The CBS television series “The Incredible Hulk” launched the coveted Friday night time slot on CBS, followed by “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Dallas” (which starred Larry Hagman, who was the studio’s original choice for David Banner). It was one of the most successful and longest-running superhero shows on television during that era.
The show was born in 1977 when Universal Television approached Kenneth Johnson, who would eventually go on to create hit sci-fi properties like “V” and “Alien Nation,” to develop a show based on some characters from the Marvel universe. Inspired by the book Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Johnson came up with his own version of the popular comic book “The Incredible Hulk.”
Two Bs or Not 2 Bs
In the television series, the Hulk’s alter-ego is named David Banner rather than Bruce Banner. Several reasons have been given for this, from both sides of the argument. The most popular among comic book fans is that Kenneth Johnson and TV executives felt that the name Bruce wasn’t very manly.
However, Johnson has gone on record to say that he used the name David to honor his late son and to give a nod to the fact that the show would not be entirely like the comic book. It has also been noted that Johnson didn’t like the comic book tradition of having characters with alliterated named (e.g., Peter Parker, Reed Richards, Clark Kent, etc.). The show did, however, allow Banner to keep Bruce as a middle name, as seen on the tombstone in the opening credits.
Other Differences from the Comic Book
Instead of drawing completely from the original source material, Johnson fashioned a show that reduced much of the science fiction and comic book elements. He stripped the property of many recurring characters to go with a series similar to “The Fugitive” in which the protagonist was on the run with a relentless character tracking him throughout the series.
Jack McGee, played by Jack Colvin, was a reporter that relentlessly pursued the Hulk, thinking he was responsible for the death of David Banner. Johnson was inspired by Javert from Les Miserables when he created the character of McGee.
David Banner also came from the medical field rather than nuclear physics. He was also not bombarded by radiation as a result of an explosion, but rather during a laboratory accident during which he was researching how normal people show feats of superhuman strength.
Rather than making a science fiction television show, Johnson developed a series that focused on the social issues of the day. This human-based approach is what initially drew Bill Bixby to the project. Throughout the show’s five-year run, the Hulk was simply dropped into issue-driven stories, while the show’s topics featured everything from child abuse to suicide.
Finding the Right Hulk
Before the days of computer animation, it was necessary to have a person play the Hulk. Bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger auditioned for the role, but his 6’ 2” frame was deemed to be too small for the imposing character.
The 7’ 2” Richard Kiel, best known for his character of Jaws in the James Bond series, was given a shot. Some scenes were shot of Kiel as the Hulk (and according to Johnson, one shot still appears in the pilot), but the lack of massive muscle and the appearance of body fat caused producers to drop him from the show.
Eventually bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, who stood 6’ 4”, was given the part. Johnson originally wanted to paint him red rather than green to reflect his rage, but Stan Lee rejected the idea. (Ironically, just this year, a new Hulk appeared in the comic books – this one colored red.)
Because the production was using a real person to represent the Hulk, he couldn’t grow larger or physically change once he “hulked out.” The television Hulk was not bullet proof, but still had extraordinary healing powers. He also didn’t talk, but rather growled and roared like an animal. Ted Cassidy, best known as Lurch from “The Addams Family,” did much of the growling until his death. Then Charles Napier stepped in to voice the Hulk. While Ferrigno didn’t use his voice for his role, he provide the voice of the Hulk in the upcoming film.
The format of the show would include David Banner drifting into a new town under a new name (always using the first name David and a last name that began with a B). About half-way through the show, he would experience a “hulk out,” in which he would transform. Full transformation sequences can be seen in the first two seasons. Later seasons usually featured close-up shots of Banner’s shirts ripping and shoes popping off the Hulk’s feet. This apparently accounts for the reason that David Banner always chose to wear button-down shirts rather than stretchable tee-shirts and biker shorts.
Later in the show, as a climax, he would hulk out again, giving the audiences two chances to see the title character. During the production, when the studio was trying to cut costs, they requested only one hulk out per episode. Fortunately, Johnson and the production crew pushed back, saving the 2:1 hulk outs ratio.
Legacy of The Incredible Hulk
“The Incredible Hulk” ran for four complete seasons, with the fifth partial season dropped on a new night in the middle of an industry strike. Johnson had planned to cure David Banner of his condition in the series finale, if the truncated fifth season were to have a complete run. The first four seasons are now available on DVD from Universal Home Video.
After the series was cancelled, several television movies were made: 1988’s The Incredible Hulk Returns, 1989’s The Trial of the Incredible Hulk and 1990’s The Death of the Incredible Hulk. These made-for-TV movies gave the characters a chance to cross over other characters from the Marvel universe. The Incredible Hulk Returns featured Thor (Eric Allan Kramer), and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk featured Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Rex Smith) and the Kingpin (John Rhys-Davies).
Additional movies were planned – one featuring She-Hulk, another introducing a spin-off of an “Iron Man” series and another featuring the cast of the 70s-era “Spider-Man” series – but they were all put to rest when Bill Bixby died of cancer in 1993.