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Max Headroom, TV's First Virtual Host: Facts And History

Entertainment | January 4, 2021

Max Headroom took the TV world by storm in the mid-'80s, a virtual host in a sharp suit and Wayfarers who seemingly came out of nowhere. Of course, when you're virtual, you really can come out of nowhere, right? Max Headroom, played by Matt Frewer, wasn't actually "virtual" as we use the term today. And though he seemed an all-American -- obnoxiously American -- cheesy bro-host, his origins were British. The Max Headroom phenomenon blew up so fast, and flamed out so quickly, that viewers were still trying to figure out what they were looking at when poof! it was gone.

For those who don’t know, Max Headroom played like a mix between George Orwell’s 1984, Tom Cruise’s Minority Report, and a dash of Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic. That probably sounds insane but Headroom kind of was. We’ll explain. 

Satirist turn pitchman Max Headroom. (laughingsquid)

Max Headroom was created to fill a need. A new channel in the UK called Channel 4 was launching a music-video program, which would need some kind of constant element or structure to make it feel like a show and not just an assortment of unrelated clips. Something like the VJs that MTV used, but different. The show's producers hit upon animation, which evolved into the idea of a computer-generated talking head. Rocky Morton, a co-creator, was drawn to the idea of a host who was completely inappropriate to the material -- music videos at the time were very creative, DIY clips with storytelling that spoke to young people like nothing else on TV. Morton decided his yet-to-be-visualized host should be the opposite of that, as unappealing as the VJs at MTV were appealing. Max would be an obnoxious and condescending white American male in a suit.

So that was a plan -- just need to send it to the computer animation department and let them work their magic, right? Well no, not in 1985...

Computer Animation Didn't Actually Exist In 1985

Source: Gifer

At the time the concept for Max Headroom was taking shape, computer graphics were far too primitive to simulate a talking human face. That was clear instantly -- while Max's creators could write the character as artificial intelligence, they couldn't just invent animation techniques that were a decade off. (Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film, didn't come out until 1995.) They needed a real, flesh-and-blood Max, and found him in Matt Frewer, a Canadian-born London-based actor with a remarkably chiseled face. Not only did he look the part, he had a quick wit and insincere delivery that fit the character perfectly. Frewer said he based the personality on Ted Baxter, the character played by Ted Knight on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. 

Frewer, covered in heavy makeup and prosthetics to make him seem more artificial, would really act, with harsh side-lighting in front of a blank blue background. Add some parallel colored lines moving around in the background, and Max Headroom had been achieved. It wasn't hard to sell this to viewers as computer animation, mainly because nobody had seen computer animation. 

Being Max Headroom Was Physically Painful

Source: The Verge

For Frewer, the job was no picnic. The makeup and prosthetics took hours to apply, and the "suit" Max wore was actually a fiberglass shell that had to be screwed together. Some large contact lenses were part of the look, at least at first -- as the show went along, they wrecked Frewer's corneas. "I don't know if you've ever had a lacerated cornea, but it's the worst pain I think I've ever felt," he told The Verge. "I was popping painkillers, and it just wasn't working." The Wayfarer sunglasses, which became part of Headroom's signature look, were worn out of necessity so that Frewer's eyes could heal.

All of this was a secret -- the talented makeup crew was working miracles, yet the public thought these were computer graphics. In fact, in 1986, the show won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award -- for graphics.

It Began As Satire

Headroom on the rise. (junkfed)

Max Headroom mania began in the UK almost before viewers had even seen him. That's because of a convoluted turn of events that led to Headroom having his own TV movie in addition to the music-video show. Morton had the idea to do five-minute segments on the music video show that would explain how Headroom came to be. Channel 4 liked the back story so much they decided they wanted to produce it as a standalone TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future, which would air just days before the music video show, called The Max Headroom Show, premiered. This is how we got the Max Headroom origin story, which is far more cyberpunky than Max himself.

At first, Max Headroom was a means to mock the ever-growing reach of television. In his dystopian fictional world television networks, not governments, ruled the world unchecked. There are no off switches for television, ratings decide elections, and every network sponsors their own candidate. (What would that be like?) In this world, brave left-leaning journalist, Edison Carter, reports on the evil doings of his “Network 23.” 

The Plot Thickens

The man behind the prosthetics (mattblank)

The Network 23 allows the firebrand Edison to criticize them because ratings above all else matter. However, things take a turn for the worse for Edison when he discovers that the network has created something called a “blipvert.” “Blipverts” function to stuff minutes of advertising into just a few seconds in a microburst. But they also have a tendency to make people’s heads explode, literally.

When Edison attempts to go public with this information, the network president has him killed. Unfortunately for the president, the execution goes wrong and Edison becomes grievously wounded in the parking garage attempting to escape. The network then downloads his consciousness to avoid losing their TV star. 

Max Headroom

The cast of Max Headroom. (NPR)

Edison’s new digital consciousness names itself Max Headroom after the parking sign that smashed into his face, as in “maximum headroom.” Unlike Edison, Headroom isn’t bound by the morals of journalism or the constraints of a body. In his digital form Headroom jumps around at will, lampooning and uncovering all the dirty secrets of Network 23.

Funnily enough, the original writer, Steve Roberts met with producer Peter Wagg and thought “He was a suit and I hated him on sight." Nevertheless, the idea of taking corporate money and writing an anti-capitalist show greatly appealed to Roberts. 

After the TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future came the first season of The Max Headroom Show, which was a music video show. The format broadened for seasons two and three of The Max Headroom Show; it became more of a talk show, with celebrity interviews. These episodes were broadcast in the United States on Cinemax. At this point, Max Headroom had existed for less than a year and he'd already had a TV movie, a music video show, and a UK talk show that was exported to the States. It was remarkable success, arguably too much success.

Coming To America

When Headroom began to jump the shark. (youtube)

The ABC television network decided to try to wring a little more out of Max Headroom. The network produced a TV series based on the dystopian sci-fi concepts from the original British TV movie. Called Max Headroom, it premiered in mid-1987 and ran for two short seasons. 

Unfortunately, making it to America also pushed Headroom closer to “jumping the shark" territory. People were getting tired of the character. There was also the disconnect of the show's content -- Americans tuned in hoping for zany interviews and charismatic Max Headroom weirdness, but instead found themselves watching a science fiction show with heavy themes. 

Becoming a spokesperson for “New Coke” may have been the last straw. The anti-capitalist character had gone corporate and within a few years, he was the butt of the joke in Back To The Future II.

A few years later there was an attempt to revive Headroom in the wake of Gary Hart’s failed presidential bid due to a sex scandal. But as Frewer recalls it, "There was an actor who was president... why not a computer-generated man? Like a lot of these things, it never made it to first base."

Tags: Max Headroom | TV From The 1980s

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!