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Decades before Marvel ruled the big screen, it had its eye on taking over the small one. Within a period of months, Marvel used TV movies to launch ongoing CBS series for The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man, but its third attempt didn’t quite have the magic touch.
When Dr. Strange aired on Sept. 6, 1978, those behind the production believed it would be a golden ticket to the CBS kingdom. But the movie tanked in the ratings — in part because it aired opposite a rerun of ABC’s Roots, and in part because audiences didn’t know what to make of the cerebral, slow-moving tale about a psychiatrist who finds himself caught in a centuries-old battle between good and evil.
The project was the brainchild of writer, director and producer Philip DeGuere, who was given an ample budget for the TV movie, which shot on elaborate sets on the Universal lot in Los Angeles doubling for New York.
“He wanted everything to be really perfect. You could see from the TV film that it really was done in quite a spectacular manner,” says Jessica Walter, who played the villain Morgan Le Fay.
In a bit of prestige casting, DeGuere enlisted John Mills — an Oscar winner (and father to Hayley Mills) to play the part of the Sorcerer Supreme, an ancient being who would mentor Dr. Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten) with help from his assistant Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) — a character whose protrayal in the comics of the 1960s was problematic, but who in this adaptation enjoyed a surprisingly progressive treatment.
“I didn’t have to run around with exotic robes, anything representing the mysterious East,” says Kusatsu of his character, who sported three-piece suits and spoke in an American accent.
In another change from the comics, DeGuere envisioned Dr. Strange’s mentor being Merlin, from Arthurian legend, which explains why he’s battling Morgan Le Fay.
“Philip DeGuere had great hopes for it,” recalls composer Paul Chihara. “He encouraged me to do an electronic score, which in 1978 was quite forward.”
In the story, Morgan Le Fay must kill the Sorcerer Supreme or win his successor (Strange) over to her evil master’s side. To that end, she takes over the body of a college student named Clea, played by Anne-Marie Martin (who was married to Michael Crichton from 1987 to 2003). Clea becomes Strange’s patient and later, romantic interest. In an odd turn, even Morgan le Fay ends up having the hots for the mustachioed Dr. Strange.
“Because [DeGuere] was both the writer and director, he knew specifically what he was looking for in creating that content,” says Frank Catalano, who had a small role as an orderly in Strange’s hospital.
The result of the ambitious shoot are campy by today’s standards, but at the time it felt like something grand was being made — with special effects being improvised on the spot and the actors delivering some wonderfully committed performances.
“We went over-schedule by several days because of the special effects. And of course the producers there were wringing their hands,” says Walter.
One of the scenes that caused the most strife on set is now a fan favorite (because of its extreme-cheese factor). It shows Morgan Le Fay speaking to her master — a disembodied head in another dimension.
“They were trying to figure out how it could work,” says Kusatsu. “There was a lot of downtime because what they tried to capture couldn’t be captured. Enzo Martinelli, a real classic veteran cinematographer, was trying to make it work. The clock is ticking as the account register is going. It’s costing money.”
In another scene, Morgan Le Fay and Wong are engaged in a magic battle, with Wong eventually losing and being surrounded by flames. It’s something that looks easy by today’s standards, but it was a real pain in 1978.
“He put a ring of rubber cement, which was flammable and he would ignite it,” Kusatsu says of the special-effects technician. “Then you’d run in there and pretend you are knocked out. We could feel the heat. Jessica Walter was saying, ‘You don’t have to do it if you deem it to be unsafe for you. You have every right to refuse to do it!’ And [the director] Phil was going, ‘No, no, no! He’s one of our stars, we can’t do that.’ But of course the old, grizzled special effects guy is going, ‘What the f— is going on? Is this guy a wimp or what? It’s just a little fire.’ “
The shoot was all back in the days when fans would drive by on studio tours, the interruption halting production as the stars would wave to the tram. Some stars of other Universal productions are said to have hated the tradition, but the Strange cast cheerfully obliged.
“The cast of Dr. Strange had a rare kind of cohesion. Phil was able to pull some very interesting people within the television milieu,” says Catalano.
The cast and crew labored on for weeks that way, and in the end Stephen Strange was victorious — defeating Morgan Le Fey (“I had to have an old age cast made of my face, which was claustrophobic,” recalls Walter of a scene in which she loses her youth) and assuming the role of Sorcerer Supreme.
It seemed like a no-brainer that it’d be a role star Hooten would be playing for some time. Then Dr. Strange aired.
‘IF YOU DIDN’T MAKE THE OVERNIGHTS, YOU WERE DEAD’
“It was one of those things where CBS welcomes you to the family, until you get aired and you get over Berlin without fighter support and then you are going down in flames,” says Kusatsu.
These were the days of just three networks, and overnight ratings were everything.
“If you didn’t make the overnights, you were dead,” says Kusatsu. “I’m sure if I looked back at the numbers to see what we had back in ’78, those were the kind of numbers that could be sustainable on the CW or something like that.”
The Roots rerun dominated the night, earning even better than expected ratings. It was a huge blow for DeGuere, who had lobbied for Hooten to star as Strange against concerns a bigger star would have been better for the project.
“He was thrilled with the movie. He walked around on a cloud for a while,” says composer Chihara, who was a friend of the director’s. “He was crushed when it didn’t get picked up.”
DeGuere, who died of cancer in 2005, went on to have a successful career, most notably creating Simon & Simon. In the years since, Dr. Strange has gained a cult following — and now is enjoying a renewed interest with the release of Marvel Studios’ big-budget Doctor Strange (it was released on DVD Tuesday). Kusatsu was able to speak with star Benedict Cumberbatch about their 1978 project several years ago (“He was a wonderful gentleman,” the original Wong actor says), while Chihara’s former assistant now works with Doctor Strange composer Michael Giacchino.
“When he was in London recording it, he was telling me that they already knew the score that I did for Dr. Strange and Michael was kind enough to say he appreciated my score,” says Chihara.
Looking back, Dr. Strange is slow-moving, but it also was ahead of its time, daring to make a comic book adaptation work at a time when few in the general public cared about Marvel or DC.
“I don’t think the public was ready for that kind of otherworldliness. If you looked around that time, if you look at the old Hulk thing, it was pretty primitive,” says Kusatsu. “But we did the best we could without a lot of greenscreen, CGI and all of that stuff. It was a great experience.”
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