Assignment: 1966: The Series Begins

It’s February 1966, and the cast and crew of Star Trek has been keeping busy since the filming of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, and George Takei all made numerous appearances on television (with Shatner and Takei appearing together on an episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre). Additionally, Doohan appeared in the film Scalplock and Nimoy found a distributor for his art house film, Death Watch. Gene Roddenberry was also busy, producing two pilots for Desilu, Police Story and The Long Hunt of April Savage. The former series, created and written by Roddenberry himself, was an attempt to create a more realistic police procedural show than existed at the time, and wasn’t picked up. The second, a Western with a setup not too dissimilar to that of The Fugitive, was produced by Roddenberry as a favor to his friend (and Have Gun – Will Travel co-creator) Sam Rolfe, was a success, despite Herb Solow’s later claims that Roddenberry considered the job to be beneath him. However, the show never went past the pilot stage because Rolfe dropped out following a dispute with his agent, leading ABC to cancel the series without a second thought.

As the drama concerning The Long Hunt of April Savage played out, Desilu received further good news: CBS was picking up Mission: Impossible (which we will discuss in full in the fall) and NBC had agreed to air Star Trek. While losing April Savage stung, this gave the studio two new in-house productions in addition to the many shows that were making use of the studio backlot. However, there were some problems with the current arrangement.

First and foremost, Oscar Katz was let go. Of the 22 pilots he commissioned, only three were picked up (one of them being April Savage). If this wasn’t bad enough, the two shows picked up looked to be extremely expensive, and were created by men with reputations for being “difficult”. Additionally, one of those men (Bruce Geller, creator of Mission: Impossible) was working on a pilot for a series called Mannix that was already looking to be extremely expensive. The final nail in Katz’s coffin was that Herb Solow was already effectively running the studio. So, on March 9th, Katz’s departure from Desilu was reported in Variety, giving the cover of “personal reasons” as to why Katz was “leaving”.

The next order of business regarded the pilots. While CBS could be, with its deep ties to Lucy and the studio, expected to help financially with Mission: Impossible if need be, Star Trek was another matter. Even if NBC had faith in the series and Roddenberry, the costs were just too high. As a result, a board meeting was called, and opinions were almost unanimously negative against keeping Star Trek. (Lucy’s brother Fred went so far as to tell her to turn towards real estate.) The holdouts: Solow and Business Affairs VP Bernard Weitzman. However, with a nod of her head, Lucy’s decision was made: Star Trek would be a Desilu production.

And thus begins one of the primary conflicts of the making of Star Trek: the ability for Desilu to afford the show vs. Lucy’s desire to bail the studio out by producing as many series in-house as possible. And as a blog, this marks the beginning of semi-regular posts about the show’s incoming personnel, in advance of regular episode reviews (finally). So, as a blogging project, Star Trek Debriefed will be getting much more interesting from here on out.

Next week: It’s back to the ’80s, and that other superhero studio.

Assignment: 1966: Ralph Nader

It’s February 13th, 1966, and there’s really not that much going on. Except for a story in the Washington Post titled, “Car Safety Critic Nader Reports Being ‘Tailed'”, which detailed how carmaker General Motors had been harassing activist-turned-author Ralph Nader because of his book Unsafe at Any Speed. This humble story picked up speed (pun not intended), and soon GM and the entire auto industry had a public relations disaster on its hands. The book, a well-researched screen against the excesses of auto design and lack of proper safety and engineering, had been utterly ignored, but swiftly became a bestseller in the wake of this controversy, and it made Nader a very famous man.

The first-and longest lasting-effect of GM’s total stupidity (both in the design flaws in the Chevy Corvair, which was singled out in the first chapter of Unsafe at Any Speed, and its treatment of Nader) was the formation of the Department of Transportation, whose first and foremost responsibility has been regulating America’s cars and roadways. The second effect, however, is a big reason why I’m talking about Ralph Nader: the rise of consumer advocates.

Now, obviously, Nader and other consumer advocates have done a world of good. The regulations and laws passed because of their efforts in the ’60s and ’70s made America a safer, better place. But this is an ’80s blog as much as it’s a ’60s blog. And by the ’80s, consumer advocates, and their close relatives, the advocates for children, were quite frankly making asses of themselves while the Reagan Administration was tearing apart the country with deregulation after deregulation. While the children’s advocates were bitching about toy-based cartoons (the best-and for the most part, most popular-of which had little to no interference from the toy companies), American animators were losing their jobs left and right because of outsourcing (which ultimately cost these groups their greatest and most steadfast ally, Filmation, to be sold to L’Oreal and put out of business). And both groups advocated for the banning of toy guns, in part because of the stories of cops shooting kids with them, which basically punted on the issues of poor police training (one of the secondary issues of the current Black Lives Matter movement), police militarization (again, part of the problems that fed into Black Lives Matter), and America’s rampant love affair with actual guns. The result is that it’s harder for me to import a Megatron toy from Japan than it is to purchase an actual Walther P-38 (the gun Megatron transformed into on The Transformers)-and in certain instances, cheaper, too!

So, for way too many people of my generation, consumer advocates are bad jokes, in part because instead of combatting actual unjust business practices, they started trying to combat secondary (if that) symptoms of greater problems that were ignored. For every movement like the No Nukes movement (which was Nader’s next big movement after the automobile industry was sufficiently shamed into better practices) it seemed like there were dozens of silly movements that made it easy for a smiling, telegenic personality like Ronald Reagan to paint these passionate (and not necessarily professional) people as kooks who wanted to mollycoddle the entire country. But if this was the entirety of Ralph Nader’s legacy, I wouldn’t be writing this.

But I am, because Ralph Nader bungled his way into Presidential politics in the worst way. While he is certainly right in being critical of America’s two-party electoral system, the problem is that the laws of the land are designed to support the existence of two political parties, period. Sure, there was that messy time in the 19th Century when the Federalist party collapsed and the Democratic-Republicans split in two, but for the most part, this country has operated under a two-party system for its entire existence, and it would take massive changes to the political infrastructure to change it to a more parliamentary process like that seen in Canada or the UK. So, Nader’s opinions have really only been good for fostering distrust and disenchantment with the system, which not only benefits monied interests, but has helped to drag the country ever rightward, even though all evidence suggests that Americans are really democratic socialists at heart.

Oh, and it has invited a never-ending spiral of apathy and petty bickering into our nation’s political discourse.

And I know you must think this is because I believe that Ralph Nader is the reason why George W. Bush got elected in 2000, but no, that isn’t it. While preaching that the two parties were the same did Al Gore no favors (as history has proven repeatedly in this century so far that there are very real and striking differences between the two political parties), the reality is that Gore ran a shitty campaign because he was an ungodly bore whose wife was a villain to many young people and minorities (thanks to her involvement with the PMRC, but that’s another story for another day) and whose running mate was an arrogant, Democrat-in-name-only douchebag who also pissed off a lot of young people and minorities due to his involvement in trying to censor video games in the ’90s (again, another story for another day). Oh, and there was the issue of Florida’s voter rolls being illegally purged of left-leaning voters in numbers that would have made the Florida recount debacle irrelevant had anyone prevented it. So, yes, Nader got a bit of a raw deal, even though he refused to follow the advice of some of his supporters (including Thom Hartmann) to abandon campaigning in battleground states (like Florida) and focus on states where the Presidential election was effectively decided in order to get 5% of the vote and qualify the Green Party for federal matching funds (and provide that party with some semblance of a national foothold).

But he didn’t, and ran again in 2004 and 2008, by which time enmity for him was so high that he was accused of being funded by the Republican Party. And this, ultimately, will be a substantial part of Ralph Nader’s legacy: by behaving rigidly in a system he considered to be rigid and corrupt, he negated years of hard work to stroke his own ego and find himself labeled as an agent provocateur and a hypocrite.

Next week, we’ll be staying in 1966 to talk about the future of Star Trek……and how it nearly ended before it even began.

Assignment: 1966: The NHL Expansion

It’s February 9th, 1966. Two days ago, while President Johnson and South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Cao Kỳ discuss the course of the Vietnam War in Hawaii, TV broadcasts begin in South Vietnam using “Stratovision” (a process involving transmitting signals from flying airplanes) and Chris Rock was born in Andrews, South Carolina. However, today, the biggest news was that the National Hockey League’s Board of Governors approved six new expansion franchises, doubling the size of the league in one fell swoop.

While expansion was the rule of the day in the four major North American sports leagues in the ’60s, the NHL was the unlikeliest to have joined the party, as the “Original Six” teams had been a tightly controlled cartel since the Great Depression and World War II, respectively, had forced the Montreal Maroons and Brooklyn Americans to fold. (This same cartel refused to allow those two teams to reform after the war, as they technically existed until the late ’40s.) Things were so bad that James E. Norris (for whom the Norris Trophy, given each year to hockey’s best defenseman, and the Norris Division, which is now know as the Central Division, were named) owned the Detroit Red Wings, effectively owned the Chicago Black Hawks, was a majority shareholder of the New York Rangers, and held loans belonging to the Boston Bruins. (Suffice to say, the Red Wings, along with the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, dominated the Original Six era.)

However, this corruption and calcification (rosters in particular were extremely stagnant) had its effects. Despite being a pioneer in television coverage in both the US and Canada (where Hockey Night in Canada, already a Saturday night tradition in the days of radio, shifted right over to the CBC’s TV arm), the NHL allowed their US TV deal to expire for fears of increasing player leverage over ownership and a lack of desire to shift game start times to fit the needs of the networks. The league is still recovering from this error. However, what caused the league to act were three things: One, the Western Hockey League was rising and rumored to be looking to compete with the NHL and in talks to get a national TV deal in the US. Two, the league was told in 1965 that they would need to expand in order to secure a TV deal in the US. And finally, the owners and execs responsible for the backwards policies started to die off.

As a result, the Board of Governors approved the expansion, slated to begin with the 1967-68 season, with teams paying a hefty $2 million franchise fee, as well as having to pay $50,000 per player taken in the expansion draft. The teams approved were:

California Seals-In actuality the WHL’s San Francisco Seals, who were purchased by Barry Van Gerbig after being awarded a franchise. Gerbig moved the team across the Bay to Oakland, and attendance was awful as a result. Later, the team moved to Cleveland, becoming the Barons, and merged its operations with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978.

Los Angeles Kings-Awarded to LA Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, the Kings struggled to consistently win for years (and with their purple and gold colors and even their logo, appeared to trade off the goodwill generated by the far more successful Lakers) until 1987, when the team was purchased by coin collector (and eventually, convicted fraudster) Bruce McNall purchased the team from then-owner Dr. Jerry Buss (who was far more interested in the Lakers). He changed the team’s colors to silver and black (appropriating the colors of the LA Raiders) and in 1988, traded for Wayne Gretzky. The team became instant contenders, eventually reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993, before McNall’s house of cards imploded after they lost to Montreal. However, the team eventually rebounded, and behind goalie Jonathan Quick, they’ve won two Stanley Cups in recent years and are annual contenders (and celebrated their 50th Anniversary by demolishing my Bruins in Boston by a score of 9-2).

Minnesota North Stars-Awarded to a nine-man ownership group led by Walter Bush, Jr. and John Driscoll, the North Stars struggled financially and on the ice until after their merger with the Barons, when they had a string of deep playoff runs. However, the second half of the ’80s were a disaster and the Gund brothers who owned the team threatened to move, but were instead awarded the San Jose Sharks, an expansion franchise. The North Stars were purchased by Norman Green, who was one of the owners who bought the Atlanta Flames in 1979 and moved them to Calgary. He turned around and moved the North Stars to Dallas, citing poor attendance and a lack of a new arena (never mind that Target Center, home of the Minnesota Timberwolves, was new at the time). Green sold the team in 1995 to Tom Hicks, and the Dallas Stars won the 1999 Stanley Cup. In 1997, however, the NHL awarded the Minneapolis area a franchise, which became the Minnesota Wild, who started play in 2000.

Philadelphia Flyers-After seeing a huge line of fans outside the Boston Garden enthusiastically buying tickets to Bruins games even though the team was in last place, Philadelphia Eagles vice president Ed Snider assembled an ownership group for a team in Philadelphia, and lobbied hard for a franchise (leading to the league passing over Baltimore). The Flyers have become one of the most successful of the original expansion teams, appearing in 37 playoffs out of a possible 47, winning the Cup in 1974 and 1975 (the latter being the first all-expansion Stanley Cup Final). However, they also brought to the league a rich tradition of goonery that spread through the league like a wildfire (and that’s besides the typical, well-earned poor reputation Philadelphia sports fans have). Right now, they’re awful, thankfully, and John LeClair is long retired, so I have no reason to like them.

Pittsburgh Penguins-Founded after an intense lobbying effort by Pennsylvania state senator Jack McGregor, the Penguins have reached the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Besides the tragedy of Michel Briere, the team spent much of its first four decades of existence in dire financial straits, with the last such period a direct result of wild free agent spending sprees in the ’90s that resulted in two Stanley Cup Championships. However, their position finally stabilized after the disastrous 2004-2005 NHL lockout, when the first pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft was awarded to the Penguins through a rather dubious lottery, which resulted in the Penguins drafting Sidney Crosby, who led the team to a Stanley Cup.

St. Louis Blues-Awarded (despite having no ownership group) because Black Hawks owner James D. Norris also owned the rotting St. Louis Arena, the team made the first three Stanley Cup Finals after expansion (the expansion teams were placed in a division separate from the Original Six at first)…..and have never returned. Despite being a perennial playoff team (at one time making the playoffs every year for a quarter of a century), the Blues have been a solid team at best with a number of great players, but nothing more.

The effects were swift. While not directly related, James D. Norris died on February 25th, and the Black Hawks (and St. Louis Arena) fell into the hands of “Dollar” Bill Wirtz, one of the most vile owners in pro sports history. As such, Chicago, which was competitive at the time, spiraled into irrelevance, and never really recovered until Wirtz died and his son Rocky took over in 2007. Besides being notoriously cheap, Wirtz refused to embrace television, not allowing home games to be televised at all unless they were carried nationally. The Maple Leafs, one of the three dominant franchises, have not even been to the Stanley Cup Finals since expansion, and following the 2004-2005 lockout have made the playoffs once, in 2013, where they choked in improbably epic fashion to the Bruins in Game 7 of the first round. And speaking of the Bruins, buoyed by the infamous trade with Chicago that brought Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to Boston, the team transformed from perennial also-ran to one of the best-and most consistently winning-teams in the NHL, winning two Cups in three seasons and making the playoffs for three decades straight (and they’d have won even more titles if not for some key defections to the WHA and the early retirement of Bobby Orr). On a more esoteric level, the teams became more colorful, and the play more exciting (Espo famously became the first player with over 100 points in a season). And while it wasn’t until the ’90s that the NHL finally got a full national TV deal in the US, the expansions helped immensely, spreading the game across the US (albeit with dubious success in certain cities, such as Phoenix) and eventually making it harder for teams to qualify for years on end (the Blues and Bruins aside). And the players won the biggest of all. They successfully unionized in 1967, and with Orr’s record $1 million contract in 1971 and the formation of the WHA in 1972, salaries and benefits reached a level near that of the top players in the other three leagues, to say nothing of the increased number of roster spots and competition for them.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the rise of one of America’s first consumer advocates, and it’s not going to be a very friendly discussion.

Mirror, Mirror: Superfriends, Wonder Woman, and Superman

Super heroes are big business right now, but here’s a little secret: they’ve always been huge with my generation. Besides Batman, which I previously discussed on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary, comic book adventures were always a part of the culture. And this week, it’s time to discuss the other ways the heroes of DC Comics were a part of my childhood.

First, there’s the one of the longest-running and most remembered cartoons of the era: Superfriends.

As we’ll eventually discuss, the late ’60s saw a huge boom for super heroes in Saturday morning cartoons after Filmation established itself with The New Adventures of Superman. However, by the end of the ’60s, saturation combined with strict new content restrictions on violence on television swept away all of the super hero shows, resulting in Filmation surrendering the rights to the DC Comics characters. Things were so bad that Hanna-Barbera acquired the rights for a song, and instead of re-introducing the characters directly, Batman and Robin returned to TV in two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies, using Filmation’s cast (Olan Soule as Batman, Casey Kasem as Robin, Larry Storch as The Joker, and Ted Knight as The Penguin) in the process before proceeding with Super Friends for the 1973-74 TV season (by which time all of Filmation’s rights had lapsed).

The initial version of Super Friends, which featured no super villains at all and introducing the horrendously awful sidekicks Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog, was a complete dud. While it continued to retain Soule, Kasem, and Ted Knight (who was on the verge of having to abandon his robust animation career because of the huge success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and had more than a few animators poached from Filmation, the bloated, hour-long stories and weak action landed with a thud. The season wasn’t an entire loss, as there were many elements that actually worked. Hoyt Curtin’s score, often one of Hanna-Barbera’s greatest assets, soars here (especially with the iconic theme song, of which I’ve posted a remixed version above). The character designs and animation, while nowhere near as detailed as the comics, are still pretty excellent for the era (and especially from Hanna-Barbera, who was starting to move a lot of its animation to Australia at the time), with the Hall of Justice (which was based on Union Hall in Cincinnati, home of H-B’s then-corporate parent, Taft Broadcasting) being the best and most fondly-remembered. But the greatest asset is the cast and voice direction. Super Friends (along with The Addams Family) was one of the first two cartoons voice directed by Wally Burr, who literally dragged the art kicking and screaming into the modern era, with large casts, superb performances, and legendarily long recording sessions. With Batman, Robin, and the narrator all legacy cast members from the Filmation cartoons, Burr’s biggest impact was in casting Danny Dark as Superman, Shannon Farnon as Wonder Woman, and Norman Alden as Aquaman, and frankly, they all elevated the material to an outstanding degree. But after a second season comprised entirely of reruns, it seemed as if Super Friends was doomed to be forgotten.

However, a two years later, with super heroes all over prime time and Saturday morning television in live action form, ABC ordered reruns of the series in a half-hour format, and the show was a huge success. This led to a total reboot of the series, with Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog jettisoned in favor of the Wonder Twins, Zan (played by Michael Bell) and Jayna (Louise Williams), whose pet was the Space Monkey Gleek. The All-New Super Friends Hour, while saddled with morals, health tips and other half-hearted filler, was a major step forward, with actual villains (including established comic book foes Gentleman Ghost and Black Manta), but it would be the next season of the franchise that because the most popular.

Challenge of the Superfriends, besides being the first incarnation of the franchise to combine “Super Friends” into one word (something that is completely ignored in modern licensing), pitted an expanded Superfriends roster against the Legion of Doom, a collection of the most prominent of the DC Universe villains (the big exception being all of Batman’s foes except The Riddler, who were off limits to Hanna-Barbera because of Filmation’s competing The New Adventures of Batman, which aired on CBS and was denied use of The Riddler except for an incorrectly colored cameo in the opening credits). Backing this were half-hour adventures in the mold of The All-New Super Friends Hour, which would would be the general template for future seasons (albeit with increased appearances from Legion of Doom members). All was not perfect, however: Hanna-Barbera created Black Vulcan, a token minority character along the lines of the existing Samurai and Apache Chief characters, specifically to avoid paying royalties to Tony Isabella over the character of Black Lightning.

Things continued with minimal changes (the biggest being the addition of another original hero, El Dorado, who was by far and away the most successful of the ethnic heroes-though Samurai was also a pretty good character in his own right) until the 1983-84 season, when Hanna-Barbera took the series into syndication (it became one of the few syndicated cartoons aired on weekdays on Channel 5 in Vermont). ABC, despite funding 8 new episodes, cancelled the show outright (rendering those episodes unseen in America for years). This is where I come in, as those reruns on Channel 5 were my first exposure to Superfriends. ABC, however, brought the show back again for 1984-85, as Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. Suddenly, Superfriends was under a huge transition, as Adam West returned as Batman, and Firestorm was added to the cast (Olan Soule stayed on board, however, as Professor Martin Stein, half of Firestorm’s alter ego). Moreover, the show was now tied into Kenner’s excellent Super Powers toyline, and there was a new main villain: Darkseid, from Jack Kirby’s Third Earth stories. Along with Darkseid (voiced to great effect by Frank Welker) were Kalibak (again, voiced by Welker) and Desaad (voiced by Hanna-Barbera regular René Auberjonois, who was experiencing his second wave of live-action fame as Clayton Endicott III on Benson). Braniac, who had been retired following the tragic death of Ted Cassidy (along with Black Manta), was completely redesigned in line with the comics and voiced to great effect by Stanley Ralph Ross, and B.J. Ward (in the lone exception to what seems to be an unwritten rule that she be paired with Michael Bell’s characters romantically) assumed the role of Jayna because Louise Williams was no longer living in the LA area. Sadly, however, Wonder Woman was also controversially recast, with Constance Cawlfield assuming the role. Put simply, she was awful. (And, as insinuated by Shannon Farnon, she got the job because she was dating voice director Gordon Hunt. This claim is dubious, however, since Hunt, the father of actress Helen Hunt, eventually married B.J. Ward, one of the best and most prominent voice actresses of the ’80s.)

The next season brought even more changes, as the animation style was totally revised to match the artwork of artist José Luis García-López and Cyborg, from the popular comic The New Teen Titans, was brought aboard. Stories were much more serious, too, and The Joker finally appeared. Furthermore, “The Fear”, written as the pilot for a Batman solo series, told the origin of the Caped Crusader outside of the comics for the first time, and “The Death of Superman” featured just that. Best of all, Wonder Woman was again recast, with B.J. Ward assuming the role. (While not Shannon Farnon, she still excelled in the role.) But the changes were all for naught, as The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians was demolished in the ratings against the last half hour of The Smurfs and the first half hour of the heavily hyped Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling (which even more thoroughly trashed that season’s edition of Scooby-DooThe 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, in its second half hour), leading to ABC pulling the plug on Superfriends for the last time.

As I mentioned in the post on Batman, Channel 3 made that show a staple of early Saturday and Sunday mornings. But before Channel 22 filled weekday afternoons with cartoons, there was another super hero show on Channel 3, at 4PM on weekdays: Wonder Woman. Originally airing from 1975-1979, the show was actually the second attempt to bring Wonder Woman to live-action television (the first, starring Cathy Lee Crosby, bore so little resemblance to the character that the pilot to the series was titled The New, Original Wonder Woman). By the ’70s, Wonder Woman had emerged as a feminist icon despite some of the kinkier aspects of the character as conceived by William Moulton Marston. Regardless of those aspects (and the polyamorous relationship that Marston was involved in until the day he died), Wonder Woman was by far and away the best-and strongest-female super hero at the time, so it’s not terribly shocking she has always enjoyed a stronger popularity than the sales of her comic books have implied.

Wonder Woman the TV series succeeded because it openly leveraged the character’s status within the feminist movement, while (until CBS forced changes in the second season) staying faithful and proud of its roots in comic books. The first season in particular is incredibly accurate to the early Wonder Woman comic books (albeit with the bondage themes excised), right down to the period setting. Later seasons are close to the era’s comics, though the lack of super villains (common with the super hero TV shows of the ’70s) are a bit more glaring without the Nazis around to bash. But even with this attention and care (given to the series by Stanley Ralph Ross-yes, the same one who wrote for Batman and acted on Superfriends-and Douglas S. Cramer-who we’ll be talking about a lot in the future), Wonder Woman was great because of Lynda Carter.

Carter, who in addition to being an actress is a singer and the 1972 Miss World USA, not only looked the part, but has practically embodied Wonder Woman, both in character and out of character. Wonder Woman could have become simply a sex symbol (and boy did the networks and studio try to sell it that way), but with Lynda Carter as the star, she became a role model for everyone. The ambitious and timely lyrics like “Make a hawk a dove/Stop a war with love/Make a liar tell the truth” and “Change their minds/Save the world” work because there’s no question that Carter believes in the ideal of Wonder Woman (she campaigns vigorously for women’s rights, LGBT equality, breast cancer research, Pro Choice rights, and other causes), and it shines through in the episodes. More importantly, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was quite possibly the finest of the many great female heroes of my youth because she took the potentially suffocating roles of feminist icon, super heroine, sex symbol, and role model and epitomized the best of all of those qualities.

As influential as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was, though, in the ’80s, one super hero set the gold standard: Superman.

Promoted with the tagline, “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly”, Superman: The Movie reached for and achieved heights that most films-super hero-related or not-desperately wish they could reach. Director Richard Donner preached verisimilitude as the key to the feature’s success, and given the extremely difficult development process, he was right. Originally starting pre-production in 1974, Superman: The Movie wasn’t released until December of 1978. Part of this is attributable to the difficulties Alexander and Ilya Salkind had in assembling a crew and then a cast, but the actual production dragged on from 1976 until the middle of 1978, in part because the sequel was shot concurrently (in part because of the busy schedules of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, the top-billed stars for the feature). There were also extreme technical challenges surrounding the flight of Superman and the Phantom Zone criminals who feature primarily in the second film, and tensions between Donner and the Salkinds and especially producer Pierre Spengler, so much that director Richard Lester was brought in as a go-between/backup director. In the end, filming was temporarily abandoned on the sequel with 75% of it shot in order to concentrate on the first film. (In addition, the ending was revised to remove the intended cliffhanger where the aforementioned Phantom Zone criminals are freed at the closing of the film.)

In the end, Superman: The Movie was a massive success critically and financially. The special effects were revolutionary, the story inspiring, and John Williams’ score was yet another massive triumph for the composer. The cast was equally superb: Marlon Brando brings enormous gravitas to Jor-El, Gene Hackman is definitive as Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure nail their parts as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, Glenn Ford is inspiring as Pa Kent, and Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine are superb comic foils to Hackman as Otis and Miss Teschmacher. But it is Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve as Superman who make the film work. Kidder’s Lane is tenacious, witty, smart, and marvelously human, while Reeve is the first performer to effectively emphasize the “man” over the “Super”. The effects make you believe that a man can fly; Reeve makes you believe that the man is real.

However, the series almost immediately fell apart. When filming on Superman II resumed, Richard Donner was no longer the director. Richard Lester was, and in order to take away Donner’s directing credit, the film was heavily rewritten and reshot at a quick pace and cheaply (as the cost overruns on the first feature had caused the Salkinds to renegotiate their negative pickup deal with Warner Bros. multiple times, costing them parts of the lucrative international and TV rights to both movies). Worse, since Marlon Brando sued for his portion of the gross profits (and won), his scenes were excised. Gene Hackman, who had filmed the overwhelming bulk of his part for the sequel, refused to participate further, and was replaced with not only a stand-in, but had many lines re-dubbed by an uncredited Stanley Ralph Ross (using the voice he would later give to Brainiac on Superfriends). Tom Mankiewicz and Stuart Baird refused to take part in solidarity, and John Williams, busy with commitments to The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, didn’t score the film and Ken Thorne was hired instead at his recommendation (and while Thorne did an admirable job, his orchestra was far smaller than the London Symphony Orchestra used in the original, and it suffers in comparison).

Superman II was a critical and financial success despite the controversy, but watching in retrospect, it feels wrong. The comedic bits (especially during the fight in Metropolis, which already suffers because it was filmed on a soundstage and not in New York City) are far too slapsticky, and the reshoots are fairly obvious (Margot Kidder, who was particularly upset about the firing of Donner, is noticeably gaunt in the reshot footage). However, at the time (and even with the extended TV cut, which restored a great deal of Donner’s footage) no one was particularly wiser (and the sentiment against the theatrical version would not reach any real consensus until it was easy to share video on the internet), but with Superman III, which was conceived entirely without Donner and features a ton of slapstick comedy (to say nothing of having Richard Pryor as the second-billed star and Pamela Stephenson in the busty blonde bimbo role that she played incessantly during the ’80s) and just loses its way, while shoving aside Margot Kidder as revenge for having spoken out against the Salkinds. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, which was spearheaded by Christopher Reeve outside of the influence of the Salkinds, was even more embarrassing, since it was produced by Canon, who siphoned the budget to keep their house of cards standing for a while longer while also cutting a substantial (and important) part of the picture before release.

Amazingly, there was still a ton of goodwill for Superman and Christopher Reeve after the series petered out. And while Reeve would never again put on the red and blue tights (in part because of a horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed), there was one more Superman series during the ’80s.

Superman, produced by Ruby-Spears for CBS in order to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the character, is a bit odd. Bill Woodson narrates the intro in a holdover from Superfriends, the narration being the same as the one from The Adventures of Superman (which was itself adapted from the narration to the classic radio show). Lex Luthor has a girlfriend, Jessica Morganberry, who is clearly patterned after Miss Teschmacher, as well, and the opening theme is a re-orchestrated version of the Superman March from the movies. But despite this, Superman is clearly based on the newly-revised mythos for the character that sprang from DC’s company-wide reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths. Character designs were done by famed Superman artist Gil Kane, and the story editor was Marv Wolfman, who was one of the architects of the revised Superman mythos (ironically, CBS executives were not aware of this when they hired him). Also, each episode features a “Superman Family Album” segment which, in a lightly serialized fashion, shows us Clark Kent’s childhood from his crash on Earth until his departure from Smallville. Despite being successful, CBS passed on backing more seasons simply because the show cost too much to produce. This doomed the show to a sad level of obscurity until it was finally released on DVD, but even then, the show represents a great missed opportunity in the Superman franchise.

Next time, it’s the 50th Anniversary of one of the biggest expansions in the history of sports.