Incredible Hulk, The (CBS 1978-1982, Bill Bixby)

‘Don’t make me angry… you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.’

These were the words that sent many a chill down the spine of every fan of TV’s The Incredible Hulk. Once actor Bill Bixby said these words, you knew a transformation from man to monster was imminent, followed by a grand barrage of superhero action at its purest. Just the same, these obvious attractions were only part of the show’s magical allure.

The Incredible Hulk began its life in 1962 as a Marvel comic book. Written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, it told the story of Bruce Banner, a scientist whose exposure to gamma rays from a military bomb test resulted in periodic, uncontrollable transformations into a superhumanly strong but simple-minded and easily-angered giant. Although unsuccessful in its initial run (which lasted only six issues), the character was resurrected inTales To Astonish, another Marvel Comics title. Here, the character became popular with the comics-reading public, andTales To Astonish was ultimately transformed into a Hulk-only title re-dubbed The Incredible Hulk. It became a flagship title for Marvel Comics and is still published to this day.

In 1977, the comic book was adapted into one of a series of two-hour Marvel Comics adaptations for CBS (which also included The Amazing Spider Man, Dr. Strange and Captain America) by wrier/producer/director Kenneth Johnson. He deviated from the comic’s origin story by changing Banner’s first name from Bruce to David and making him a doctor trying to discover the reason why certain people develop superhuman strength in situations of extreme emotional stress. Dr. Banner, portrayed by Bill Bixby, was driven in his research by the guilt he felt over having been unable to save his wife from the fiery car crash that caused her death.

In the course of his experimentation, Dr. Banner accidentally overexposed himself to gamma rays, triggering a change in his body chemistry that caused him to black out when angered and transform into a green-skinned behemoth (played by professional bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno). When Banner reverted to normal, he had no memory of what he did as the creature, dubbed ‘The Incredible Hulk’ by sleazy investigative reporter Jack McGee. The Return Of The Incredible Hulk, another two-hour television film, aired three weeks after the first, continuing the story of David Banner. Like its immediate predecessor, it was a success with the viewing public and prompted CBS to have Johnson create and produce a one-hour prime time series that began its run in the spring of 1978. Bixby, Ferrigno, and Jack Colvin (McGee) all returned to play their respective roles in the series.

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In each episode, Banner hitchhiked form town to town, assuming new identities (Dr. David Banner was presumed dead), working odd jobs, and helping other troubled souls out as he struggled to find the cure to his affliction. Banner wasn’t necessarily a wanderer by nature, but he had no choice. Whenever he was angered, agitated, in pain, or in any way provoked, Banner would lose control and his body would transmogrify into the Incredible Hulk. His eyes would change color first, followed by his clothes, which he would rapidly outgrow in a matter of seconds. His muscles began to bulge, his hair would grow into an unkempt mop top, and his skin would turn green. After the metamorphosis, the mute Hulk would then do away with whatever person or situation was bothering him.

Sadly for the Hulk, people were often afraid of his physical presence and were blind to the fact that he had a big heart and was only trying to help people. After he ‘hulked out,’ he would return to his natural form, only to discover that his clothes were tattered and he had a bad case of amnesia. Each episode would end with Banner leaving town, as the soundtrack played a haunting piano score that never failed to bring a tear to the eyes of millions of viewers each week. Through all of this, Dr. Banner was pursued by McGee, who suspected that Banner had something to do with the sudden appearances of his ‘big story,’ the Hulk.

The series was highly successful and stood apart from traditional science-fiction television fare in many ways. Despite being the title attraction of the series, the Hulk’s appearance in each episode was limited to a mere few minutes. Instead of focusing on the creature, producer Kenneth Johnson chose to focus the show primarily on Banner and the people he interacted with. This format allowed the show to tackle serious social concerns like alcoholism, mental illness, and child abuse, resulting in a superhero show that covered unusually mature thematic ground.

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The show was also notable for its rejection of campy Batman-style theatrics in favor of a more somber and serious tone. In fact, Johnson’s adaptation of the Hulk borrowed as much from classic literature like Frankenstein andDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as much as it did the original Incredible Hulkcomic book. This approach brought the more tragic and romantic elements of Banner’s story to the fore, making it easier to take the story’s more fantastic elements seriously. The end result was a show that could be appreciated by adults and children alike, an important key to the show’s popularity.

The series ran successfully for the better part of five years, finishing its final season in 1982. Despite its eventual cancellation, the Incredible Hulk character was fondly remembered by television viewers and has continued to live on in various forms since its initial run. An Incredible Hulk cartoon ran Saturday mornings on NBC between 1982 and 1985 (the Hulk had also been featured in the anthology-style Marvel Super Heroes animated series in the 60’s), and the character has made several cartoon appearances since then.

The live-action incarnation of the Hulk was successfully resurrected with Bixby and Ferrigno intact into a series of successful made-for-television films in the late 1980’s: The Incredible Hulk Returns(1988), The Trial of the Incredible Hulk(1989), and The Death of the Incredible Hulk (1990). More installments were planned, but the unfortunate death of Bixby in 1993 put an end to the Hulk’s live-action TV adventures but given the current world domination of Marvel we will never say never.

production details
USA | CBS – Universal / x50 minutes / Broadcast 10 March 1978 – 19 May 1982

Creators and Executive Producers: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Tom Szollosi, Kenneth Johnson, Richard Christian Matheson

Bill Bixby as Dr. David Bruce Banner
Jack Colvin as Jack McGee
Ted Cassidy as Narrator / Voice of The Incredible Hulk (Uncredited)

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.