Super '70s and '80s: Legends of the SuperheroesA tv interview article by: Marc Tyler Nobleman
To bridge the gap between his book Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (which made the front page of USA Today) and his upcoming book on Batman/Bill Finger (set for a 2012 release), author Marc Tyler Nobleman found and interviewed 100 "lost" stars of superhero/cartoon entertainment of the '70s and '80s -- from the pimp in Superman: The Movie to the voice actors of both Wonder Twins (Jayna had been MIA for decades) to the original singer of the Scooby-Doo theme.
The interviews are sometimes hilarious and often poignant; many of these people have not been interviewed before and had no idea they have fans. Nobleman also compiled many previously unpublished "then and now" photos and rare documents and mementos from various private collections.
For the past several Wednesdays, Comics Bulletin has been presenting select interviews from the series, the complete set of which can be read on Marc's blog. This week, Marc takes on three cast members from the campy 1979 Legends of the Superheroes live-action TV specials -- the actors who played Captain Marvel, The Flash, and Hawkman!
Marc Tyler Nobleman: What was your background before appearing in Legends of the Superheroes?
Garrett Craig (Captain Marvel): I came to LA to do comedy. I did stand-up at the Ice House, Troubadour and Comedy Store starting when Sammy Shore first gave comics a shot at open mike night. But I quickly found an even easier way to make money. On a good night, comics love to say they "killed." When they would come offstage, I would show them that I could mimic their rhythm, characters, and personality. I came with one-liners to fill the dead air. It didn't get me that sweet crib in Malibu but I did get to meet people like Johnny Carson, Redd Foxx, and George Carlin.
Back in the day, you could pick up the price of a dinner by standing in a police lineup. This particular evening was a three-card Monte of flasher… flasher… who can find the flasher? Everybody in the lineup had to open his trench coat, one at a time. To my confidence-shattering surprise, when I opened my coat, the lady screamed, "That's him, that's the guy!" The detective leaned forward and squinted in my direction and said, "I don't see anything." The frantic woman: "I know… and I know what I didn't see… and that's him!"
Rod Haase (Flash): I don't recall when LOTS came up in my illustrious film career; however, I played a number of superheroes around this time. One was in a film called Hero at Large with John Ritter. I don't recall the character's name [NOTE: Captain Avenger], but at one point the film was the title of the superhero and later changed. I portrayed Flash Gordon as part of a "say no to drugs" campaign that was part of the Reagan administration's drug policy; it featured Nancy Reagan. I had also done seven or eight commercials for an amusement park in Los Angeles called Magic Mountain. My character was another superhero named Speed King who claimed to have built the park more or less single-handedly. Magic Mountain was later acquired by Six Flags Over Texas. Among the rides [my character] was credited with having built was the first rollercoaster that did a full 360-degree revolution and another mammoth rollercoaster named Colossus.
Bill Nuckols (Hawkman): Bodybuilder.
Nobleman: How did you hear about the audition?
Craig: Networking. Connections. Rumors about jobs are like flies… never a shortage of them but try catching one! [When] I heard about LOTS, I was doing comedy punch-up (rewriting and adding jokes) for a producer friend of mine. He was also a friend of Bill Carruthers, director of LOTS (with Chris Darley). My friend had a script of LOTS and thought I might get some work there. "Why don't you rework this?" He said if I did, he would try to get me a meeting with Mr. Carruthers. He tossed the script to me [and said], "I think you can see more humor in it." It seemed like a really hot idea at the time. From the distance it even looked like the spark of a firing success…but as I got closer it was more like a blindfold and firing squad.
Nuckols: I had an agent.
Nobleman: What do you remember about the audition?
Craig: I didn't know how close to production they were and that they had not cast Captain Marvel. I had been up all night pumping up the one-liners but not changing the plot, hoping to sell some joke copy. When I met with Mr. Carruthers, he asked, "What have you got for me?" But [he was] looking at me like he was a T. rex and I was wearing a meat hat. Usually with a pitch, you've got about three sentences before the floor slides out from under you.
So all the time I'm doing my best vocal Cirque du Soleil of all the superhero parts in LOTS, Carruthers is nodding as if he's interested in my rewrites, but he's slithering me around backstage through booms and props like a witch doctor getting the tribal virgin to the edge of the volcano for sacrifice. Carruthers never looked but he never ran into anything, either. Suddenly, he threw open the casting door to Lee Schaff Guardino. "You think that cape would fit him?" Carruthers said.
Carruthers told me the writing on the script was locked because they were going to start shooting in two days, but if I wanted I could play Captain Marvel. I spun toward Ms. Guardino to see if I was being punk'd and said, "So you want a Marvel that does one-liners and dresses like an overcooked Caped-Potater?" Guardino, who always seemed to get me, nodded and said, "We even have some boots that look like the yellow cheese to go with that Potater." The yellow boots would turn out to be the least funny thing about the Marvel outfit!
Nuckols: Seemed to get it on the first try.
Nobleman: Did you need to try on a costume?
Nobleman: Did you try out for any other characters besides the one you ended up portraying?
Craig: That would be a negative, Houston. Although I would liked to have read for the Weather Wizard -- absolutely nothing against Jeff Altman's portrayal. I say that because one, it was great, and two, because Jeff scares me! When I watched Jeff working, I would always imagine a lion with its tail on fire in a herd of zebras. [No], I wished I could've tried the Wiz because I really wanted to run lines with Adam West. We spent a lot of time on set together and he was a very funny, stand-up dude. And I was sure that if he was allowed to get crazy -- away from the Batman cadence of comedy delivery, people would see an even more mad-dog, funnier side to him.
Nobleman: Had you heard of your character before portraying him?
Craig: Like most boys, I had heard of the Justice League. I wanted to be like Plastic Man so I could reach the top shelf where my mom stashed the cookies. Like Batman so I could have the cool ride. [I was too young to know about insurance and gas mileage.] Did you know that Adam West's Batmobile got up to only about 20 miles per hour and Adam in most scenes had to hold the driver side door closed with his left arm? It's the reason he never won Miss Congeniality in any parade… he couldn't wave! Last and most importantly, I wanted to be like Superman, strong enough to leap tall buildings in a single bound and faster than a speeding bullet so I could please just once finish eating my mom's meatloaf surprise. My stomach was never strong enough to eat it, and I wasn't fast enough to hide it.
Nuckols: Yes, I had read comic books.
Nobleman: Do you remember getting the job? What was your reaction?
Craig: Do you remember going trick-or-treating? It was all just too good to believe when you got home! It became like my first kiss -- I had no idea what I was doing or how I got there but I wanted everybody to know I did it.
Nuckols: Don't really remember, but I must have been happy.
Nobleman: How did you feel dressing like a superhero?
Craig: Once we started shooting, it became every kid's towel wrapped around your neck, hands extended in flight, running screaming through the backyard… full-out fun Fantasyland.
Haase: I didn't feel anything particularly special about dressing as a superhero -- it was just another costume to get in and out of. One thing I do recall is that I made a suggestion to the costumers at MGM that they fashion the boots around running shoes. They ignored my suggestion and I found it virtually impossible, as did the stunt men, to exhibit a catlike grace while running across rooftops in boots.
Nuckols: I thought my costume was cool.
Nobleman: How long were the shoots (both hours in a day and number of days)?
Nuckols: Maybe six hours day for 7-10 days.
Nobleman: Did any onlookers call out to/interact with you in costume while shooting on location?
Craig: After makeup at 6 a.m., before I went across the street for the shoot, I thought I'd see if anybody would stop for a superhero. Some college girls wanted to know if I had the boots in size 6. And a [guy who almost hit me] hissed, "Get out of the street…and for God's sake, learn how to accessorize!" The prize for the morning, though, went to some very vogue woman in a Corvette who rolled down her window and said, "Sweetheart, I could have told you… computer dating sucks!"
Nuckols: No, pretty much closed sets.
Nobleman: What was the hardest stunt in the shows (whether or not you were the one doing it)?
Craig: The production team stopped at a park in the Hollywood Hills. Carruthers ordered, "Camera here! Monitor here! Ladder there! Marvel, jump off the ladder! Look like you're flying into the scene." This time, there was a Teamster to plant the ladder. Carruthers said, "Third step, Marvel. Make it look real." I stood on the edge of the step, knowing there was no way to soft land. The jump felt forever. When I hit, absolutely nothing gave except my spine, which made a sound like a monster truck running over forty cases of Corn Flakes! The crew, actors, and audience all took a professional two-second beat so not to ruin the take, then collectively let out an anguished "Oooooouuu!"
Carruthers shouted, "Land like you're weightless, not like [you're] Stonehenge! And higher. The sixth step." Up to the top step on the ladder. [And then] suddenly, I was in horrifying freefall.
My boots bashed into the defiant dirt. I rolled up, then bounced into the air, my arms and legs shot out. I flopped to the ground like a deboned halibut into a cloud of flour.
After I slammed down, I can only report to you like the Apostle Paul, "Whether I was in the body or out, only God knows."
Nuckols: When they were driving around the Batmobile.
Nobleman: What did you think of the storylines of the shows?
Craig: LOTS was supposed to be satire in satin shorts. Good comedy doesn't need to have a great plot. Only Shakespeare and people who have passed on need to have a plot. If you can cash in on the comedy of the characters and situations, the audience will forget about the mortgage on the plot.
I read some of the critiques: "Oooh, I say, what a frightful lack of story development. Like a carnival spinning out of control!" These guys are the same brain trust that nominate the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Laurel & Hardy as their standard of comic genius year after year. Which they are totally right about! Except they seem to have forgotten those plotlines made less sense than Yoko Ono videos.
You have to decide if you're making a picture about sense or nonsense! I even heard Chris Darley, one of the directors of LOTS, saying he forgets, it was so long ago, but LOTS was supposed to be a cartoon that morphed into a TV series that did a half gainer into a comedy. He didn't know what happened, but nobody was to blame. But isn't the director supposed to bring the compass?
Nuckols: I thought they were pretty cool.
Nobleman: Were you starstruck by any of your fellow performers, and if so, which ones?
Craig: There were a lot of stars that I was thrilled to meet and work with: Ed McMahon, William Schallert, Burt Ward, Howard Morris, Frank Gorshin, Ruth Buzzi, Jeff Altman, and, of course, Adam West. From the producers to directors to cast, everyone, deservedly so, respected Adam. He was the best at what he did.
We sat next to each other as superheroes on "The Roast." Adam acted like we had been fishing buddies forever. During breaks, we talked about things we both enjoyed -- fishing, movies, golf. I think sometimes when you are so successful in a role like Batman, people forget to see the real guy, the genuinely nice, humorous, and talented sides to your personality. He had a lot more in his utility belt than people let him show.
Nuckols: I guess by Adam West and Burt Ward.
Nobleman: What do you remember about any of your fellow performers?
Craig: Burt Ward was daily amassing an empire. He was way ahead of his time. When he rolled onto the studio, his Lincoln actually became the first Transformer: "Optimus Retail Time." His trunk was like the Home Shopping Network -- 8x10s, shirts, memorabilia. He was good; before Adam West could finish his lunch, [Burt had] the sandwich wrapper, still warm, autographed and for sale in an 8x10" frame.
I painfully recall that Howard Murphy was much smarter than me. One day on the shoot, the AD walked up to Howard and me and asked if either of us could row a boat. Howard just blinked and stared blankly as if the AD had asked in Swahili, "Do you know how to make an Oompa-Loompa float?"
I, of course, saw my chance to flip Green Lantern like a turtle in the sun, and in a way-too-confident voice, said yes. I thought, this is too cool -- I get camera time! I am going to score while Howard stands on the shore. Fifteen minutes later, I'm set to row Howard in a Super Race across the lake for the next thirty takes. (Howard was laughing loudly.)
In the meantime, I have told Howard to go to the bow of the boat so it will make it easier to row. What I didn't say was, easier to row backward and flip him into the water. Problem was, Howard the Lantern may [have used] light to transport himself but Howard the Person was not light to transport. The back rowing move failed and Howard said if I tried it again he would throw me overboard and watch laughing as the yellow voodoo boots took me to the bottom of the lake. In fact, I liked Howard, and if you're reading this "Lantern Boy," I hope you didn't get too tired standing in the boat while I rowed all day in the blazing sun!
Saying Charlie Callas (Sinestro) was a little Crazy is like saying a hurricane is a little distracting. Charlie had a face like Play-Doh in a Cuisinart. Faster than the Flash to 7-Eleven and back, Charlie would be doing these molten manic monologues complete with an outlandish library of his own sound effects.
Rod Haase was more careful. He wanted to make sure it got off at the right time. Rod was easy to hang with. He was very professional, liked everyone, and worked very well with the cast. We both wore red suits but Rod was really tall. Most of the time we never stood too close together in the red suits because the grips said we looked like King Kong's hemorrhoids. We joked a lot with each other and shot a lot of smack about who would get the most mail if this show flew. I didn't want to slam his ego too bad, but I had to remind him that if the ladies had a choice between two lightning bolts and one was named the Flash and the other was named Marvel, who do you think was going to get the date? Seriously, Rod was a very together guy; I knew he would do well with whatever he tried. And if he didn't, he could do it over again faster than anyone could see.
I think with the addition of [each additional] cast member to a production, like adding more people to a lifeboat, tends to lean more toward sinking than floating. Take William Schallert (Retired Man/Scarlet Cyclone). Individually, a true actor, but with so many other actors, we never got to see all the colors of his character. He had a lot of physical shtick to go with his addled comic delivery, but there was not enough time to develop the gags.
I have been on the sets of Laugh-In, Happy Days, Mork & Mindy, Barney Miller, and Moonlighting, and by and large with these very successful series it seemed to me their policy on ad-libs was "if it's funny, keep it… if it ain't, sweep it!"
One break, Adam was talking to Burt while the crew was setting up for a big explosion by Mordru. The assistant director came by with ear plugs, and not wanting to disturb Adam and Burt, he handed them all to me. I waited, and when Adam looked back to me, I held out the ear plugs. Adam [had a look like] "And what do you want me to do with those?" Keeping a sincere scientific tone, I said, "They're Ben Wa balls for our ears!" Adam generously thought I might have a chance in town if Carruthers didn't end up using me as a tent peg for the catering canopy.
By the end of the day, we were exhausted and more than a little chafed from running around in suits that were tighter and more cramped than Donald Trump's money clip. I went over and crashed in a chair next to Adam. Panting, I asked, "How are you not experiencing spontaneous combustion?" Adam looked around like a black ops agent and whispered, "Silk. Silk lining in the Batsuit. No chafing. You should have wardrobe do it for you."
The next day in makeup, I slinked by Adam and said, "Good news, bad news." As usual, Adam squinted at me like a colorless Rubik's Cube. "Silk," I said. "Last night wardrobe cut out enough silk to line my suit. That's the good news. The bad news… they cut the silk from the parachute I'm supposed to use today for my jump." Adam smirked, "Don't worry. Even if the chute worked, the voodoo boots would have killed you. Besides, I'll get you a huge discount on the coffin now that you've already got the silk." You know what's better than being a superhero? Being a super nice guy. Thank you, Mr. West, for the memories.
Nuckols: They all seemed professional, like they had worked in film before.
Nobleman: Was there any romance among actors that you know of?
Craig: I've never told this story, but I kissed Ruth Buzzi! Ruth had come in for a cameo as Aunt Minerva for "The Roast" and there was a scene where she was supposed to take control of me with a kiss. McMahon, Buzzi, and I are spiking lines back and forth to keep the comedy ball in play. To save himself, McMahon throws me under the bus and Buzzi is supposed to mack me and melt my face.
"Cut," Carruthers shouted. Through the laughter jumps Buzzi up under my chin, still with the gat in her hand, and says, "Do you not know how to kiss? Don't French kiss me!" Snap… I was so
focused on the scene, I did not even know I had not done a stage kiss.
"I'm sorry", I just got too into the part," I said. "Yes, yes, I know, I was there! You! Too into the part! No more parts! Don't make me remove the parts!" The gun wagged under my nose. Now I was way embarrassed, and so flushed, with the supersuit, I looked like a bright red glow stick.
Nuckols: Not aware of any.
What did you get paid for appearing in LOTS?
Craig: The first day I found out everybody else was getting paid I went to Mr. Carruthers and asked him when I could get paid. Carruthers said, "Are you a good actor?" I said, "Yeah, I'm good." "Then act like you're getting paid!" And he finally laughed!
I went to my crack agent or my agent on crack -- I can't remember how he introduced himself -- and asked [when I'd get paid]. My agent said, "First they have to pick up the pilot. Then the series has to run three years successfully. Finally, if it goes into syndication, there will be more money than you can shake a stick at."
Haase: I don't recall, but it wasn't much.
Check out Part 2 of this interview on Marc's Blog!