Interviews: Bill Bixby remembered

Of all the articles I’ve ever done, I think I’m most proud of the Bill Bixby tribute interviews I did for Impact. First up are Eric Allan Kramer and Rex Smith, followed by Lou Ferrigno and Elizabeth Gracen. Enjoy.

Eric Allan Kramer and Rex Smith

In 1988 and 1989, Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno brought David Banner and the Hulk back to television with a little help from Marvel Comics characters Thor and Daredevil. Now that The Incredible Hulk Returns and Trial of the Incredible Hulk are finally available as a two-disc DVD double feature from Anchor Bay Entertainment, Impact sought out the men who played Thor and Daredevil for the first time on film: Eric Allan Kramer and Rex Smith.

In The Incredible Hulk Returns, David Banner hasn’t hulked out in two years thanks to a loving relationship with a fellow researcher named Maggie (Lee Purcell). His work on a new gamma transponder might rid him of his green alter-ego forever. But things get complicated when David’s former student Don Blake (Steve Levitt) shows up with his Viking-in-a-bottle buddy Thor (Kramer), and what begins as a battle between Thor and the Hulk becomes a partnership to rescue Maggie from the villains who have stolen the transponder.

“I had followed most of the Marvel Comics as a kid growing up, so I knew pretty much what I was getting into,” Kramer says.

Though he had done plenty of stage acting and fight choreography in Canada, playing Thor was the Michigan native’s first Hollywood role. “I think there’s just a pressure to get in shape!” he laughs. “I had gotten the role and I was in OK shape anyway, but I wanted to get in better shape and didn’t have a lot of time before filming started. I started hitting the gym fairly heavily, and I remember being at the first photo session with Lou Ferrigno. We’re standing together and I’d been trying my damnedest to get in shape, and I remember Lou at one point turning to me and saying, ‘So, do you work out?’ Maybe not enough, Lou!”

Trying to match Ferrigno’s muscles might have been daunting, but working with Bill Bixby was anything but. “Bill Bixby was everything you expected him to be,” Kramer says thoughtfully. “Genuinely one of the warmest human beings I had ever met. Completely giving of himself, incredibly soft spoken but at the same time very much about getting things done. You wish a lot more people in the industry could be like that.”

In this version of Thor, Don Blake can channel him into existence through Thor’s lightning-charged hammer. Though they accomplish it with a fair amount of good-natured bumbling, they focus their efforts on good causes.

“What’s great about a character like Thor is that, for better or worse, he lives what he believes,” Kramer says. “He has a very clear idea of right and wrong. He has a very clear idea of play and work. He has a very clear idea of what, particularly in his case, it means to be alive. We can’t always be right in the decisions we make, but to have an honest belief in what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. You can’t go wrong with that. It’s that same attitude that opens you up to learning lessons. Thor was always a man of conviction, and fiercely loyal. It’s all characteristics that we wish we would have on a more regular basis.”

The Incredible Hulk Returns was also a pilot for a potential Thor series. “The one thing that hurt us was that Thor came around at the time of the writers’ strike, when I first moved out here,” Kramer explains. “That was six or seven months of hell. I had committed to a new life here in Los Angeles, and suddenly everything I came here for was not available to me. Once everybody sort of came out on the other end of the strike, things at all the networks had changed.”

Thor was a casualty of Hollywood war, but that didn’t stop Eric Allan Kramer. He has continued to work steadily with guest appearances on everything from Cheers to Seinfeld. Big screen roles include a part in True Romance and a memorable turn as Little John in the Mel Brooks comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He’ll next be seen in the second American Pie sequel, American Wedding.

But if Thor had become a series, Kramer has an idea of what it might have been like. “I always enjoyed the bar scene in the movie,” he says, referring to the scene in which Blake lets Thor out of the hammer for a night on the town. “I think there would have been a real push to make Thor a regular guy in a much different time, and I think that’s what made him human. That’s certainly, as an actor, what made him a lot of fun to play. He had a real lust for life, he was only allowed to experience life in short bursts so he wasn’t about to let any opportunity pass him by.”

It was the beginning of world of opportunity for Kramer. “That whole movie experience was a lot of firsts for me,” he says. “It marked my coming to Los Angeles, it was my first high profile project that I’d ever had, and with it all the possibilities of series and everything else.”

His favorite Thor memory happened before an early morning shoot on Zuma Beach. “I was walking around without a shirt in my leather pants like something out of some barbarian cartoon. I had just come out of the trailer and I had my coffee and I was trying to get my bearings. I walked down into the sand for a second, and the sun was just coming up over the horizon and the fog was just starting to pull off of the hills behind us. There’s this orange light coming up and the sky was starting to clear, and out in the surf I see this explosion out behind the waves. And I’m going, ‘What the hell is that?’ And I sort of see it again behind another wave, and I look a little bit closer and I see a huge tail come up out of the water and hit down. The whales were migrating just off shore! This is probably around 4:30, 5 in the morning, and it was just this incredible, magical light. Behind me was mist like out of a horror movie, and these huge animals are swimming in front of me, and I’m playing Thor. It was kind of like, ‘What have I done in my life to deserve this moment?’ There are times in your life when everything absolutely comes together, and I suddenly everything was very clear to me. I had made the right move. I had made the right choices. And I was in a place where I was supposed to be. And that’s my memory of that movie. I was surrounded by good people and it made the beginning of my career here in Los Angeles very, very right. I think I was very lucky to have been given that as a jump into this town.”

Now a father of two, Kramer says, “My whole philosophy of life has changed dramatically now that I have children, because the focus is really all on them right now. I’ve always been a big believer in sort of following your dreams. I look at my kids and if there’s one thing I want to instill in them, it’s that way of thinking. Not everything may be possible, but if you never try, then it will always be impossible.” American Wedding opens in August, and Kramer has several other projects in the works.

Rex Smith, whom action fans will remember as the star of the 1985 series Street Hawk, was already a formidable star of both stage and screen when Trial of the Incredible Hulk aired in 1989. The film finds David Banner framed for a crime committed by minions of the ruthless Kingpin, played by John Rhys-Davies (of the Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings trilogies). The lawyer who steps forward to defend David is none other than Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer who also dispenses justice as Daredevil.

“I had a meeting with the producers,” Smith remembers, “and they said, ‘Are you comfortable jumping out of windows and fighting multiple people at one time?’ And I said, ‘Show me the window!'”

The stunts in the film proved an exciting challenge. “I was excited that they trusted me,” Smith says. “I’ll never forget the stunt coordinator saying to me, ‘As long as you’re not hitting somebody in the face, anybody you’re fighting is paid to do this. If they’re not padded where you’re hitting them, or if they’re not ready to take that punch, that’s their job. I’ve done quite a bit of stage fighting, sword fighting and such, so I have a sensibility. I know how to stay in the moment because I’ve had quite a bit of training in it. It’s not a wild-eyed thing. I’ve seen that when the camera rolls, when you can see someone’s eyes start to widen and pupils dilate and you know they’re out of control before that first punch. And that’s usually the time to just say, ‘Hold on a second,’ because somebody’s going to get hurt. I did quite a bit of physical work in that, and it was fun kicking ass on somebody that you know is padded and can take it. Give them a good kick and don’t worry about it!”

One of the greatest moments in comic book film history is the dialogue scene in which Matt Murdock explains his origin to David Banner. Bill Bixby masterfully directs the scene with subtle touches that bring the best out of himself and Smith.

“It was a long scene,” Smith recalls. “That was a lot of pages. What a delight that I was able to do that and work with Bill Bixby. That’s a real kick to go, ‘I’m in this room, and everybody’s ready to go, and it’s all quiet and the dialogue’s about to start, and there’s me and Bill Bixby and we’re gonna keep the ball up in the air, and then he’s going to toss me that ball and I’m going to catch it without looking at it and we’re going to keep going.”

Bixby made it easy. “There was not a person on the set, from craft services to the DP [director of photography], that did not feel that they had a personal friendship, on top of a working relationship, with Bill Bixby,” Smith says. “He brought the most wonderful day-to-day working situation. He never had to raise his voice, because everyone was eager to make him happy. He had that kind of confidence and style that comes with someone who knows what they’re doing and does not feel that they have to amplify who they are, because their work and their approach speaks for itself.”

Daredevil is a demanding physical role in more ways than one. “I found it easier to play blind than I imagined it would be,” says Smith, whose most recent album, You Take My Breath Away, is available on his official website. His background in singing helped him play Matt Murdock.

“When you sing,” he explains, “it is one of the purest forms of expression of emotion. Much like bringing a song to life, it is a feeling in your stomach of not trying to imitate it, but trying to emotionally be there. Less than trying to go, ‘If I look 30 degrees to the left all the time, that’ll do it,’ I tried to imagine the minutiae of the tiniest things we take for granted, how they are taken away from the sightless. To look in the refrigerator and decide between the mustard and the mayonnaise and go, ‘I think I want the Thousand Island,’ to think about how if you just take that example and you put that in your heart, it will lead the way for you. I felt that if I trusted in that, it would take me where I needed to go. As written in the script, he’s a gentle man. Outside situations force him into meeting the level of violence he’s forced to meet.”

The lifelong comic book fan is well aware that violence isn’t what makes superheroes popular. “If you look at all those characters, what made the comic books successful was the human element. They didn’t come without the emotional baggage of being different. That’s what makes the Spider-Man movie work so great. It explored the torment and the anguish of the teenage aspect of being saddled with this. That’s what drove the comic book, and if they don’t lose that in the translation, that’s what drives a series or movie.”

Smith feels it’s something we all go through. “Somewhere you go, hey, something’s going on and my body is changing. And I’ve got to change with it. It’s a great premise. Spider-Man was the best thing, for me, since the original Superman. Superman captured that for me, too. It was the essence. They caught the right actor at the right time,” Smith says of his longtime friend Christopher Reeve. “Clark Kent was exposed in a wonderful way. You followed him and you felt for him.”

It’s something he felt was missing from this year’s big budget Daredevil film starring Ben Affleck. “I felt that you didn’t really get a chance to meet Matt Murdock as much.”

Daredevil was poised to go to series. But ABC bought the contract from NBC and sat on it, with no intention of ever producing the show. “Bixby called me and said it tested through the roof. I was looking at a sweet little ’65 Porsche and he said, ‘Go buy it.’ So I went out and bought it and we didn’t get picked up, but at least I had a cool car to tool around in while I was unable to work. For a year,” he adds, laughing. “I was in the stranglehold of that contract. It was pretty frustrating, because a couple of good jobs came by and I couldn’t do them.” One of those projects was a Zorro series, and Smith got to wear Guy Williams’ original Zorro outfit for his audition.

Had the Daredevil series happened, Bill Bixby would have produced it and directed half of the episodes. John Rhys-Davies would have had a recurring role as the Kingpin.

Smith, who stays in shape through a regimen of running, swimming, and surfing, has spent the years since Trial of the Incredible Hulk appearing in one critically acclaimed stage role after another. “Next year I’m doing a musical of P.T. Barnum with Cirque de Soleil. That’s going to require some highwire work. One of the things that attracts me to the live theater that I do so much of is the physical aspect of it, because it’s really an athletic event. I get a lot of working out in my work. I’m quite fortunate for that.”

Some of Smith’s best memories of making Trial of the Incredible Hulk involved the elusive gag reel. “Bill Bixby possessed one of the best senses of humor of any man I ever met,” he laughs. “I don’t know where that thing is, but it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. That was the delight of working with a director like Bill Bixby. We had to get our pages done and get the shots and everything, but he had the sense of humor to say, ‘Let’s do a quick one for the gag reel.’ The holy grail of Daredevil is to find the gag reel from The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. Because that would be one for the ages! There’d be a gag ruling on the gag reel.”

Though the double feature DVD from Anchor Bay unfortunately doesn’t feature those bloopers, it does include interviews with Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno and an 84-minute Ferrigno documentary. These are two of the most sincere comic book movies ever made, with performances that capture the true spirit of the characters who inspired them. I’d like to dedicate this article to the late Bill Bixby, whose spirit will always live on in the lives and work of all those he inspired.

Lou Ferrigno and Elizabeth Gracen

Though Ang Lee’s Hulk is the big screen debut of the incredible Marvel Comics character, a legacy of the big green guy already exists on film thanks to the TV series starring the late Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk. It ran from 1978 to 1982 and was followed by three television movies, the last of which aired in 1990. Three years later, the world would lose Bill Bixby to cancer.

Last month Impact interviewed Eric Allan Kramer and Rex Smith, who played Thor and Daredevil in The Incredible Hulk Returns (1989) and Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1990). Those films are now available as a highly recommended two-pack DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment.

In this issue we’ll look at two more Hulk DVDs: The Original Television Series Premiere (Universal Studios) and The Death of the Incredible Hulk (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment), the final TV movie starring Bixby and Ferrigno. We’re also proud to present exclusive interviews with actors from both films: Lou Ferrigno himself and Elizabeth Gracen, who played Jasmine in The Death of the Incredible Hulk.

At age 21, Lou Ferrigno was the youngest man ever to win the Mr. Universe competition in 1973. He won it again the following year. Having succeeded so quickly in bodybuilding, there was obvious pressure for him to succeed just as quickly as an actor. Ferrigno wasn’t intimidated.

“When the Hulk came along, I just took it one day at a time,” he says. “I was learning the ropes as I was doing the series.”

He says he got a lot of help from Bixby, and his bodybuilding background provided further guidance. “It taught me how to be very consistent,” Ferrigno says. “When you’re acting, you’re dealing with emotions. When you’re bodybuilding, you’re dealing with your body. It’s a different thing, but I was able to carry over the discipline.”

It still didn’t prepare him for the first time he saw himself in full Hulk makeup. “I was scared to death,” the actor remembers, “because I didn’t know how the public would perceive it.”

But the show was an instant hit. “When I got a phone call that the show had been picked up for a series, I knew it had the potential to go for a long time.”

Ferrigno had to create a character who didn’t speak in words. Luckily he was no stranger to actions that had to speak loudly. “It came easy to me. It was very natural.”

Though The Death of the Incredible Hulk was the final adventure for Ferrigno and Bixby, more TV movies were planned. Ferrigno explains the genesis of Death. “It was New World Pictures,” he says, referring to the production company that made the movie. “They were going for the ratings.”

And though plans existed for further films, Ferrigno still had mixed feelings about the Hulk’s supposed death at the end. “I knew we were going to come back with Revenge of the Hulk.” But only, Ferrigno says, if Death had been successful. “They were going to check on the ratings, so I was a little nervous about it.”

The film performed spectacularly, but soon afterward Bixby became too ill to continue. The next film, Revenge of the Incredible Hulk, would have allowed Ferrigno to show a different side of the character. In the film, the Hulk would have started to retain part of Banner’s intellect after his metamorphosis. “He has David Banner’s mind,” Ferrigno says of the film that never happened, “and he’s on the verge of speaking and doing different things to take it to the next level.”

If Bill Bixby were alive today, Ferrigno believes they’d still be making Hulk films. “Definitely, ” he says. “We were planning to keep making them, probably another four or five depending on how well they were received.”

When the new Hulk film was announced, Ferrigno didn’t know what to think. “At first I was disappointed because I definitely wanted to play the Hulk again. But it was so many years later, and they wanted to do more of the comic book version.”

Never fear, fans. Ferrigno appears in a cameo with Stan Lee, bigger and in better shape than he was when he did the original series. “I filmed another scene with Eric Bana,” he says, “but they had to take it out.” The deleted scene should appear on the DVD release.

Ferrigno still studies acting and remains an active bodybuilder and personal trainer. He also has a recurring role on the CBS sitcom The King of Queens. “I was in a movie called The Godson and they liked my performance,” Ferrigno says of the producers, who invited him on the show. “I love doing comedy. It’s different because you’re in front of a live audience.”

The actor also hopes to return to stage work. “Right now I’m too busy, but someday I’d love to go back to it.”

Ferrigno’s latest book, My Incredible Life as the Hulk, is now available on his official website. “It’s so unique and one-of-a-kind,” he says of the original series. “It can never be replaced.”

He decided to write the book last year. “Even now a lot of fans come up and they want to know everything about the Hulk series. I wanted to put out what really went on in the series, really in-depth about the other actors. It’s something that I wanted to share with my fans, how I became the Hulk and how I lived my life as the Hulk.”

Looking back, Ferrigno says the accomplishment he’s most proud of is his first Mr. Universe victory. That moment defined the philosophy he still lives by: “Competing with myself and trying to enjoy every day, to be the best I can be.”

The former Mr. Universe met a former Miss America in The Death of the Incredible Hulk. Elizabeth Gracen charmed fantasy fans for six seasons of Highlander: The Series as the lovely Amanda before spinning off into her own show, Highlander: The Raven. The Death of the Incredible Hulk was one of her first acting experiences. Gracen played Jasmine, a woman forced to be a thief by a secret organization. She crosses paths with the Hulk and falls in love with David Banner.

“I auditioned for Death of the Incredible Hulk right along with all the other actresses who fit the bill at that time,” Gracen explains. “It was a grueling process of having to be ‘chosen’ by many execs. Bill always wanted me for the part, but because I was a new to the scene, the others had their doubts. I really feel I owe him so much for giving me the part. It was really my first big part in Hollywood television and he always talked about me ‘blossoming’ during the production.”

She recalls that Bixby was an inspiration to everyone on the set. “Bill was director/producer/actor on the show,” she says. “He was a wild man with so much energy! He kept the crew on its toes and always infused the work with a lot of spirit. There have been a couple of directors like that that I’ve had the chance to work with, but none with Bix’s total devotion to what he was doing on all fronts. I have been lucky to work with directors from all over the world. Bix was totally American. Totally the boy who wants to please everyone. His heart was big. His ego was big. He grabbed life and really ran with it. I have nothing but fantastic thoughts when I think of him.”

The role of Jasmine was very physical, and required Gracen to play several different sides of the same character. “Being sort of a rookie on this job, it was challenging at the time,” she remembers. “But I had so much fun adopting disguises and accents. I’ve played several spy roles since, but this was my first one. Bix was really supportive and had as much fun as I did with the changes. When I recall my emotional state and how important it was to me at the time, I’m full of admiration for him. I know I’m waxing poetic and a little mushy about the whole experience, but you have to realize this was my first big part. There is no replacing the importance of that to an actor when they begin.”

The experience had a lasting effect on her life and career. “I felt on top of the world getting the part. Having it end was sort of sad, but it would be my first experience of the ‘let down’ an actor gets when production is over. I spent some time with Bix over the next few years before he died, so I felt lucky to have the joy of the production carry forward. As a beginning actress, doing a part as complicated as Jasmine was challenging for me. Bix gave me all the room I needed. I felt he really respected me. He believed in me. This is so important to an actor. It gives them confidence. He gave me that in spades.”

Gracen considers it an honor to have been a part of the Hulk’s final moment. “The death scene for both actors took place on location on the airfield, and then close-ups were dealt with in studio. Bill was fantastic. Very emotional and perfect. Lou was great too, but he cracked me up. I remember waiting for them to roll and he looked up at me in my catsuit and said, ‘Are you padded?’ as he pointed to his chest. There is nothing like a big green man asking you something like that to throw you off your concentration!”

The Original Television Series Premiere DVD features the original 1977 Hulk TV movie/pilot and another TV movie from 1978 called “Married.” Kenneth Johnson, who wrote, directed and produced both films, provides an amazing commentary that spans both. The DVD also includes a new introduction by Ferrigno and a sneak preview of Ang Lee’s Hulk. Picture and sound have been beautifully restored for the DVD release. The Death of the Incredible Hulk has no features to speak of, but it’s nice to have it on DVD.

As a tribute to Bill Bixby, I’d like to end with Elizabeth Gracen’s memories of his final years: “As a person, I saw Bix transform over time because of his illness. His energy never flagged, but he softened as time went on. He became more the listener instead of the showman. He was always the showman on set. Always on. He was hilarious. He was so kind to me. And the last time I spoke with him he was so open, and I could really feel him caring about me. Listening to me. He was finally relaxed. He found some peace. I adored him. Even now, as I’m thinking of him, I just feel my heart open. I hope I always have that much grace in my life that I can impart that much warmth to those around me. He was a special man, and I miss him.”

With the Hulk back in the mainstream, it’s been an honor for me over the last two issues to talk to some of the people who worked with Bill Bixby. He’ll always be the only Dr. Banner to me, and it’s good to know that his work will live on forever. Thank you for everything, Bill. We’ll never forget you.