A Brief History of "The Incredible Hulk" on TV

Herbie J Pilato

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[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

For the "Hulk," it wasn't easy being green

Anger, fury, isolation, loneliness, death, secrets, egos - alter egos - and jealousy, the green-eyed monster itself - these are the traits that imbue Dr. David Banner and his mammoth, ultra-strong, oh-so-golly-green giant alter ego of The Incredible Hulk as a superhero. Those are also the themes that run rampant throughout the very making of the popular live-action sci-fi television series of the same title that originally aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982.

Like the comic book before it and the feature films that would follow it, the small screen classic is based on the iconic, ground-breaking super-powered Marvel-ous character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962.

On the '70s TV edition, the late Bill Bixby played the Dr. Jekyll-esque Dr. Banner (his first name was Bruce in the comic book). Former Mr. Universe Lou Ferrigno was the muscle-bound Mr. Hyde. Bixby, best known as the star of My Favorite Martian (CBS, 1963-66), The Courtship of Eddie's Father (ABC, 1969-71), and The Magician (NBC, 1973-74), was a professional in every sense of the word. But like his David Banner TV-persona, he was unsettled, intense, aloof, searching - a fugitive from life. He participated not so much because he experienced joy, but rather out of obligation, via his contract.

"Don't make me angry," is Banner's most famous quote before transforming into the Hulk, embodied by Ferrigno (who happens to be hearing-impaired). "You won't like me when I'm angry."

This, too, became a mantra of sorts for Bixby and Ferrigno, the latter of whom finally admitted to personal demons of his own. "I've been the Hulk my whole life," he told People Magazine in 1999. "I was so angry that I had this handicap, and bodybuilding released that aggression."

Ferrigno later carried that torture to the big screen with movies like Hercules (1983) and The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (1985). But it was initially and clearly the case while filming the Hulk TV series.

Ferrigno and Bixby were a perfect match in a parallel universe. Separate, yet together. Team players, yet from rival schools of thought. Towards the final seconds of the game, they transmuted into not the most carefree or pleasant of players. The Incredible Hulk as a series lunged for the longest yard.

As the show continued, the relationship faltered between Bixby and Ferrigno, as did their association with Hulk producer/director Ken Johnson (The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman). They all began to resent one another's input, participation, and very presence.

Before the pilot even began filming, Bixby wasn't all that crazy about doing the show. He thought the script was beneath him, and he was wary of the sci-fi/fantasy premise he trekked on Martian and to some extent on The Magician. He was also frustrated that his movie career had stalled.

Bixby's best known on the big screen for only a trio of less than mediocre films with Elvis Presley (Spinout, 1966; Clambake, 1967; Speedway, 1968). He consented to do the Hulk TV program because he was eventually convinced that it would rise above being just a kiddie show.

Ferrigno, meanwhile, was prime-cut for a Hulking embrace. The series became a "monster hit." Yet, while he basked in the green acres of stardom, Bixby still found it difficult to steer clear of the show's other-worldly aspects and battled with Johnson to make the series as realistic as possible. But just the idea of a TV show about a superhero gnawed at Bixby's very marrow. He was torn by a passion for perfection, prestige, personal esteem, his profession, and a pact he made with his peers.

So, in the end, Bixby made the best of it, which meant he played out his life and career in mood swings. His internal life was desolate, empty, and unfulfilled. He was married, with a son who, at a very young age, succumbed to a horrid bacterial infection. Soon following, his wife committed suicide. Bixby was numb on the inside but moved forward on the exterior.

He was indeed out of sorts. And he was relieved when The Incredible Hulk was canceled, while Ferrigno lacked direction, regarding his career and his personal life.

Then, in 1988, the first of three Hulk TV reunion movies aired, the last of which was titled The Death of the Incredible Hulk, which fittingly laid to rest the dual and dueling character, the singular series, the frequent battles between the actors, the production team, and the studio.

In 1993, Bixby died and found peace.

All these years later, Ferrigno lives well and healthy.

In the realm of the comic book world, however, the adventures of Dr. Banner and The Incredible Hulk rages on.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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