Marvel may be the masters of the superhero cinematic universe right now with their multi-connecting blockbuster event movies every year, but there was a time when their most successful adaptations lay in the confines of the TV landscape. That glorious time was the late 70’s!
In 1977, CBS had produced the first live-action version of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, first as a feature length TV pilot titled simply SPIDER-MAN, followed by a 5 episode 1st season, and 7 more episodes for season 2. After only 13 episodes total, the show concluded in 1979.
While the origin for the famous wallcrawler still involved a radioactive spider, the series itself only borrowed small elements from the original comics. No Uncle Ben. No colorful supervillians. But we did get Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson and his trademark costume. Nicholas Hammond played the duel role of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, and at least for myself as a kid catching re-runs of these shows on Saturday mornings, he was the living embodiment of what I always pictured Peter should be. Genuine, honest, good-hearted, kind of dorky and always striving to do the right thing.
In 1978, CBS took another crack at a Marvel superhero TV show, and launched THE INCREDIBLE HULK in his own series, fronted by the great Bill Bixby as Dr. “David” Bruce Banner, famed body builder Lou Ferrigno as the giant green Goliath and Jack Colvin as investigative reporter Jack McGee.
The series kicked off with a 2 hour pilot, and was immediately a huge success, running from 1978 to 1982, clocking in a total of 82 episodes in 5 seasons before ending on a cliffhanger.
The Hulk did finally return for the epic 1988 TV movie titled THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS, which paired him up with another one of Marvel’s favorite “Avengers,” the Mighty Thor. The idea was not only to kick-start the Hulk, but hopefully launch THOR into his own TV series. Sadly, that never came to fruition (although director Sam Raimi was at that time trying to get the rights to do a feature length version of THOR. When that fell apart, he created an original superhero – DARKMAN instead.) Instead, two more feature films followed, THE TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK, which introduced Marvel’s Daredevil in his first live action incarnation and lastly THE DEATH OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK, both helmed by Bixby himself.
Believe it or not, there were plans for a different return for the Hulk prior to his 1988 movie. The original plan was for Nicholas Hammond to reprise his role as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and to have him battle, then team up with Bixby/Ferrigno’s Hulk in a massive cross-over TV movie event!
In 1984, Bixby had wanted to revive The Incredible Hulk as a directorial project for himself. At the time, he had already befriended TV’s Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond. In an interview with SFX Magazine, Hammond explained, “I used to know Bill Bixby quite well in those days. We used to speak on the phone once in awhile, and we talked about the problems the HULK series had ran into and why SPIDER-MAN didn’t work. Bill asked me during one of these conversations would I play the part again. My response was only if I could have more control over the character, I wanted to make him more humorous and was interested in doing more of the physical stuff. I felt one of the problems with the series was that the Peter Parker I played and the Spider-Man, who was played by a stuntman, were so opposite and lots of the believability of the character was lost. Bill liked my ideas and said that he would let me know if anything came up.”
“About three weeks to a month later, I got a phone call from Bill saying that he had spoken to screenwriter Ron Satlof and he was close to setting up a deal with Columbia Television to start work on a project which featured both Spider-Man and the Hulk. Bill was going to direct, and I was to have writing credits with Stan Lee and Ron Satlof. One of the main problems early on though, was Universal Television weren’t prepared to let Columbia have use of the Hulk character and this took a while. Eventually Bill phoned again saying that both networks came to a deal to co-produce the tele-movie with Universal having the rights to screen.”
Hammond continues, “Things started moving quickly and we got most of the technical crews from both original series on board and the movie had air date of spring 1984. I was very excited because work had been tight, and as Bill said, this could open doors on the acting front. I also loved the character. Bill was also keen to do it because his private life was in something of a limbo and directing the movie would have really taken his mind off things. The most impressive thing about the movie was to be the costume I was going to wear. It was to be the black costume used in the comics around this time, and it looked a lot better than the one in the TV series.”
“Just as everything was running smoothly, Bill phoned again. ‘Hi, it’s Bill, Nick. I’ve got some bad news. The project has been cancelled. Lou is unavailable, Universal won’t do the movie without Lou.’ Lou Ferrigno was in Italy making a Hercules movie and wouldn’t be available to make the movie and they weren’t prepared to wait for him. Personally, I have always thought that this was Universal’s own way of cancelling the project. If they had just left it to Columbia, it would have got made easily. I was a bit upset because I was looking forward to doing it again and the script was good, and I never got the chance to work with Bill. A shame really.”
In Lou Ferrigno’s book, MY INCREDIBLE LIFE AS THE HULK, he confirmed Hammond’s suspicions of the studio’s ulterior motives with the following revelation: “My availability was never an issue, because I was never contacted about the project. Universal never inquired to see if I was available. I had already completed HERCULES II months before, so my availability was not an issue. In fact, I wasn’t even aware of the HULK/SPIDER-MAN project until I came across this information in 2003 during research for this book.”
Can you imagine in 1984, we almost got to see the live action versions of The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk team up, and by the same actors that originated those roles on TV?! And it would’ve been the black costumed Spider-Man?!
Alas, we’ll just have to dream of the SPIDER-MAN / HULK movie that almost was. But who knows? With Spider-Man now able to appear in the Marvel movies, perhaps our friendly neighborhood, spectacular teen could cross paths with the Hulk somewhere down the line? Anything’s possible, true believers! ‘Nuff said.