard Spidey fans wanted Peter Parker to be like, Hammond's view on the villains that appeared in the series was at odds with the loyal fan base. Whereas in the comics Spidey faced foes as dastardly, dangerous and diverse as The Lizard, The Vulture, Doctor Octopus and his greatest nemesis, The Green Goblin, the gallery of televised terrors amounted to little more than gangsters, thieves and the occasional ninja, but Hammond believed that having the webslinger face off against human opponents “kept the series more rooted in a world that I could relate to.”
It wasn't only recognisable villains that were missing from the show, though, as aside from Peter Parker the only other regular characters who also appeared in the comics were Aunt May and newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson was played by actor David White (who played advertising executive Larry Tate for the whole eight year run of Bewitched (1964-1972)) in the pilot episode, but was replaced by American character actor Robert F. Simon for the remainder of the series. In what may have been unwittingly a dastardly plan by another of Spidey's greatest villains The Chameleon, Aunt May was portrayed by a different actress each time she appeared in the show. Joe 'Robbie' Robertson, Jameson's erstwhile second in command in the comics, also made a solitary appearance, played by actor Hilly Hicks, but only in the pilot.
In addition to May Parker and J. Jonah Jameson, several non canon characters were created as show regulars, including Rita Conway (played by Chip Fields) who appeared in both seasons, Captain Barbera (Michael Pataki) who appeared in the pilot and first season and Julie Masters (Ellen Bry) who appeared only in the second season.
The feature length pilot, entitled 'The Amazing Spider-Man', debuted on 19th April 1977 (all dates are original US transmission dates) to sufficient critical acclaim that a first season of five episodes was commissioned, although it would be virtually a full year until the first of these episodes, The Deadly Dust (Part 1) was shown on 5th April 1978, followed in subsequent weeks by The Deadly Dust (Part 2), The Curse of Rava, Night of the Clones (pre-dating the controversial comic arc by several years), and Escort to Danger.
Following favourable ratings, a second season of six episodes was quickly put into turnaround, debuting on 5th September 1978 with The Captive Tower (essentially Spidey does Die Hard, but before the world had heard of John McClane), and followed by A Matter of State, The Con Caper, The Kirkwood Haunting, Photo Finish (featuring a cross dressing thief), and Wolfpack.
A final two hour story, The Chinese Web, aired on 6th July 1979, but by this point the CBS network had decided that, despite The Amazing Spider-Man's decent performance in the all important ratings, they didn't want to become known as 'The Superhero Network' and so both Peter Parker and Wonder Woman were cancelled, though The Incredible Hulk survived the cull and remained popular until it ended its run in 1982, though the show's budget was considerably reduced in the latter years.
Outside of the US and Canada, the pilot episode was released theatrically as The Amazing Spider-Man (1977) followed by another two movies, Spider-Man Strikes Back (1978) which was cobbled together from the two Deadly Dust episodes, and Spider-Man: The Dragon's Challenge (1979) which was a repackaging of the feature length Chinese Web story.
Over three decades after Nicholas Hammond put the red and white duds back in the closet for the last time, I have to admit that I have a nostalgic love of the series, even despite the webbing that looked more like rope and cargo netting and a distinct lack of proper supervillians. What does surprise me, though, is that in the wake of the success of classic superhero shows like Lois and Clark and Smallville and newer properties like Heroes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which for all intents and purposes is a superhero show) and Misfits, there has never been a revival of the most 'everyman' of costumed crime fighters, something that I believe could work brilliantly with today's appetite for heroes and the incredible, nay amazing (groan), effects that are achievable in television shows these days, and which I discussed in a previous Shadowlocked article.
With the new Amazing Spider-Man movie having just been confirmed by Sony Pictures as being the start of the now customary three movie sequence and the first sequel due in May 2014 (though sadly the story arc that I suggested in another Shadowlocked article is unlikely to be adopted), the possibility of seeing Spidey on the small screen again is remote at best, but who knows, maybe once Andrew Garfield has done his time in the red and blue we might see Peter Parker's world explored with the same sustained brilliance as Clark Kent's was in Smallville.
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