Screen Time [Spidey Month]: Spider-Man (1977 Pilot)

Easily Marvel Comics’ most recognisable and popular superhero, unsuspecting teenage nerd Peter Parker was first bitten by a radioactive spider and learned the true meaning of power and responsibility in Amazing Fantasy #15, which was first published in August 1962. Since then, the Amazing Spider-Man has featured in numerous cartoons, live-action movies, videogames, action figures, and countless comic book titles and, in celebration of his debut and his very own day of celebration, I’ve been dedicating every Wednesday to talk about everyone’s favourite web-head!

Air Date: 14 September 1977
Network: CBS
Stars: Nicholas Hammond, Lisa Eilbacher, Thayer David, David White, and Michael Pataki

The Background:
Following his debut in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #5, Spider-Man soon graduated to his own solo comic series and, by the mid-1970s, had become an icon of mainstream pop culture thanks to numerous merchandise and adaptations in other media such as the 1960s cartoon. It was during this time that CBS bought the rights to produce a live-action show for prime-time television; however, rather than debuting as an episodic series, The Amazing Spider-Man first aired as a feature-length episode that served as a back-door pilot. The pilot actually received a theatrical release outside of the United States, though I only remember seeing it on TV here in the United Kingdom once as a kid; regardless, the pilot was a success and led to the commission of a thirteen episode series that aired between 1977 and 1979.

Spider-Man’s feature-length pilot led to a thirteen episode TV series.

Despite drawing favourable ratings during its airing, CBS were reluctant to continue the show as it was expensive to produce and underperformed with older audiences. As a result, the show was eventually cancelled and has never seen a re-release outside of a few VHS tapes back in the day. Although the series was lacking in any of Spider-Man’s recognisable rogues gallery, it’s rumoured that there were tentative plans to produce a crossover with the long-running Incredible Hulk series (1977 to 1982) but these, obviously, never came through. Today, the series is largely forgotten, having been long overshadowed by Spider-Man’s big budget live-action ventures but Peter’s likeness in the 1994 cartoon always reminded me of Hammond’s.

The Plot:
When freelance photographer Peter Parker (Hammond) is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains the proportionate strength, speed, and agility of a spider, he adopts a crime-fighting persona dubbed Spider-Man to oppose the aspirations of the malicious Edward Byron (David), who plans to hold the city to ransom with his mind control technology.

The Review:
After the introductory titles (which features both a glimpse of the spectacular stunt work that the pilot and series was known for and the show’s super funky seventies theme music), Spider-Man immediately introduces the central antagonistic force of the plot as a doctor and a lawyer are inexplicably compelled to walk out in the middle of their jobs and perform a bank robbery, with the only thing relating the two being mysterious pins attached to their suits.

Peter struggles to sell photos to, or get assignments from, the grouchy Jameson.

Next, we’re introduced to Peter Parker, a freelance photographer who suffers from allergies and is attempting to work his way through college by selling photographs to J. Jonah Jameson (White), to little avail. While Jameson is far less as explosive and grouchy than his usual iterations, he’s still volatile and a natural cynic at heart, especially when faced with the seeming randomness of the opening crime and the subsequent threat for further crimes to follow.

A lone spider is bathed in radiation during one of Peter’s experiments…

While Peter can’t catch a break with Jameson and is thus constantly low on cash, he’s intrigued by the threat of mass mind control that has been levied against the city and has far more luck in the field of science. Peter works in a laboratory alongside his friend and fellow student Dave (Larry Anderson) and the two of them are conducting experiments on radiation. However, while dealing with some radioactive waste, a lone spider is bathed in over 400 rads’ worth of radiation and, in its last desperate act, bites Peter’s hand.

Peter is exhilarated to find he can cling to walls and surfaces just like a spider!

I’m not entirely certain but I think this is the first time the spider bite was indirectly caused through Peter’s own actions and it’s an interesting change. Rather than going through any kind of adjustment period or troublesome transformation, Peter experiences the effects of the spider bite almost instantaneously, being aware of incoming danger thanks to his spider-sense and racing up a wall with ease and on pure instinct. It’s not until later, after a particularly gruelling night’s sleep, that Peter pieces together the fantastic event and realises that he has been genetically altered; this leads to a montage in which he explores the lengths of his new abilities on the outside of his Aunt May’s (Jeff Donnell) through the use of camera trickery.

After being dubbed “Spider-Man”, Peter throws together a costume to sell pictures to Jameson.

It’s not a great effect, and certainly nothing on the practical wire work seen later in the pilot, but it’s certainly ambitious for the time. Peter first puts his powers to good use while clambering up a wall in the city, which is startling enough to stop a purse snatcher (Barry Cutler) in his tracks. This leads to eyewitnesses dubbing him “Spider-Man”, which piques Jameson’s interest and, in that moment, gives Peter the inspiration to construct a colourful outfit and persona befitting of such a name and to explain Spider-Man’s logistics and capabilities to the pessimistic Jameson (and, in the process, the audience). While Peter acts on instinct to stop a criminal, his primary motivation for becoming Spider-Man is to sell Jameson pictures; there’s no Uncle Ben or lessons about power and responsibility here (which, I’m sure, today’s Spider-Man “fans” would throw a fit over!), just a regular kid trying to do the right thing and make some money out of little more than an ingrained sense of right or wrong.

Captain Barbara’s cantankerous, gruff demeanour was a real highlight for me.

In the course of the pilot, Peter runs afoul of the temperamental Captain Barbara (Pataki), a grouchy, cantankerous, and suspicious police captain who is kind of like the Jack McGee (Jack Colvin) of the show; perhaps because of his jaded nature, he is almost immediately suspicious of Peter and becomes even more so when Peter continues to show up at the scenes of the inexplicable crimes. Barbara is equally unimpressed with Spider-Man’s debut, believing (with little reason) that the wall-crawler is somehow involved in the mysterious events and voicing many of the more aggressive objections to the vigilante that are usually attributed to Jameson, who is skeptical of Spider-Man but never exhibits the hatred normally associated with the character.

Peter and Judy attend one of Byron’s aggressive seminars on the futility of life.

When covering the aftermath of another of the incidents in which Professor Noah Tyler (Ivor Francis) randomly committed a robbery and then crashed head-first into a wall, Peter meets his daughter, Judy (Lisa Eilbacher). Judy confides in Peter that her father has been attending a special group to teach people the “true meaning of themselves” through unusually aggressive lectures. This group, which is more like a cult or twisted church, is led by the pilot’s big bad, Edward Byron; Byron uses specialised radio signals to compel his victims to commit their crimes and is basically able to force anyone wearing one of his pins and subjected to his mind control device to follow his explicit instructions. Specifically, Byron has them commit robberies and then kill themselves and his end goal is extortion, as he threatens to kill several citizens unless he’s paid a ransom of $50 million. Byron exhibits a disdain for those in his group, and humanity in general, and believes himself to be above them both in terms of intelligence and stature; for all his grandiose speeches, though, he’s little more than a madman who wishes to exert and abuse his power and technology purely to satiate his greed.

Peter’s far from the hapless nerd from the comics and his ingenuity is heavily emphasised.

While Peter has some bad luck in the pilot, it’s generally more around trying to make money off the pugnacious Jameson and he’s far from the hapless, down on his luck nerd he is often pigeon-holed as. Instead, he’s a relatively well-adjusted young man who bonds with Judy extremely quickly and a central theme of the pilot is Peter’s intelligence and scientific acumen. Not only does he put together an impressive costume for himself but he quickly cobbles together his patented web-shooters and not only stumbles upon Byron’s hypnotic signal with his microwave emitter but also puts together a gadget to led him to the source of the signal.

Stuntman Fred Waugh took over once Peter donned the suit to perform the pilot’s dangerous stunts.

When in the costume, Spider-Man duties mostly fall to stuntman Fred Waugh, who adopts an agile grace and insectile posture that, possibly, was a conscious decision on Waugh’s part to emphasise the physicality of the character. The pilot features a number of complex and incredibly dangerous stunts achieved through the use of wire work, cables, rigging, and rotating sets; though you can make out some of the wires here and there, that doesn’t take away from the ambition of those involved and it’s because of this practical approach that, for the first time, we get to see a live-action Spider-Man literally climbing up the sides of buildings, leaping to ceilings and walls, and swinging across rooftops (something, even now, which is more likely to be achieved through CGI than traditional filmmaking techniques).

Spidey’s intelligence wins the day as much as his incredible strength and agility.

While these instances showcase Spider-Man’s agility, a protracted fight scene between the web-head and Byron’s three mind-controlled goons does a decent job of showing how formidable Spider-Man is (and, in a follow-up confrontation, his amazing recuperative powers); it’s not an especially thrilling fight scene as it’s a very slow and co-ordinated affair but, nevertheless, he’s easily able to outmanoeuvre and overpower the three. This also gets paid off at the conclusion of the pilot in one of my favourite scenes where Spidey, in the quest to bring Bryon to justice, makes friends with the three. Indeed, in the end, it’s not strength or agility that wins the day but a combination of luck (Peter’s control pin gets dislodged from his jacket) and intelligence as he not only discovers but also decodes Byron’s hypnotic microwave technology. This allows Spider-Man to tear down Byron’s control antenna and turn his technology against him, rendering him little more than a mindless puppet to face Barbara’s not-inconsiderable-wrath.

The Summary:
I’m well aware that I’ve used the word “ambitious” a lot in this write-up but it’s the best word I can think of to describe Spider-Man; it’s impressive how much the filmmakers were able to pull off given the limitations of the seventies and I would argue that, despite a lack of recognisable characters and villains, Spider-Man is actually a far more accurate adaptation of the source material, in many ways, than The Incredible Hulk. They’re both relatively grounded and far more realistic takes on Marvel’s colourful heroes but Spider-Man features far more innovative special effects to bring the character to life.

Despite the lack of Uncle Ben and May’s reduced role, Peter still uses his abilities responsibly.

I have to say, even now, that the Spider-Man costume is pretty impressive; it’s kind of like an all-in-one body suit but the colours are suitably bright and vibrant and I love the simplicity of the design, which includes reflective lenses and, in time, mechanical web-shooters of Peter’s own design that allows him to swing between buildings and stop crooks with a variety of webbing. It’s rarely, if ever, Hammond in the suit but the plus side to that is that Spider-Man is pretty much always wearing his mask and fully capable of performing the pilot’s complex and ambitious stunts and fight scenes. Thanks to the alterations to the character’s origin, Uncle Ben is no longer a factor (he’s not even mentioned or even hinted at) and Aunt May has a much smaller, inconsequential role where she’s a doting matriarch rather than a decrepit, fragile figure (something subsequent live-action movies would emulate). Regardless, Peter is still compelled to use his powers for good (…and to make a little money at the same time) simply because he’s a good kid; he may lack the tragedy and pure motivation often associated with the character but he’s nonetheless as determined to help others.

I’ve got a lot of nostalgia for the pilot and I’ve love to see the show made more accessible.

Neither the Amazing Spider-Man or Incredible Hulk TV shows were on when I was a kid so the only exposure I had to either was in their feature-length spin-offs and, for the longest time, Spider-Man was about as good as you could get for a live-action adaptation of the character. I remember preferring the subsequent features that were produced some time after this and were comprised of combined episodes of the show but, revisiting this pilot episode after a good twenty years was an entertaining experience, to say the least. Sure, many of the effects haven’t aged too well and it’s disappointing that it doesn’t adhere more closely to the source material but I am very forgiving of this pilot and have a real fondness for it, and Hammond’s portrayal of the character, so I can only hope that, one day, the entire series gets a much-needed release on DVD so more people can experience this early and ambitious take on the character.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you ever seen Spider-Man or the Amazing Spider-Man TV show? What did you think of them at the time and how do you think they hold up today? What did you think to the show’s costume, stunt effects, and Hammond’s performance as Parker? Were you a fan of original characters like Captain Barbara and Edward Byron or would you have preferred to see more comic-accurate characters and villains in the show? Would you like to see a release of the series on home media or Disney+ or do you think it’s best to leave the show to obscurity? Whatever your thoughts on the seventies Spider-Man adaptation, go ahead and leave a comment below and be sure to check in again next Wednesday for more Spider-Man content!

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