Dig This INSIDE LOOK at the 1977 SPIDER-MAN TV Pilot

REEL RETRO CINEMA: Nicholas Hammond turns 73!

UPDATED 5/15/23: Hey, guess what! Nicholas Hammond turns 73! Perfect time to re-present Rob Kelly’s REEL RETRO CINEMA column from our 2017 SPIDER-MAN WEEK! For the complete index of features, click here. — Dan


For those who have never seen the original 1978-79 Spider-Man TV show (and that’s most of you, since it has never been released on Blu-ray, DVD or streaming), it was commissioned as a TV movie that would serve as a “backdoor pilot” to an ongoing series.

The movie, which debuted in September 1977, was a ratings success, and after some post-pilot tinkering (cast changes, mostly) the series launched in April 1978. For some reason, instead of giving it a regular time slot, though, CBS used it as a heat-seeking missile, airing episodes in clumps to run against other networks’ hit shows, hopefully draining some of their audience away. In an age where you had to actually sit in front of your TV and watch a program lest you miss it forever, this was an insane, maddening strategy, and it couldn’t have done Spider-Man any favors.

Anyway, Spider-Man tells the story you’re all familiar with, but with some major changes: Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) works as a photographer for the Daily Bugle, where he is on the receiving end of blustery abuse from publisher J. Jonah Jameson (David White). He is also a grad student, and one day while working on some experiments involving radiation, he sees an unwanted visitor.

Peter gets bit, you know the rest. Except here, there is no Uncle Ben, so our hero’s decision to become Spider-Man is mostly done on a whim. Not too long after the spider bite, he notices he can climb walls, crawling all over the outside of the townhouse he shares with his Aunt May (Jeff–yes, Jeff–Donnell). After stopping a mugging by scaring the bejeezus out of the crook by scampering up an alleyway wall, he attracts the attention of random passersby — and then the Daily Bugle. Jameson wants pictures of this “Spider-Man” of course, so Peter goes home and makes himself a snazzy suit.

For the most part, Hammond is fine in the part, if bland. He’s not given a lot of character stuff to work with, so the blame can’t really fall too heavily on him. My favorite moment of the whole show comes during this “trying the costume on” scene when, after seeing himself in the mirror, he becomes giddy with the sheer weirdness of the path he’s setting himself on.

The other plot going on involves a bad guy named Byron who in public is a famous self-help guru, but is actually a crook using his abilities to compel his patients — some of them prominent doctors and lawyers — to commit crimes! Eventually, Byron decides to extort all of New York City, threatening to have a number of its citizens kill themselves unless a huge ransom is paid.

As Spider-Man, Peter meets up with some of Bryon’s goons, including three samurai types(!), and the effects are… well, OK, they’re pretty dodgy. There’s some really bad matte shots where Spider-Man isn’t even touching anything (thanks to mismatched footage), and lots of the guy in the suit (often the stuntman, not Hammond) walking on what’s clearly the floor with the camera turned on its side, ala the Batman TV show. Once in a while, though, they pull off something cool, like when Spidey kicks a bad guy from his position on the wall — hardly anything anyone would even notice today, but in 1977 this was still pretty sophisticated for TV.

Later, Peter visits Byron and gets slapped with one of his mind-control bugs. In a great scene — the most tense of the show — Peter walks like a zombie to the top of the Empire State Building, preparing to kill himself by jumping. This scene is shot in an almost hand-held, POV-style, and it’s quite effective. Peter here reminds me of some sort of mass murderer who looks totally calm, but is about to go off in some horrific way. Luckily for us, and himself, Peter accidentally crushes Byron’s pin on the pointed guard railing, waking him up just in time.

He dons the Spidey costume, pulls down Byron’s equipment that is sending the nefarious signals, which causes the villain’s computer to blow up, turning Byron into a partially immobile zombie. Spider-Man cheerfully suggests Byron turn himself into the police, which he does. And with that, Spider-Man is ready for another adventure!

The main flaw that Spider-Man suffers from — and it’s the same flaw we saw in 1978’s Dr. Strange (click here), and even in 1997’s unaired Justice League of America — it’s that there’s not enough of the stuff you came for: namely, superheroics! The Spider-Man TV movie gives a lot of screen time to Peter, which makes sense since you’re trying to establish the character. But then there’s Michael Pataki as a police captain, and he’s straight out of a thousand other cop shows airing at the time. All the stuff at the Daily Bugle is OK, but after only a minute or two of Spidey action, did there need to be what felt like a dozen scenes there? If I want newspaper drama, I’ll watch Lou Grant!

TV networks were still very unsure people would watch a “serious” superhero show, so they tended to lard them up with familiar TV tropes — The Incredible Hulk was just The Fugitive, after all, but the talent behind that show made that work pretty well. With Spider-Man, I half expected to see Starsky & Hutch’s red Grand Torino vrooom by at some point.

Still, there is some fun stuff here. There’s a point where an under-the-weather Spidey tries to get a lift via an off-duty cab, but can’t, so he bums a ride inside a garbage truck. If that’s not a scene directly from a Lee/Ditko Spider-Man comic, it sure feels like it. But those moments are few and very far between.

Maybe it’s my childhood nostalgia talking — I distinctly remember watching Spider-Man as it aired, and being thrilled that I was just getting to see a live-action Spidey — and I’m just viewing this more warmly than it deserves. But, for all its flaws, I’d say this series definitely deserves a home entertainment release.

Poor old Aunt May could use the royalties!

Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of Aquaman and Firestorm: The Fire and Water Podcast, the host of The Film and Water Podcast, and the host of TreasuryCast. He would love his own Spider-Buggy.

You can read more of Rob’s REEL RETRO CINEMA columns here.


For REEL RETRO CINEMA: The 1978 Dr. Strange TV Movie, click here.

For REEL RETRO CINEMA: Captain America’s 1944 Serial, click here.

For the complete SPIDER-MAN WEEK INDEX of features, click here!

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. I’d tend to agree with pretty much all of that nicely balance review, I was expecting a hatchet job! Having loved it as a kid I have very warm memories of the show, both in the cinema (here in the U.K. that’s where we first saw it) and on friday night TV, perfect for a 6 year old kid. I have a well worn bootleg that I still enjoy immensely (a lot to do with the fantastic 70’s theme music!) and I’d love a more polished copy to view.

    I’ll just add that some of the stunt work was particularly daredevilishly astounding (especially in that era of Evil Kinevil and the Human fly!) the shot of spidey gliding down the in the background of one shot, done for real, sets my vertigo addled nerves on edge. And the episode where he was clearly in actual N.Y, not the usual L.A. stand in and is running around the edges of skyscraper rooftops and clambering down them, shot from some distance to show the reality of the stunt makes me nervous just to think of it. That and all that mad Kung Fu since it was a product of the 70’s, culminating in a pretty cool trip to Hong Kong, the show was fun when it wasn’t being, like you say, a typical 70’s T.V. drama.

    Really needs a proper release!

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  2. This fits in line my recollections too, Rob. Granted, I haven’t seen it since the 70’s, bar a clip or two on Youtube. The costume actually looked pretty good for the times. Compare to those hatchet jobs on the Captain America TV movies. I thought Nicholas Hammond had an earnest appeal, although he never felt like Peter Parker to me.

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  3. “…airing episodes in clumps to run against other networks’ hit shows, hopefully draining some of their audience away….”

    Rob was nicely putting it when he said this was insane and maddening. I can think of a couple of other words. Otherwise, it’s a good article and I hope Rob didn’t just paint himself into a corner by mentioning JLA, I really hope he won’t have to cover that as a toe-in when the JL film comes out.

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  4. I think for the time you couldn’t ask for better for tv w the sized budget that it had. I had fond memories.
    And, if you look at the marvel cartoons while drawn pretty well. There wasn’t any action going on. They just did the best they could for the time.
    If you look at the Japanese version on YouTube it’s even cheesier. It looks a lot like spider man meets the power rangers. Which is hilarious.
    I’m just glad I had something to watch. I was a sick kid in the hospital w pneumonia a lot. I had something to brighten my spirits as a kid.

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  5. I know it’s cheesy, but I LOVED the live action Spidey! I have to admit tthe pilot episode is the weakest entry in the series, though. The effects, cast, music and overall tone were better afterwards. But I’m a poor judge, cuz I still love the 70’s Captain America TV movies too!

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  6. I remember seeing the ad in Tv Guide announcing premiere of Spider-Man in 1977.
    The show was pretty good to me but I think they should have had some of the bad guys from the comics.

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  7. It was released on a CED Video Disc!

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  8. I too . remember watching the pilot episode the night it premiered !! I had a large glass bottle of Coke , ( That I had been saving for the occasion . !! ) and a Spider-Man MEGO figure beside me !! ( just for the effect !! ) I enjoyed the movie and was ready for the series to start !!

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  9. Hey! It’s what we waited for! It was all we had! I was a grown man and I thrilled at seeing Spidey do those “Spidey things”–tho some of the effects were pretty clunky–and his webbing looked like hardware store rope. But if you can “believe a man can fly,” you can believe this one can crawl walls.

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  10. I didn’t see this until I was a teen in the 90s when they showed reruns on the old Sci Fi channel (where they also showed other genre shows like the Incredible Hulk, Misfits of Science, and My Secret Identity).
    I liked Spider-Man, it was good for what it was, and to me Nicholas Hammond’s Spider-Man looked like he stepped right off the 70s comic page!

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  11. I lived in a very rural area of the southern US, so TV Guide was rarely available, so I was told about this in school after it had already aired. On top of that, when I did watch TV, it was usually after school to watch repeats of the ’66 Batman series, which is a tale unto itself…but the local station airing that show would inexplicably cut into the network feed, during commercials for upcoming shows. Thus, I glimpsed a fleeting image of a red and blue costume, and a voice-over saying “Spider-ma-” and that was all!! So frustrating. So when I saw a magazine called “Pizzazz” in a local market with a photocover of Spider-Man, I scrounged up the money and bought it, absorbing it until it was dog-eared.
    I understand how clunky and outdated this pilot and show looks on the surface…but what it does for me, is remind me of my mindset at the time. My whole life was ahead of me, Star Wars and Superman were on the way, and my imagination and sense of hope was fired up. I know I am not alone in this.
    Thank you for the article, Rob! I always enjoy your writing and podcasts.

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  12. I always have loved the show, flaws and all. I just dug how they kept the basics of Peter as Spidey while making him more grounded in costume, though the second half of the series went too far with toning his powers down most of the time.

    For me, what does bring the show down is that there are A. No villains from the comics. I know any of the more classic villains would have been almost impossible due to budget, but there are some they could have done.

    B. No Uncle Ben.

    C. Peter after the 2nd episode hardly ever acted as Spider-Man when it wasn’t directly plot related, and spent little time in costume in general. Also never really cracked jokes or was even talky much at all after the first couple episodes.

    I tried the Japanese show, and while I do think despite the huge lore changes the actual Spidey stuff is pretty good and faithful in spirit to the comic, but the bad guys, kaiju and the robot, while awesome, are too far away from what the character is for it all to work for me.

    Nick should have been in No Way Home, even if not in costume.

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  13. At the time, the closest TV came to a comic book show was “The Six Million Dollar Man”. From that POV, and given the SFX of the day, I guess this was the best they could do. I remember enjoying the rest of the series better than the pilot. As a kid at the time, I was as psyched for this TV movie as I was for Christmas Day!

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  14. Loved it as a kid, still enjoy it today, wish Disney would release the series already on dvd or blu-ray and, no matter its flaws it still has an actual stuntman in the costume swing from one building to another. Nothing like that in any of the movies that have been released since 2002!

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  15. As Shawn Burke said, Nicholas Hammond should have been in No Way Home — and given his great performance in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he certainly deserves a part in the MCU.

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  16. IIRC, that pilot had one genuine Spider-Man moment: In costume, near some bags of (tobacco?) Spidey all but collapsed into a sneezing attack!

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  1. The SPIDER-MAN WEEK Index | 13th Dimension, Comics, Creators, Culture - […] — The Not Exactly Amazing 1977 SPIDER-MAN TV Movie. Click here. […]

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