'70s 'Hulk' sees his character morph

June 23, 2003|By Mike Antonucci | Mike Antonucci,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

During what now feels like ancient times for special effects, either on TV or in movies, the Hulk came to life on CBS through the snarling and muscle flexing of bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno.

On Friday, the Hulk became the next comic-book character unleashed in theaters as a big-budget event. This Hulk, conjured by director Ang Lee, is computer-generated and capable of feats wildly beyond anything Ferrigno could execute in his TV series.

You might think Ferrigno is frustrated over being eclipsed by a digital creation.

But he has a remarkably upbeat and specific reaction. "The new Hulk cannot sign autographs," notes Ferrigno, who has a tiny part in the Universal Pictures' flick as a security officer.

Ferrigno's Hulk was The Incredible Hulk on CBS from early 1978 to a final gasp as a series, after a hiatus of several months, in mid-'82. But the durability of the concept, the pop-culture status of the man-and-monster Hulk and the clout of series star Bill Bixby was evident in a later trio of TV movies, ending with The Death of the Incredible Hulk in 1990.

Seizing on the marketing momentum generated by the upcoming film, Universal's home-video division has released a DVD that combines the TV series pilot/premiere with the two-hour episode "Married," which earned Mariette Hartley an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series. Ferrigno provides the DVD's introduction.

Also on DVD: The Death of the Incredible Hulk from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and a two-disc set from Anchor Bay Entertainment with a documentary about Ferrigno and the other TV movies, The Incredible Hulk Returns and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.

Ferrigno says script ideas existed for bringing the Hulk back for more TV movies, but nothing went forward after Bixby's death from cancer in 1993.

Like a lot of TV superhero material that's decades old, The Incredible Hulk is often remembered as cheesy-looking, despite many fans' nostalgia for the boost it gave to comic-book material. The challenge of interpreting famous imagery from comics - in this case, a man undergoing a metamorphosis into a wild green behemoth - is always an uphill battle for other mediums.

But Ferrigno, who says on the Universal DVD that it took about 3 1/2 hours of makeup work to transform him into the Hulk, contends that the shows hold up well, visually and dramatically.

"That's why I'm excited about the pilot coming out on DVD," says Ferrigno. "The TV series had one of the biggest budgets of the time."

Fans will judge for themselves, and, to be fair, the most obsessed devotees started chattering on the Internet months ago about already being unimpressed with the movie Hulk, just based on the glimpses from trailers and other promotional material.

Avi Arad, who runs Marvel's film and TV division, says the full impact of the movie will dispel those concerns. He has encountered just about every kind of speculation and buzz there is while overseeing a string of box-office winners, including the mega-successful Spider-Man, two hit X-Men films and the $100 million Daredevil.

"I have yet to make a movie that didn't start with some negative feedback," Arad says. "It comes with the best of intentions. It's a noble debate, and it comes out of passion."

A Hulk movie has been in different stages of development for so long, Ferrigno noted, that at one point the idea was to combine a computer-generated character with animatronics - mechanical or electronically controlled parts such as a head or hands - for close-ups.

Arad says the increased sophistication of computer animation in rendering skin textures and facial expression made that passe by the time Lee signed on as director.

And it could make Ferrigno's era seem almost prehistoric.

Ferrigno says the digital Hulk just gives his live-action Hulk more of a distinct personality by comparison.

"Now there's one of each," he says.

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