The Heroism of Stars Who Played Superheroes

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During a week when the image of heroes like Lance Armstrong and college football star Manti Te’o seemed to crumble like so many stale crackers, I was happy to hear a few stories about heroes who have endured in our consciousness for decades.

I’m talking about the actors who portrayed superheroes on our favorite childhood TV shows. On Jan. 29, as part of the third season of Pioneers of Television, PBS profiles a group of such stars, including Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin), Julie Newmar (Catwoman), Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), Jack Larson (Jimmy Olsen), Lou Ferrigno (the Hulk) and William Kaat (the Greatest American Hero … remember him?).

As a serious comic-book fan growing up, I had a conflicted relationship with some of these shows. I knew that I shouldn’t really enjoy “Batman,” for example, because it was so much sillier than the comic, which hadn’t yet plumbed the depths of darkness it offers readers today, but was still far grittier than producer William Dozier’s candy-colored vision of the character. On the other hand, it was a show with superheroes, it was on TV and sometimes it featured Julie Newmar and Yvonne Craig in impossibly tight costumes, so … I watched.

As for TV’s versions of Superman and the Hulk, I was always frustrated that these characters with earth-shaking power were relegated to knocking out fairly pedestrian crooks. I was too young to realize that the shows simply could not afford to convey intergalactic threats as today’s special-effects blockbusters can.

Watch Superheroes – Preview on PBS. See more from pbs.

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