This is the fourteenth installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
Probably the most successful successful comic book property to come out of the 1970s – apart from Richard Donner’s “Superman” – “The Incredible Hulk” starred Bill Bixby in his fourth starring role in a television series and introduced body builder Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk.
“The Incredible Hulk” was developed and executive produced by Kenneth Johnson, who when approached about adapting a Marvel Comics property for television said “no.” Johnson, initially, had no interest in doing a superhero on television, thinking the notion to just be silly. That all changed, however, when he Johnson read “Les Miserables” and realized that “The Incredible Hulk” could be adapted using many elements from “Les Miserables,” most notably the idea of a fugitive on the run. He also saw a way of combining a little Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the concept, which was one of Stan Lee’s original inspirations when he created the character to begin with.
While putting together the pilot for the television series, Johnson originally cast Richard Kiel as the Hulk. While Kiel certainly had the height and the stature of the creature, after about a week of filming it was decided that he just didn’t have the physique for it. Wanting a body builder, producers originally reached out to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declined but recommended Lou Ferrigno. Ferrigno, at 6’4″, didn’t have the height that the over seven foot tall Kiel had, but that was corrected by mostly filming the monster at angles from underneath, to make him appear taller than he actually was.
The series followed Dr. David Banner – changed from Bruce in the comics – as he traveled the country trying to find a cure for his Hulk ailment. The series had two basic plot formulas that it used; the first formula saw Banner on his way to someplace where he might find a possible cure, the second involved him being at the place of the possible cure. In both formulas, some event or series of events would transpire that would bring out the Hulk and the cure would be destroyed or otherwise rendered to be of no use.
As with other superhero television series at the time, “The Incredible Hulk” didn’t feature any of the antagonists from the comics. It didn’t really feature any “supervillains” at all, apart from another Hulk creature in the two-part episode “The First,” which was sort of a generic version of the Abomination. Instead, the series had Banner encountering every day threats, such as gangsters, corrupt politicians, and some just all around not nice people. The main antagonist of the show was tabloid reporter Jack McGee, who was chasing down the Hulk in hopes of grabbing the story of the century.
Both Bixby and Ferrigno were given separate opportunities to play dual roles during the run of the show. In the third season episode “Broken Image” David find out that he has an exact double who is actually a wanted criminal. The crime boss, Mike Cassidy, soon devises a plan to take advantage of the situation to escape justice for his crimes. In the fourth season episode “King of the Beach” Lou Ferrigno plays an amateur body builder, who also happens to be hard of hearing. In a brilliant bit of television filmmaking, Ferrigno comes face-to-face with Ferrigno as his human character and his Hulk character share a frame. The director of the episode even went so far as to make Hulk several inches taller than his human counterpart.
While the television series departed greatly from the source material, many of the changes made Banner and the Hulk much more compelling characters and its influence has been felt both in the comics and in other adaptations since. In the early 2000s, writer Bruce Jones had a hugely successful run on the Incredible Hulk comic, taking many elements from the television series. Many Bruce Jones elements – and some elements from the television series not used in Jones’ run – also made it into the 2008 film directed by Louis Leterrier.
“The Incredible Hulk” went on to have a five season run on CBS before being cancelled without warning seven episodes into its fifth season. The primary reason for the cancellation seems to have been that the show had just become too expensive. Many attempts were made to cut costs on the series, even resulting in the firing of Kenneth Johnson, but costs could not be sufficiently cut without harming the quality of the show.
This would not be the end of “The Incredible Hulk,” however, as the show would be revived several years later in a series of made-for-television reunion movies in the late 80s.
“Hulk Smash Television!”. IGN
“A Look Back: The Incredible Hulk on TV”. Film School Rejects. June 8, 2008
Glenn, Greenberg (February 2014). “The Televised Hulk”. Back Issue! (TwoMorrows Publishing) (70): 19–26.