It may seem hard to believe now but there was a time when comic book adaptations were considered to be a risky bet at best. In 1977, Marvel Comics sold the television rights for four of their characters to Universal Productions. This led to three unsuccessful pilots (one for Dr. Strange and two for Captain America), a Spider-Man series that lasted for two seasons, and The Incredible Hulk. As opposed to the other Marvel adaptations, The Incredible Hulk series was popular with fans and (some) critics and ultimately lasted for four seasons.
It all started with a 90 minute pilot that aired in 1977. Haunted by the car accident that caused the death of his wife and his inability to rescue her, Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby) is researching why, in times of extreme stress, ordinary people can suddenly experience moments of super human strength. What he theorizes is that it is a combination of body chemistry and gamma radiation caused by sun spots. Eager to test his theory, David straps himself into a chair and zaps himself with gamma radiation. At first, it seems as if nothing has changed. But when David’s driving home, he gets a flat tire. When he struggles to change the tire, in the middle of a hurricane nonetheless, David gets mad. Suddenly, his eyes turn green and soon so does the rest of him as David Banner is transformed into the Incredible Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, except for one shot where the Hulk is played by Richard Kiel). The Hulk runs through the woods, accidentally scaring a girl and getting shot by a hunter. When the Hulk falls asleep, he transforms back into David, who has no memories of what he did while he was the Hulk. While David and his colleague, Elaina Marks (Susan Sullivan), investigate what happened to him, tabloid reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin) tries to uncover the results of David and Elaina’s research.
Other than introducing the Hulk and giving Banner a backstory, the pilot didn’t have much in common with the series that followed. Along with being a comic book adaptation, the series was also a remake of The Fugitive. With everyone convinced that the Hulk had murdered both him and Elaina, David was always on the run and trying to find a way to cure his condition. Every episode would begin with David working a new odd job and getting involved in a new situation and almost every episode ended with David hitchhiking while the show’s famous piano theme played over the final credits. Because David was always either getting beaten up or tangled in barbed wire, the Hulk would show up twice an episode. David Banner just couldn’t catch a break.
The pilot seems to take forever to get going, devoting a lot of time to David and Elaina doing research. In those days before the success of The Dark Knight and the MCU legitimized comic books as a cultural force, The Incredible Hulk was determined to show that it was not just a show for kids. Today, the pilot is too slow-paced and self-consciously serious but still contains the elements that made the show itself became a success. Bill Bixby takes his role seriously and Lou Ferrigno is the perfect choice for the Hulk. Decades after they first aired, the Hulk-transformation scenes are still undeniably cool. It was also during the pilot that Dr. Banner uttered those famous and oft-parodied words: “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
As of this week, reruns of The Incredible Hulk are now being shown, daily, on both H&I and the El Rey network. I will be watching.