“Don’t make me angry… you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
If ever there was a warning to be heeded, it was this one. For once these words were uttered, clothing was going to rip, muscles were going to pop, complexion was going to turn a nice emerald green, and justice would be served – all in a day’s work for an otherwise humble superhero named The Incredible Hulk. And from the moment he made his television debut, fans faithfully tuned in to see Bill Bixby get mad enough to turn into a creature no sane man would mess with.
The origins of the character stem from a 1962 Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby. It tells the tale of a scientist named Bruce Banner who went through some extraordinary changes after being unwittingly exposed to gamma rays from a bomb test at a military base. The result of which was that when Bruce got angered, he slowly transformed into a green mountain of a man, whether he wanted to or not, and the result was one cranky superhero. In hindsight, it is obviously a great idea for a comic. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t catch on at first and only six issues were produced. Later, another attempt was made to resurrect the character, this time as part of the Tales to Astonish series. This time, the green guy got some nods from fans and the comic was soon re-titled The Incredible Hulk. It continues to be a successful comic to this day.
And so, in 1977, CBS decided to include the Hulkster in a series of two-hour Marvel Comics television adaptations, which also featured Dr. Strange, Captain America and The Amazing Spiderman. Bill Bixby was cast as the mild-mannered David (rather than Bruce) Banner. In the show, he was involved in research related to why ordinary people can sometimes develop superhuman strength in a time of extreme stress or crisis. This research was explained as a result of the guilt that Banner carried with him for years after failing to save his wife from a car fire that claimed her life.
While conducting various experiments in the lab, David is exposed to a heavy dose of gamma radiation. The result is a severe change in body chemistry whenever he angered to the point of rage. First he blacks out, then transforms into a bright green creature as muscular as a bodybuilder (which made perfect sense considering David’s alter-ego was played by professional bodybuilder, Lou Ferrigno.) The old David Banner would eventually return, but with no recollection of his transformation or his actions that occurred as a result. A tabloid reporter named Jack McGee caught a glimpse of the creature and promptly dubbed him “The Incredible Hulk.”
The success of the first show prompted another two-hour special called The Return of The Incredible Hulk. Airing a mere 3 weeks after the first installment, the show received favorable reviews and CBS green-lighted an hour-long prime-time series. Debuting in 1978, the series featured the same cast that had appeared in the specials.
Each episode began with David, who was presumed to be dead, wandering into a new town, picking up some odd work, and hoping he might start a new life, if only temporarily. The reason for his wandering ways was that, although he was generally a compassionate soul, willing to help any troubled person whose path he ran across, he still had that infamous temper that brought out the beast in him. Anger or agitate him enough and his eyes would change color, then his clothes, which were also quickly growing a few sizes too small as he grew a few sizes larger. Muscles would bulge from every square inch of his now-green body and his hair began to resemble one of The Beatles having a bad hair day.
As might be expected, this transformation tended to freak out anyone who witnessed it, as no matter how benevolent the regular David was, the big guy he transformed into wasn’t exactly the kind of resident that the townspeople wanted waking up on the wrong side of bed. Thus, he would begin another journey towards a new town at the end of each episode. And if these weren’t problems enough, he also had to contend with a nosy reporter who tracked his every move and was only a few steps away at all times.
The Incredible Hulk was a big success for CBS. It was somewhat unorthodox for a superhero show in that rather than focus on the Hulk, the show devoted far more time towards the people that Banner interacted with – and along the way, tackled such social issues as child abuse, mental illness and alcoholism. The Hulk, on the other hand, only had a few minutes of airtime in each episode – but they were always memorable.
The series ran on CBS for most of five years, ending in 1982. Following its cancellation, he would re-emerge as part of the Saturday morning lineup. The animated Incredible Hulk ran for three years. In the late 80s, a series of made-for-TV movies were produced, which included The Incredible Hulk Returns in 1988, The Trail of the Incredible Hulk a year later and The Death of the Incredible Hulk in 1990.
Sadly, Bill Bixby passed away in 1993 and planned future installments were halted. Then in 2008, Edward Norton took over the role of David Banner in the Universal feature film, The Incredible Hulk. The film was generally liked by fans and critics and the possibility of a sequel looms on the horizon.
Still, to many a former fan, Lou Ferrigno was, and always will be, the quintessential Hulk – the one that greeted us each week on prime time, the one for whom we gleefully ripped our own shirts in an attempt to emulate. If you are one of those former kids who fondly remembers watching this series, we’d love to hear your recollections of The Incredible Hulk in our comments section.