Okay, so Stan Lee’s dream of producing the first Spider-Man film in 1974 never came to pass.
But then came the breakthrough in September of 1977. It was then that Spider-Man escaped the web of Hollywood uncertainty and managed to claw his way onto the little screen. You know, TV. Not like today when you might have a giant screen stretching to 60-some inches, but back in the days when you were lucky if your TV screen made it to 25 inches.
The Amazing Spider-Man would prove to be popular TV fare but would last for only two seasons, rumors abounding that Stan Lee was not happy with the development of the character by producer Daniel R. Goodman. It was “too juvenile” for Lee’s taste. Oddly, the pilot aired in September 1977, but as a series did not begin on a weekly basis until April 1978. And that’s when the star of the series, Nicholas Hammond, paid a promotional visit to San Francisco. Here is my interview with him as it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Datebook.
The Web of Success
That Clings to Spider-Man
The Amazing Spider-Man first appeared in comic books in 1963 as part of a new superheroes’ trend created by Stan Lee, major editor of Marvel Comics. Almost overnight the wall-climber became a four-color sensation. For the problems of Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s alter ego) were the problems of reality: allergies, identity crises, shyness around pretty girls, job frustrations, home life blues, etc.
Since being bitten by that radioactive spider 15 years ago, Peter Parker aka Spider-Man has grown into one of the most popular superheroes in the world. If anything, he is more widely read in foreign countries than in America. The current comic book has a readership of 70 million–and that’s in 52 languages.
Now Charles Fries Productions has produced a miniseries entitled The Amazing Spider-Man, coming in the wake of a pilot film first presented on CBS last September. (As a feature film, the pilot was a phenomenally popular Columbia foreign release, breaking box-office records in Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.)
The series (which might continue if the first five episodes prove as popular as the pilot) stars Nicholas Hammond, 27, who projects enough boyish good looks and naivete to pass as the younger Parker. “I’ve always been aware of Spider-Man on the newsstands,” said Hammond during our luncheon together. “But I never followed the comics with any great zeal. Probably because I’ve spent most of my conscious life as an actor and just never found the time for reading comic books. What I like most about the series is that the stories deal 75 per cent of the time with the day-to-day problems of Peter Parker, a normal, unremarkable young man when he isn’t out fighting crime.”
When Hammond does don the costume of Spider-Man, it is a simple outfit. As Hammond described it, “It should be simple, for after all, Peter designed it himself without the aid of fashion co-ordinators. It consists mainly of a Spandex-icitonic material made into a huge body stocking painted red with black webbing. Spider-Man also wears a special utility belt containing a liquified latex that hardens, when it comes in contact with oxygen, into a strong synthetic cord.” This “web” is capable of suspending a falling body in midair or entangling attackers in a nightmarish meshing. (You can almost hear a villain saying, “This is another nice mesh you’ve gotten me into!”)
All scenes for The Amazing Spider-Man are filmed on Los Angeles locations and, according to Hammond, “it’s unbelievable how fast a crowd will gather once word gets out we’re filming. We’ve had groups of 700-800 people hanging around the edges. What’s amazing is, everyone knows who Spider-Man is. We were filming in a Chicano community and standing side by side were a Cal Tech lab technician and a 6-year-old boy, and both of them were in equal awe of the character. I guess you might say he’s an equal opportunity fantasy hero.”
One of Hammond’s favorite moments came when he met the Spider-Man creator, Stan Lee. “Lee thinks he’s Peter Parker, for he created Parker in his own fantasy image. As a Walter Mitty type who suddenly acquires phenomenal powers. He was very pleased when he saw we were doing the show according to the gospel of Stan Lee.” (Not quite the way Lee would later describe it, but what the hell.)
Part of the Stan Lee-gospel is to avoid campiness. “It worked well for Batman but there’s no point in going over that old turf again. We’re going another way; we want to produce a show for those who want to believe in fantasy heroes. Unlike the comic books, which are full of arch-supervillains, we’re trying to deal with crime on a fairly realistic level, with good strong supporting actors, such as Theodore Bikel, Alessandro Rey and Robert Alda. I know we’re based on a comic book, but realism is still the key word. We use no phony studio sets and no tricks. It’s all out there for real.”
Including the sequences in which Spider-Man climbs up the sides of walls? Hammond nodded. “We have a former Ringling Brothers circus perform, a stunt man named Fred Waugh who uses special harnesses and riggings. So when you see a man climbing up or down the side of a building, that’s Waugh actually doing it.”
Hammond identifies with Peter Parker because “he can’t have any friends and maintain his secret identity as Spider-Man. He can’t even have a normal sex life. He’s a national hero, yet he’s a recluse. He’s instantly recognized by the public but he can’t tell anyone who he is. He leads a life of frustrated deception.”
As for Hammond’s own personal life, now that Spider-Man has projected him into prominence, “I realize I’ve been magnified yet I can’t look forward to my loss of privacy. Still, I’m aware of the power of television and the recognition certainly makes me feel worthwhile.”
Hammond spent most of his childhood in Paris, where his father served with NATO. His mother, Eileen Bennett, worked on the London stage before she retired. Hammond has been acting since he was nine. “I had the distinction of being the fair-haired lad who dropped a rock on Piggy in Lord of the Flies. At the time I was getting $10 a week and I’ve never been as rich before or since. And with no parents around on that Puerto Rican island, that was the life for me. I was the only boy out of 32 who continued to act.”
At the age of 11, he was playing Michael Redgrave’s son in The Complacent Lover. “I was no great talent,” he confessed, “but I fitted the role because of my British accent.” Later he did a roadshow version opposite Walter Pidgeon. Of all his roles outside of Spider-Man, his most famous would be Friedrich, one of the Trapp children in the successful The Sound of Music motion picture.
Although he always felt more comfortable as an actor than a student, he forsook his career long enough to attend Princeton University. But he still kept his hand in acting by accepting the leading role in Conduct Unbecoming on Broadway. “I did all my homework commuting on the train, and I wrote my Senior Thesis backstage at the Barrymore Theater.”
Since then Hammond has worked extensively on the stage (he was discovered for the Spider-Man role while appearing in Travesties at the Mark Taper Forum), on numerous TV series and in a handful of films.
“So far it’s been a wonderful career and life,” he told me, as we finished our lunch. After telling me he remains a bachelor living in a modest apartment near the Santa Monica beach, he said: “I realize many child actors have had a miserable time of it, but my parents were never pushy and I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing. And now with Spider-Man . . . who could ask for anything more?”
The Amazing Spider-Man lasted for only 13 episodes and was cancelled. Hammond continued to appear in supporting roles in TV series until he moved to Australia in the 1980s, where he managed to continue his career in a variety of movies and TV shows. But never as another superhero.
But that’s not all!
Stay tuned for Part 3, in which I hang out with Stan the Man at Superheroes and Comics Night at AT&T Park, with the San Francisco Giants, in which a deep, dark secret will be revealed about my son Russ!