Throwback Thursday: Retro TV—Superheroes

jsutice league

There are so many superhero movies filling the theaters these days, so many characters to love, hate, root for, and bet against. The big screen has been bringing us superheroes since the early days of film. And if you look at comic books and graphic novels, the number grows to…well, a lot.

Many conversations can be had about why superheroes are so popular, and I think I’m going to talk about that next time. But for this blog, I’ll just say that my own personal theory about it is that people crave justice. The fear and uncertainty of life and society makes us want someone to swoop down and protect us while bringing evil people to their knees.

I think this is why superheroes reemerge time after time, decade after decade. But more on that next time. Since I do this weird thing with old TV shows and actors, that’s what I’m doing here. Today it’s the superhero shows. There have been many versions (especially about Superman), but I’ll just stick with a few classics.

Wonder Woman

If you watched the first season of Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter, you might remember that she had a younger sister, Drusilla, who was sent by their mother to bring Diana back to Paradise Island. (Ed note: I was chided by Andi Marquette for calling it Paradise Island, because that’s not that actual name, per canon. But it IS the name of the island of Amazons on the TV show.) The sister was played by a very young Debra Winger, who, of course, would go on to be a huge star in the 1980s. Her biggest movies were Urban Cowboy and Terms of Endearment. The mother, Queen Hippolyta, was played by Carolyn Jones. Jones is best known as Morticia Aadams on The Aadams Family.Lynda-as-Wonder-Woman-264419

Father and son actors also guest starred on WW: Dick van Patten and his son, Vincent Van Patten. They were on two different episodes—father in 1976, son in 1977. Dick had a very long career, appearing in many TV shows, and probably his biggest role was as the father in Eight is Enough. Son Vincent was a child actor who also appeared in many shows in the 1970s and ’80s.

Gavin MacLeod was in one episode. MacLeod was Captain Stubing on The Love Boat, but he also played Murray on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which also featured Cloris Leachman as Phyllis. Cloris Leachman also made an appearance on WW.

A couple of pop singers made appearances. In one episode where Diana goes undercover as an aspiring country singer at a recording studio, a soon-to-be musical heartthrob plays a role: Rick Springfield. He was part of a band that wore ridiculous makeup and they ran around screaming and acting weird. He’d make his mark in the ’8os with his biggest hit, “Jessie’s Girl,” part of the soundtrack of my teen years. He would also star as Dr. Noah Drake on General Hospital.rick

The other singer was Leif Garrett. Poor guy lost it in the aftermath of a 1979 accident in which a car he was driving left his friend paralyzed. But in the ’70s, Leif was the shit. He was boyishly adorable in that Scandinavian way, with long, wavy blond hair, and “I Was Made for Dancing” was (in my opinion) one of the best disco songs ever, just in terms of booty-shaking. Just take a listen—I defy you to tell me that it doesn’t make you want to get up and boogie.

And if we’re going to mention musical people, let’s throw in legendary DJ Wolfman Jack. Yep, he had a guest spot, too.

Other guest stars included Roddy McDowall, Anne Francis (remember what I said about her in the Golden Girls blog?), Gary Burghoff (best known as Radar on M*A*S*H), and Joan Van Ark (best known as Valene Ewing on Knots Landing (who also had a guest appearance on M*A*S*H), Robert Alda (father of Alan Alda, and who also guested on M*A*S*H), John Carradine, Judge Reinhold (as in Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Juliet Mills, Dack Rambo, Robert Reed (Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch), and Stella Stevens. Do I even need to mention that Ed Begley Jr. was a guest star? I mean, you can pretty much assume that if a TV showed aired from the 1970s on, he was on it.

Batman

Batman-and-Robin

Batman starred Adam West (who we recently lost) and Burt Ward as Robin. Batman was presented in a different way that other superhero ventures. It sought to mimic the comic books in a cartoon-y way. Everything in it was over-the-top silly and campy. But it attracted many performers. There were, of course, regulars:

  • Yvonne Craig as Batgirl—her biggest claim to fame, aside from her Batgirl role, was the fact that she dated Elvis Presley.Batgirl-Yvonne
  • Burgess Meredith as the Penguin—he was an icon, appearing on many TV shows, including 3 episodes of The Twilight Zone, and he’ll always be remembered as Rocky’s coach in the Rocky
  • Cesar Romero as the Joker—this distinguished actor had a long career in both TV and film, and even had a guest role on The Golden Girls.
  • Frank Gorshin as the Riddler—Gorshin also made his way onto another superhero show a decade later: Wonder Woman.
  • Victor Buono as King Tut—Buono could be seen in many TV shows in the ’50s and ’60s, but in my mind, he is inextricably linked to his character Edwin in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
  • Vincent Price as Egghead—Price is one of my all-time faves, partially because he did all of those terrible B horror movies so well. He lent a unique quality to everything he played.VictorBuono
  • Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Lee Meriweather, all as Catwoman. Everyone seems to have a favorite Catwoman. Do you?

 Then there were the guest stars:

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Carolyn Jones played Marsha, Queen of Diamonds. Coincidentally (or maybe not), she played the Queen of the Amazons on Wonder Woman.

There was also Estelle Winwood, who is partially responsible for my “Six Degrees of Separation from Truman Capote”; Cliff Robertson; Rob Reiner; Art Carney; Bruce Lee; Gypsy Rose Lee; Shelley Winters; Liberace; Art Linkletter; Don Ho; and Zsa Zsa Gabor, among others.

Superman, The Adventures of

Like many TV shows of its time, Superman looks very “fake” by today’s standards. Special effects for TV was in its infancy, but no other show looked any better, so it was probably believable enough for the time.georgereevesadventures1579x463

This show ran from 1952 to 1958. In the 1950s, TV shows used mostly studio actors to play one-time characters, and so if you were around at the time, you might have recognized one here or there, but generally speaking, none were big-time actors. And since I wasn’t around then and have no clue who any of those people were, I’ll just talk about the star of the show, George Reeves.

Reeves had been acting since the late 1930s (he even played one of Scarlett O’Hara’s suitors in Gone with the Wind). At the prime of his career, he found himself typecast as Superman and couldn’t get any other roles. (He did appear on I Love Lucy, but as Superman. Not George Reeves playing Superman—actually Superman.) He committed suicide at age 45. Many years later, in 1977, Christopher Reeve (no relation) played Superman in the blockbuster movie of the same name. Many people have compared the tragic lives of the two actors, the first point of reference being that two men, decades apart, with the (almost) same last name would play the same character.christopher-reeve-superman

Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in a horse riding accident and eventually died of complications as a result of that accident. I think the whole Reeves/Reeve tragedy comparison is a stretch. Yes, their names are a coincidence, but I think that’s where it ends. Reeves took his own life when he couldn’t get acting roles (although, I’m sure that’s simplifying his problems); Reeve on the other hand, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe on his own, and could only talk using a machine, yet remained positive (at least, publicly). In fact, despite these handicaps, he actually directed and acted in a remake of Rear Window, the Hitchcock classic, originally starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. Reeve did all of this despite being trapped in a wheelchair hooked up to machines. Those, to me, are two very different approaches to life.

There have been many, many superhero shows since then, such as Lois & Clark, Supergirl, Gotham, Smallville, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, to name just a few, and dozens of animated series (Superfriends, anyone?).

There is no end in sight, either. Our longing for superheroes never seems to fade. That’s a direct result, I think, from the fact that evil never fades. Nor our hope that one day, with the right people around, justice will prevail.

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8 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Retro TV—Superheroes

  1. These are among the best TV shows. The ones I grew up with – whether prime time or syndicated after school. But the only point I’d argue is George Reeves’ fate. There is substantial, if circumstantial, evidence that he was killed. “Hollywood Kryptonite” by Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger was a fascinating story and showed why they believe a studio exec, Eddie Mannix, actually killed Reeves for dumping Mannix’ wife for another woman.

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    1. Yes, I’ve heard the theory that he was killed. (Imagine murdering Superman!) Still, he suffered from depression, at least in part due to his inability to get roles. So my suspicion is, he would’ve done harm to himself one way or another.

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  2. I love this post! The only things missing are The Bionic Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man…then the circle of my youth superheroes would be complete!

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