Those of you who have been regular Deck Log followers have seen me discuss the mid-‘60’s phenomenon known as “Batmania” a few times. It’s one of those things impossible to convey in the written word. You had to experience it. When the ABC network launched its new series Batman on 12 January 1966 . . . well, the phrase “overnight sensation” would not be an overstatement.
Fads come and go, of course. But normally they infect only a particular sub-set of society and that’s usually a segment of the younger generation. Batmania was different. It was one of those rare crazes that swept across the entire culture, regardless of age distinctions. So, naturally, opportunists found a way to make a buck off of it.
Comics publishers weren’t the only folks to jump on board the super-hero gravy train inspired by the Bat-craze. Television executives from rival broadcasters CBS and NBC set out to fashion their own super-hero spoofs and, hopefully, leech some of Batman’s ratings-smashing popularity to their own networks.
Comics enthusiasts occasionally discuss the coïncident timing which saw DC’s Doom Patrol and Marvel’s X-Men, two strikingly similar concepts, debut mere months apart in 1963. And there were other curiously fortuitous instances of this kind, such as the Red Tornado/the Vision in 1968 and the Swamp Thing/the Man-Thing in 1971.
In the case of DC and Marvel, maybe it was happenstance, maybe it wasn’t. But television has never been that coy about it. Not only did CBS and NBC present the public with a pair of super-hero sitcoms featuring closely matching characters and premises, but they were introduced on the same night, 09 January 1967, and only a half-hour apart. Like their spiritual progenitor, Batman, they were both mid-season replacement shows. And that would not be the end to their parallels.
For those of you who, like me, were around then, this will bring back some memories. Possibly, even fond ones. For those of you who came in late, it should be an interesting glimpse of television’s own Silver Age of super-heroes.
A Scientist, Both Wise and Bold, Set Out to Cure the Common Cold;
Instead, He Found This Power Pill . . . .
The first of these Batman wanna-bes was shown on Monday nights, at eight p.m. (I won’t go into what it says about my brain that I remembered the day of the week without having to consult a 1967 calendar.) This was the CBS product and it was titled Mr. Terrific, and if you’re thinking that it was about the old DC hero, Terry Sloan, the Man of a Thousand Talents, you’re wrong. It would probably have been a better show if it had been.
Of the two super-hero send-ups produced by CBS and NBC, this one was, technically, first---and not just because it aired a half-hour before NBC’s effort. In the summer of 1966, the Tiffany Network had already turned its eye toward producing a Batman clone. The result was a pilot starring Alan Young, coming off a successful run in Mr. Ed, as Stanley H. Beamish, a nebbishy department-store clerk. As the plot relates, the efforts of a government laboratory have resulted in the creation of a pill which will bestow a human being with the basic array of Superman-like powers---super-strength, invulnerability, flight, super-speed, and X-ray vision. Hilarity ensues when it’s discovered that the only person the pill will work on is Stanley Beamish.
As Beamish, Alan Young was clumsy and addle-brained, kind of a dumber version of Wilbur Post. Young is a talented actor, as was Edward Andrews, who played the head of the government bureau in charge of the super-power pill. But here, they both played their parts too broadly, and frankly, the script didn’t give them a whole lot to work with. It was an embarrassment to all involved, and CBS wisely passed on it.
That would have been that for TV’s Mr. Terrific---except that a few months later, CBS got wind that NBC was busy producing its own super-hero satire and the buzz was that it was pretty good. Not wanting to be left in the lurch, it locked some writers in a room and told them they couldn’t come out until they fixed Mr. Terrific. The result was a revamp with about as much housecleaning as Julius Schwartz’ revival of the Flash.
The premise---that a “power pill” would give super-powers to only one man---was retained, as was the name of that fateful subject, Stanley Beamish. Aside from that, everything else, including the cast, was changed. Now, Stanley Beamish, played by Stephen Strimpell, was half-owner of a small-time garage and filling station. Where Stanley is meek and mild, his partner and best friend, Hal Walters (Dick Gautier, best remembered as “Hymie the Robot”, from Get Smart), is self-confident and an inveterate skirt chaser.
When a government scientist invents the power pill---accidentally this time, instead of on purpose---the Bureau of Special Projects determines that the only subject in all the country that the pill will affect is Stanley Beamish. Barton J. Reed (John McGiver), head of the Bureau, and his aide, Harley Trent (Paul Smith), seek out Stanley and recruit him into super-powered government service. Stanley must keep his rôle as a super-hero secret from everyone, including Hal.
Instead of the ridiculous costume worn by Alan Young in the pilot, which resembled an old-fashioned deep-sea diver’s suit painted gold (and probably was), the new Mr. Terrific costume showed a bit more decorum: a gold-lamé jacket, which reversed into a regular sport coat, so Stanley could hang it up in his locker at the garage; and an aviator’s scarf and goggles.
In his portrayal of Beamish, Stephen Strimpell was more subdued than Young. Strimpell’s Beamish was impish and easy going, but didn’t come across as a total nimrod. Clearly he was out of his depth performing espionage work for the government and often screwed up because of that, but it never devolved into the can’t-walk-and-chew-gum-at-the-same-time level.
The same kind of restraint was shown in the characters of Reed and Trent. While they occasionally displayed moments of childishness---generally, to accommodate the insertion of a joke---they usually came across as competent. Or, at least, sitcom competent.
When assigned to a mission, Beamish would be provided with three power pills---one large white one, which rendered him super-powered for one hour; and two small, red pills, which were ten-minute “boosters”. This was the “maximum dosage”, after which Stanley would have to wait an unspecified amount of time before taking any more power pills.
The need to take to pills to become super-powered and the imposed time-limits served as a major source of drama and comedy in the series. Frequently, Stanley would drop one of the pills, or it would wear off, at the worst possible time.
The writers had generally done well in revising the series. They had certainly moved it a notch or two up from the pilot. There was just one problem . . . .
It wasn’t funny. It was silly; it was whacky; it was lighthearted fluff, but it wasn’t funny. And it sure didn’t drag in anywhere near the audience that Batman did.
Mr. Terrific’s competitor over at NBC wasn’t that funny either, which was astounding, considering its pedigree.
Look! It’s the Man Who Flies Around Like an Eagle!
Look! It’s the Enemy of All That’s Illegal!
As soon as the closing credits had rolled on the adventures of power-pill-popping Stanley Beamish, it was eight-thirty, and time to switch the channel to NBC and catch its super-hero spoof, about a mild-mannered man who gains super-powers by ingesting a chemical substance. Only this one was different: instead of swallowing a pill, he drinks a potion!
O.K., there were more differences than that, but not enough.
The Peacock Network’s foray into super-hero farce was called Captain Nice. This was the show that spooked CBS into resurrecting Mr. Terrific. And no wonder. It was created by and written by and executive produced by Buck Henry, one of the comic geniuses behind Get Smart. And it was directed by Jay Sandrich, who also directed Get Smart and would go on to helm Mary Tyler Moore for most of its run and the first three seasons of The Cosby Show.
Unlike Mr. Terrific’s premiere episode, which began with the format already in place (relying on Paul Frees’s rhyming narration in the opening credit sequence to bring the viewers up to speed), Captain Nice kicked off with his origin.
In the beginning, our hero is Carter Nash, police chemist for the Big Town Police Department and general all-around nerd. Nash is played by William Daniels. (Yes, that William Daniels.) He lives in his parents’ house and under the thumb of his gently domineering mother (Alice Ghostly). Though he owes his position on the police department to his uncle, the mayor of Big Town, the meek, socially awkward Nash is actually a quite capable chemist.
Through research and experimentation, Nash succeeds in his goal of developing a serum that imbues whomever drinks it with the usual set of super-powers---super-strength, invulnerability, flight. (No super-vision, though.) Unfortunately, this comes in the middle of a crisis---master criminal Omnus has escaped from prison and is loose in Big Town---and the mayor and the police chief have no time for Nash’s boring recitations.
Dejected, Carter returns to his lab and pockets the phial of “super-juice”.
In one of those situations that exists only in sitcoms, the meek Nash is the romantic interest of tall, willowy, attractive policewoman Sergeant Candy Kane (Ann Prentiss, sister of Paula). She aggressively pursues the shy chemist, who is befuddled by her attentions. She inveigles Carter into walking her home through the local park. Unfortunately, they stumble across the fugitive Omnus and his gang. The hoods overpower Nash and kidnap Candy.
With no other option, Carter drinks the sample of the formula he has with him. It works, but the explosive release of power shreds his outer clothing, leaving him in tatters and his long johns. He stumblingly rescues Candy and captures Omnus and his henchmen; “stumblingly” because he doesn’t know how to manage his newfound strength. A park employee who witnessed his feats notes the “CN” monogram on Nash’s belt buckle and asks him what the initials stand for.
“Captain . . . Nice.”
When Carter returns home, he tells his parents about the formula, deciding to destroy his notes so it won’t fall into the wrong hands. Instead, his mother persuades (read: orders) him to fight crime as a super-hero. Using old sheets and some curtain remnants, she redesigns his long johns into an ill-fitting costume and Captain Nice, hero of Big Town, is born!
Despite the difference in set-ups, Captain Nice was pretty much Mr. Terrific separated at birth. Taking the super-juice did nothing to remedy Nash’s shyness or awkwardness. As with Mr. Terrific, the Captain’s inability to hold his super-strength in check inadvertently resulted in more damage than would have been caused by the bad guys he caught. Also like Terrific, Captain Nice had difficulty manuœvering himself in flight and his landings invariably smashed walls or gouged pavement.
In another echo of Mr. Terrific, the effects of the super-juice lasted for only an hour, so all too often, Captain Nice reverted back to his non-powered self at inopportune times. On the other hand, one marked difference was, while the power pills worked only on Stanley Beamish, Nash’s formula would work on anybody. A couple of episodes had Captain Nice dealing with someone else who had drunk the stuff.
Buck Henry’s fingerprints were all over the Captain Nice series. His taste for quirky villains. His overuse of catchphrases, some of which---the old “I asked you not to tell me that” gag, for example---were lifted straight out of Get Smart.
And his reliance on running gags. The most notable of these in Captain Nice was the fact that Carter Nash’s father was always shown reading a newspaper which concealed his face. He spoke only rarely, but when he did, sharp-eared viewers could recognize the voice of long-time character actor Byron Foulger.
Curiously though, these things, which had helped make Get Smart such a hit, fell flat on Captain Nice. The humor never quite seemed to gel. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say the reason for that was the fact that the character dynamics in Captain Nice were an inversion of those in Get Smart.
Maxwell Smart was arrogant, pompous, and completely unaware of his own ineptitude. This made him both a foil for the madcap events around him and a source of them. But Carter Nash, unlike most goofy characters on television, was self-conscious about his shortcomings. His flaws might have been mildly humorous in and of themselves, but they also made Nash sympathetic. He came across as a victim of the zaniness, rather than a part of it. That made it hard to laugh at him.
That might have been one of the reasons that Captain Nice failed to attract an audience. Like Mr. Terrific, the show limped along for half a season, then finished out the year in reruns.
What Went Wrong?
I wasn’t about to write this entry based only on recollexions that were forty-four years old. Fortunately, the original Alan Young pilot for Mr. Terrific is available for viewing on line. So are the first episodes of both series, along with excerpts of the others. I watched all of these, not only to confirm my rote memories, but to be able to evaluate the shows from an adult perspective.
Here’s what I found.
There was nothing wrong with the acting, on either series. The regular players in both shows delivered measured, competent performances. Granted, there was no stretching or going against type. We’re not talking Anthony Hopkins here. The character actors stayed strictly within their established personas. That’s not a criticism; they were matched to specific rôles and played them well. There was no scenery chewing or over-the-top emoting.
The two leads---Stephen Strimpell, on Mr. Terrific, and William Daniels, on Captain Nice---approached their similar characters differently, but effectively. Strimpell’s Stanley Beamish was whimsical, evoking a childlike sense of fun. Daniels, as Carter Nash/Captain Nice, was adjusted to his shyness and social geekdom. He brought a certain dignity to the character. Neither of the two heroes was a buffoon.
The problem, as I saw it, lied in the writing. I once stated the term “situation comedy” can be broken down in two ways: “situation comedy”, in which the humour comes from the dialogue and the character interaction, with the situation being almost incidental; and “situation comedy”, in which the yuks are supposed to come from the whacky or outlandish situation and the characters’ response to it.
Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice both fell into the latter camp (though Captain Nice tried a little harder to bring in some of the elements of the first category, too). Unfortunately, the situations presented in the two shows were tepid and predictable. Captain Nice rips the door off the mayor’s office because he doesn’t know his own strength. Har har har. Mr. Terrific misses the window of Bureau Chief Reed’s office and flies through the wall. Ho ho ho. Not only predictable, but repetitive, for these sort of things, with only minor variations, happened over and over. The plots were little more than frameworks to move the hero from one of these set-pieces to the next.
As I mentioned earlier, the time limits on their super-powers was a convenient device to create situations where the hero’s powers suddenly fade away and he has to face his enemies as his normal inept self. This quickly became a crutch for writers stuck for an amusing scene. Few episodes failed to contain a sequence in which poor Stanley or poor Carter found himself powerless in front of a gang of bank robbers or a nest of hostile spies. Or while in mid-air. (Going by the shows, anyone watching would think that, in 1967, the United States was covered with haystacks.)
This sort of thing, especially if done right, can be funny once or twice. But it wears out its welcome pretty fast after that.
It didn’t take long for me to develop an admiration for the actors’ professionalism. They had been handed listless, carbon-copy scripts and they were doing the best they could to make them work.
No doubt the CBS and NBC folks were confounded as to why their super-hero spoofs weren’t rising to the popularity of Batman. That was because their producers had completely missed the element that had made Batman such an effective satire.
The Batman television series simply took comic-book super-hero conventions and exaggerated them. This was brilliant because it worked on two levels. The kids enjoyed the show as a straight adventure, while the adults recognised the absurdity inherent in the super-hero concept. They chuckled at the seemingly endless supply of gadgets that the Caped Crusader pulled out of his utility belt or his lectures to Robin on the importance of good citizenship while they were bat-climbing a wall.
Where Batman made super-heroes funny, Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice tried to make funny super-heroes.
The last culprit in the early demise of Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice was, I suspect, the fact that the suits at CBS and NBC didn’t want to devote more money or time than was necessary into developing their respective series. They didn’t expect to have to. They figured any programme that looked like Batman would be as popular as Batman.
They misjudged the timing, too. Fads, by their very definition, have a short shelf life. Batmania had peaked and was winding down. By the time their super-hero spoofs hit the airwaves, it was “been there, done that” as far as the viewing public was concerned.
Both Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice ended, with their last rerun episodes, on the same day---28 August 1967. Together at birth, together at death.
If it was any consolation, Batman---the series they had tried so hard to copy---would reach its end a mere seven months later. And the Bat-craze would become a Bat-memory.