The Batman TV Wannabes Of '67: Mr. Terrific Vs. Captain Nice
Left: Mr. Terrific DVD packaging. Right: Gold Key's Captain Nice comic book. Sources: Amazon.de; eBay
You remember Adam West's Batman from 1966, but what about Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice from 1967? These two superhero series, both launched on the same day, attempted to capture the magic of the caped crusader's show -- but couldn't.
"Holy ratings Batman!" That was the phrase around ABC in 1966 when their Adam West starring, ultra camp TV series that focused on the lighter aspects of the Dark Knight premiered. For a brief period of time, Batman was the biggest show on the network. It pulled in children as well as adults, and featured a who's who of guest stars. Batman was such an instantaneous, inescapable hit that it inspired clones of all masks and sizes.
While ABC attempted to replicate their success by going back to DC Comics with The Green Hornet, NBC and CBS tried a different route. They created their own campy superheroes. Mr. Terrific (CBS) and Captain Nice (NBC) premiered on the same night in January, 1967. Both shows featured out-of-their-depth superheroes who were more Superman and Shazam than they were Batman, but it's undeniable that these shows were blatantly pulling from the Batman '66 playbook.
Neither series was a hit. They only ran for one season apiece, with Mr. Terrific winning the race to the bottom with a whopping 17 episodes to Captain Nice's 15. The story of these shows is a fascinating look at the entertainment industry's quest to recreate the success of something original, only to see their work become the stuff of the pop culture dust bin.
The Success Of Batman Created A Television Gold Rush
In 1966, ABC brought a version of Batman to television that still feels both modern and of its time. It's easy to see how disparate filmmakers like John Waters, Tim Burton, and Joel Shumacher took inspiration from the campy, colorful series. Batman's inspiration is even visible in Cartoon Network's late '90s talk show Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, featuring a superhero who's just a little too cool.
Rather than grow into its campiness or inherent silliness, all of that is in the DNA of Adam West's Batman from episode one. Like comic books, like drag culture, and like punk rock, the three seasons of Batman speak to people with a specific way of thinking. Yes, it's for children, but it's also for adults who are tuned into a certain wavelength. Either you get it, or you don't.
NBC And CBS Swing Into Action
No one wants to be left behind. When Batman was a hit out of the gate for ABC, CBS and NBC realized that they too needed their own caped crusaders to stand toe to toe with the Bat. This race to create a new superhero franchise to crush ABC wasn't all that surprising. After all, whenever something is successful it's going to be replicated until it's no longer viable. We saw it with the gangster films of the '30s, westerns in the '50s and '60s, and we're seeing it in the 2010s and '20s with superhero films.
Both NBC and CBS cherry picked pieces of ABC's Batman and compiled them to make homegrown superheroes, characters they wouldn't have to share with anyone. Both Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice had mild mannered alter egos, and they each had special thing (a pill or a formula) that caused a major transformation. They weren't ripping off Batman so much as taking superhero tropes, throwing them in a blender with slapstick comedy writing and putting whatever came out on television faster than a speeding bullet.
Mr. Terrific, The Nerd Who Flew Like A Bird
With Mr. Terrific, CBS tried to get as far away from the Batman model as they could while still having a super hero. Rather than work on his own, Stanley Beamish (played by Stephen Strimpell) worked for a government agency who had designed a pill to give someone extraordinary powers for one hour. Because of his extra special DNA Beamish was the only person on Earth who could use the powers of the pill, which he did whenever he wasn't working at a gas station.
Batman may have been a millionaire playboy, but Mr. Terrific knew how to change your oil and could fly for about an hour at a time. The tone of the series was sort of Get Smart meets Underdog. Beamish took his orders from The Bureau of Secret Projects, and he fought spies, bank robbers, and "enemy agents" all the while flapping his arms like a bird whenever he had to fly.
NBC Thought Captain Nice Was Going To Be A Hit
Captain Nice is a much sillier show than Mr. Terrific. With this series, the writers and directors leaned in to tropes and concepts lifted entirely from ABC's Batman. The series features a mayor and police chief duo who are always in need of help, and Captain Nice watches over "Big Town," and keeps it safe from the mob, small time crooks, and even super powered insects.
Starring William Daniels as Carter Nash, the series follows the mild mannered chemist as he lives with his mother and creates a super serum that gives him other worldly abilities. Like Mr. Terrific (or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), whenever Nice needs to save the day he sips his serum and starts kicking baddie buns.
This series had veteran writers from Get Smart (notably Buck Henry) throwing everything against the wall to make this kooky series. In its single season on the air Captain Nice introduced a superhero who lived with his mother, who had to wear glasses when he fought crime, and who was absolutely dying to date a hot meter maid. NBC must have thought the series was going places because there's a ton of merchandise for Captain Nice out there, with a complete test set of Topps trading cards selling for $14,052 in 2006.
Neither Show Lasted For More Than A Season
If you can find the full seasons of Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice online or on DVD they're definitely worth your time if for no other reason than seeing real deal cultural oddities. Neither series has the strength of ABC's Batman, mostly because they lean into their comedy rather than playing things straight.
Both shows were canceled after a single season, with the Chicago Sun-Times writing that both shows were “so unbelievably bad [they] further emphasize how disastrous the current season is.” Ouch. These weren't the only shows that tried to capture Batman's lightning in a bottle.
Mr. Terrific And Captain Nice Weren't The Only Batman Wannabes
Television in the late '60s and into the '70s was littered with live-action superhero shows that just didn't catch on. For every Batman or Wonder Woman, there was a Mr. Terrific or Captain Nice. Do you remember any of these one-season wonders?
Green Hornet, the live-action Spider-Man, Invisible Man, Man from Atlantis, Manimal, The Powers of Matthew Star, Automan, Holmes & Yoyo, and Monster Squad each tried to find success with audiences in the same way that Batman did. The problem with these one-season wonders wasn't so much that they were copies, or even copies of copies, but that the public's desire for superheroes on television was running low. Even Batman, the most popular superhero series of the '60s, only fought crime for three seasons.
Tags: Batman | Captain Nice | Mr. Terrific | Remember This?... | TV In The 1960s
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