The superhero concept has thrived in literature for nearly a century, and its evolution is visible both in print and in the film industry. From the black-and-white weekly serials from the first half of the 20th century to the big Hollywood blockbusters today, some superheroes have been able to soar on screen for generation of fans.
With the dominance of superhero films at the box office the past few decades, as well as the more recent television takeover, it's easy to forget the film and television history that exists behind some of our favorite characters. So, here are some actors who you may not realize were first to play major superhero characters in live-action film or television.
6. Peter Hooten (Dr. Strange)
Before Benedict Cumberbatch took on the role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Peter Hooten played the Sorcerer Supreme in a 1978 television movie that aired on CBS. In this version, Stephen Strange was not a surgeon, but a psychiatrist.
The movie was intended to be the pilot for a TV series. Unfortunately, the ratings were very low, with critics calling it boring and slow-moving, and the series was not picked up.
5. Danny Seagren & Nicholas Hammond (Spider-Man)
I list two actors here on the account of a technicality. The first live-action Spider-Man series was The Amazing Spider-Man, which ran for 13 episodes from 1977–1979 and starred Nicholas Hammond. However, Hammond was not the first man in webbed shorts on television, as Danny Seagren wore the suit in the "Spidey Super Stories" skit in the 1974–75 season of The Electric Company (during which he was never seen outside of his costume and only spoke in word balloons).
The Amazing Spider-Man was criticized for being too flat (even Stan Lee felt it was too juvenile), and with The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman already on their lineup, CBS was reportedly concerned about becoming a one-dimensional superhero network. Despite decent ratings, The Amazing Spider-Man was eventually canceled.
4. Dick Purcell (Captain America)
Long before Chris Evans held the shield, before Matt Salinger (1990 film) or even Reb Brown (1979 TV films) held the shield, Dick Purcell did not hold the shield. 1944 saw the release of the 15-chapter serial Captain America, starring Dick Purcell.
This version of Captain America was very different from the original. Among other examples, his secret identity was District Attorney Grant Gardner (rather than Army Private Steve Rogers) and he used a gun instead of a shield.
The film was distinct as being the most expensive serial made by Republic Pictures and the last serial the company made about a superhero. It was also the first theatrical release centered around a Marvel character, the next one being 40 years later with Howard the Duck. Tragically, this was the also last film of Dick Purcell, who died before the film's release after collapsing in the locker room of a country club after a round of golf.
3. Cathy Lee Crosby (Wonder Woman)
The 1974 ABC television movie Wonder Woman starred Cathy Lee Crosby in a rendition that bore little resemblance to the character as we all know her. However, it did reflect a recent period in the comics following a change in editors, where the character was de-powered and given a radical makeover because the series was in danger of being dropped.
Intended as a pilot for a series being considered by ABC, ratings for the film were lackluster, so ABC instead opted for a more traditional concept, which subsequently yielded the iconic series starring Lynda Carter.
2. Lewis Wilson (Batman)
If you thought Adam West was the original, then a big "ZONK!" balloon just appeared right in front of you. Lewis Wilson starred in the 1943 Batman serial, along with Douglas Croft as Robin. In the heat of World War II, the 15-chapter serial saw the Dynamic Duo investigate a Japanese sabotage ring operating in Gotham City.
The success of a 1965 theatrical re-release inspired the development of the Adam West Batman series. Elements of the serials showing up in the series include the arrival at the bottom of the bat-poles in full costume, the breathless narration style, and the cliffhanger connecting two episodes.
A sequel to this serial, Batman and Robin, followed in 1949, with Robert Lowery taking over as the Caped Crusader, with Johnny Duncan as Robin.
1. Kirk Alyn (Superman)
Being a big Superman fan, I am quick to correct people who say that Christopher Reeve was the first movie Superman. As I tell them, he was the best, but he was not the first. Former movie cowboy Kirk Alyn was cinema's first live-action Superman, appearing first in the 1948 serial Superman and then in its 1950 sequel Atom Man vs. Superman.
Fearful of being typecast, Alyn turned down the chance to reprise the role in the 1950s television series, making room for the beloved George Reeves (no relation to Christopher Reeve). Alyn did play another DC character in another serial, starring in 1952's Blackhawk. He also had a cameo in 1978's Superman: The Movie along with his former Lois Lane, Noel Neill, as Lois Lane's parents.
Did you remember all these actors? Which forgotten actor most surprised you?