Monday, April 7, 2014

Terrible Shows I Like: The Amazing Spider-Man (1977)

Another Spider-Man movie opens next month, and as a one-time comic book collector I should be excited. But after four previous Spider-Man films, not to mention three Iron Mans and two Thors and three Batmans and an Avengers and god knows how many X-Men, even this former fanboy is finding it hard to get enthusiastic over another costumed blockbuster.

But back in 1977, there was nothing so awesome as the prospect of a live-action Spider-Man television series. Maybe Cheryl Ladd in that striped bikini on “Angels in Paradise,” but Spidey was a close second. 

There had already been shows inspired by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, but the Marvel Comics universe had been largely untapped outside of Saturday morning cartoons. Spider-Man, Marvel’s most popular character, had inspired a pretty good animated series with a classic theme song, and helped a few kids learn to read on PBS’s The Electric Company, but that was it. 

The Amazing Spider-Man (1977) starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker. If you know his comic book origin you are apparently one up on the folks who made the pilot movie – just about all the details were changed beyond the radioactive spider bite. This was common practice at the time – loyalty to source material was not a priority, especially if it was just a comic book. These days, it’s that very respect for the original character creators and stories that have made films like The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Solider so successful.

The movie performed well enough for CBS to green-light a series, but only a handful of episodes were made, that were then shuffled erratically into the network schedule over the next two years, destroying almost any chance for the show to build an audience. 

Besides the origin story and the scheduling, here’s what else they got wrong. Spider-Man is as beloved for his snappy patter as his superheroics – but in this series he never says a word under the mask. That’s a large chunk of character that never showed up. None of the hero’s famous rogues make an appearance – no Goblins, no Dr. Octopus, Vulture, Electro, Sandman – just the usual assortment of thieves, kidnappers and corrupt government officials.

The supporting cast was a mix of new characters and two that came from the comics, Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson and Peter’s Aunt May. Ellen Bry was a nice addition as Peter’s photographer rival Julie Masters, but fans certainly would have preferred an appearance from Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson. 

So, yes, in many ways a terrible show. But my enduring affection stems from what was done right. That list starts with a good-looking costume, even if it didn’t quite match the perfection of John Wesley Shipp’s outfit as The Flash. The wall-crawling sequences were a triumph of special effects and stunt work, and the web-shooting, while primitive by today’s standards, got the point across. 

I also enjoyed seeing Nicholas Hammond as a likable, heroic character, since he spent most of his career playing smarmy jerks. It was Hammond who canceled a date with Marcia Brady after she was rendered less than perfect by an errant football; he was also a crooked cop who tried to rub out Nancy Drew on The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, the judgmental father who tried to separate Selina McGee from her baby daughter in Family, a self-involved Bradford houseguest in Eight is Enough…and the list goes on. If it weren’t for Spider-Man and The Sound of Music, Hammond would probably still be dodging tomatoes hurled by classic TV fans.

The show had one other delight for me, and that was the guest appearance of JoAnna Cameron in the two-part episode “The Deadly Dust.” Seeing Spider-Man and Isis in the same show was nerd nirvana then, and is still a lot of fun now. 

No DVDs yet on this series, which is surprising given the number of Spider-Man films released over the past decade. But if you still have your VCR hooked up, many of the episodes are available on videocassette. That may indeed be the perfect way to view a 1970s relic that has been surpassed by superior versions, but is not without its charms.


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