Incredible Hulk: How Lou Ferrigno Created TV's Greatest Marvel Superhero

Entertainment | November 4, 2020

Lou Ferrigno's Incredible Hulk, the green Marvel superhero, first flexed his muscles on CBS on a Friday night in 1978 -- and showed a glimmer of hope for the Marvel universe. Marvel Comics had shaken up the comics world in the early '60s, but that success had yet to translate to the screen. Meanwhile, rival publisher DC had seen success with Batman in the '60s and Wonder Woman in the '70s. As Marvel's first successful live-action drama, The Incredible Hulk was a harbinger of the phenomenon of crowd-pleasing Marvel entertainment and, eventually, record-setting blockbuster film franchises.

The Hulk Was One Of Marvel's Earliest Superheroes

Source: (Marvel)

The Incredible Hulk first emerged in the Marvel universe in May 1962. The character was gray at first, but switched to green. The Hulk was based on a combination of Frankenstein’s monster and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, according to Stan Lee.  He was the alter-ego of Bruce Banner, who was exposed to gamma rays after saving Rick Jones when an experimental bomb detonated. Lee has also compared him to the Golem from Jewish mythology. Banner and his alter-ego are aware of and resent each other. Whenever Banner, a weak, reserved physicist gets angry, he transforms into the Hulk. The original comic series was canceled in 1963 after issue #6, but Jack Kirby, the co-creator, received a letter from a college dorm informing him that they had chosen the Hulk as their official mascot. In October,1964, starting with issue #60, the Hulk became one of the storylines in Tales to Astonish.  

The Creation Of The Show

Source: (Pinterest)

In 1977, two made-for-television movies were released acting as a pilot for the show, which then ran from 1978 to 1982 on CBS. When Universal asked Kenneth Johnson to create the show, he was hesitant because he did not want to create a show perceived as too similar to a comic book, and so he changed a few things, beginning with the name of Bruce Banner, since Johnson, the creator of the show, did not like the alliterative nature of the name as too many comic book characters had alliterative names, like Peter Parker and Lois Lane. And so, for the show, he became David Banner. The television version of the Hulk also had a slightly different backstory from the original comic book. In the television show, David Banner was a medical researcher/physician and his transformation occurred after a laboratory mishap while experimenting on himself; throughout the series, he was looking for a cure, and in fact, because he wandered from location to location, the show never had a permanent set. The Hulk in the television show does not talk either, as Kenneth Johnson suggested that change to Stan Lee, who agreed that the clipped communication would sound ridiculous. The Hulk was also not as strong as portrayed in the comic, though he did have similar powers. Additionally, the supporting characters from the comic book were eliminated, and a single one was introduced for the show: Jack McGee. Johnson also wanted to change the Hulk’s color from green to red because red is often associated with rage, and rage, of course, drove Banner’s transformation. Lee did not allow this change however, as the Hulk’s color was iconic.  

Richard Kiel Was The Hulk For A Scene

Richard Kiel, who was originally cast as the Hulk. Source: (WTVR.com)

Lou Ferrigno was not the only person to audition for the role of the Hulk. Arnold Schwarzenegger also tried out, but he was not the right height. Richard Kiel was initially hired for the role and actually appeared in the pilot. However, Kiel could only see out of one eye and reacted poorly to the contacts they used for the role. He also did not like the makeup he had to wear, and, as one of the kids whose parent was associated with the creation of the show pointed out, although Kiel had the right height for the role, he did not have the right physique. Kiel still appears in one of the scenes in the first episode. 

That Quote And The Transformation

From Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno. Source: (Click Americana)

There were a few aspects that were instantly recognizable, such as the well-known quote, “Don’t make me angry. You won’t like me when I’m angry.” It was anger that transformed Banner, and there were quite a few things that pissed Banner off, from being attacked by a bear to not having enough change for a payphone. And the audience could tell when the transformation was about to happen as Banner’s eyes changed color, thanks to white contacts. There were different ways that he could “Hulk out,” and they were always trying to come up with interesting new ways for the transformation to happen, moving beyond just bursting out of a closet. Of course, these were the times before current special effects, so they got a little creative. One of the techniques was to put Ferrigno in shirts that were a little too tight for him, weaken the fibers, and allow him to flex his muscles and rip them.

To Become A Superhero Requires More Than Anger

Making the Hulk. Source: (Flickriver)

To become the Hulk took more than a little anger. Ferrigno had to be transformed with prosthetics and then the makeup was applied. To get the right look, they used grease paint, which was waterproof, to an extent and came off on everyone else’s clothes. Not only did his face need to be created, but his body had to be painted as well. The grease paint didn’t fare well when they were filming in the desert however, and started to separate into blue and yellow in between shots; they had to keep smearing it back together. Ferrigno also had to wear a wig made of yak hair and contacts that had to be changed every 15 minutes.

The Hulk Speaks

With Laurie Prange in the episode "Death in the Family." Source: (IMDb)

As the Hulk, Ferrigno did not have a speaking role, of course, and the sounds he made were actually another actor’s voice; Ted Cassidy created the voice until his death in 1979, and they dubbed his voice to make it even deeper. Ferrigno did actually have a speaking role on the set eventually, playing Carl Molino, a character who was not the Hulk, but who had the same hearing problem as Ferrigno himself. Bixby and Ferrigno were never acting together, until one plotline when Banner undergoes hypnosis and the two are finally able to meet. 

Ferrigno Had To Deal With His Own Anger

Source: (Reddit).

Ferrigno’s personality was not so far removed from the Hulk. He had a serious hearing impairment resulting from an infection when he was a child.  He released his anger about his hearing loss through weightlifting. He became the youngest bodybuilder to win consecutive Mr. Universe titles for his weightlifting, creating the physique that would allow him to win the role. On set, he wore hearing aids, but they did not work well, and when a director yelled a direction such as “cut,” an assistant had to signal to Ferrigno.  

An Ending Without A Cure 

Source: (Gulf News)

The show’s eventual ending was a bit unexpected and sudden; the show was doing well, and was popular; in fact their biggest demographic was adult women. They did not have a chance to create a finale, so it simply ended. In some ways, this lack of closure was appropriate, as the episodes always ended with plaintive music and the recognition that Banner would remain alone as he tried to find a cure.

Tags: Bill Bixby | Lou Ferrigno | Marvel Comics | The Incredible Hulk | TV In The 1970s

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!