The date was April 19 (or September 14, depending on the source), 1977, and CBS presented the debut of the first live-action Marvel film, The Amazing Spider-Man. It was produced by Columbia Pictures Television, and starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Based on the success of this television movie, on April 5, 1978, a regular series began airing, although there were only five episodes in the first season, and eight in the second. And those last eight didn’t exactly have a regular spot on the schedule, airing between September of 1978 and July, 1979.
It would be a bit of a stretch to say that the show was a critical darling. In fact, I can find literally no favorable reviews, outside of some nostalgic fans. Even Stan Lee criticized the series for being too juvenile. But people watched anyway. It was finally a combination of high costs for the stunt work and an executive decision to avoid being characterized as “the superhero network” (CBS also aired Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and the backdoor pilots for Doctor Strange and Captain America), that killed the series.
For some reason, even though there were only fourteen episodes of The Amazing Spider-Man (including the Pilot as episode one), this series is still not available on DVD, although there was a VHS release years ago. Because of this, not many of today’s fans have actually seen this series.
And I’ll be honest with you. I wouldn’t recommend paying to track them down. They’re really not worth it. If you’re desperate to see them, find some other way.
As for me, I was nine years old when the pilot film aired, and ten when the series started, and I liked it enough back then. But even at that age, I was annoyed by the fact that there were some fundamental changes made to the character, and that there were no super villains.
The super villain problem was a deal-breaker for me. Ultimately, it was what kept me from really enjoying any of the super hero shows of the Seventies.
I probably hadn’t seen an episode of The Amazing Spider-Man since they first aired, so when I set out to start writing a series of columns reviewing and commenting on Marvel’s live-action films, I figured it was time to go back to the beginning and take another look.
It’s not pretty, but ya gotta start somewhere, right?
And the ninety-minute pilot film, written by Alvin Boretz and directed by E.W. Swackhamer, was where it all began (we’ll just pretend the 1944 Republic Pictures Captain America serial doesn’t count, since, well, it really doesn’t).
From the moment the credits start to roll, there’s a decided lack of quality. The theme music is a simplistic call and respond of horns that evolves into a shrill and annoying melody before returning to the repetition of the opening notes. Underneath it all is an extremely dialed-down porno guitar and a steady, bongo-enhanced drum. As a backdrop, we get a simple black screen with cartoon spider webs as scenes from the film play out in small picture boxes that appear seemingly at random in various spots as the credits appear in a generic font.
Our story begins in a doctor’s office, where at precisely 10:45 AM a strange noise is heard and without any explanation the doctor stops mid-examination, gets his coat and leaves as though in a trance, to the bewilderment of his patient. Across town, at 11:00 AM, a lawyer stops mid-closing argument and does the same. They converge on Central Fidelity Bank, pull guns, gas masks, and a smoke grenade from their glove compartment and proceed to rob the bank. After this, they drive across town and run their car directly into a brick wall. Two shady henchmen-types emerge from the shadows, remove the matching stylish lapel pins that each of the bank robbers wore and escape with the stolen loot.
So far, so good. I was actually a little impressed by the decision to go with a science-fiction-lite crime scenario. At this stage in the production, it’s actually possible to assume that we could be dealing with a super villain of some sort. Of course, we aren’t really. What we have instead is a tale of blackmail and mind control as a New Age Guru with a penchant for verbal abuse and insults holds New York hostage by threatening to order the suicides of ten unknowing followers if he doesn’t receive fifty million dollars and a plane out of the country.
And how do we know this threat is real? Well according to Peter Parker, “They’ve been doing experiments, and they can force people do things against their will.” Whoever the “they” are that Parker’s talking about, no one knows. It’s the first concrete example of just how nonsensical most of this film is going to be. There’s not even an effort to make it believable.
But all that’s still to come. In those opening moments, Boretz and Swackhamer actually do a decent, if low rent, job at creating an interesting mystery. And the threat, when finally revealed pays off nicely enough by tying into the paranoia about and pop culture popularity of Seventies Self-Help Gurus. And did I mention the mind-controlled samurai warrior guards?
More on that later.
Once the threat has been established, we start introducing our hero and those around him. Peter Parker, as played by Nicholas Hammond, is a college student getting his Ph.D. in Physics and trying to make some extra cash by selling photos to the Daily Bugle. The only problem is, his pictures are more arty than newsy, and ball-buster extraordinaire, J. Jonah Jameson has no need for them.
On a side-note, Jameson is played by David White, who is probably best known for also playing Larry Tate on Bewitched from 1964-1972, as well as making guest appearances on nearly every TV show from the Fifties through the Seventies, from Mary Tyler Moore to Quincy. The role would be recast when the series began, with Robert F. Simon taking over the part. Simon was also a veteran television actor, working constantly from the Fifties through the Eighties.
This is where we get our first major character change from the source material. In what I assume is an attempt to attract a wider audience, Peter Parker is pretty much nothing like his comic book counterpart. Sure, he’s nerdy, but he’s not the skinny, glasses-wearing geek in dire need of a life makeover. Hell, he’s a gifted science student and already well on his way to getting his Doctorate. Except for the fact that he could use some extra income, he’s got a pretty sweet life. And he could sell those pictures if he wasn’t too artistic with his shots.
There’s no mention of Uncle Ben here, either. Pete lives with his kindly, doting Aunt May (played by the oddly named Jeff Donnell – “Jeff” being the nickname she adopted as a child, being a fan of the “Mutt and Jeff” cartoon strip), in a very nice house in a very nice neighborhood. But Aunt May’s part in this version of Spider-Man is so inconsequential that she is not only recast when the series launches, she only shows up for one episode.
When Peter finds himself bitten by a radioactive spider (one of the few things they kept from the original origin), it barely effects him. It doesn’t even clear up his allergies, as he continues to sneeze occasionally throughout the rest of the film, presumably for comedic effect. That mask must be nasty by the end of the show.
Anyway, he shrugs the bite off and leaves the lab. Meanwhile, another mind-controlled robbery is going on. After robbing an armored truck, the culprit, a judge this time, gets in his car and drives off, and Peter Parker finds himself strolling right into the car’s path.
Luckily he has some sort of vision of impending danger. I’m not too thrilled with the way his Spider-Sense is represented; as Peter pauses, we hear a strange crackling sound, and he gets visual flashes of the car heading toward him. Regardless, it doesn’t stop him from running down a narrow alley rather than getting out of harm’s way, and, in a nice nod to the original comic book origin, Peter finds himself scurrying up a wall to avoid the car.
This is another moment where the music really takes away from the scene. It also doesn’t help that Hammond’s portrayal of Peter is more one of stunned, blank-eyed confusion than bewilderment or excitement. I suppose it’s a valid way to approach the character and the moment, but rather than capture the sheer absurd insanity of suddenly finding oneself able to climb walls, it plays more as though he were slightly brain-damaged.
One bright spot, depending on one’s point of view, is the arrival of Michael Pataki on the scene as Captain Barbera of the NYPD. His performance is over the top and he doesn’t seem able to keep from chewing up the scenery whenever the camera’s on him, but that’s okay. He brings some life to what is a pretty bland range of performances so far.
Plus, I’m a sentimental fan of his, since he played the Klingon soldier, Korax, who starts the barroom brawl in the classic Star Trek episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Not to mention the fact that he also played the Russian boxing coach, Nicoli Koloff, in Rocky IV, did voices for The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, and voiced George Liquor in The Ren & Stimpy Show (both of which were helmed by John Kricfalusi). How can I not light up whenever he’s on-screen?
Anyway, back in the film, Peter decides to test out his new powers by climbing all over the roof and outer walls of Aunt May’s house in broad daylight. There are a few moments where there is clearly a stuntman climbing on the house, but more often than not, we are instead treated to some very bad bluescreen footage of Nicholas Hammond crawling around on his hands and toes which is then superimposed onto exterior shots of the house. The worst part, though, is when the camera on Hammond is moving but the camera on the house is locked in place, causing Hammond to appear to be sliding as he crawls. It’s cheap looking and immediately takes me out of the scene.
However, this is shortly followed with a nice piece of wire-work, as Peter Parker scrambles up and down the side of a building in front of a bunch of witnesses after scaring a purse-snatcher from escaping. This is as close as we get to a realistic reaction to seeing Spider-Man in action. The crook is frozen in his tracks with disbelief. The rest of the crowd have no problems believing what they’ve seen, though, and that’s what causes J. Jonah Jameson to suggest to Peter Parker that pictures of this “Spider-Man” could be worth some money.
So Peter fixes up a costume. Somehow. We don’t really see that. Instead he just steps out in front of the mirror in his attic bedroom wearing a fully functional, well-designed costume/body stocking. We don’t even see him sewing. Actually, this is kind of a cool moment, as it seems to be a visual reference to the 1975 Marvel album,Spider-Man: Reflections of a Superhero.
This is followed by a short scene of Spider-Man posing while an automated camera snaps pictures, all set to vaguely porn-sounding music. And you almost can’t see the wires as he clings to an alley wall.
And that’s your first half hour. From here on out, we’re pretty much locked into more traditional Spider-Man territory. And the film, which didn’t really move quickly to begin with, begins to drag. A romantic interest is introduced (played by Lisa Eilbacher, probably best known for starring in Beverly Hills Cop), the daughter of one of the mind-control victims, a professor at Peter’s college.
As it turns out, Professor Tyler was going to group therapy sessions held by Edward Byron (Thayer David, who also played the evil Count Saknussem in 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth). In a twist that I wasn’t expecting, these sessions aren’t the cliché New Age mumbo jumbo that we would normally get. Instead, Byron tears down his followers with insults and hostility, calling them “miserable fools” and telling them they’ll never be happy if they try to be happy, because the things they think will make them happy are just “stupid dreams” that keep them from living in the Now.
It’s pretty harsh, and I’m not really sure why people would keep coming back to this guy. Oh yeah! Mind control. Byron has a machine that hypnotizes people, and he is able to trigger them with radio signals they receive through the snazzy lapel pins he hands out. Unfortunately for him, Spidey’s able to pick up those signals, too, though he doesn’t know what they are. He comes back later, though, and breaks into Byron’s office after hours.
Just go with it.
In a poorly-choreographed fight scene, Spider-Man jumps, kicks, and karate chops the three attackers, only getting hit once or twice by their bamboo swords. This leads to the biggest and most dangerous stunt of the film: Spider-Man swinging from the roof of one building to the ledge of another. We even get a quick Spidey-Cam shot as he grabs a window ledge and pulls himself to the building.
You almost can’t even tell this was filmed in L.A. rather than New York.
After this, we basically get another half hour of Peter/Spidey sneaking around, getting caught, getting brainwashed, and nearly killing himself by jumping off the Empire State Building. Luckily while climbing the rail, he accidentally knocks the mind-control lapel pin off, wakes up, and rushes to Byron’s offices where he pulls down the radio antenna from the roof, saving everyone’s lives and causing some sort of backlash in Byron’s offices, putting him in a trance. Spidey then suggests he go to the police and confess everything. Which he does.
Cue bad jokes and closing credits.
While The Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t as faithful to the source materials as it could have been, and wasn’t even written as intelligently as the comics had been for nearly 15 years prior, and it relied a bit too much on cheesy music and silly jokes, it still showed promise. They didn’t try to update the costume or downplay his powers, and he often relied on his intelligence as much as his strength and skills.
The pilot film did a decent job at introducing the character and setting up his relationships. The quality is about as good as one could have expected at the time, veering sharply from the camp silliness of the original Batman series and playing more toward the child-friendly action established by the first couple of seasons of Wonder Woman.
At the same time, though, I can’t help but think that the changes they made hurt the film. By not emphasizing the transformative effect of Peter getting super powers and going from timid geek to confident (partial) success, we don’t really get the sense of amazement that we should. And by not including the whole, Peter turns into a dick and gets his Uncle Ben killed element, we lose all the emotional resonance and moral obligation that define the character. Without that touch of tragedy, it isn’t really Spider-Man, after all.
Instead, we just have a guy in the Spider-Man suit and a few narrative touchpoints, but when we get right down to it, this is just a generic super hero story with nothing to set it apart. It’s as true to the source material as the Japanese Spider-Man show. But at least there, Spidey fought monsters and had a giant robot.
Hell, the “Spidey Super Stories” on The Electric Company are more true to the comics of the time.
For Marvel’s first foray into the world of live-action, Spider-Man could have been better, but I guess it could have ended up far worse. Actually, the series itself doesn’t even really live up to the potential shown in the pilot. But not to worry. In the year between the debut of the Amazing Spider-Man pilot and the regular series, Marvel made a much more sure-footed entrance into live-action television with November 1977’s The Incredible Hulk.
But more on that in the weeks to come.