“That there, that’s not me.
I go where I please.
I walk through walls.
I float down the Liffey.
I’m not here.
This isn’t happening.
I’m not here.
In a little while I’ll be gone.
The moment’s already passed.
Yeah it’s gone.
And I’m not here.
This isn’t happening.
I’m not here.
Strobe lights and blown speakers, fireworks and hurricanes, I’m not here.
This isn’t happening.”
–“How to Disappear Completely” by Radiohead, from the album KID A.
Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hulk television drama was in very capable hands when the pilot for the series began filming on May 23, 1977. The TV adaptation was shepherded by Kenneth Johnson, creator of The Six Million Dollar Man spinoff, the popular The Bionic Woman, (which starred Lindsay Wagner and aired from 1976-1978). He would later write and direct the alien invasion miniseries V, for NBC.
Listening to the wonderfully insightful commentary track provided by Johnson, available on the box set release of “The Incredible Hulk: The Complete Series,” the creator says he was initially resistant to working on the television project. If you hear it, you may get the impression that Johnson once felt the comic book property was beneath him. This was a much different world and time than the mega Marvel blockbuster era we find ourselves living in today, and for that matter, even the medium of television has evolved by leaps and bounds, shattering boundaries and format rules. It’s also certainly a possibility Johnson just didn’t want to pigeonhole himself in the sci-fi genre after the success of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, but sometimes you don’t pick the projects—sometimes they find you.
Johnson is a graduate of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, having been trained in classic Shakespearian Theater. With some encouragement to look at the material from a different perspective, and some prodding and coaxing, Johnson found his angle: Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Johnson also infused the series with a healthy dose of Robert Louis Stevenson’s seminal work, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The creator envisioned the series as a psychological drama about a man who is cursed, who is involved in a morality play, wrestling his own inner demons, and fighting that curse. In the strange case of one Dr. David Bruce Banner (played with nuance by late actor Bill Bixby), Banner’s demon, his Mr. Hyde, is his seemingly uncontrollable and overwhelming anger issues, which manifest quite literally in the form of the monstrous “Hulk” (bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno in green grease paint, in the most iconic role of his career).
When speaking with Marvel Comics’ mastermind Stan Lee (who co-created the misunderstood monster along with the visionary artist Jack “King” Kirby), Kenneth Johnson told Stan that he was changing the name of the Hulk’s alter ego from Bruce Banner (which is the name he debuted with in the comics), to David Bruce Banner. “Bruce Banner” was too much alliteration for Johnson, who may have still been reluctant to succumb entirely to the jolly green giant’s superhero comic book roots. Johnson felt “David” was a suitable replacement, a nice, solid name, which was also a nod to his son, David. And he acquiesced to Stan Lee by keeping “Bruce” as a middle name for the character.
Johnson wasn’t the only one finding it difficult to follow in the big, barefooted steps of the Hulk. When Bill Bixby, who considered himself a serious actor, was first offered the role, he rolled his eyes and laughed it off. Johnson and Bixby spoke, and each was interested in exploring the psychological elements in Johnson’s treatment of the character. They shared a gentleman’s agreement that each would stick around on the project as long as the other was involved. They were suitable collaborators and stuck to their words and original intentions. The pilot, while having action and suspense, is clearly played very straight and serious in tone when appropriate, heavy on the psychology, character development and inner pathos and exploration. For this version of the Hulk, the emphasis would be on the id, ego, and super ego, and less on the super hero. It’s quite the feat for ‘70s television, let alone a comic-book adaptation, when tackling material with its roots in the comic books, which was unchartered territory by and large. Let’s keep in mind that television wasn’t too far removed from the campy, boldly colored, gleefully fun Batman series of the ‘60s.
The Incredible Hulk would strike a different chord, carving out its own niche. In fact, the largest audience was actually the adult female demographic, followed in popularity by adult males. In other words, the show’s biggest fan base consisted of adults. Perhaps the women were attracted by Bixby’s piercing eyes, or the scenes in which Ferrigno’s Hulk would smash his way across the screen, his bulging muscles flexing through tattered clothes, often bare chested. Maybe the men were living out their testosterone-filled fantasies of smashing things with their brute strength. Those may have been contributing factors, but it would be discrediting a potentially discerning audience, and the show’s creative team (in front of and behind the camera), to assume these were their main, or sole reason, for tuning in for five seasons of Ferrigno, Bixby and company. The show often felt like a blend of The Fugitive and The Six Million Dollar Man, a bit soapy and yes, even comic book-ish (not that that’s a bad thing, regardless of Johnson and Bixby’s initial reservations).
When writers would pitch Johnson, he’d offer the following advice: “Don’t tell us plot points, tell us what it’s about.” Getting to the core and heart of the matter is what was important to Johnson, and that approach is likely what has resonated so deeply with fans to this day. Johnson knew audiences could identify and relate with the green monster, perhaps because everyone either wages their own inner war, or loves someone who is in the trenches, whether it’s dealing with anger management, alcoholism, or obsession. Johnson was intrigued at the notion of examining what brought out this inner hulk in people and made them less than the good people they were, not just the series’ titular character.
Johnson also wanted to approach the first episode as if it were a feature film and not a glorified television pilot. It was, in fact, a made-for-TV movie, but would serve as a pilot and a launching pad for the TV series, even playing in movie theaters in some countries. That first offering from Johnson employed title cards at the beginning, which was rather uncommon in TV back then. And that was just one element that set the pilot apart from the rest of the fare on TV. In Johnson’s words, TV is a close-up medium, but he tried to use close-up shots sparingly. And for someone who was initially gamma ray gun-shy, it didn’t take Johnson long to hit his target. He started writing the first script on Easter Sunday at 10am, and by 10pm that same evening he was 43 pages deep. Most of what made it to the screen came from the first draft of that script.
It’s a finely crafted piece of business. Besides some bell-bottom blue jeans, leisure suits, and one rather robust Afro hair cut, The Incredible Hulk has aged very well. The story begins with a montage of David Bruce Banner and his wife, Laura, which essentially comes to a halt when Laura is killed in a car accident, with David unable to rescue her from the overturned automobile. Pay particular attention to the colors that Johnson uses whenever Laura is, or is not onscreen, to symbolize the light and sunshine that she brought to David Banner’s life, from her yellow dress, to a yellow blanket, yellow flowers, and a yellow lamp. (In the montage, you’ll even see a glimpse of Banner’s temper, which he managed to keep in check mostly while his wife was alive and Banner was still open to accepting love, cognizant of the repercussions of getting angry…and as we all know, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.)
With Laura gone, David Banner becomes cold, callous, and short-fused. He’s haunted by nightmares and the reality that his lover is gone, and there’s nothing he could have done to help her.
Or is there?
Banner begins studying DNA strands in people who were able to perform nearly superhuman acts of strength when faced with extreme duress. He and his scientist colleague, Dr. Elaina Harding Marks (played with grace and moxie by the strikingly beautiful Susan Sullivan), interview one young mother who is able to turn a burning car over with her bare hands before the flames engulf her son (apparently in the 1970s there was a fuel crisis and an epidemic of cars that flipped and rolled over; thankfully in 2017 the seatbelt law has prevented much of this and has relegated car accidents to fender benders mostly). In another interview, we learn about a soldier who rescued a fallen comrade despite having taken an ungodly amount of direct hits from enemy gunfire himself, but with the will to survive and the desire to protect his friend, the adrenaline kicked in and he and his friend lived to tell the tale against all odds.
The story deviates here from the comic book origins of the character, but after some self-experimentation and scientific hokey pokey, things get moving and Banner is nevertheless transformed into the Hulk.
Banner goes into full ‘roid rage mode and “hulks out” after, you guessed it, more car trouble, essentially injuring himself while attempting to change a flat tire during the middle of a rain storm. It’s downright pedestrian, but that was by design, says Johnson. It happens to the best of us, which is why, when at all possible, if the wait isn’t too long, I sit it out for roadside assistance.
The Hulk goes on a rampage. Since this is the late 70s, there’s no CGI special effects, which necessitated the hiring of Lou Ferrigno in the first place. Up until the recent use of Hulk in The Avengers movies, this was the most effective use of the character, because Johnson wasn’t relying on special F/X, instead using the tried and true method of practical effects a la Universal’s classic monster movie The Wolf Man (starring Lon Chaney, Jr., from 1941), with special contact lenses, green paint, some prosthetics, a wig, and time-lapsed trick photography, as well as the 250-lb. Ferrigno filling in for alter ego Banner (the much less than 250 lbs. Bill Bixby). While it lost some of its luster even back in 1978, today it’s a bit charming, in my opinion.
Side note: Bixby was the original choice to play Banner, but Ferrigno was not the first choice to play “the Hulk.” That honor went to Richard Kiel, the villainous “Jaws” from the James Bond films, but after being hired, it was determined that Kiel didn’t have the bulk, the broad shoulders and barrel chest necessary to bring the Hulk to life.
During his first angry spree, there’s a nod to another classic Universal Studios monster, or more accurately, the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the Hulk stops in his tracks when he sees a young girl near a lake. Frightened, she finds herself in the drink screaming for help. The Hulk tries to rescue her, uprooting an entire tree in the hopes that she’ll grab it and come ashore. The girl’s father, not far off in the distance, hears her cries, and with his hunting rifle, manages to shoot the monster. Hit “pause” at just the right time, and you’ll catch a few frames of Kiel as the Hulk, which either due to cost or time constraints, or both, were never entirely replaced with Ferrigno as the green guy.
Banner wakes up with no recollection of the events, but the injured arm (the bullet went clean through) and tattered clothes alarm him and Elaina. Banner is worried that he may have done something harmful, while Elaina, who clearly has deep feelings of love for her emotionally closed-off colleague, insists that Banner isn’t capable of hurting anyone, even in another mental state. In some regards, she’s 100% accurate. The Hulk has superhuman strength and could easily make Swiss cheese out of army tanks, which would mean human adversaries would pose little threat on an even playing field. To keep things as grounded as that particular character trait will allow, Johnson made sure the Hulk was set up to do plenty of “property damage and shoving,” but closed-fist striking was reserved for punching through walls and windows, and not for use against foes a la Floyd “Money” Mayweather, Jr.
It’s difficult to keep a rampaging monster, much less one prone to monster-mashes, a secret, and it isn’t long before National Enquirer/TMZ-type reporter Jack McGee begins investigating and writing sensational stories about an “Incredible” hulk, tracking him as if he’s hunting Bigfoot. He’s onto Banner and Elaina and their work at the lab, and through an unfortunate set of circumstances (no, not a car crash this time), Jack causes a chemical explosion, leaving Elaina dead, and giving Banner his chance to vanish like a ghost off the grid.
There’s a gravesite and the two have markers, indicating they are buried next to one another. At the end of the pilot, Banner walks from out of the shadows and tells his deceased lady friend, “I loved you, Elaina. I think you loved me too, although you never said it.” Banner was unaware that Elaina did say she loved him, since he was in full-on Hulk-mode when she uttered the phrase, meaning Banner wouldn’t have remembered it.
David Bruce Banner’s anger, anxiety (the fear of turning into the Hulk and leaving a path of destruction in his wake) and depression (the loss of his wife, then the loss of his beloved colleague, Elaina), begin to inform his behavior. Banner has to attempt to repress any and all feelings, including his ability to love and to form attachments. Banner becomes the perennial “lonely man,” on the run from the reporter who won’t let him stay dead and buried, and on the run from himself, and the emotions he can’t allow himself to feel, and the thoughts he can’t allow himself to act upon.
(The author would like to dedicate this to the loving memory of Florence Geraci, who never let him walk out of a comic book shop empty-handed.)