How 'The Incredible Hulk' Conquered Seventies TV

Body paint, bodybuilders and bear wrestling — the stories behind the superhero's pre-'Avengers' small-screen triumph

If Kenneth Johnson, executive producer of CBS's The Incredible Hulk, had gotten his way, the show's title creature would have been bright red and played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The green Lou Ferrigno (and somber Bill Bixby, as Dr. Banner) he ended up with worked out pretty well, though, with the unexpectedly adult-leaning superhero series running for five hit seasons, from 1978 to 1982 – a harbinger of the multimedia domination Marvel Comics' characters would achieve decades later.

No one used the term "showrunner" in the Seventies and early Eighties, but that was Johnson's role on some of the era's most indelible genre shows: He also created and exec-produced The Bionic Woman and V, among others. In this interview for the new Hulk-themed Rolling Stone cover story, Johnson looks back at his biggest, greenest achievement.

How did you get involved with the Hulk?
Frank Price, who was running Universal Television at the time, called me one day and said, "We've just acquired the rights to the Marvel Comics superheroes. Which would you like to do?" and I said, "Gee… none of them, Frank!"

What were some of the other ones offered to you?
The Human Torch, Ms. Marvel, Captain America…. I don't get along well with primary colors and spandex; I really saw myself doing more realistic kind of stuff. But my wife had given me a a copy of Les Miserables, so I had Jean Valjean and the fugitive concept in my head. I found myself thinking, Maybe I could take a little Victor Hugo and borrow a little from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and try to turn this ludicrous thing called "The Incredible Hulk" into an adult drama built in the traditions of Greek tragedy. So I went to Frank and said, "OK, look. I'll do the Hulk if it's my casting." I also said, "Oh, by the way, I want something in return: I don't think Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe has ever been done successfully." He said, "That's fine. Do the Hulk and then we'll do Ivanhoe." So, I wrote the pilot for The Incredible Hulk in about seven days, and ask me if Ivanhoe ever got made [laughs].

How much did you consult the comic books?
There was not much from the comics that I could take. It was just sort of a secondary title among the Marvel Universe at the time. Basically, I read one and said, "OK, there's nothing here that I can use except that when he gets angry, he metamorphoses." One of the first things I did was call Stan Lee and say, "Stan, why is he green? The color of rage is red." Stan said, "You know, in the first edition he was grey and then the printer said 'We can make a pretty consistent green." And I said, "Stan! That's not organic!" What I was trying to do was pull away from as much as the comic book-ness as I could, so that I could really create something that could live and breathe in the real world. If the creature had been red, at least it would've been a human color.

In retrospect, isn't it probably best that you kept him green?
I don't know. I think he would've been equally successful whether he had been red or green. You know, I changed his name from Bruce because I was trying to get away from the comic book tradition — Lois Lane, Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, all that sort of stuff. Stan went along with that, but the studio wouldn't let me change the color. The whole idea of the series for me was to explore how the enemy within affected our behavior in different ways, and how the creature — this Hulk-ness — sort of manifested itself into other characters. We were always looking for stories that sort of paralleled Banner's own problems. In his case, it was anger that turned him into this monster, and other people it was alcohol or drugs or obsession or greed, or any number of things.

"Louie [Ferrigno] used to say to me, 'Why don't the Incredible Hulk have more dialogue?' and I said, 'Well, for starters, he didn't come from Brooklyn!'"

People were surprised by the adult tone of the show, right?
Kids would tune into the show to see a big green guy crash through walls, but very quickly the adults and critics discovered, No, there's something more going on here.  That's I think what made the show as successful as it was. Interestingly, our largest audience was female.

How did the wistful hitchhiking sequence that ended each episode come about?
In those days all of Universal's shows ended with big sort of rousing musical endings, so I always said, "It's gotta be a solo piano. It's a man alone.  Let's find a really plaintive theme that's not sappy, but that has melancholia about it." I think that image of Bill Bixby walking along the road, accompanied by the music, really became iconic in its own right. I wanted people to feel like, Oh, golly, I wish I could be driving down the road and see him on the side so that I could pick him up and help him!

Why did the Hulk never talk?
Louie [Ferrigno] used to say to me, "Kenny. Why don't the Incredible Hulk have more dialogue?" and I said, "Well, Louie, for starters, he didn't come from Brooklyn!" Louie is hearing-impaired, and he had 14 years of speech therapy, but it was all in Brooklyn.  I decided early on, before I knew I was gonna use Lou, that Hulk-talk sounds dumb, and I decided it would be better if he said nothing and I just let him roar. Do we really need him to say "Hulk Smash?" It's like, hello, duh.

Didn't you briefly cast Richard Kiel, who played Jaws in the James Bond movies, as the Hulk?
We went to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was the obvious go-to, and he suggested we meet with Lou, who was 24 years old, just an out-of-work sheet metalworker, basically. I met him, and he was a sweet kid, but you know, I really wanted an actor. I knew Richard Kiel, I had worked with him before, and he was seven and a half feet tall. [So] I shot about a week with Dick, and we just didn't feel like it felt right. We were not that concerned about trying to match the comic book, but we really felt that the creature needed to have more of a physical muscularity — also, frankly, I got to thinking, well, maybe Dick's a little too big. And that it might make more sense if he was a little more human size. So I brought Louie back, and I said, okay, let's have a stab at it. He really grew into the character and worked his ass off, because in addition to filming with us every day, he had to do four hours of heavy-duty workout, every single day, to maintain the size that he had. When we were working together, he had the largest arms in the world. He had 26-inch biceps. [Laughs] That's bigger than a lot of women's waists.

Later on, why do you think the first two Hulk movies struggled?
You just can't take a seven-foot tall CGI creature and plunk him into the streets of the real world, and have the adult audience get it. I thought what Joss Whedon did in The Avengers was very smart. First of all, the Hulk didn't have to carry the picture. Secondly, he was surrounded by comic book guys:  Thor, and all of that sort of stuff, and you were fighting alien monsters, so it was clearly a world where the Hulk could've fit in, and was more believable. The only bone I would have to pick, and it's sort of a big one, was when they had him say, "That's my secret – I'm always angry." I threw my popcorn box at the screen. That's too easy! Part of the fun of the series, and of Stan's concept to begin with, was the fact that he couldn't just slam a door on his hand to make himself turn into the Hulk when he needed to. It wasn't like Billy Batson who could go, "Shazam!" and turn into Captain Marvel. That was such a huge cheat.

The movies have CGI, but you just had green body paint. In the famous early scene where the Hulk wrestles a bear, you can see a little bit of green come off on the bear.
A little bit? You have no idea. The funny thing is, I have a little bit of colorblindness, and it's a red-green color blindness. I don't see green very well. So, when we were at the dailies of the fight with the bear, everybody in the room is falling down laughing, and I'm going what is so funny? Also, we had the problem that the bear liked the makeup, and kept licking it off of him. We had to import this green grease paint from Germany, and it came off on everything. I still have sweatshirts at home where Louie bumped up against me, and it had a green smudge.

Stan Lee had a problem with that bear bit, right?
Stan loved the script but thought it should be a robot bear. I said, Stan, an adult audience will only give you so many buys. And we're asking them to buy that Bill metamorphoses into Lou Ferrigno, and that's squared in, Stan. If you add a robot bear or an alien on top of that, you're in another universe. And he got it, bless his heart.