(This is the second and final part of Ernie Magnotta's exclusive interview with Kenneth Johnson, creator of the classic 1970s TV series "The Incredible Hulk", which debuted 40 years ago today.)
BY ERNIE MAGNOTTA
EM: Nice…I’d like to talk
about Jack Colvin for a sec.
EM: I really loved him as
McGee. I thought he was terrific. Did he enjoy playing the role?
KJ: Yeah, he did. But he was frustrated sometimes
and he would say to me, “How many times can I say that I’m looking for a
hulking, green creature?” So, we tried to really write episodes where he had
meaningful stuff to do.
EM: Yeah, that was
actually my next question because the character changed a bit. He was a little
unlikeable in the first season; like a weasel.
KJ: Yeah, that’s it. I love those yellow rag
journalists. The tabloid type people are just very colorful folks, so I thought
it would be fun. But Jack was so substantive and such a fine actor and a
brilliant acting teacher that we just realized that we had an asset we needed
to develop more and we needed to write more for him. And there are some
episodes, as you know, where he really takes center stage for a good portion of
EM: Yeah, there’s one
that’s just completely about him. I think Bill Bixby only shows up in
KJ: I think you’re right. I think that was near
the time of the death of Bill’s son, although Bill really just wanted to keep on
working through that.
EM: That’s totally
KJ: It was a terrible time and that was Bill’s
way of dealing with it; just getting on the set and doing it. He was terrific
and I still miss him to this day. He was a force of nature. (Laughs) We had
many, many, many knock-down, drag out arguments, but, Ernie, there was never
one that was about bullshit. There was never one that was about nonsense or
“star” stuff. It was always about character and he would come to me and say,
“Dr. David Banner would never say this line!”
EM: That’s so great and
it answers part of my next question which is about how much input he had and
how much he got into the character.
KJ: I would be in bed at night and he would have
finished a day of shooting and gone to the looping stage late at night because
we had added a wild line or two to help clarify something and he would call me
at home, “Dr. David Banner wouldn’t say this line!” And I’d tell him, “Yes, he
would. I wrote it.”
KJ: And we’d go back and forth and our agreement
was whoever was right got to win. And sometimes it would end up with Bill
saying, “All right. I’ll say it, but I don’t think Dr. David Banner would say
it.” (Laughs) But we had a good working relationship and he was a total pro all
EM: I know that, at the
time of the pilot, Lou Ferrigno didn’t have any acting experience, but I
thought he did a fantastic job; especially his final scene with Susan Sullivan.
KJ: Louie grew into the role very quickly and I
gave him time on the set to get there and to find it. I also helped him by
giving him like acting 101, but he picked up on everything very quickly and it
got so we really enjoyed writing those scenes when the Hulk was coming down
from the anger and was a simplistic child in many ways.
EM: Like when he was
confused by something.
VP: Yeah, exactly. I remember Mickey Jones
teaching him how to open a pop top soda can; that kind of thing. Or he’d be
resting under a tree, petting a deer. And Louie really got into those and began
to enjoy it and he did a really fine job. He just progressed so well and so
far. These days, Lou is an inspirational speaker and he’s working for the
Sheriff’s Department as well, so he’s an asset to the community.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the classic TV series "The Incredible Hulk", Cinema Retro's Ernie Magnotta sat down for an extensive discussion with the show's creator Kenneth Johnson.
BY ERNIE MAGNOTTA
Banner—physician, scientist…searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans
have. Then, an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry.
And now, when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis
The creature is
driven by rage and is pursued by an investigative reporter. The creature is
wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. David Banner is believed to be dead. And
he must let the world think that he is dead until he can find a way to control
the raging spirit that dwells within him.
Kids who grew up in the 1970s remember that
narration well. Every Friday night at 9pm (until it was later moved to 8pm) we’d
sit in front of our television sets, switch on CBS channel 2 and listen to the
late, great Ted Cassidy (Lurch from The
Addams Family) recite those very words before another exciting, hour-long
episode of The Incredible Hulk TV
series would begin. However, before there was a series, there were two very
successful made-for-TV movies, and before that, a very popular comic book.
The character of the Hulk was created in 1962
by legendary Marvel Comics masterminds Stan Lee (writer) and Jack Kirby
(artist). In the comic book, Dr. Bruce Banner was a nuclear scientist for the
United States Army who, while trying to save a teenager who wandered onto a
test site, was accidently bathed in gamma rays when a bomb he created was
detonated. This forever caused the mild-mannered scientist to change into a
hulking green-skinned creature whenever he became enraged. (The first few
stories had him change whenever the moon was full just like a werewolf. Also,
his skin was originally grey.) Most of the exciting comic book tales revolved
around Army General Thunderbolt Ross’s obsessive need to find and capture the
destructive, but good-hearted Hulk who he felt was a danger to the country he
had sworn to protect.
Flash forward 15 years. After achieving great
success writing and directing episodes of the super-popular cyborg television
series The Six Million Dollar Man as
well as creating and producing its sister show The Bionic Woman, Kenneth Johnson received a call from Universal
Television head Frank Price. Price, who had just acquired the rights to five
Marvel Comics superhero titles, asked Johnson to pick one that he’d like to
develop for TV, but Johnson, who was not a comic book follower, declined.
However, while reading Victor Hugo’s Les
Miserables, Johnson thought about how he could combine the structure of
that book with the characters of Bruce Banner and the Hulk while, at the same
time, going for a more realistic approach than the comic book.
First of all, Johnson knew that he didn’t
want any connection to comic book styles and, so, he immediately eliminated
everything from the comics except for the main character of Banner (which he
renamed David in order to avoid comic book alliteration) and the fact that, due
to radiation poisoning, he metamorphoses into a hulking green creature whenever
he becomes angry or endures great pain. (Johnson originally wanted to change
the Hulk’s skin color to red, but Marvel vetoed the idea due to the already
well-known look of their popular comic book character.) He then eliminated
scientist Banner’s ties to the military and, instead, made him a California
physician who was desperately trying to uncover the secret as to why, while
trying to save another human life, certain people acquired almost superhuman
strength while others did not (like himself when, after a car accident, he
failed to turn over the flaming automobile and save his beloved wife). Also,
Johnson not only eliminated the Hulk’s Tarzan-like
speech and, except for growls, kept the creature mute, but, in order to
maintain as much realism as possible, he made the Hulk less powerful than the
indestructible creature in the comics.
Kenneth Johnson (center) with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.
Banner (played brilliantly by two-time Emmy
Award nominee Bill Bixby who was Johnson’s first and only choice for the role)
soon discovers that the answer is due to having a low Gamma count, so he
immediately takes a higher dose. Unbeknownst to him, the equipment he used was
calibrated incorrectly and he wound up taking a much higher dose than
originally planned. This causes the change into an incredibly powerful, almost
Cro-Magnon-like, green-skinned creature that, although destructive, retains
Banner’s benevolence and does not kill (although, one day, it could
inadvertently kill someone which is Banner’s biggest fear). Johnson added an
Inspector Javert-like character in the form of tabloid reporter Jack McGee
(played by talented character actor and acting teacher Jack Colvin) who becomes
obsessed with learning about and capturing the Hulk (portrayed by legendary
bodybuilding champion Lou Ferrigno). Due to McGee’s zeal as well as Banner’s
burning desire for a cure, the good doctor’s colleague and unrequited love, Dr.
Elaina Marks (played beautifully by Susan Sullivan), is accidentally killed in
a lab explosion. However, McGee believes that Elaina (and Banner) was murdered
by the creature and, after informing the authorities, a warrant for murder is
put out for the Hulk. David Banner (a character with similarities to Jean
Valjean), now believed to be dead, begins to travel the country in search of a
cure while, at the same time, doing his best to avoid transforming into the
green-skinned goliath; for the transformations bring the intrepid Mr. McGee who
is always just one step behind him.
An intriguing, solid and perfect set-up for a
television series (and one that was used several times before in shows like
Quinn Martin’s classic series The
Fugitive starring David Janssen and The
Immortal starring Christopher George; both of which contain the Les Miserables structure of a benevolent
man on the run being pursued by a relentless authority figure). However, before
going to series, there would be a second TV-Movie of the week titled The Return of the Incredible Hulk (aka Death in the Family) which aired on
November 27th, 1977 (just weeks after the amazing (and just discussed)
original pilot, The Incredible Hulk,
which aired on Friday, November 4th, 1977). This entertaining movie
showed exactly how the future series episodes would play out. Banner, under an
assumed surname always beginning with the letter ‘B’, arrives in town looking
for work while simultaneously searching for a cure. He gets involved with other
people’s dilemmas, honestly tries to help them and, before long, is made to
change into his hulking alter ego who ultimately winds up saving the day (and,
many times, Banner’s life). More often than not, Mr. Magee shows up after the
first transformation (in the hour-long episodes, Banner always transforms
twice, but here (in a two-hour movie) he metamorphoses four times) and Banner
has the added headache of staying out of sight while the reporter is around.
After saying his goodbyes to those he’s helped, a usually penniless Banner
takes off alone, hitchhiking his way to a new town where he will continue to
search of a cure, help those in need and avoid contact with McGee and the