By Patrick Mondout
Looking to repeat the success ABC was having with the adventure/superhero series
The Six Million Dollar Man, NBC
brought us this rehash of a failed late 1950s show, which itself was a rehash
of an 1897 novel. The Invisible Man debuted in the fall of 1975 and
featured Dr. Daniel Westin (David McCallum) and his wife Dr. Kate Westin
(Melinda Fee) as scientific researchers for a mysterious defense
The Westins work for KLAE Corporation, a high-tech research company which also
does work with the U.S. Defense Department. Dr. Daniel Westin has stumbled
upon a way to use lasers to make objects invisible (remember when we
thought they could do literally anything?) while working on another
project. He immediately shares his concern with his wife that the
technology not fall into the wrong hands - in his mind, the U.S.
Meanwhile his boss, Walter Carlson (played by Jackie Coogan
in the pilot and Craig Stevens subsequently), wants to know what his six months and $1.5M worth or
research has thusfar produced. After a demonstration, Carlson gives Dr.Westin assurances
that his invention will not be turned over to the military. But Carlson
knows the military will both want it and be willing to pay top dollar for
it, and soon brings in the
military brass to meet with Dr. Westin.
When Westin learns that his boss has deceived him, he goes back to his lab
at KLAE and makes himself invisible. He also destroys the equipment that
he custom built and is presumably the only one who knows the secrets of
how they work.
Modern, post-9/11 viewers might be surprised to see our invisible hero
fighting in the pilot episode to make sure our government doesn't get
control of this important new potential weapon (invisible soldiers, for
example). It must be remembered that this series was broadcast months
after the first
presidential resignation and during the same year the U.S. admitted
defeat in an expensive, deadly, and divisive war. The mood in Hollywood
and in the country was not one of trusting either the military or the U.S.
But its also true that the counter-culture phenomenon had runs its
course by then too, and our invisible hero decides - albeit reluctantly -
that he will be a spy after all. What changed his mind? He finds that he
cannot make himself re-appear and that he needs to continue his work at
KLAE Corporation if he is ever to make himself visible again.
A plastic-surgeon friend of his makes a pair of skin-like gloves for
his hands and special mask that (conveniently for the shows special
effects crew) looks exactly like his face and hair. When he puts on the
gloves, mask, and clothes, he looks just like Dr. Westin. This of course
means that when he removes them, he is not only invisible, but naked -
something the shows writers used to comic effect, though not nearly as
much as they might today. (I suppose that technically means that David
McCallum was the first TV star to appear completely nude each week!)
His boss, who has sank a few million into potentially lucrative
research but has nothing to show for it, agrees to continue funding his
work so long as KLAE Corporation can rent him out to the government as an
invisible spy from week to week.
Like Deja Vu all over again!
If this all sounds familiar, it should. H.G. Wells wrote The
Invisible Man in 1897, though this TV series has much more in common
with a an earlier British TV project that CBS broadcast between 1958 and
1960. In the earlier series, an unknown actor played our invisible hero -
who also went on spy missions - and the producers made a point of not
revealing the actor's identity (unlike the later series, the actors face
was never seen). I'll save you a trip to IMDB - his name was Johnny
Scripps and so far as we can tell, he never worked in TV or the movies
The Invisible Man Disappears!
NBC finally made The Invisible Man disappear for good in late January
of 1976, citing weak ratings. ABC was running the forgettable western
Barbary Coast (starring William Shatner) in the same time slot, but was
able to follow it with Monday Night
Football, while CBS had the popular Rhoda
and Phyllis opposite The Invisible Man
as lead-ins to All in the Family.
Perhaps this show was simply the victim of the "Max
Headroom Syndrome." That is, the adults thought of it as some
action show for younger audiences, and the kids who tuned in (including
yours truly), may have thought the special effects were cool, but were
lost in the adult espionage themes. As I watched these episodes again for
the first time in 29 years last week, I was struck by how good the special
effects were - they still hold up - and how the stories, while not
necessarily worthy of Emmy awards, were at least as good as what I've seen
in reruns of The Six Million Dollar Man or other contemporary programs. I
was also struck by the beauty and charm of actress Melinda Fee.
While NBC gave up on this show, it did not give up on the idea. Gemini
Man was introduced the following season and featured a secret agent
who could make himself invisible for 15 minutes each day. NBC made Gemini
Man invisible after just five episodes. Still wanting a prime time
superhero, they tried and failed again in 1977 with The
Man from Atlantis.