At least twice a year, Marvel owns the blockbuster cinematic landscape with their ever-evolving multi-cross-over event movies. And on the small screen, they’ve been making waves in their partnership with Netflix; first with DAREDEVIL, then JESSICA JONES and now with the upcoming LUKE CAGE, IRON FIST and THE DEFENDERS shows all on queue. To put it lightly, it’s a damn fine time to be a comic book fan. After several valiant big-screen attempts, we finally have a great Bruce Banner / HULK in actor Mark Ruffalo. But what’s also worth noting is that you can bring up your Netflix account right now and watch 5 seasons’ worth of one of the best series produced from a Marvel property. I’m talking about the original INCREDIBLE HULK.
Since people often have an insatiable appetite for binge-worthy content, might I suggest going back to 1978 and taking the long 82-episode journey of redemption with Dr. David “Bruce” Banner?
THE INCREDIBLE HULK was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby back in 1962 when they debuted the Frankenstein/Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde hybrid character in the pages of in The Incredible Hulk #1. In the comics, Bruce Banner was a scientist involved in testing gamma radiation on an off-limits military compound. Teenager Rick Jones unknowingly drives his car and parks directly in the spot where a gamma bomb is scheduled to detonate. In an act of heroism, Banner pushes the young lad into a ditch, but in doing so, he isn’t quick enough to avoid the full blast from the gamma bomb, himself. And hence, he turns into a giant primitive monster referred to as the “hulk.”
He initially appeared as a giant grey-skinned monster, but after reports of problems at the printing press with that color, it was quickly changed to green for his future comic appearances. He also initially changed into the monster at sunset and reverted back to his human form at sunrise, but eventually this was changed to Banner transforming into the creature whenever he got angry!
In early 1977, famed television writer and producer Kenneth Johnson had his pick of adapting a handful of the Marvel’s colorful characters into a TV series, riding off of their recent success of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Although originally uninterested in comic adaptations, he suddenly found inspiration in the source material for the Hulk.
There were a lot of changes made for the story to fit into the traditional TV format. At first, Johnson intended his Hulk to be the color red, which is the color most associated with anger, but thankfully co-creator Stan Lee fought against that and insisted he stay his iconic green color.
After re-working the origin to be more grounded in reality, the two-part pilot took shape with Bill Bixby playing Dr. David “Bruce” Banner, body builder Lou Ferrigno portraying the Hulk and Jack Colvin as investigative tabloid reporter Jack McGee, a character created specifically for the TV series, inspired loosely by Javert from LES MISERABLES. This two-part pilot aired on November 4th, 1977 and was instantly (pun intended) a smash hit.
I, myself, have been recently revisiting the series one episode at a time, and what struck me about the humble beginnings of this TV interpretation is how emotionally devastating the story is. It’s the rare case where this origin might actually surpass its inspiration.
In the show, David Banner is a physician and scientist that’s partnered up with his long-time colleague and associate, Dr. Elaina Harding Marks (Susan Sullivan). They’re conducting a series of interviews with people that have undergone extraneous situations & tapped into their adrenaline to save loved ones – primarily people involved in automobile accidents where they suddenly find the strength to lift a car. David’s motivations for tapping into this human strength are personal. He was involved in a car accident, himself, and his wife was pinned in the wreckage. He was unable to lift the car and she tragically died in the flames. Forever riddled with guilt, he can’t cope with why these other people were able to save their loved ones, yet he couldn’t find the strength to do the same for his wife.
Frustrated, the only conclusion they can find is an abnormal level of gamma activity on the dates of the reported incidents. He subjects himself to a dose of gamma radiation, but accidentally overdoses on the treatment, and later that evening, when he gets a flat tire in the rain and injures himself, he transforms for the first time into the monstrous Hulk. In a scene reminiscent of the original FRANKENSTEIN, the Hulk encounters a girl by the lake, but doesn’t hurt her. He actually saves her from drowning when she stumbles into the lake running away from him. While he may be physically imposing, the Hulk is an extension of David and since he would never harm anyone, neither will his alter-ego, unless he feels threatened or fearful.
At the close of the first story arc, an explosion sets their laboratory ablaze and Elaina succumbs to her injuries after the Hulk rescues her. She confesses her love to David in his Hulk form, and when she dies, the creature lets out a heartbreaking howl. David is also presumed to have been killed in the explosion, and so now he’s on the run from reporter McGee who is convinced this “hulk” is the murderer.
Until he can cure himself and prove his innocence, he must live as a nomad, going from town to town and seeking the tools to continue his research. Along the way, he meets various people in predicaments and somehow tries to help them. His genuine good nature often gets him stuck in these situations in which the people he’s helping are dealing with moral conflicts that mirror the ones within Banner himself. Naturally, someone usually makes him angry and he unleashes the hulk to whip their butts.
At the core of THE INCREDIBLE HULK, the TV series, is a tremendously emotional story from a very sympathetic and genuinely good-hearted man. I attribute that to Bill Bixby as an actor. Much in the way that we, the audience, fall in love with David, just about every episode, a new character will meet, be taken aback by David, and have their lives greatly impacted by his influence. And the pain that he endures is the sort of thing anyone can relate to. From the pilot alone, he’s a recent widower, suffering over being unable to prevent the death of his wife. Then his closest colleague, whom he also professes his love to, meets a similar fate.
In the season 2 premiere titled “Married” (often cited by fans as one of the best episodes), David meets a terminally ill woman who performs a type of therapy he’s convinced will help him. In exchange, he reveals his true identity and offers to use some of his cells to help with her ailment. They fall in love and get married, and as can be expected, it doesn’t end well. Yet another love of David Banner’s life is lost to fate and tragedy.
That said, if David did ever want to settle down, he could easily and comfortably do so in just about any state in the country with a huge list of amazing, beautiful women that would gladly spend the rest of their lives with him! I’m talking about women like Kim Cattrall, Pamela Susan Shoop, Loni Anderson, Mackenzie Phillips, and so on and so forth! Pretty much by the end of every episode, the main gal from each show is head over heels in love with him and wants him to stay. But alas, until he finds a cure, he cannot rest. Reason enough for him to get cured!
There are plenty of other fun character actors and people that Banner comes across throughout the duration of the series, including KARATE KID villain, Martin Cove, in an early episode playing a boxer named “Rocky,” and FRIGHT NIGHT / CHILD’S PLAY writer/director, Tom Holland, playing (ironically enough) an evil Martin Cove-esque sensei at a karate school!
One of my personal favorite stories came in the form of a two-episode arc in Season 4 called “The First,” in which David comes face to face with another Hulk! (Played by SWAMP THING actor Dick Durock!) With the exception of this one story arc, the majority of threats the Hulk faced were human ones, and sometimes he’d face off against himself as there’s one episode where Banner and Hulk come face to face in the desert in his unconscious mind.
Adding to the overall emotional core of the show is Joe Harnell’s incredibly touching, melancholy score, most notably known as “The Lonely Man” piano theme that often played at the end of each episode as Banner walked off into the horizon and onto the next adventure. Much like THE FUGITIVE before it and later with Fox’s 1987 series WEREWOLF, THE INCREDIBLE HULK stuck with the same formula of Banner going from town to town, interacting and helping people, HULK-ing out, with McGee always hot on his trail before he drops everything and moves along. It worked, so why change it?
While the series ended somewhat abruptly with its truncated 5th season, the late ’80s saw 3 TV movies starring THE INCREDIBLE HULK, which expanded the Marvel TV universe. THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS introduced Thor into the proceedings, while THE TRAIL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK gave us the first live-action versions of Daredevil and the Kingpin. The final TV movie, THE DEATH OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK, featured a European spy named Jasmin (played by Elizabeth Gracen) who very well could’ve been intended to be the Black Widow! One more film, THE REVENGE OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK was plotted shortly before Bixby’s death but never came to fruition, and long before all 3 of these TV movies, a proposed HULK / SPIDER-MAN movie, featuring Nicholas Hammond reprising his role as Peter Parker was considered.
To me, Bixby is the heart and soul of the series. And off-screen, he had his fair share of tragedies and complications. In 1981, he lost his one and only 6-year-old son to a rare throat infection. One year later, his ex-wife Brenda Benet, devastated by the loss of their son, committed suicide. He delved into directing in his later years, but succumbed to prostate cancer on November 21st, 1993. While great actors such as Eric Bana and Ed Norton have tackled the character of Bruce Banner for his big-screen interpretations, none have truly matched the intelligence, sensitivity and sympathy of Bixby’s performance. That is, until Ruffalo came along and tapped into the TV version of Banner for his interpretation in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe.
If you’re a Netflix subscriber and you love good television, complex dramatic stories, a monster show, or superhero entertainment, now is as good a time as any to jump back in time and enjoy one of the best comic book adaptations ever created, THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Just don’t make him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.