By 1962, Joe Oriolo had two famous cartoon characters on his résumé. Twenty-three years earlier, while moonlighting from his day job as an animator for Fleischer Studios, Oriolo and author Seymour Reit created Casper, the Friendly Ghost for a children’s storybook. After the pair turned out two subsequent Casper books, Reit went off to fight in World War II. While Reit was serving in the Army Air Forces, two things happened.
Paramount Pictures bought out Fleischer Studios, renaming it “Famous Studios”. And Joe Oriolo sold the rights to Casper, the Friendly Ghost to Famous Studios for the princely sum of two hundred dollars.
With his half, Oriolo left Famous Studios and went to work as a free-lance animator. He was good at it and found plenty of work. He produced instructional shorts for the government and for private industry. He also created some of the first commercials for broadcast television. By 1950, though, he found his steadiest work drawing comic books for Dell Publishing Company.
At Dell, Oriolo was reunited with Otto Messmer, who had worked at Famous Studios as a storyboard artist during Joe’s last year there. The two men worked on Dell’s comic-book version of Felix the Cat. It wasn’t a surprising assignment for Messmer; back in 1921, he had created Felix for the Sullivan Studios and cranked out one-hundred-fifty silent cartoons starring the devil-may-care feline. In 1923, Messmer had launched a Felix the Cat newspaper comic strip which was still going strong.
It wouldn’t be long, though---1954, to be exact---before Messmer retired from the daily Felix strip and turned it over to Joe Oriolo. But Joe was aiming a bit higher. From his commercial-making experience with early television, he knew what it would mean if he could put Felix in the living rooms of the 83.2% of American households that had a TV set.
The first step: Oriolo formed his own animation studio, Adventure Cartoon Productions. The second step: he secured the licencing for Felix the Cat. Then he struck a deal with the programme syndication service, Trans-Lux, to distribute a new series of Felix cartoons.
There were some in-house matters to tackle, as well. Oriolo understood that the cartoon-watchers in most homes were children, and that meant his star had to undergo a little rehab. The old Felix’s pugnacious streak was replaced with a smiling, happy-go-lucky attitude, to make him more kid-friendly. And he would need a gimmick. Thus was born the “magic bag of tricks”, a satchel that could assume the shape and characteristics of whatever Felix needed.
Oriolo’s instincts were right on the money. The series proved popular, and profitable, enough that there would be 260 cartoon episodes starring “the Wonderful, Wonderful Cat”. By the start of the 1960’s, though, Felix was starting to run out of steam, and in 1962, Joe Oriolo started looking around for the Next Big Thing in cartoon heroes.
Winner of Ancient Glory
I suppose with any creator of animated series it holds true that, for inspiration, you look at whatever is currently popular in live-action cinema and television. And in 1962, the current fad of movie hitting the theatres was the “sword-and-sandal” gènre popularised by bodybuilder Steve Reeves.
It was a simple concept. Take a mythological hero known for his great strength (or make one up), set him loose in ancient Greece or Rome, and toss trouble his way. The part didn’t call for Laurence Olivier; any musclebound lunk who could lift a boulder over his head would do. Toss in a bevy of lush-bodied actresses in low-cut togas and you’re good to go.
They were usually produced in Spain or Italy, on a shoestring budget, and clumsily dubbed in English, but American movie-goers ate ‘em up. (Big muscles and busty starlets overcome a multitude of sins.) By rough count, there were about sixty sword-and-sandal films released between 1960 and 1965, but the titles tended to all run together, mainly because there was only one plot: the hero gets sent on a quest and along the way, encounters pitfalls placed in his path by the evil king/wizard/vizier and the advances of voluptuous vixens. In every circumstance, his bulging, bronzed muscles deal with the situation handily.
Since the lead didn’t call for personality, just brawn, the names of the heroes were pretty much interchangeable, as well: Samson, Goliath, Ursus, Maciste, and the one Joe Oriolo finally decided on for his next animated series---Hercules!
Or, more specifically, The Mighty Hercules.
Oriolo took his inspiration from classic Greek and Roman mythology, but his plans for the series did not include simple retellings of those ancient myths. For one thing, those old legends were quite dark, containing incidents of adultery, rape, regicide, patricide, and infanticide. Not the kind of fare one would consider child-friendly. But the characters, with their taints of sorcery and unworldliness, would serve quite nicely---with some toning down and, in some cases, outright reimaging.
That included the star. The Hercules of ancient myth did not act in the noblest of manners, but Oriolo’s Hercules would be stamped out of the classic super-hero mould---brave, virtuous, and dedicated to helping the mortals of Earth.
Fighting for the Right, Fighting with His Might
As a syndicated series, The Mighty Hercules did not have a network slot; it was aired by the local stations that purchased it. For those that did, its premiere episode ran on 01 September 1963. Unlike most cartoon series, which leave the viewers to figure out the premise as they go along, or at most, provide the set-up in some sort of narration in the opening credits, The Mighty Hercules provided an origin in that first episode.
It begins on Mount Olympus, home of the gods, and at the moment, the site of a gripping spectacle. Hercules and his best friend, Theseus, are waging a pitched competition to determine which of them is the mightiest of Olympians. Theseus makes a good show of it, but Hercules emerges triumphant, to the cheering acclaim of the crowd.
It’s refreshing, given to-day’s tendency toward turning characters sour with the drop of a hat, that, in a gesture of good sportsmanship, Theseus sincerely congratulates his friend on his victory. Theseus will make rare apperances throughout the series, loyal to Hercules and a capable hero in his own right.
As the victor, Hercules presents himself to his father, Zeus, king of the gods, to claim his prize. Zeus leaves it up to his son to determine what reward he should receive.
“Father, may I have your permission to descend to Earth?” asks Hercules. “There are many mortals down there who need my help.”
Big daddy Zeus in more than willing to grant the boon; however, there’s a hitch. Zeus reminds his son that, on Earth, he will become mortal himself and lose his god-born super-strength.
With the Strength of Ten Ordinary Men
Hercules’ ring---like the magic bag of tricks Oriolo provided Felix the Cat---became the key feature of the series. Even without the ring, Herc packed quite a wallop, lifting heavy boulders or smashing down doors. So during most of his good-deed-doing, he kept the ring tucked inside his gladiator’s belt.
Inevitably though, usually toward the end of the episode, things would get hairy. Herc would be confronted with a monster or a natural disaster or a villain with a super-power and it was time to stop messing around. In a standard set-piece, Hercules would remove the ring from his belt, place it upon his finger, and thrust his fist into the air. Thunder and lightning, accompanied by a fanfare of horns, would crash about the glowing ring.
Just as when Hayata finally pulled out his beta capsule on Ultraman, the magic-ring scene was the moment that all the kids watching The Mighty Hercules had been waiting for. Usually at this point, the soundtrack would shift to a jubilant instrumental version of the theme song, which was the signal that Herc was about to do some major ass-kicking.
People Are Safe When Near Him
That first episode, “Hercules Comes to Earth”, like most origin stories, was notable only for introducing the concept. The post-Mount Olympus part of the plot simply has Hercules punching out an giant ogre terrorising countryside farmers. It wouldn’t take long, however, for Our Hero to acquire a supporting cast and develop a reasonably consistent mythos.
Prevailing writer’s wisdom insists that all heroes have a sidekick. It gives them someone to talk to, making exposition easier for the audience. Joe Oriolo followed that wisdom and, in the second episode, gave Hercules a sidekick. In this case, though, Herc might have been better off talking to himself.
It wasn’t because his newly acquired buddy, Newton, was a young centaur, on the cusp of adolescence, although that would bring a few problems of its own. No, the maddening aspect to Newton was his near-autistic pattern of speech in which he repeated every line of dialogue, every line of dialogue.
“There’s big trouble, Hercules, big trouble!”
“What is it, Newton?”
“It’s the minotaur, the minotaur! He’s attacking the village, attacking the village!”
Newton was ancient Greece’s version of Jimmy Olsen. Sometimes he was depicted as a competent assistant to Hercules, but just as often, Newton could be vainglorious and careless, if not downright stupid---which always wound up causing Herc more trouble than they started with. If Oriolo had done a spin-off, no title would have been more appropriate than Hercules’ Pal, Newton.
To complete the analogue, in the last season, Newton was given a signal-watch, of sorts---a smaller version of Hercules’ gladiator belt, with which the centaur could cast a “powerful moonstone beam” to Hercules on Mount Olympus whenever he was in trouble.
If Newton was Hercules’ Jimmy Olsen, then Helena was his Lois Lane. Hercules meets Helena, a sheepherder’s daughter, in the first episode, and for the remainder of the series, she becomes his unofficial girl-friend. Like Newton (and Lois Lane), Helena was occasionally depicted as clever and reliant. But her principal rôle was “damsel in distress”, especially since she was so often targeted by Hercules’ enemies.
And like the Man of Steel, Hercules had commitment issues, which frequently led to Helena attempting to trick the big guy into wedlock, or at least, into admitting he cared about her. Inevitably, Hercules would prove to be too slippery for her, leaving her to stamp her foot in frustration as he leapt back to Mount Olympus.
Some of Helena’s schemes were right out the Lois Lane playbook. In one episode, Hercules is escorting the beautiful Princess Rhea, who is enraptured by his incredible might. In a fit of jealous pique, Helena manages to slip the magic ring off Herc’s finger, to humble him in front of her “rival”. Naturally, a minute or two later, Hercules’ and the princess’ lives are placed in peril. Fortunately, this is one of the stories in which Newton isn't a doofus. He saves the day, while Helena wrings her hands in guilt.
Unusually for a cartoon series, Hercules was given a healthy cast of secondary characters. One of the more interesting was young Prince Dorian who, in an early episode, assumes the throne of Calydon, upon the death of his father. Over the course of the series, we see the naïve, insecure Dorian slowly transform into a wise and competent king. Such character development was rare in a cartoon series.
Newton also picked up a sidekick of his own---a young satyr named Little Toot. The name stemmed from the gimmick that the little fellow never spoke; he communicated by melodic sounds blown through a pair of reeds. Though he appeared to be a few years younger than Newton, Toot was generally cleverer and had none of the centaur’s ego.
Other familiar faces popped up less frequently---Herc’s dad, Zeus; his best friend, Theseus; and Dodonus, seer of Mount Olympus, whose crystal rock tipped Hercules to whatever problem was currently besetting Earth (thus cutting down the time needed for transition).
Only the Evil Fear Him
Many of Hercules’ foes were cadged from the ancient myths, but removed from their original tales to accommodate the simplified plots. For example, the Hydra, the Nemean Lion, and the Wild Boar of Erymanthia were all taken from Hercules’ fabled twelve labours, but appeared in episodes with unrelated plotlines. Other creatures were created out of whole cloth, but given an authentic treatment that fit seamlessly into the mythological backdrop of the series.
Murtis, the evil blacksmith, used enchanted metal to forge the Mask of Vulcan. When donned, the mask rendered its wearer invulnerable. Murtis was the one opponent able to withstand Hercules’ tremendous strength. Defeating Murtis required Herc to use brains, not brawn, to separate the villain from his mask---something which got more difficult to do with each appearance.
Then there was Wilhemene, the Sea Witch, who delighted in using her magicks to capsize ships at sea and drown hapless seamen. She tended to use guile against Hercules, deceiving him with illusions or brainwashing him with hypnotic spells. A few of the episodes revealed her jealousy of the attention Hercules showed Helena, hinting (mildly, because it was a kids’ show, remember?) that she wouldn’t mind wrapping herself around the big guy’s broad shoulders. That is, if he weren’t so damned incorruptible.
But Hercules’ arch-enemy was the sinister alchemist, Dædalus. Even toned down for a children's cartoon, Dædalus was creepy. Gaunt, bearded, with eyes shadowed by his hooded robe, he was malevolence personified. He lived in a cave hidden in the depths of the Learnean Forest. That’s where the stories usually opened, with him hunched over a cauldron, gloating over his newest evil concoction.
The Elixir of Morpheus. The Fire Flower of Callisto. The Pod of Transformation. Medusa’s Sceptre. The Chair of Forgetfulness. The Thunderbolt Disc. All of these and more were found, stolen, or created by his wizardry. And his schemes were as many and varied as his mystic weapons. One thing about Dædalus; he was persistant. He appeared in the majority of the episodes, occasionally in collusion with Wilhemene or the Mask, with yet another nasty enchantment up his billowing sleeve with which to bedevil Hercules and his friends.
You had to give him points for perseverance too, since, inevitably, the finale always found Hercules launching himself triumphantly toward Mount Olympus, usually with the evil wizard in tow.
Standing There with Pride
The Mighty Hercules, like all television cartoons of the day, relied upon limited animation. Without the huge bankroll of a motion-picture company, like MGM or Paramount, to back them, independent animation studios couldn’t afford the expense of full animation.
Without the spectacle of full animation to hold the audience, the talent of the voice-actors became all-important. The characters’ dialogue and personalities had to make up for the dramatic loss caused by the limited action. Joe Oriolo knew this, from the successful voice-talent he had hired for Felix the Cat. But he had a more difficult time nailing down the right voices for some of his new animated stars.
For the first dozen episodes or so, a number of different actors provided the voice of Hercules; most notably---according to some unconfirmed sources---that of actor and future Good Morning America host, David Hartman. (Admittedly, in those episodes in which it can be heard, it sure sounds like Hartman’s voice.) During that same initial period, the voice of Newton the centaur was essayed by Jack Mercer, who was more famous as the definitive voice of Popeye, the Sailor. It’s easy to tell Mercer’s Newton; the centaur’s voice is cracked and scratchy, like the Walter Denton character from Our Miss Brooks.
Oriolo wasn’t satisfied with either portrayal and kept looking. He finally struck gold when, for the voice of Hercules, he signed on Canadian radio and television personality, Jimmy Tapp. Tapp’s steady baritone gave Hercules’ voice just the right tone of heroic confidence and manly camaraderie. It had that casual authority that commanded attention without going over the top.
Another Canadian, Gerry Bascombe, became the new voice of Newton. Bascombe didn’t change the centaur’s inane speech pattern, but did make it more juvenile sounding, making him sound like a ten-year-old boy, a ten-year-old boy.
The jobs would be theirs for the rest of the series’ run.
In a move that George Burns would have appreciated, Oriolo had the voice-changes occur in mid-episode. In “Double Trouble”, Hartman (or his sound-alike) and Mercer supply the voices of Hercules and Newton for most of the doings. Then, abruptly, in the episode’s tag, Tapp and Bascombe take over.
Jack Mercer wasn’t out of a paycheque, though. Oriolo kept him on to play the part of Dædalus (although occasionally spelled by Bascombe, when Mercer’s Popeye duties made him unavailable).
To hold Oriolo’s costs down, Tapp and Bascombe and Mercer provided the voices for all of the other male characters on the show, as well, and the narration. The winsome Helena was voiced by Helene Nickerson, who also played every other female part.
Each episode of The Mighty Hercules ran only a little over five minutes, including opening and closing titles. That required tight plots that didn’t waste time getting to the action. To that end, Oriolo found the perfect pair of writers---and familiar names to fans of DC comic books---George Kashdan and Jack Miller. Both Kashdan and Miller, as editors of various DC titles, were well versed in economic story-telling, routinely putting out complete tales in only eight, and sometimes, six, pages.
They knew how to trim away the fat. The mythological setting of the series made it simple to produce a new threat---Dædalus steals the Thesian Thunderhorn; Wilhemene releases the Giant Statue of Salinas---and things were off and running. And, for a change of pace, there were always plenty of ogres, sea monsters, and winged furies to steal from the original myths. It never took long for Hercules to get to where the trouble was, either. He usually just happened to be in the neighbourhood. But sometimes he was tipped off by the crystal rock of Dodonus or alerted by Newton’s “Herc-Signal”.
By short-changing the transitional niceties, Kashdan and Miller were able to jump right into the rising action. What was impressive, given the limitations of time, was the variety of situations they were able to create. It wasn’t always, or even often, simply “Hercules versus the monster”. There were kidnap plots, evil-double plots, unjustly-accused plots, voodoo plots, steal-the-magic-ring plots, and a few plain old natural disasters that threatened Our Hero. Even when, after three seasons, it was inevitable some of the plots would repeat themselves, Kashdan and Miller found fresh solutions.
Oriolo knew that a five-minute show, even with Kashdan and Miller’s quick-starts, had to grab the viewers in that first minute. That meant an eye-catching opening title with a rousing theme song, something to excite the youngsters long enough for the story to start.
For that, he turned to Winston Sharples, who had scored more than 700 cartoons for the animation department of Paramount Pictures. Sharples composed a jazzy, upbeat ballad, with lyrics acclaiming the heroism and nobility of the Mighty Hercules. And to sing these praises, Oriolo hired then-unknown singer Johnny Nash, who would later hit the big time with his 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly Now”.
It was that perfect match of song to singer. The theme song became the signature element of the series. Even those who recall little else about The Mighty Hercules can still hear the theme in their memories.
Victory is Here
The Mighty Hercules was an unabashed hit. Over the course of three years, 128 episodes would be produced. It was a merchandising gold mine. There were Mighty Hercules board games and record albums. Youngsters could buy “genuine imitation” versions of Hercules’ magic ring. Gold Key published two issues of a Mighty Hercules comic book in late 1963.
The series aired its last original episode on 01 May 1966---just in time for the “Bat-craze” to sweep the nation. The intense mania for all things Batman and for comic books in general buoyed the cartoon’s popularity. Local afternoon children’s shows---the kind with live hosts playing some sort of genial character, such as “Captain Penny” on WEWS in Cleveland---added episodes of The Mighty Hercules to their cartoon line-ups. The syndication gravy train ran for so long that Adventure Cartoon Productions went to the expense of reproducing fresh prints of the episodes in the mid-1970’s.
It’s had some lean years since then, but the fire in every part of The Mighty Hercules just won’t go out. Cable stations and DVD sales have carried it into the twenty-first century.
As Newton might say, “Nobody can beat Hercules, nobody can.”
I never saw Hercules, I've only heard about it.
I've always liked Felix the Cat. Cartoons, comics, whatever. I sued to have the theme song as the start-up sound for my computer.
Travis, did they settle out of court, or did you have to litigate? ;)
There's been a huge debate on youtube on whether that's the Johnny Nash or another singer with the same name. Where is it definitely stated it it really is him?
There's also been a lot of talk about the line between "Softness in his eyes" and "Virtue in his heart". What were they thinking exactly back then?
I know the ring was used because otherwise he'd win too soon (even though the cartoons were only a few minutes long), and the story explanation was that his super strength didn't work on Earth without wearing it, but there was at least one episode where he had to use it while on Mount Olympus.
Since Daedalus was supposed to be a good guy, should we assume he's lost it after the death of his never mentioned son, Icarus?
Annoyingly this version of Hercules doesn't appear to be Netflixable.
I've read the five-minute format was useful for syndicated cartoons because they could fit into local kids shows that mixed a live-action host and kid guests with a sprinkling of cartoons. Those were common back then--I caught one where I lived even in the early 1970s