Me and Dad went to the movies on Tuesday and saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the flick everyone’s talking about right now. Highly recommended, by the way. We stayed through the credits, and I’m glad we did. Otherwise I never would have known Spider-Man was in this movie.
“Nicholas Hammond?” I blurted out. And I felt like I was a kid again, back in the old composing room of the newspaper Dad published, rolling up the TV listings before going to baseball practice. Saturday afternoon on WFMY channel 2, a TV movie double feature: A Matter of State and Photo Finish. Nicholas Hammond is Peter Parker, a college student and photojournalist who solves crimes with his extraordinary powers. Marvel’s flagship hero had a three-year run on CBS in the late 1970s, and some of those episodes were later recycled into TV movies that filled space for the affiliates on the weekend.
Well before the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a zillion-dollar force of nature, Stan Lee was trying his ass off with TV adaptations of the comics group’s major characters. Most folks remember Bill Bixby and The Incredible Hulk but Spider-Man and Captain America also got shows in the late 1970s. It was such an affirmation, watching a comic book superhero tumble across the TV screen in prime time. We didn’t take those things for granted back then.
Almost 50 years later, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hammond portrays Sam Wanamaker, director of a western in which Leonardo Di Caprio’s character, the actor Rick Dalton, takes an off-the-shelf bad guy role at the end of his career. Rick somehow gets his shit together and turns in a tour de force, ad-libbing his way back to relevance. Wanamaker has tried to costume Rick in such a way that no one will know this TV cowboy has-been is in the picture, but at the end of the scene, he is practically groveling in front of Rick, praising his genius and authenticity.
Nicholas Hammond’s first big role came in 1965 as Freidrich von Trapp in The Sound of Music. His acting breakout came in 1977 as The Amazing Spider-Man, a short-lived drama on CBS. The old Spider-Man show didn’t have much super-hero action. Hammond spent most of the time covering routine car wrecks and other back page incidents as the Daily Bugle’s ace lens. But then Peter Parker would realize there was actually a pattern to these crimes, and he’d swing into action as Spider-Man. On TV, that meant scrambling up an apartment building’s wall and making off with some case-cracking piece of evidence.
Spider-Man actually used his web maybe once every other episode. Special effects were expensive to film 45 years ago, what can I say. But the fact remains, Nicholas Hammond is the first Spider-Man, the same as George Reeves is the first Superman. So his name, that credit will always excite me, no matter the role. As old as I am, I will always be an excited little boy in the company of the super-heroes.