Tuesday, August 13, 2013

First Guys to Play Icons

1. 1899: The First Sherlock Holmes

William Gillette (1853-1937) appeared in a stage production titled Sherlock Holmes. He improvised a line for Holmes to speak to Dr. John Watson: "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow." Clive Brook, the first spoken-cinema Holmes, would turn this into the more familiar, "Elementary, my dear Watson."

In his Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle had Holmes say, “Elementary” and “My dear Watson,” but never the complete phrase.  Gillette continued to play Holmes onstage until 1929.

2. 1910: The First Frankenstein Monster

Remember, “Frankenstein” is the name of the scientist who animates the monster, not the monster himself.  Yet, The Monster, The Creature, The Frankenstein Monster, Frankenstein’s Monster, whatever you want to call him, tends to get called “Frankenstein.”
Charles Ogle (1865-1940) played the Monster in a 1910 Thomas Edison film, and he doesn’t look much like Boris Karloff’s version, the inspiration for so many others.

I had heard that there was a 1911 film titled Vampyr, and that this was the first cinematic reference to Count Dracula, but I can find no reference to it.  If it was ever made, it has almost certainly been lost.  Suffice it to say that the earliest one that can be found, Max Schreck as “Count Orlok” in the 1922 thriller Nosferatu, looks nothing the 1931 Bela Lugosi version that became the template of pretty much every Drac since, especially the Christopher Lee version that ran from 1958 to 1973.

Lee also played the Frankenstein monster in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957.  He is not the only man to play both Dracula and the Frankenstein monster -- Lugosi beat him to that punch -- and he may not even be the ony man to play both Holmes and Dr. John Watson.  But he is almost certainly the only man to play both of them and Sherlock's brother Mycroft.

3. 1933: The First Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger debuted on Detroit radio station WXYZ in 1933 – and so did the character’s grandnephew, the Green Hornet, whose adventures took place in what was then the present day.  (WXYZ was at 1270 on the AM dial.  That station was, and remains, a CBS station, although it is now WXYT, CBS Sports Radio 1270.)

George Seaton (1911-1979) was the first man to voice the Ranger on the radio, but there appears to be no photo of him in costume, not even for publicity purposes.  Seaton only played the character for 3 months, before Earle Graser took over the role for 8 years, until a car crash killed him in 1941.  Brace Beemer (sounds more like the name of a TV astronaut) then played him until the show (and, essentially, radio as an episodic medium) ended in 1955.  Lee Powell was the first to play the Ranger in a movie, in 1938, before Clayton Moore and John Hart played him on the 1949-57 ABC series. 

4. 1940: The First Superman

Ray Middleton (1907-1984) played Big Blue at the 1939-40 World’s Fair, at Flushing Meadow, Queens.  Of course, this was well before Shea Stadium (let alone Citi Field) was built across Roosevelt Avenue, and he wasn’t able to help either the Mets or the Jets, both of which could have used some super-powers.

The Big Red S logo that is so familiar to us now wasn't all that familiar yet, as the character had only bene around for 2 years.  So he had to have "SUPERMAN" on top of the logo.  As for the "red underwear," well, let's just say that, 57 years later, George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell could take comfort in knowing that they weren't the first superhero actors to have that particular issue.

It’s not just the version of the logo that’s unfamiliar.  The name and face weren’t all that familiar to me, either.  But I did see Middleton as an older man: As Cardinal Reardon, head of Army chaplains, on M*A*S*H; and as Huey Rush, father of Ted Knight’s character, on Too Close for Comfort.

5. 1943: The First Batman and Robin


Lewis Wilson (1919-2000) played Batman in a 15-chapter movie serial.  Robin was played by Douglas Croft (1926-1963).  No, I don’t know why he died at age 37, although he did play the child version of Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees, and Gehrig died at the same age.  The same year Croft played the Iron Horse (Iron Colt? Iron Foal?), he played young George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  Like Burt Ward and Chris O’Donnell, he looks too old to play Robin, although he was 16 when the serial was filmed.

Oddly, this serial doesn’t feature any of the traditional Batman villains; rather, this being the middle of World War II, the Caped Crusaders take on Japanese saboteurs.  Some now-familiar Bat-villains were available: The Joker and Catwoman first appeared in the comics in 1940, the Penguin in 1941, Two-Face in 1942.  The Riddler, however, didn’t debut in the comics until 1948, and the Mad Hatter came right thereafter; Mr. Freeze didn’t appear until 1959; Poison Ivy, not until 1966.

None of those villains appeared on stage or screen, big or small, until the 1966 TV series with Adam West as Bruce Wayne, an already 20-year-old Burt Ward as Robin, Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, Frank Gorshin (and later John Astin) as the Riddler, and Julie Newmar (later Eartha Kitt, and Lee Meriwether in the movie) as Catwoman.  The show also debuted the characters of Egghead (Vincent Price) and King Tut (Victor Buono).  Mr. Freeze (Otto Preminger) was originally Mr. Zero, but the name was changed to Mr. Freeze for the show, so the comic writers changed it as well.

Ra’s al Ghul didn’t make his first comic appearance until 1971, so he couldn’t have even faced Adam West, and didn’t appear onscreen until Batman Begins in 2005, but that’s a gap of only 34 years.  Two-Face didn’t appear in live-action form until Tommy Lee Jones played him in Batman Forever. In 1995. That’s 53 years after he first appeared in print.  He didn’t appear in the Adam West series, mainly because producer and narrator William Dozier thought Sixties TV audiences, especially kids, might be frightened by the makeup necessary to make Harvey Dent’s disfigurement look real.  So a character named False-Face was created instead, based on previous comics characters with the name, and was played by Malachi Throne.  Interestingly, the man they were considering casting as Two-Face was Clint Eastwood, who was in the process of making his Man With No Name Trilogy.

6. 1954: The First James Bond

His name was Nielsen – Robert Haakon Nielsen (1917-2007).  When he went into acting, he anglicized his name to Barry Nelson.  In 1954, the CBS anthology series Climax! aired a version of Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, which Ian Fleming had published the year before.  The music for it was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, who would later compose the Star Trek theme.

Knowing they had only an American audience, the producers had everything flipped.  His name was Bond – Jimmy Bond.  He was an American, a CIA agent.  Felix Leiter, Bond’s CIA contact, was the Englishman from MI6, and his name was changed to Clarence Leiter.  The British Vesper Lynd becomes the American Valerie Mathis, and, this being Fifties Hollywood, she does not die.  And, since this was the Fifties, you bet your balls the scene where Le Chiffre (played here by the one and only Peter Lorre) tortures Bond was not shown: He only gets beaten up.  Oh yeah, instead of letting Le Chiffre's Soviet masters take him out, Bond shoots and kills the villain himself.

Needless to say, when Eon Productions started making the Bond films in the early Sixties, 007 was going to be played by a citizen of Great Britain – and although Sean Connery is famously Scottish, not English, he did a pretty good job of passing for the English Bond.

7.  1958: The First Princess Leia
Akira Kurosawa was one of the most influential filmmakers ever – or, if you prefer, one of the most ripped-off.  His Seven Samurai was Westernized into The Magnificent Seven.  His Yojimbo, starring Toshiro Mifune, became A Fistful of Dollars and turned the aforementioned Clint Eastwood from a character actor on a TV Western into a cultural icon.  And George Lucas has admitted that Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress was a major influence on the original Star Wars.  (You know: Episode IV: A New Hope.)

What I really wanted to put in here was “The First Darth Vader.” In Japanese culture, there certainly could have been a figure wearing grotesque armor, suggesting the big bad Sith Lord.  However, there is no comparable character in this film.  Nevertheless, the fortress itself is an analog to the Death Star.  Mifune is in this as well, and was, essentially, Japan’s Harrison Ford long before Ford became America’s Toshiro Mifune, and his character in this film is recognizable as an analog to Han Solo.

And Misa Uehara (1937-2003, and not to be confused with a young, unrelated current actress of the same name) plays Princess Yuki Akizuki, the equivalent to Princess Leia Organa, although it’s "only" her family that’s wiped out, not her entire planet.

8. 1964: The First Captain of the Starship Enterprise
Jeffrey Hunter (1926-1969) played Jesus in King of Kings, but unlike William Shatner’s later portrayal of James T. Kirk, his Captain Christopher Pike was wracked with doubt and certainly didn’t “play God,” and pretty much said he didn't want to.  Indeed, when he starred in the original pilot for Star Trek, “The Cage,” he fought beings that, essentially, were nearly godlike.

In retrospect, Hunter, wearing the predecessor of the familiar gold tunic, looks more like Reboot Kirk Chris Pine than Shatner ever did.

It should also be noted that, as we now know, in "Star Trek Chronology," Pike wasn't the first captain of Kirk's Enterprise, and Kirk's wasn't the first starship to bear the name.  Unless there's something as yet unrevealed, the first spacegoing vessel to be named Enterprise was commanded by Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula) in 2154, and Robert April (voiced by James Doohan, who did a lot of the voices on Star Trek: The Animated Series, in addition to Scotty) in 2245.  Trek creator Gene Roddenberry meant for Robert April to be the captain's name from the beginning (he also wanted the ship to be named the Yorktown), and switched it to James Winter, before settling on Christopher Pike for the first pilot episode and James Kirk for the second (which had him listed as "James R. Kirk," not "James T. Kirk").

9. 1974: The First Spider-Man

There had been a 1967 cartoon, with Spidey voiced by Paul Soles (born 1930 and still alive), but no live-action Spidey until 1974, when PBS added the Web-Slinger to The Electric Company, as a series-within-the-series titled Spidey Super Stories.  Marvel Comics was not only cool with this (read, “Stan Lee realized he could make a crapload of money off of cooperating with PBS”), but published a comic-book tie-in.

Spidey was played by Danny Seagren, who was silent – his “word balloons” were designed to help kids learn to read, which was the point of the entire show – and never took off his mask to reveal the face of Peter Parker beneath. Indeed, if your first exposure to the Wall-Crawler was through this show, you wouldn't have known at the time that he even HAD a secret identity.

Seagren was a dancer by trade, not an actor, so not having to speak, or show his facial expressions underneath the mask, was no problem.  It’s not like he was Klinton Spilsbury, the guy who looked the part but couldn’t act to save his life or anyone else’s, in the 1981 film The Legend of the Lone Ranger.  Seagren remained with PBS as a Muppeteer, and is still alive.

10. 1992: The First Buffy the Vampire Slayer
How soon we forget: Joss Whedon took the character and concept and made it serious.  But, originally, it was a joke, a spoof of horror films.  The very name suggested it: What vampire-hunting society would trust their skills to a high school cheerleader from California named Buffy? (Yes, that is a cheerleader uniform, although the angle of her pose and the colors could suggest Bruce Lee’s famed tracksuit, which was co-opted by Quentin Tarantino for Uma Thurman to wear in Kill Bill.)

Kristy Swanson is still acting, although for most of the 2000s she was on TV only, no movies.  Perhaps it’s a good thing that her role as Buffy is obscured by Sarah Michelle Gellar’s version.  If that show had never happened, Swanson’s 2 most memorable roles might be in movies with ridiculous titles: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which would, in such a world, be a ridiculous title, with none of the love of the Buffy fandom we know today) and 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (which, if you’d never heard of it, you could easily guess that it had Joe Pesci, and you would be right).

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