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
It would be almost four months before ol’ greenskin would be back on network television. The hour-long, weekly series The Incredible Hulk premiered on March 10, 1978 and was a ratings winner. Children loved the Hulk action while adults became absorbed in the serious, realistic, psychological drama that unfolded each week. Whether young or older, every viewer connected with the humanity and morality of Dr. David Banner who, in each episode, honestly tried to help others and always did what was right even if it meant that he might be captured. At its core, the show was about controlling your anger and the consequences that you may have to face if you don’t; a timeless and important theme that every viewer could relate to. Talented writer Karen Harris who, along with her equally talented writing partner Jill Sherman, wrote many of The Incredible Hulk’s entertaining episodes has said that Dr. Banner was a man with a condition that was out of his control. In this way, Banner is similar to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll or Curt Siodmak’s Lawrence Talbot aka the Wolf Man (both of which are referenced to at some point in the series). The Hulk can also be viewed as a metaphor for an inner demon such as alcoholism, drug addiction or the need to abuse a child (important subjects which were intelligently dealt with in three separate episodes; Alice in Disco Land, Metamorphosis and A Child in Need, respectively); all of which are illnesses that need to be gotten under control.
Due to the character of Dr. David Banner being an intelligent, sensitive, moralistic and likeable person, it’s no wonder that Kenneth Johnson chose television icon Bill Bixby for the all-important role. Bixby’s wholly convincing portrayal touched many viewers during the series’ four-year run and his immense talent, along with the show’s talented writers and directors, truly brought an incredible (pun intended) amount of humanity to the show. Producer Robert Bennett Steinhauer, who also served as 2nd unit director on Johnson’s The Bionic Woman, has stated that, “Bill really believed in the show and he worked very, very hard.” Jill Sherman wrote the touching third season episode The Psychic for guest star Brenda Benet (Bill Bixby’s ex-wife)at Bixby’s request because he wanted to show their young son that his parents could still get along.
As with Bill Bixby, the idea for casting the show was to get the best actors available who fit the well-written roles and not just hire someone because their name would bring in viewers. For the important role of tenacious reporter Jack McGee, incredibly talented actor and, at the time, Universal contract player Jack Colvin (Rooster Cogburn) was chosen. Colvin initially gave the character an appropriately semi-sleazy feel, but, as the series wore on, he (along with the writers) gradually (and wisely) began to make the completely Hulk-obsessed McGee more likeable.
As for the pivotal role of the Hulk, six-time (as of 1977) Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger was suggested, but, due to lacking a few inches in height, the role went to 7 ft. 2 television and film actor Richard Kiel (The Spy Who Loved Me). However, after filming a few scenes with the enormous actor, Johnson decided that Kiel, who had the height, but not the muscle, just didn’t resemble the Hulk enough. The role would have to be recast (a few long shots of Kiel can still be seen in the pilot film). 25-year-old Mr. Universe Lou Ferrigno, who was hard at work training for the 1977 Mr. Olympia contest, was offered the part and the rest, as they say, is history. Although intimidating and completely believable as the super powerful, green-skinned creature, Ferrigno, with no real acting experience at this point in time, also brought a gentle, child-like quality to his role. Once Lou decided that he’d like to try acting (in a role other than the Hulk), Karen Harris wrote the fun, fourth season episode King of the Beach which was partly based on Lou’s life story. In this entertaining episode, Ferrigno not only plays the Hulk, but also a pro bodybuilder who aspires to be a restaurant owner.
The prosthetic Hulk make-up which Lou Ferrigno wore in every episode was toned down halfway through the first season in order to give the creature a less Cro-Magnon-like appearance (and Lou less time in the make-up chair). Ferrigno was also made to wear green, waterproof body paint (this took two people and 45 minutes to apply) as well as a wig made of yak hair. Lou would then wear clothes that were a few sizes too small so that, when the camera rolled, he could easily tear them just by flexing his muscles which would give the illusion that during his incredible transformation, David Banner’s body was growing rapidly and ripping right through his clothing.
One of the most memorable images of the series was when Banner would become angry, endure great pain or be under extreme pressure which would trigger the Hulk transformation. When this happened, his eyes would turn white (Kenneth Johnson called this the point of no return) and the metamorphosis would begin (the change became known to the cast and crew as a “Hulk-out”). The white contact lenses which both Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno wore in each and every episode were quite painful and could only be worn for a few minutes at a time.
For the Hulk’s voice, series narrator Ted Cassidy did double duty by supplying the creature’s deep, powerful growls. After Cassidy’s unfortunate death in 1979, fellow actor Charles Napier (The Blues Brothers), who also appeared on the show (as well as in the first post-series Hulk reunion movie), took over as the voice of the Incredible Hulk.
Talented director of photography John McPherson (Batteries Not Included), who also directed several Hulk episodes; the best being the excellent Homecoming, gave the series a very cinematic look which caused certain two-part episodes to be released theatrically in Europe.
Besides Karen Harris, Jill Sherman, Robert Bennett Steinhauer and the multi-talented Kenneth Johnson, The Incredible Hulk was aided by many talented writers, producers and directors. Here are some of the series’ best: Richard Matheson (writer), Richard Christian Matheson (writer), Reuben Leder (writer), Frank Dandridge (writer), Craig Buck (writer), Andrew Schneider (writer), Allan Cole (writer), Chris Bunch (writer), Jim Hirsch (writer/producer), Alan J. Levi (director), Kenneth Gilbert (director), Reza Badiyi (director), Sigmund Neufeld Jr. (director), Frank Orsatti (director), Barry Crane (director), Nicholas Corea (writer/producer/director), James Parriott (writer/producer/director), Chuck Bowman (writer/director); not to mention episodes which were directed by actor L.Q. Jones and series regulars Bill Bixby and Jack Colvin.
The Incredible Hulk never hurt for acting talent either. Some of the series’ best guest stars were Susan Sullivan, Gerald McRaney, William Daniels, Martin Kove, Jeremy Brett, Bill Bixby’s former co-stars Brandon Cruz (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian), Andrew Robinson, Donna Wilkes, Denny Miller, Pat Morita, Ernie Hudson, Tony Burton, Austin Stoker, Rick Springfield, Mako, Sherman Hemsley, Kim Cattrall, Mackenzie Phillips, L.Q. Jones, Esther Rolle, Diana Muldaur, John Marley, Bradford Dillman, Anne Lockhart, Robert Donner (husband of Hulk writer Jill Sherman), Cameron Mitchell, Harry Townes, Don Stroud, Suzanne Charney, Paul Koslo, Dick Durock, Jeanette Nolan, John McIntire, Laurie Prange, Bill Lucking, Sandy McPeak and, last, but certainly not least, Mariette Hartley (who won an Emmy Award for best actress in a drama series due to her magnificent performance in the second season opener Married), just to name a few.
The show’s wonderful and memorable musical score was created by talented composer Joe Harnell (The Bionic Woman). Of particular note is Harnell’s now iconic theme called “The Lonely Man” which expertly captured Banner’s isolation and sadness. This simple yet effective piano theme always played at the end of each episode as Banner, once again alone, attempted to hitchhike his way to a new town.
Although the series was still a ratings winner after four wonderful seasons, new CBS President Harvey Shepherd felt the show was tired and foolishly decided to cancel it. In May of 1981, The Incredible Hulk was no more. However, between October of 1981 and May of 1982, the last seven unaired episodes of season four were finally broadcast and are considered by many to be a mini fifth season. Still, that wasn’t the end. From 1988 to 1990, Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno would return to television (this time on NBC) in three, two-hour Incredible Hulk reunion movies (the last two being directed by Bill Bixby). Although these three movies followed the format of the TV show, they were really used as steppingstones for other Marvel heroes like The Mighty Thor and Daredevil.
Over the years, the Hulk continued to appear in comic books, cartoons and, more recently, in several mega-budgeted, state of the art special effects-filled Hollywood movies. I’m happy to say that with all the Hulk action that has gone on since the series was cancelled; none of it has surpassed Kenneth Johnson’s intelligent, heartfelt and thoroughly entertaining TV show.
The show itself was much more than anyone expected and, although many critics have mentioned the adult drama portion of the series, very few have talked about the positive influence the show has had on young viewers (as well as adults). While sitting in front of our television sets, waiting to see the Hulk appear, we would become involved in the benevolent character of Dr. Banner who, no matter what the consequences would be, always, ALWAYS did what was right and continued to help those who needed it. The Incredible Hulk’s positivity is something that is much needed today in the world of television. The important lessons that this great show taught the children of the 1970s still stay with us to this day and for that I am very grateful. I am also extremely honored to be
paying tribute to this well-loved television series this month which is the
40th anniversary of the pilot film; not to mention having had the opportunity
to interview the show’s guiding force, Mr. Kenneth Johnson.
Certain things spring to mind when we hear the word hero. In real life, we think of policemen, firemen, teachers, etc. In movies we often think of people like John Wayne, James Bond, Dirty Harry or superheroes like Superman or Spider-man. But it’s extremely rare that we think of a television producer. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure that anyone ever does. However, there’s always an exception to a rule and, in this case, that exception would be legendary writer/director/producer/creator Kenneth Johnson. Johnson, an intelligent, passionate, sensitive, fun and extremely talented artist, did more than just entertain audiences and create ratings winners. Through arguably his most well-loved television creation, The Incredible Hulk, Johnson educated his audiences by not only creating a wholly positive and benevolent main character, but also uplifting stories which solved problems in a non-violent way. As already mentioned, the television icon also created special episodes at least once a season which dealt with extremely important issues.
For these reasons, he has been a hero of mine (since I was eight-years-old and watched the pilot film in 1977), so it was an enormous thrill and a great honor to be able to sit down with him and talk about The Incredible Hulk as we approached the show’s 40th anniversary. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the man who had all 70s kids pretending to run and jump in slow motion, was just a regular guy and a truly nice person who was more than happy to take time out of his busy schedule to answer questions about my favorite of all his works. Johnson goes into detail about some of the creative problems he faced while working on the show; his love of nurturing new talent; how his positive stories and characters have affected others; working with Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno and Stan Lee; his thoughts on the 21st century Hulk movies, and creating one of the most memorable and iconic lines of dialogue in television history, just to name a few.
EM: Let’s start with the two made-for-TV movies. The pilot is my favorite of the entire series and I also love “Death in the Family” (the second 2-hour telefilm), but was it necessary to make that one or did Universal already know from “The Incredible Hulk” pilot that it would become a series?
KJ: No. What happened was that the original buy from CBS was for two movies and I chose to do it in a way that the first one would be the genesis and the second one would show how it would work as a series. Now, the amusing aspect of that is after we had done that and it was so clear how it would work, Bud Grant, who was president of CBS at the time, didn’t understand how it could possibly be a series.
KJ: (Laughs) Yeah. And Frank Price, who was the head of Universal and an old time producer and a longtime head of television, just looked at me wondering how we could possibly make this any clearer to Grant. (Laughs) I think it took us three meetings with Bud Grant at CBS to finally convince him to try it as a series, but he still didn’t have any faith in it.
EM: It’s strange that it took so long for him to see the huge potential it had as a series. I mean, “The Fugitive” with David Janssen had a very similar structure and was so successful; not to mention “Les Miserables.” Did he feel that “The Incredible Hulk” was too close to the structure of those two?
KJ: No. I mean The Fugitive was perhaps also drawn from Les Miserables, but I had never really seen much of that show because it was on at a time when I was busy at college. When The Hulk came about, I was in the middle of reading Les Miserables which my wife Susie had given to me and suddenly it just clicked. I could take Victor Hugo and, also, certain bits from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the whole idea of Greek tragic hubris; he idea that here is a man (Dr. Banner) tampering with things that the Gods are not happy about and he brings down the curse upon himself which is way better than having him accidentally fall into a gamma bomb explosion. (Laughs) Go figure that one out.
EM:Yeah, he wouldn’t have survived that one.
KJ: (Laughs) No.
EM: You originally wanted the Hulk’s skin to be red instead of green like it is in the comics. I was thinking about the first transformation in the pilot film which is a nighttime sequence. How do you think the red would have photographed at night? Do you think it would have shown up as well as the green did?
KJ: Oh, yeah. It would have been in the same tonality and that would not have been a problem.
EM: And you don’t think the red would have made him look too scary?
KJ: Well, first of all, I never understood why he wasn’t named “The Envious Hulk” or “The Jealous Hulk.” (Laughs) I mean, the color of rage is red. We get flushed with anger.
EM: That’s right. Even though I’m a fan of the comic book, I totally agree with that.
KJ: But no, I don’t think he would’ve looked too scary. It wouldn’t have been a problem. I think we still would have had the same problem finding makeup that would work, though. For the first two movies, Lou Ferrigno was in greasepaint and, oh, my God, it got all over everything.
EM: I can imagine. I was also curious about the show’s format. Most television shows at this time had a very rigid format, but, had “The Hulk” not been cancelled, would the format have changed at all?
KJ: No, the series would have gone on the same. We had half a dozen more episodes ready to go, but another “genius” named Harvey Shepherd took over as president of CBS right at that moment and canceled the show. I’m sure you’ve heard those stories.
EM: Yeah, I did. He was ridiculous.
KJ: It’s like “get over it, Harvey.” (Laughs) But the show had a lot of life in it and, I don’t know if you’ve heard this or not, but I even told him that I had a season opener that would take everybody’s head off. My idea was that the sister of David Banner is dying of a congenital blood disease and can only survive with sibling blood which, in David’s case, is unfortunately contaminated. David gives her a transfusion and we’d have a Hulk-like woman who is really crazy, scary and dangerous, but human. But Harvey whined, “I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”
KJ: Harvey did not last very long in the job.
EM: If he had approved it, were you planning to have her spinoff into her own series?
KJ: No, I hadn’t even thought that far. I was just saying here’s a cool idea that is totally organic to the show and we had already introduced the fact that David had a sister in season three (episode 8: Homecoming), so it was logical. In the whole run of The Hulk what I kept trying to hold on to, Ernie, was logic. George Burns once told me that if you’re gonna tell a lie put as much truth into it as you can. So, we stayed as logical as we could. No robot bears (like Stan Lee once suggested). (Laughs) It’s a big buy. Adult audiences will only give you so many buys. Young kids will buy anything, but I never designed it to be a show for kids. I wanted to do an adult, psychological drama.
EM: It’s funny because I was only eight-years-old when I saw the pilot. I watched it the night it aired and I loved it, but I’m surprised that I stuck with it because it really is an adult drama. He only becomes the Hulk for a few minutes here and there, but still, I was just enthralled by the entire movie. I loved it and still do.
KJ: Well, thank you very much, Ernie. I appreciate it. It startled a lot of people. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this story, but my wife, Susie, who at the time was working for Phil DeGuere doing Baa Baa Black Sheep, overheard Phil and Steve Cannell talking in Phil’s office and Steve said, “Have you read Kenny’s script for this Hulk thing?” and Phil said, “Yeah. He’s got to be crazy. What is he thinking?” (Laughs) Well, the door was open and Susie couldn’t help overhearing, so she went into the office and said, “You know, guys, you might wanna think twice about talking quite so loud if that’s how you feel.” But Steve and Phil, who were dear friends of mine until their deaths, were writers and, so, they were coming at it from a writing standpoint and when they saw a script where there was no dialogue for the first nine or ten pages, they didn’t get it. They said, “This can’t work. Where’s the talking? Where’s the dialogue?” But I always approached it more cinematically and as a director.
Lou Ferrigno and Kenneth Johnson.
EM: I remember that the opening was beautiful because there wasn’t a bit of dialogue, but we very clearly got Banner’s backstory as well as his motivation for what he does later in the film all visually.
KJ: That was the intent and, also, it sucked you in with Bill’s brilliant performance. When he wakes up from the dream, it’s stunning.
EM: Oh, yeah. It was beautiful.
KJ: And it really startled a lot of people when they saw it because it just wasn’t what they were expecting. And it took almost a full year before audiences and critics alike began to notice. I remember the review we got for Married which opened the second season where Bill and Mariette Hartley eventually got married because she’s dying. You know the whole thing. I think the Variety review said, “Maybe it’s happened while nobody’s noticed, but The Hulk has become one of the best dramatic shows on television.” I said, “Yes! That’s it! Finally!”
EM: I’m surprised it took them that long.
KJ: Well, you know, I think when you hear a title like The Incredible Hulk…(Laughs) I didn’t want to have anything to do with it either. And then Mariette won the Emmy for Best Actress and people started to realize that this show was more than what they perceived it to be. What happened was that the kids would tune in to see the big green guy go through a wall, but very quickly the adult audiences said, “Wait a minute. There’s something else going on here.”
EM: Yeah, audiences of all ages seemed to love it. I would watch it with my dad and he enjoyed it just as much as I did.
KJ: The fascinating thing and you probably know this, but over half the audience was women.
EM: I heard that recently.
KJ: Well, that’s been true with everything I’ve ever done in television or film which is unusual in the world of science fiction or speculative fiction or whatever you wanna call it because it’s thought of more as boys stuff. But from The Bionic Woman through The Hulk through V and through Alien Nation,over half the audience has always been female and strongly so.
EM: I think it has to do with your characters. Your characters are very strong.
KJ: Yeah and it’s also the emotional structure of the piece and the relationships and that sort of thing. I’ve just always been more interested in that than in car chases and explosions.
EM:That’s pretty easy. I mean, I can write car chases and explosions in my sleep, but characterization and character interactions are much harder to do.
KJ: Well, that’s it. I mean V was never about aliens and lizard people. It was about power. And, so, The Hulk was always about the enemy within. And that’s what we always tried to write to: what makes this a Hulk episode?
EM: Most of the best ones, in my opinion, were the two-part episodes, but you had plenty of great, solid one-hour shows that were terrific and not just the usual stuff like Banner accidentally getting involved with gangsters, getting his butt kicked, thrown in a dumpster and Hulking-out.
KJ: (Laughs) One of the solid ones people always mention to me is A Child in Need.
EM: That’s a great episode.
KJ: I had a huge fight with CBS over that one. They didn’t want to do it because they felt that there were no bad guys. (Shakes his head in disbelief)
EM: That’s so strange because it really is one the best and most memorable episodes. Was it always your intention to do a special episode about child abuse?
KJ: Yes. I mean, the Hulk beating up on an adult is the same as an adult beating up on a child. It was a perfect parallel. It just made sense. And we got a really good script from Frank Dandridge, and Jim Parriott did a brilliant job directing it. I think it was his first time directing. And Bill and the cast were solid. I’ve gotten hundreds of letters from people who were in an abusive relationship and they told me how that episode just struck home, pardon the pun, and that was exciting to be able to do that kind of thing.
EM: Well, you did one almost every season which is great. You did the one about teenage alcoholism with Donna Wilkes (Alice in Disco Land) and then the one with Mackenzie Phillips about drug addiction (Metamorphosis).
KJ: When we were doing Alien Nation, Gary Graham, who played the lead on that show, said to me, “I don’t know if you remember, but I’m the guy (from Metamorphosis) who slipped the LSD in David Banner’s orange juice.” (Laughs) I said, “Oh, my God! That’s right, Gary! I forgot about that!”
KJ: But the idea was that the Hulk comes in different shapes. We wrote a script for Tommy Madden who is a little person and his character was angry about being a little person. He had his own demons going on. It was always challenging to try to go that way, but you can’t always do it when you’re doing 88 hours of television in a slam dunk and the Universal attitude is “we don’t want it good, we want it Thursday.”
EM: I know. Time is always a problem. How long did it take to film a one-hour episode?
KJ: The Hulk was the first eight-day, episodic television show. I was responsible for two landmark events in television. One was when I went to Frank Price and said, “You want to do The Bionic Woman? It’s gonna be a seven day show.” Frank said, “No, you don’t understand, Ken, episodic television is only six days.” which is what it was at that time. And I said, “Well, Frank, I don’t think it’s gonna happen.” And Frank said, “Well, you’ve got to make it happen.” I never did. It was always seven. So, now we’re doing The Hulk and I want an eight-day shoot and Frank says, “No. Now you’re going too far. So, most everybody’s doing seven-day episodes now, but episodic television is like a sonnet. It has 16 lines. If it’s more than that, it’s not a sonnet.” I said, “Yes, Frank, but when Homer wrote The Iliad he didn’t choose the sonnet form. (Laughs) There’s just too much stuff with make-up and explosions and special effects on this show. And sure enough, The Hulk became the first eight-day episodic television show. So, I was responsible for the first seven-day series and the first eight-day series.
EM:Very nice. I shudder to think what those episodes would have been like if you had to bring them in in six or seven days.
KJ: They either would have been terrible or they never would have gotten finished.
EM: Now, I know that if you had gotten to write a final episode, you would have had Banner finally find a cure.
KJ: That’s right.
EM:I was always curious and I don’t know if you ever thought of this, but did you also have a way to wrap things up with the whole Mr. McGee…
KJ: No. (Laughs) I didn’t have a clue. I had always had it in the back of my head that if we did get a cancellation and we had it in time, that we would try to do an episode that brought the series to a satisfying psychological end. At the same time, I’m not sure how thrilled Marvel would have been about that, but Universal owned the television rights, so I think Universal could have done whatever they wanted. I certainly would have gone into some counsel with Stan Lee at that point and invited him into it, but I think he would have said, “Well, you know, Kenny, we really wanna keep this comic book going. It’s selling a lot of dolls and stuff.” So, I don’t know how it would have worked out or how I would have done it, but listen, I didn’t know how I was gonna bring the Bionic Woman back to life either.
EM: But you did it.
EM: And I thank you for it because little six-year-old me was extremely upset when she died. I couldn’t concentrate in school the next day. I couldn’t eat…Well, that’s not true. I could eat.
EM: To be honest, though, I don’t think curing Banner and ending the series would have hurt the comic book at all. I mean, I was a kid during the whole run of the series and I was also reading the comics, but I never really associated one with the other because they were two totally different things.
KJ: Yeah, you’re right.
EM: And the comic was already successful, so, I don’t think it really would have hurt it.
KJ: No. I don’t think so either, but we definitely would have striven to give the audience something of a payoff.
EM: I’m sure it would have been interesting. Now, the show always aired on a Friday, but I remember it airing briefly on Wednesdays. I think it was the first few episodes of season three. Why was that?
KJ: To be honest, I don’t remember. I remember us switching from 9pm to 8pm at one point, but I don’t remember the Wednesday thing. But, you know, they’re always trying to figure out how to reinvent the wheel. When they’re rolling along splendidly then all of a sudden they want to change it. Like the time they hired this English guy who couldn’t get work in England, so he came over to Universal (laughs) and went to Frank or whoever was running Universal at the time and said, “I can save you millions of dollars.” Later on, he called me and said, “Listen, Kenny, from now on, you and all the rest of the producers on the lot are gonna have to produce your shows for exactly what the license fee is.” And I said, “Ok.” And he said, “Really?” Oh, maybe you know this story too.
Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno on the set.
EM: Is that when he wanted you to produce the same exact show for less money?
KJ: That’s right. And I said, “I can do a show for ten dollars or ten thousand dollars or ten million dollars and you can call it The Hulk, but it won’t look like The Hulk. So, who’s gonna go to CBS and tell them that there’s only gonna be one Hulk-out per episode instead of two?” He starts screaming, “Oh, no! It has to be the same show!” I said, “It can’t be done.” He said, “Well, you’re suspended!” I said, “Ok.” So, he called my next producer, Nick Corea, and Nick was less polite. He just said, “Fuck you.”
KJ: And then he was suspended too. The next day Bill Bixby’s back was bothering him and he couldn’t quite get to the set and pretty soon it all went away including the English guy who vanished into oblivion.
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO OF ERNIE MAGNOTTA'S ARTICLE.