‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’ has an infamous reputation– as it should because it is indeed terrible. However, what many may not realize is that while, yes, this special is hard to sit through, it’s actually not that different from the majority of what was on TV during the 1970s. Everything sucked back then. (I mean ‘Hee Haw’ was a top-rated show through the entire decade!) And everybody had a variety show. The Brady Bunch, Donny & Marie Osmond, The Muppets, and of course, the Justice League of America. Makes complete sense, right?
On January 18 and 25, 1979, (consecutive Thursday nights) NBC aired two hour-long specials featuring the heroes and villains on the DC Universe. Almost 40 years before the ‘Legends of Tomorrow’ stormed onto The CW, another team of DC champions blasted into living rooms under the name ‘Legends of the Superheroes’ with the first chapter subtitled ‘The Challenge’ and part two called ‘The Roast’. The live-action specials were produced by legendary animation house Hanna Barbera, who were responsible for the hit Saturday morning cartoon ‘Super Friends’, which had been airing on ABC starting in 1973. However, ‘Legends of the Superheroes’ was broadcast on NBC, which may be the reason it wasn’t called ‘Legends of the Super Friends‘.
This is an ad that ran in Hollywood trade publications about a year prior to the show’s release, seeking some Super “People” to bring the heroes to life.
Oddly, the ad mentions that HB was casting for Batman and Robin. In the finished product, Adam West and Burt Ward reprised their roles as the Caped Crusaders from the 1960s ‘Batman’ series and they even appeared to be wearing the same costumes. The main difference was that West was no longer tucking the lower part of his cowl into the top of his cape. This may have been an effort to better mimic the silhouette of the way the character was drawn in the comics and on ‘Super Friends’. It’s possible that the ad was placed before HB managed to land West and Ward.
Each hero is showcased in the opening title sequence, but bizarrely, Burt Ward is replaced by his stunt double during Robin’s introduction. It also appears that he ditched the opaque tights he wore on ‘Batman’ and went bare-legged. Keep in mind, this was only 10 years after ‘Batman’ ended, so Ward was still in pretty fit shape… complete with a nice set of stems.
However, two of the most popular Super Friends had to be omitted. The rights to Superman were tied up with ‘Superman: The Movie’, starring Christopher Reeve, which had come out the year before. And the Lynda Carter-starring ‘Wonder Woman’ series ended its four-year run in September, just before ‘Legends’ aired. Even though the finale of ‘The Challenge’ involved the heroes crossing a lake in various boats, Aquaman — who could have swum across — was not included at all.
Captain Marvel (now known as Shazam) was an easy substitute for Superman, as they had similar power sets. The character had starred on a live-action Saturday morning show, called ‘Shazam!’, created by Filmation in 1974-76. Filmation would later create a ‘Shazam!’ cartoon in 1981, but in between, the character appeared in this Hanna Barbera spectacle, as portrayed by Garrett Craig.
As wacky as these specials were, it must be pointed out that they presented the first-ever live-action versions of Black Canary (played by Danuta… just Danuta), The Flash (Rod Haase), The Huntress (Barbara Joyce), Green Lantern (Howard Murphy), Hawkman (the impressively muscular Bill Nuckols), and The Atom (Alfie Wise). The Atom only appeared in ‘The Roast’. Most of those characters would not appear in live-action again for decades.
At the time that ‘LOTSH’ was made, The Huntress had just debuted in the comics in 1977, so she was a relatively brand new character. In the comics, she was the daughter of the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman and lived on Earth-2, apart from the Justice League. She is the least utilized character on ‘LOTSH’ so there was really no explanation for why she was included, but I assume they just wanted another buxom lady on the show.
At least on some level, Black Canary and Huntress substituted for Wonder Woman, but neither is really as similar to her as Captain Marvel is to Superman.
William Schallert, who had a lengthy film and television career prior to this and is perhaps best known as the father on ‘The Patty Duke Show’, played the elderly superhero once known as The Scarlet Cyclone, but was now dubbed Retired Man. Schallert sadly passed away in 1981, just two years after ‘LOTSH’ aired.
In ‘The Roast’, the group is also visited by a black superhero/stand-up comic Ghetto Man (Brad Sanders). Not. Awkward. At. All.
Ghetto Man delivered a racially-charged standup set which delivered, among other cringy punchlines, “I’m sorry, but the Green Lantern doesn’t count as ‘colored people’.”
The character lineup was loosely inspired by the ‘Challenge of the Superfriends’ season of the ABC cartoon, which had aired in 1978, the year before this. That version pitted the (nearly) full roster of the Justice League against a lineup of classic supervillains, the Legion of Doom. Similarly, ‘Legends of the Superheroes’ featured an imposing Rogues Gallery.
Some of the villains were played by old-timey, vaudeville-style comedians, while others were unknowns. Obviously, since Superman was off-limits, the same was true of his archenemy, Lex Luthor, the leader if the Legion of Doom. But luckily, Captain Marvel also had a bald mad scientist enemy, Dr. Sivana, who could be easily substituted, and was played here by Howard Morris, best known as the crazed hillbilly, Ernest T. Bass on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’.
Charlie Callas, who had worked extensively with Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, as well as Mel Brooks, and was a frequent guest on ‘The Flip Wilson Show’, portrayed Green Lantern’s nemesis, Sinestro.
The Legion of Superheroes villain Mordru appeared as the leader of the bad guys. This was an odd choice, since, in the comics, he existed in the 30th Century. But perhaps the writers used 1977’s ‘Justice League of America’ #147 as a source, as that issue featured a crossover with the Legion, with Mordru as the villain. Gabriel Dell, who had been a child star in the Dead End Kids, East Side Kids, and Bowery Boys movies, portrayed the wizard, who performed a lively song and dance number in ‘The Roast’.
The youngest male villain appears to be Weather Wizard, who was portrayed by Jeff Altman, who was, at that time, a rising stand-up comedian. He had the recurring role of Hughie Hogg on ‘The Dukes of Hazard’ and would go on to be a frequent guest on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’, appearing 45 times over the years.
Also part of the villain roster were Mickey Morton as Solomon Grundy and Aleshia Brevard as Giganta. Brevard is transgender, so her appearance in these 1979 specials is pretty groundbreaking. Unlike on ‘The Super Friends’, she did not demonstrate the power to grow to 50′ tall, although that appears to be the foundation for a comedic bit in ‘The Roast’ where it is revealed that she is in a romantic relationship with The Atom.
The most notable villain in the lineup was The Riddler, played by Frank Gorshin, who — like West and Ward — reprised his role from the 1960s ‘Batman’ show. Unlike the Dynamic Duo, Gorshin’s costume was not the same as the one he wore on the previous series and was rather shoddily made. (More on that later.)
Finally, in ‘The Roast’, another Shazam villain, Aunt Minerva appeared, portrayed by Emmy and Golden Globe winner Ruth Buzzi, best known for the mod ’60s sketch comedy series ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’.
Another notable appearance in ‘The Challenge’ was of rising comedian Marsha Warfield, as a bystander in a phone booth (back when those existed) giving her friend the details of the super battle she is witnessing. Warfield later played surly bailiff Roz Russell on the popular ’80s sitcom ‘Night Court’ and went on to host her own daytime talk show. Altman and Warfield are the only two cast members who went on to greater success after this.
The Riddler wasn’t the only one with a cheap-looking costume. The reason why West and Ward’s costumes stood out so much is that they were so much better made than the rest of the cast’s. ALL of them are pretty weak, although some look nicer than others. Hawkman looks particularly dynamic with the exception of the wonky eyes. (How did Nuckols see through that helmet?)
The Flash’s is absolutely the worst. Not only is it visibly cheap, his chest emblem is backwards. (And no, Mirror Master wasn’t among the villains in these specials.)
The budget for ‘LOTSH’ had to be tiny because the costumes weren’t the only chintzy part of the production. The special effects were anything but special, even for that time. The Flash’s super-speed is represented by Haase freezing in a running position and “disappearing” with a wind effect left in his wake.
Captain Marvel is the only hero shown flying. Yep, even Hawkman is grounded and flying is like his only “thing.” Green Lantern doesn’t fly but teleports.
While it may not be flashy (no pun intended), Black Canary is at least shown riding her motorcycle, which is cool. But her Canary Cry power is completely misinterpreted. Even though in the intro, it is described as being strong enough to shatter rock, in ‘The Challenge’ she is just shown to be able to yell really loud so that everyone within the surrounding area can hear her.
Speaking of shouting, Hawkman has a tendency to unleash ear-splitting hawk-like shrieks. Other than that, I think the only time he talks is during ‘The Roast’ when his mother arrives. (Cue laying eggs jokes.)
Batman and Robin are shown in their Batmobile, which is the same as the one on the ’60s show, but for whatever reason, it is missing the bat logo on the doors. It doesn’t matter, as Sinestro sabotages it, so it breaks down quickly.
‘The Challenge’ is certainly the more entertaining of the two specials, as it features superheroes out doing super things and fighting supervillains. Dr. Sivana builds a Doomsday Device that will blow up the world in one hour, so the heroes split up to find it. It never seems to occur to the baddies that they are on the Earth and will be obliterated along with it.
And in another cheap cop-out, Sivana tricks all of the heroes into drinking tainted lemonade which robs them of their powers, and the heroes trick the villains into drinking it as well, so the final battle is a bunch of normal men and women fighting with their fists and such. (No special effects required!) Of course, the Doomsday Device is deactivated at the last second.
‘The Roast’ was hosted by Ed McMahon, who was a popular TV personality at the time, acting as sidekick to Johnny Carson on ‘The Tonight Show’. Several of the villains from ‘The Challenge’ return to poke fun at the heroes, and as stated, they were joined by Aunt Minerva, and Ghetto Man, along with Hawkman’s mother.
‘Barney Miller’s June Gable appeared as gossip columnist Rhoda Rooter who uncovers the scoop that The Atom and Giganta are dating. For whatever reason, “Rhoda Rooter” warranted mention in the TV Guide ad above.
As silly as ‘The Challenge’ is, at least there was enough action to entertain children. The old-fashioned vaudeville humor of ‘The Roast’ would have flown over their heads. (Unlike most of the superheroes on this show. ZING!)
For decades this was only a fuzzy memory to some, or something viewed on bootleg VHS tapes of varying quality. As overall terrible as it is, ‘Legends of the Superheroes’ was the first-ever live-action depiction of an entire team of comic book crusaders, and it would remain the ONLY one until (can this be right?) 1996, when FOX aired the TV movie ‘Generation X’. And it remained the only live-action version of most of these characters until ‘Smallville’ started showcasing various DC guest stars. But unlike on ‘Smallville’, The CW shows, and even in the movies, the ‘Legends’ costumes, as cheap and terrible as they are, were nearly exact replicas of the outfits these characters wore in the comics.
Adam West went on to voice Batman on ‘The Super Friends’ for its final two seasons. He passed away in 2017, but he worked steadily until that point. He and Burt Ward reprised their roles as Batman and Robin in two direct-to-video animated movies, ‘Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders and ‘Batman Vs. Two-Face’, which brilliantly cast William Shatner in the villain role.
Burt Ward was just seen on The CW’s ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ crossover, as a modern version of his Robin of Earth-66. Garrett Craig (Captain Marvel) is on Facebook and accepts friend requests from fans! Unfortunately, many of the cast have passed away, while others have seemingly vanished. Those that are still alive have mostly left acting behind.
In 2010, just over three decades after ‘Legends of the Superheroes’ aired, Warner Brothers’ Warner Archive Collection offered the specials on DVD on-demand. It is now available to stream on DC Universe. Very much like ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special’, it is a terrible but campy must-watch!
If you want to know even more about ‘Legends of the Superheroes’, check out Mark Tyler Nobleman’s Noblemania blog. He managed to track down some of the actors from these bizarre specials who shared their experiences in making it! It’s pretty amazing!
If you’ve seen ‘Legends of the Superheroes’, what did you think? Sound off in the comments!