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Remembering Some of the Small Screen's Lesser-Known Superhero Sagas

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire October 15, 2013 at 5:29PM

Superheroes do such brisk business at the multiplex that it's easy to forget they weren't always framed in big budget franchises in their screen ventures, and that there are decades of past adaptations, the small screen's faded kiddie serials and low-budget animation, that have been allowed to fade from memory.
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'Legends of the Superheroes'
NBC 'Legends of the Superheroes'

Superheroes do such brisk business at the multiplex these days that it's easy to forget they weren't always framed in big budget franchises in their screen ventures, and that there are decades of past adaptations, the small screen's faded kiddie serials, failed pilots turned TV movies and low-budget animation, that have been allowed to fade from memory.

But never fear, the Warner Archive Collection is here to assure that forgotten TV doesn't stay that way. The service, which may be best known to Indiewire readers for releasing rare and previously unreleased films from Warner's vault, also handles TV from Warner Bros. Television, Hanna-Barbera and other libraries.

Staffers Matthew Patterson and DW Ferranti, hosts of the Warner Archive Podcast, were at New York Comic Con this past weekend to showcase some of the comic book-friendly treasures and curiosities Warner Archive has put out, and some that they showcased just for the fun of it. Joining them were comic industry vets Jerry Ordway (a writer/artist who worked on "Crisis on Infinite Earths" and "The Power of Shazam!") and Mike Carlin (Creative Director of Animation at DC Entertainment).

These older adaptations, from the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s, are a reminder of how serious in tone superhero stories have become in the present day -- and how lavish. The panel started with a look at Ellie Wood Walker and Cathy Lee Crosby playing differing versions of Wonder Woman before Lynda Carter, the first in a four-minute 1967 pilot for a sitcom that was never made, the other in a stripped-down, James Bond-ish 1974 TV movie in which she battled a baddie (played by Ricardo Montalban). According to Patterson, one of the executive producers for the Crosby-led "Wonder Woman" claimed that Gloria Steinem loved the script.


Of the Superman variations, the panel screened a glimpse of the 1958 pilot, never ordered to series, for "The Adventures of Superpup," in which the characters were played by little people in dog suits, and then clips from the 1988-1992 syndicated series "The Adventures of Superboy," which Carlin, in particular, was heavily involved with.

"The thing they never really understood," noted Carlin of the "Superboy" producers, "was that we were really making a kids' show. Ilya Salkind thought he was making 'Superman V.'" Still, he noted, the series was worked on by many comic book writers, including himself, some of whom actually got cameo appearances in a certain episode. And he called Sherman Howard's portrayal of Lex Luthor on the series his favorite live action take on the famous villain: "He was a little hammy, but he was the right kind of hammy for the show."

Then there was the 1974 to 1977 CBS series "Shazam!," with Michael Gray playing the main character and Jackson Bostwick taking over when he transformed into Captain Marvel, and the 1987 pilot for "The Spirit," which also never made it to series, with Sam Jones in the lead role, another take the panel members agreed outdid the big screen attempt. But the highlight of the hour was a clip from a TV event no one would ever claim to be proud of, the 1979 "Legends of the Superheroes" NBC specials in which Ed McMahon roasted various superheroes, including Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin. A sample McMahon gag: "Look at all these capes -- this looks like Truman Capote's closet!"


For Warner's DVD release of the special, Patterson noted, he found 40 minutes of footage that was cut from the broadcast, on tapes that only two machines left would actually play. "I cut it down to seven minutes, sparing you," he said, describing "Legends of the Superheroes" as "a great way to make or lose friends." It might be pop cultural detritus, but as Carlin pointed out, "We were so desperate to have anything with superheroes on TV that we were happy to have it."

There are plenty more forgotten and unreleased series in limbo, not to mention pilots, though Patterson explained that, because of clearances, they're not always easy to release even if suitable copies can be found. Until then, there's always YouTube for oddities like the 1967 Woman Woman test pilot.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, New York Comic Con, Warner Archive