(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.
EM: Still a hero. That’s
KJ: He’s a great guy.
Ted Cassidy, seen here in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969).
EM: Now, in addition to doing the main title narration every week, Ted Cassidy also provided the sounds of the Hulk. How did you meet Ted?
KJ: I met Ted when we couldn’t get Andre the Giant to return as Bigfoot on The Six Million Dollar Man because he was making too much money wrestling. (Laughs) Ted was a big guy. He was like seven-foot, two-inches tall or something like that, but he certainly didn’t have the mass that Andre did. But I really liked Ted and I discovered that he had this voice that came from the center of the earth. It was like way down deep. So, when we were doing The Hulk, I asked him if he would do the voice and do the main title for us which he did for a couple of years. After he died, they asked me if I wanted to get somebody else to do the main title narration and I said, “No!” It goes to Ted’s estate and, bless his heart, he should continue to reap the benefits of it.
KJ: And then, Charlie Napier who, by then, I had worked with and who also had one of those big, wonderful, deep voices, started doing the growls which we then pitched down even further on the dubbing stage.
EM: I was always a fan of his work. He just seemed to be in everything throughout the 70s and 80s.
KJ: Great actor and a terrific guy.
EM:Now, you know there’s no way that I’m not going to ask you about the “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” line. I’m guessing that when you wrote the pilot you thought it was a good, solid line, but I’m sure you didn’t think that it would become a part of pop culture and would still be used to this day.
KJ: (Laughs) Of course not. I mean, who expects to create an iconic line for God’s sake? But when I was writing it I thought it was a funny line. You probably know this story, but what you see in that scene is take two. In the first take, Bill came hustling Jack McGee out of the laboratory and he’s playing it angry. “Mr. McGee, don’t me angry! You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!”
EM: No, I didn’t know that. So, he just toned it down the second time?
KJ: Exactly. I went up to him and I said, “Bix, it’s a joke.” And he said, “Oh. Great. Ok.” And then he went back and underplayed it marvelously. It was great. He just nailed it. And, so, when I was putting the main title together, it occurred to me that it would be wonderful to use that line because it had a little bit of a sense of irony and humor about it and showed us a little bit of David Banner’s character. It was really revelatory of so much. I also remember standing at the moviola and realizing that ‘anger’ was part of ‘danger’.
EM: I remember you mentioning that on the DVD audio commentary for the pilot film and I thought about how stupid I was because I would watch that every week and yet I never noticed it. (Laughs) And it was brilliant because that was one of the main themes of the show; controlling your anger or things could become dangerous.
KJ: Well, it’s funny because I was standing at the moviola with Alan Marks and we were cutting the main title together and I looked at it and said, “Oh, duh.” (Laughs)
EM: I know. It’s like right in front of you and you don’t even realize.
KJ: It’s right in front of you and ‘anger’ is part of ‘danger’, so it was a funny moment. But yeah, the main title stuck and that line has become really iconic. It’s been a question on Jeopardy; Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did a movie called Dogma where they even named a character McGee so, at one point, they could say the whole line.
EM: I remember that. Recently, my friend’s son was watching a Spider-man cartoon and, of course, the Hulk was in it and one of the characters said the line, so it just shows up everywhere.
KJ: Well, in 2003, when they did the first Hulk movie, which was such a disaster, I got a cold call from a guy I had never met. He was a writer in New York and he said, “Kenny, I just wanna let you know that I am one of the 10 or 12 writers that worked on this script over the 10 years it was in development and I’ve been to several screenings of the movie here in New York and the only line that gets a rise out of the audience was your line.” And I don’t know if you’ve heard this story, but Susie and I went to the premiere and we wanted to crawl out the back so we wouldn’t have to say anything to anybody because the movie was so bad. We figured it would be good because Ang Lee is a big director, but he was miscast. It happens. Anyway, one of the guys from Variety caught me on the way out and said, “Mr. Johnson, don’t make me Ang Lee. You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ang Lee.”
EM: (Big laughs) No, I never heard that. I love it.
KJ: Yeah, it’s priceless; true story too. Don’t make me Ang Lee.
EM: I’m so happy that the two big, Hollywood Hulk films didn’t overshadow the series at all.
KJ: Well, that’s because both films tanked. I think they both had a very strong opening weekend which is always what everybody’s looking for, but both of them suffered the same fate. The second weekend they were out, the falloff was like 75%. It was the highest week to week falloff of any opening movie ever, I think, in Hollywood. And it’s because they just missed the essence of what made it work. That was part of the problem. The other part was that you just can’t put a big CGI green guy in the real world and have it play. It doesn’t work. It works in The Avengers because he’s surrounded by aliens and Thor.
EM: Yeah, the solo films just didn’t work very well. I liked the second film better than the first.
KJ: Well, I know that Ed Norton and Louis Leterrier (the director) talked a lot about trying to go back to what I had done originally and they even built sets that matched my original sets. It was astonishing to see the homage and in the first two-thirds of the trailer I’m thinking that they might have pulled it off, but then a big CGI hand comes up through the concrete.
EM: That’s always a problem. But I do remember that they had Ed Norton in the chair just like Bill Bixby from the pilot.
KJ: Yeah, they built the whole rig.
EM: And they even used Joe Harnell’s music, right?
KJ: That would not surprise me. I think that was in there too.
EM: That’s probably why I liked the second film better because it was more like the TV series.
KJ: Well, that’s it. They tried. I gotta give them that.
EM: Still, most people really disliked the two films and I was surprised at how much they screwed up such a great concept.
KJ: They didn’t work because they missed the heart and the essence of what we were going for. I mean, look at when they remade my Bionic Woman in 2008.
EM: Just from seeing the commercials I knew I wasn’t gonna like it.
KJ: Oh, no. And it’s funny because the head of Warner’s TV said, “Kenny, the show is tracking through the roof!” This is before it got on the air. And I said, “Have you seen the pilot?” He said, “No. It doesn’t matter. The numbers are fantastic! This is gonna be the biggest hit in the history of western civilization!” I said, “I’ve seen the pilot. It doesn’t work and it’s not gonna work. It’s gonna crash and burn. It has no humanity, no humor and no heart.” But I have to say that when the show did crash and burn and was gone in eight or nine weeks, (executive producer/creator) David Eick, to his credit, did some interviews where he said that they totally blew it and they didn’t know what the show was about.
EM: At least he admitted it.
KJ: Yeah. He’s a standup guy
EM: Now, Stan Lee is always listed as a consultant on the show, but did he actually have any input?
KJ: No, not really. At the beginning I sent him a couple of scripts just so he could see what we were doing. (This is when that robot bear was suggested.) And Stan got it and he was on board with it. He was a little miffed about Bruce Banner’s name being changed to David Banner, though, but he understood what I was trying to do and get away from the alliteration of comic book names.
EM: I always remembered him praising the show.
KJ: Stan, bless his heart, has never had anything but tremendous praise for what we did. But I would not have put the show on the air without putting Stan’s name on it. I mean fair is fair.
EM: Yeah. He not only created the Hulk, but so many other iconic, heroic characters. It’s amazing.
KJ: And he got screwed several times by those people. I don’t think he ever made the money he should have made off of it.
EM: Well, hopefully he made up for it with all the non-stop Marvel movies and TV shows that have been made over the last 15 years.
KJ: Yeah, just the cameos alone. (Laughs)
EM: (Laughs) I love waiting for him to pop up in those shows…Tell me about the Rick Springfield episode (The Disciple). Was that supposed to spin-off into a series?
KJ: We were trying to make it work that way. That’s the one Nick Corea wrote as I recall. Nick had an idea that it could go to series and I said, “Hey, run with it.” Unfortunately, it didn’t fly. The Hulk was not an easy show to do a spin-off from. (Laughs)
EM: Gerald McRaney was in that episode as well as three others.
KJ: (Smiles at some happy memories) We were always writing stuff for Mackie. Early on, I started reading with all the actors for anything that I would be directing myself. I didn’t have the casting director read with them. I did it myself. Anyway, when Mackie came in to read for the part of the foreman in Death in the Family, he did this really strong read and he bent me backwards over my desk at Universal and I said, “Okay! Okay! You can have the part!”
KJ: We all loved him. He’s such a fine actor. And then Nick wrote that wonderful Janus kind of story.
EM:Oh, yeah “Deathmask.” That was a good one.
KJ: Yes. And Mackie was so reliable. He became a mainstay and then, of course, he took off on his own. But he’s always remained a good guy. The last time I saw him was at Steve Cannell’s funeral. We were there together mourning the way-too-early loss of our dear friend.
EM:I’m sorry about that.
KJ: Thank you.
EM:I was curious about the episode “Never Give a Trucker an Even Break.” Tell me about the footage from Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” which shows up quite a bit in the episode.
KJ: Well, we were always under the gun to make the episodes as cheap as we could and yet make them look as big as we could. And what I discovered early on doing the bionic shows was that anything that was in the Universal film library, we had access to as long as we didn’t use any actor’s faces. And if we used a stunt then we had to pay the stuntman a residual, but it was cheaper than doing the stunt again. So, the first time I did it on The Six Million Dollar Man was because I wanted to put Lee Majors in a lumberjack arena because it seemed like a cool place to have a bionic guy. Anyway, Universal had just done this movie a year earlier called Sometimes a Great Notion with Paul Newman and Richard Jaeckel and they had shot this sensational footage of logging stuff up in Oregon. They had hours of great film. So, I went in and looked at all the footage and I figured out a way that we could intercut their stock footage with stuff that we would shoot to make it work. We did that several times. And, in those days, once a movie had aired in a theater you didn’t see it again. This was before home video, so maybe there would be a television run and that would be it. And for television movies; once they ran, nobody ever saw them again, so you could get away with it.
Johnson used footage from the 1971 film "Sometimes a Great Notion" starring Paul Newman and Richard Jaeckel, to add some grandeur to an episode of "The Incredible Hulk".
EM:Yeah. Unless you’re extremely familiar with “Duel”, you have no clue that the footage wasn’t filmed for “The Hulk.” It matches up perfectly.
KJ: Well, that’s it. I did the same thing with Airport ’75 for the whole 747 episode of The Hulk. And when I was doing Prometheus, I wanted a big opening for that and I remembered this stock footage from The Parallax View of Warren Beatty having a fight with this guy as water is being released from a dam above them. It’s spectacular stuff. So, I dressed Bix in exactly the same costume that Warren Beatty had been in and the adversary was a cop who was dressed in khaki. Warren Beatty had a fight with him and they ended up in the water being washed down through the white water rapids. So, again, we dressed Laurie Prange in khaki and intercut the stock footage and suddenly the episode looks bigger. And with Never Give a Trucker an Even Break, I had Duel in the back of my head partly because, before I got connected anywhere, this would be in the mid-70s just before I went to Universal, I read a magazine story one night by Richard Matheson who I later met and whose son later worked with me. So, I called Steven Bochco and told him, “This could be a great TV movie.” Steve read it and agreed and he mentioned it to George Eckstein who was a producer friend of his and before Steven and I could get our hands on it, Eckstein tied up the rights and they gave it to Steven Spielberg to direct who did a brilliant Job. But it was frustrating. I was saying, “Wait a minute! What happened to our movie?” (Laughs) But when I put the Duel footage into the Hulk episode, I wasn’t looking at it as payback or anything like that. It was just footage I could use because it was just sitting there collecting dust.
EM: And it helped make a really fun episode...Let’s wrap things up by talking a little bit about Karen Harris and Jill Sherman. I mean, these ladies wrote so many episodes that I love. I was just curious about how they became part of the show and what you think they brought to it.
KJ: Well, Robert Harris was head of Universal Television at the time that we started doing the show and he said, “Kenny, my sister Karen and her writing partner are just starting out and they would really like to pitch you some ideas for the show.” And I said, “Yeah, of course. Let them come in.” And they came and pitched me a story and it was pretty good. So, I told them to write the story and they did a few drafts of it and then we went to script and the script was a mess. It just didn’t really work and I literally had to do a page one rewrite where I’m going through line by line on every page. But, when I finished it, I called them in and I said, “Look, I’m gonna show you what I did and why I did it, so you just won’t think that it was me trying to mess with your stuff.” Then I took them through it and they were so appreciative because they were really just young kids starting out. We were all young kids. (Laughs) But a week later, Karen called and said, “Listen, we have another story we’d like to pitch.” And I’m saying to myself, “Oh, God.”
KJ: But they came in and pitched it and it was a pretty good story. So, I said, “Go for it.” And the next script was a lot better. They were really getting the hang of it and, pretty soon after that, we hired them as story editors. The next season I moved them up to executive story consultants and I kept moving them up until they were producing the show. And they deserved it because they were quick learners and they got it. I love being able to do that, Ernie. To find people who have the chops and give them a shot and let them run.
EM: I think there are a lot of talented people like that. They just need that opportunity by someone who is creatively nurturing and really knows what he’s doing.
KJ: That’s exactly right. And by someone who’s willing to take the time to do it. That’s the thing. But we were also working on a time limit and it wasn’t like nowadays where there are 44 executive producers and 35 producers and 12 supervising producers. What do all those people do? (Laughs) I’ve never figured it out. I mean, when we were doing The Bionic Woman it was me, Jim Parriott, a story editor and a couple of outside writers and that was it! And The Hulk was the same way. It was me and Jim again for a while, but, there was no big writer’s room! I look back now and think, “How did we do it? Were we that good or…?”
EM: You all were definitely that good. And I’m sure that all any television show needs is a small group of talented and dedicated people.
KJ: Well, it wasn’t just me that was doing it that way. Cannell was doing Rockford that way and Baa Baa Black Sheep was operating the same way. Then occasionally a good writer would come in. I remember when Susie was working for Phil DeGuere and this guy Bellisario kept hanging around.
EM: Donald Bellisario?
KJ: Yeah. He was an ex-Marine trying to be a writer and he couldn’t sell shit. He was ready to give up and finally Phil let him do a script which he did and it ended up being pretty good. And pretty soon he was a staff writer. And pretty soon he was Donald Bellisario!
EM: And now he’s done so much. “Quantum Leap” was a favorite.
KJ: Great show. Writer’s Guild Magazine did an article a few years ago called “The Class of 1980.” That’s what we used to think of ourselves as; the class of 1980 of Universal University. It was me, Bochco, Cannell, Glen Larson and Bellisario. It was a great place to learn. It was like graduate school with pay.
EM: That’s perfect.
Lou Ferrigno and Kenneth Johnson on the set.
KJ: Yeah. And I got in there because of my connection to Steve Bochco. We were in college together. When I first got out here after producing The Mike Douglas Show back east when I was only 24-years-old, I said, “Here I am! I’m ready to make movies!” And Hollywood said, “How about a talk show? That’s what you’ll do.” I said, “No, I’m a film director.” And they said, “Oh, yeah? Well, show us some film you’ve directed.” And it was Bochco who said, “Kenny, if you start writing, you can control your destiny a little bit.” And I whined, “But writing’s hard, Steve!” (Laughs) But I discovered that I could and he helped me along and introduced me to Cannell and to Harve Bennett at Six Million Dollar Man. I really owe Steve Bochco a huge debt of gratitude. I always try to remember to mention him because I wouldn’t be here now talking to you if it wasn’t for him. Or my career would have taken a lot longer to get going. That’s for sure.
EM: I could honestly sit here for hours listening to more of these wonderful stories, but I know you’re extremely busy, so I just want to thank you for agreeing to this interview, Kenny. It honestly meant a lot to me and I know that your fans and all the fans of the show are gonna enjoy reading it.
KJ: Thanks, Ernie. I had a lot of fun.
The characters of David Banner and the Hulk along with the acting talents of Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno are who kids of the 1970s remember as being TV heroes. They’re not wrong at all, but, in my opinion, the biggest hero of 1970s television is, without a doubt, Mr. Kenneth Johnson.
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.