Following the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there has been a resurgence of superheroes in movies and TV. Green Arrow, Supergirl, the Flash, and the agents of SHIELD have series on network TV, while Daredevil and Jessica Jones have two of the most watched series on Netflix. With upcoming movies based on both DC and Marvel comics, it seems likely this trend will continue for some time.
While it was nowhere near as successful, there was another minor renaissance for superheroes in television in the 1970s. It started with the popular Six Million Dollar Man (1974–1978), which told the story of Steve Austin, an astronaut and test pilot given superhuman bionic replacements for both legs, one arm, and one eye.
Some of the TV series from this period, like The Amazing Spider-Man (1977–1979), Wonder Woman (1975–1979), and The Incredible Hulk (1977–1982), brought characters from the comics to the small screen. Several other attempts were made—Captain America (1979), Dr. Strange (1978), and The Punisher (1989)—but none of these resulted in a series.
There were also a number of original superheroes with proposed series. Most never made it further than a pilot movie, and those who did had only brief runs. However, some odd and fascinating characters did come out of these efforts.
We’ll only be covering characters created for television (with only a pilot or a few episodes), rather than those adapted from comics or other media.
10 The Questor Tapes
The Questor Tapes was a 1974 television pilot about an android named Questor, played by Robert Foxworth, whose memory tapes have been damaged. Questor has to find out who created him and what his purpose is, while eluding government forces who want to capture him. Questor has greater-than-human strength, speed, and intelligence, thanks to his robotic nature, and also a naive charm that wins him allies among the humans.
Eventually, Questor discovers that he is actually the latest in a long series of androids, placed on Earth ages ago by wise and beneficent aliens. He is told his mission: “We protect, but we do not interfere. Man must make his own way. We guide him—but always without his knowledge.”
The TV movie was the brainchild of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who hoped it would become an ongoing series. Questor would have traveled the globe, helping people to avoid war, overcome prejudice, and fight other social ills. That never happened, but the movie picked up a cult following, and a novelization was written by D.C. Fontana.
There wasn’t an Iron Man movie until 2008, but the armored hero was being ripped off 30 years earlier. In 1977, Exo-Man featured a hero wearing a powerful mechanized suit like Tony Stark’s, though not as cool.
Dr. Nicholas Conrad, played by David Ackroyd, was a brilliant college professor working on a new material, a memory plastic that would change shape under electric currents. Unfortunately, Nicholas witnessed a Mafia killing, which prompted the mob to send a hit man after him. Nicholas wasn’t killed, but the attempt left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Fortunately, the special plastic presented a solution to both the paralysis and the community’s problems with organized crime. He used it to construct a bulletproof armored exoskeleton that enhanced his strength and protected him from harm. The suit was tough enough to withstand being rammed by a car and gave the hero the strength to walk through a thick concrete wall. Unfortunately, it was also slow—so slow that even a villain on crutches could have gotten away from him. Fortunately, the bad guys never thought of running away and spent their time futilely shooting and punching the armored hero.
Exo-Man was written by Martin Caidin, a prolific techno-thriller novelist who had previously created The Six Million Dollar Man. His writing made the suit sound a lot more feasible than the 1970s special effects could. But even with a name like Caidin’s behind it, Exo-Man was doomed to obscurity. The pilot had decent ratings but never managed to become a series.
8 The Man With The Power
The 1977 TV movie The Man With the Power begins with a young man named Eric Smith (played by Bob Neill), whose recently deceased father was a government agent. He is visited by Agent Walter Bloom (Tim O’Connor), who worked with his father. Bloom has several surprising revelations: First, Eric’s father was actually an alien being. Second, Eric has inherited psychic powers from him.
Bloom recruits Eric as an agent and trains him how to use his ability to psychokinetically move matter. His first assignment is to protect a visiting Bengali princess from forces seeking to topple her father’s government. With his superhuman powers, Eric saves the day and wins Princess Siri’s heart. His powers weren’t enough to get him a regular series, though.
The Man With the Power is very obscure, though it has a connection of sorts with one of the most popular science fiction franchises of all time. Persis Khambatta, who plays Princess Siri, and John de Lancie, who has a very minor role, both went on to star in Star Trek. Persis Khambatta played the bald Deltan Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and John de Lancie played the recurring omnipotent villain Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation and subsequent series.
Samurai (1979) is the story of a hero who, like Batman, possesses no superhuman powers but is so skillful that he can overpower armed gangsters with ease.
Lee Cantrell (Joe Penny) is a lawyer in the San Francisco prosecutor’s office who is frustrated by criminals too big for the law to touch. Fortunately, Lee’s martial arts instructor, Takeo Chisato (James Shigeta) has trained him since childhood in the arts of the samurai, and he has attained an amazing level of skill.
Lee’s costume resembles a black leather karate gi with a red belt and headband, and he carries a razor-sharp katana. However, in the late 1970s, television was under a great deal of pressure to reduce violence in programming, so Lee used his sword to cut through doors or sever power cords but never hit anyone with it. It was clear in the show that no one was supposed to connect the mysterious samurai with the crusading young prosecutor, but as Lee didn’t wear a mask, it was unclear how he planned to keep his identity secret.
Samurai was not picked up as a series, and Joe Penny went on to relative fame as Jake in the detective series Jake and the Fatman.
6 The Last Ninja
A similar concept to Samurai but with more sophisticated writing, The Last Ninja (1983) also displayed a more in-depth understanding of Japanese martial arts. Kenjiro “Ken” Sakura (Michael Beck) is a reluctant superhero. He is a Westerner who was raised by martial arts master Aitaro Sakura (Mako) and trained in the art of ninjutsu. But Ken isn’t looking for adventure; he is content with his quiet life as an art dealer.
Things are taken out of Ken’s hands when a government agent comes calling. There are people in the intelligence community who know about his ninja training, and they need his help. Terrorists have captured a group of scientists and are holding them in a high security building. The police have the building surrounded, but they don’t have anyone capable of sneaking into the building, defeating the terrorists, and rescuing the hostages. No one, that is, unless Ken will lend them his amazing skills.
Ken dresses as a stereotypical ninja, all in black and without the leather and red headband. While it’s hard to believe that ninja skills and shuriken are as effective as night vision gear and silenced guns, the movie does a great job of making you believe it. Ken relies more on stealth, planning, and misdirection than the typical martial arts hero.
The Last Ninja had the makings of a good series, but it was never picked up and (appropriately) vanished into the shadows of obscurity.
5 The Ultimate Impostor
The Ultimate Impostor had two episodes . . . sort of.
The first version of the show was presented as an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man titled “The Ultimate Impostor” in 1977. Rudy Wells, the scientist who created Steve Austin’s bionic limbs and eye, had a new invention. He’d discovered how to download information from a computer directly into a human brain. Wells used this device to program government agent Joe Patton (Stephen Macht) to speak Arabic, play the violin, fight like a kung fu master, or pick up any other skill needed. The downside was that the download degraded after 72 hours, so while Joe could be anyone and do anything, he had to complete his missions quickly.
The idea was clever, and the fact that Joe lives in the same fictional universe as the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman created great crossover possibilities, but the spin-off series never happened. Undeterred, in 1979, the creators slightly modified the idea and made a pilot movie, also titled The Ultimate Impostor, with a different cast and no references to the continuity of The Six Million Dollar Man.
Frank Monahan (Joseph Hacker) was an American spy who was captured while operating in China. He was interrogated, and when he was finally returned, his mind had been wiped blank. However, this tabula rasa state also made Frank’s mind especially receptive to computer downloads. His powers were identical to the Joe Patton version, except his blank memory meant that his controllers had to be especially careful. If they forgot to give him the information for simple tasks—like driving a car—he wouldn’t have those skills.
4 The Phoenix
The Phoenix (1981–1982) is a more successful than some in that it got past the pilot movie. The series was picked up, and five whole episodes were broadcast before it was canceled.
The series revolves abound Bennu of the Golden Light (Judson Scott), a man who is found in suspended animation in an Incan tomb in Peru. When Bennu awakens, he reveals that he is an alien from the planet Eldebran and was placed into hibernation in ancient times. Now that he has awakened, his mission is to find his mate, Mira, and overcome his dark counterpart, Yago.
Bennu looks human but is physically several times stronger, and he possesses psychic powers, including clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, and the ability to levitate several feet off the ground when meditating. He wears a golden amulet with the image of a phoenix, which he can use to amplify his powers when needed. He is both innocent and wise, and it is implied that when he revives Mira, the two of them will lead humanity to an enlightened age. In the meantime, he helps the people he meets in his wanderings and eludes capture by Justin Preminger (Richard Lynch), a skeptical government agent.
The name “Bennu” comes from the Egyptian name for the mythical phoenix, and the idea of aliens visiting Earth in ancient times was a nod to the writings of Erich von Daniken.
Judson Scott went on to greater fame in science fiction as Joachim, chief henchmen of Khan in the movie Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan (1982). Richard Lynch appeared as one of the kidnapped scientists in The Last Ninja and went on to become one of the most recognized faces among TV and movie villains. He never did catch Bennu. Perhaps he should have reached out to a fellow government agent—like the Man With the Power or the Six Million Dollar Man—for help.
3 Future Cop
Slightly more successful than The Phoenix, Future Cop had a pilot movie in 1976 followed by a series from 1977 to 1978. It lasted a full six episodes before its cancellation. Like The Questor Tapes, this show featured a lifelike android as its protagonist.
Officer John Haven (Michael Shannon) is an experimental man-like machine designed to replace human police officers in the field. Essentially, he was Robocop 10 years earlier and without the intimidating armor. Haven is assigned to veteran patrolmen Joe Cleaver (Ernest Borgnine) and Bill Bundy (John Amos) as a test of his effectiveness. The catch is that while Joe is told that Haven is an android, no one else in the precinct is allowed to know.
Haven is super-strong and capable of more precise observations and actions than a human being. However, while he has an encyclopedic memory for laws and regulations, he is very literal-minded and incapable of understanding human nuances, a flaw Joe struggles to correct. As the series progressed, Haven would doubtless have learned more about being human, but he never had a chance.
This was the second attempt at a cop-with-robot-partner series. In the 1976–1977 TV season, Holmes and Yoyo had tried to do the concept as a goofy comedy, only to be canceled after 13 episodes. The viewing public was not yet ready for the future of law enforcement.
2 Gemini Man
Gemini Man (1976) was a 12-episode series that showcased the adventures of an invisible spy. Sam Casey (Ben Murphy) was a laid-back, 1970s-style hero whose job as a government agent took him into dangerous situations. On one mission, he was working to recover a Soviet satellite that had crashed into the sea when the device exploded. Sam survived, but the radiation from the explosion somehow “destabilized his DNA,” causing him to become invisible. It would have killed him, but government scientists were able to create an electronic bracelet that restabilized him and made him visible.
Sam could turn invisible by deactivating the bracelet, but he had a time limit. If he remained invisible for more than 15 minutes, the process became irreversible, leaving him invisible forever and ultimately killing him. Conveniently, whatever Sam was wearing would turn invisible with him. Perhaps the lingering radiation destabilized the DNA of his clothing . . . or perhaps the writers were too concerned with writing fast-paced adventures to worry too much about the science.
1 The Invisible Man
A season before Sam Casey’s accident, another invisible spy appeared (sort of) on the screen. In The Invisible Man (1975–1976), scientist Daniel Westin (David McCallum) was deliberately looking for a method to make things invisible. The science made a little more sense in this version, as Weston used lasers to cause light to bend around solid objects. He had succeeded in causing small objects, like a fountain pen, to fade from sight, but the government agency funding his research wasn’t impressed. Fearing that his funds would be cut off, Westin used the process on himself, only to discover that he had no clue how to reverse the process.
Weston couldn’t turn visible and was forced to cover up with clothing and wear a mask and gloves of an amazingly flesh-like material called Dermoplex. The process only made his body invisible, so when he wanted to take advantage of his power, he had to strip naked. Fortunately, the show ended before he had to go on a mission in the Arctic.
Weston was given funding to continue searching for the cure to his condition by the government in return for his and his wife Kate’s services as special agents. An invisible spy could go places and accomplish things that no regular agent could. The series only lasted 13 episodes, not long enough for Westin to find a cure, and he never even got a chance to work with the Six Million Dollar Man and the Man With the Power to track down the Phoenix.
+ The Man From Atlantis
The Man From Atlantis was relatively very successful, with 17 episodes between 1977 and 1978. It also has the distinction of being adapted as a Marvel comic book series that lasted for eight issues.
A man with gills and webbed fingers is found drifting unconscious in the Pacific by an oceanographic research team. Their computer concludes that he must be the last survivor of the legendary sunken land of Atlantis. Of course, Atlantis is supposed to be in the Atlantic, but what the heck? If the computer said it, it must be the most logical thing. The man has no memory of who he is or where he is from, so the team invites him to stay with them and gives him the name Mark Harris. He helps them with their research—and their occasional side job as government agents—while they help him recover his memory and find his home.
Mark (Patrick Duffy) has an array of superpowers: He is able to live underwater indefinitely, can dive to any depth, see in the blackness of the deep sea, communicate with dolphins and whales, and swim faster than a bottlenose dolphin. He also possesses super-strength, though how strong he is seems to vary from episode to episode. He also shares the weakness of aquatic superheroes like Aquaman or the Sub-Mariner: The longer he stays out of water, the weaker he becomes.
Ironically, the limited special effects budget meant that Mark’s adventures mostly played out on dry land. The schemes of the obese mad scientist Mr. Schubert (Victor Buono) kept him busy for six of the 17 episodes. Other adventures included traveling through undersea time portals to the Old West (where Mark’s evil twin is a gunfighter) and Renaissance Verona (where he meets Romeo and Juliet). After the series was canceled, Patrick Duffy went on to greater fame as Bobby on the nighttime soap opera Dallas. He never lost his affection for the show and has begun writing a series of novels to explain Mark Harris’ origins and further his adventures.
Since Mark sometimes worked for the government, he could have joined forces with the Six Million Dollar Man, the Man With the Power, and the Invisible Man to track down the Phoenix—though maybe not. He had a lot more in common with Bennu than those other heroes. Or perhaps Oscar Goldman could have gathered a group of these TV superheroes and told them about the Avengers Initiative. Goldman was already the boss of the Six Million Dollar Man, the Bionic Woman, and the Ultimate Impostor and would have had easy access to other government agents like The Man With the Power, the Invisible Man, and the Man From Atlantis. Once they’d all helped Justin Preminger track down the Phoenix and get him on their side, they would have been an impressive super team. Sadly, it seems that idea never occurred to Oscar.
Where was Nick Fury when we needed him?
Matthew Baugh is the author of more than 40 published short stories and three novels: The Vampire Count of Monte Cristo, A Girl and Her C.A.T. (with Win Scott Eckert), and The Avenger: The Sun King. He is a longtime comic book and pop culture nerd as well as an ordained pastor.