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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  1. I was always looking up to Roy Rogers.. He sang very well, sat on a beautiful horse very well.. He always solved all the towns problems without killing anyone. As a child I thought that was just so smart of him. Yes they had chases and fights, but he never killed anyone.. Loved the tv show also.

    • The greatest problem I had with Roy Rogers, as well as Gene Autry, was that I lived in the west where I had contact with real cowboys, and others who had actually lived in the old days, and the portrayal of guns, cars and the very modern, most up-to-date clothing styles for the ladies, ruined some very good action stories! The music was fine, but I did get sick and tired of Rogers and others being involved in a horrific gun battle (14 shots from a six-shooter before reloading), then pulling a guitar from behind a rock, and singing a love song!

  2. I loved the Batman series! My favorite was the Joker–played by one of my all-time favorite actors, Cesar Romero!
    One thing about that series that impressed me was that all the actors, whether they played good guys or bad, seemed to have such a good time portraying their characters!

  3. Then there was William Boyd who played Hopalong Cassidy! I was heartbroken when his horse, Topper, was retired! I felt that horse was smarter than Trigger any day!
    Bill Elliott–Wild Bill Hickcock, Red Ryder with Robert Blake as Little Beaver!
    The all time great Tom Mix and his horse, Tony, who actually did his own stunts, unlike Trigger, who had stand-ins. Tony would be led through the stunt, then left to work out the details for himself. He was considered to be one of the smartest horses inthe country!

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