There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you’ve never really seen all that much of The Amazing Spider-Man, the live-action CBS TV series that aired between April 1978 and July 1979. The show produced a mere thirteen episodes (including two feature-length installments and an additional two-parter that sometimes aired as a TV movie), before vanishing into the abyss of infrequent basic cable airings, incomplete VHS releases, low-quality convention floor bootlegs, and finally, complete obscurity.
You’ve probably seen bits and pieces on the internet, wondered at the complete lack of memorable villains (a mad scientist with a grudge here, the occasional ninja there, and plenty of dudes in business suits), been blinded by the ’70s fashions (those ties…so very wide), or snickered about Spidey’s rope web-shooters and the show’s relatively (by today’s standards) low-budget look. But look a little closer, and you’ll see what fans of the series do.
Nicholas Hammond’s excellent Peter Parker deserves more recognition in the pantheon of superhero performances. The show’s lo-fi aesthetic sometimes feels more true to Spider-Man’s hard luck roots than most of the nine figure blockbusters that he’s starred in. Most importantly, there are the incredible stunts. Spidey stuntman Fred Waugh most certainly scaled the sides of buildings, without the benfit of special effects, and often with a camera built into the headpiece of his Spidey rig. The occasional visible cable aside, there are some dizzying moments involving a very real Spider-Man dozens of stories up the side of a building, dangling from a helicopter, or in one (often reused) sequence, actually swinging from one building ledge to another.
After The Amazing Spider-Man left the airwaves, if you squinted hard enough, you might be able to spot it in your cable listings from time to time, popping up on local stations specializing in syndicated content or basic cable channels like TBS, USA, or even The Sci-Fi Channel (in its pre-Syfy years). Home video releases were scarce, with several individual episodes made available by companies like Playhouse Video (who were owned by CBS) and low-rent VHS houses like Prism and Star Classics. To give you an idea of the quality involved, my copy of Star Classics’ “Photo Finish” episode was defective and didn’t have sound. I was a dissapointed little kid.
Not even the great Rhino Home Video, who partnered up with the Sci-Fi Channel in 1997 to release a number of episodes on VHS, wasn’t complete or definitive. For one thing, they left out “The Captive Tower,” which has never had any official home video release that I can find, and the one most often missing from basic cable marathons (although I distinctly remember Sci-Fi Channel airing it). Ironically, it’s the series’ best, most exciting episode. I’ve never actually seen the Rhino versions, and wasn’t even aware of their existence until this writing, so I can’t really speak to things like picture or sound quality, but Rhino have always been known for putting out loving releases, so I would have to imagine they were better than their predecessors.
Another problem is that several unrelated episodes were edited together for overseas release or for airing as three cable TV “movies.” As a result, the most widely available versions of six of the series thirteen total episodes have been spliced together, which also makes it impossible to watch the series in production or airdate order. The versions of those single episodes that pop up on YouTube from time to time are of even lower quality, since most of those never saw any kind of home video release in unaltered form. If that sounds a little too OCD for you, consider this: even as a fan, I’m the first to admit that some of these aren’t great, and on its best day The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t exactly binge-watching material. It’s better in smaller doses.
Den of Geek doesn’t advocate piracy. But when something is unavailable via official channels for as long as The Amazing Spider-Man, fans are gonna do what fans are gonna do. Even most convention floor bootlegs I’ve come across simply don’t have many of these episodes in their original format (the “spliced episodes” issue, etc). What’s worse, the quality isn’t always consistent from episode to episode. I have yet to find one set, for example, that uses the same sources throughout. It would seem that the Rhino/Sci-Fi Channel branded VHS releases would coincide with a brief period when Sci-Fi would air Spidey marathons, but I haven’t come across one set sourced entirely from those airings or the VHS. There’s a dedicated group of fans out there doing some restoring work of their own, and you can see hints of it here.
You would think that after nearly 40 years, and with Spider-Man being handily the superhero merchandising champion of the world (he buries Batman, for example), someone would have finally wised up and given us some kind of definitive official release for this series. While it’s quite likely that the suits simply don’t believe there’s much demand for the series (and they might be right), I have to wonder. Warner Bros. have made similarly forgotten superhero fare like the Superboy TV series available through their Warner Archive label and on the DC Universe streaming service, and Marvel.com for a number of years even made the complete live-action Japanese Spider-Man sentai available for free streaming (it’s long gone, sadly). If they were willing to do it for that one, why not The Amazing Spider-Man? We hope that things get resolved in time for this to arrive on Disney+ if nothing else.
Let’s have a look…
There have been persistent rumors through the years that The Amazing Spider-Man was denied proper home video releases simply because Stan Lee is ashamed of the show. Lee was never a fan, for sure. “I felt the people who did the live-action series left out the very elements that made the comic book popular…They left out the humor. They left out the human interest and personality and playing up characterizations and personal problems,” Lee said in an old interview. Lee did at least have high praise for the show’s practical stunt work. Anyway, I’m not sure Stan Lee has the power to block a home video release like that. But is it possible that the rights to The Amazing Spider-Man are tied up in a legal web, similar to what prevented the release of the 1960s Batman TV series on home video for so long?
A look at recent releases of other Spider-Man television properties on home video doesn’t offer many clues. The most recent Spidey animated series, Ultimate Spider-Man is released via Buena Vista Home Entertainment (a division of Marvel parent company, Disney), as is the ’90s animated cartoon. Spider-Man: The ’67 Collection (an excellent collection of Spidey’s original cartoon, which is now sadly out of print) came from Walt Disney Video. This all makes sense, right?
But recent efforts like the MTV Spider-Man animated series released in the wake of the first Sam Raimi film and the excellent but short-lived Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon were both released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. See why this is getting confusing? It’s hard enough figuring out what the deal is with Marvel and Sony when it comes to who is allowed to use what in the wake of Spider-Man: Homecoming, but now they’re both in charge of releasing home video versions of various TV projects featuring the webhead. Perhaps The Amazing Spider-Man is caught somewhere in the middle.
My quest to figure out who has the actual rights to put The Amazing Spider-Man out on home video didn’t get far. Inquiries with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Marvel, Rhino, and even Syfy (that last one was a long shot, I admit) were dead ends. I had a brief e-mail exchange with Chuck Fries, president of Chuck Fries Productions, the company that produced The Amazing Spider-Man for CBS, who informed me that his company had distribution rights for the series for twenty years, after which the rights reverted “in total” to Marvel. Of course, that was right around the time that the other rights issues surrounding Spidey, the ones that kept him out of the movies for so long (that’s a whole ‘nother headache), were about to get resolved, and it doesn’t answer the question of whether or not Sony then got control of the rights to this series as part of everything else. A few folks have told me that Disney does indeed currently have the rights to release the show, they’re just not interested in doing it. Maybe that will change with the advent of the Disney+ streaming service.
I still can’t determine if there’s something blocking any kind of official home video or digital release of this series. But assuming there are no legal hurdles to clear, it’s time to release The Amazing Spider-Man in some form. Look, nobody expects this to get some kind of reverential, deluxe treatment along the lines of the joyously received Batman: The Complete Television Series. Batman ’66 was a genuine pop culture phenomenon during its heyday, an inescapable component of syndicated television for the next twenty-five years, and it defined the general populace’s perceptions of the character until Tim Burton and Michael Keaton came along. One can’t say the same about The Amazing Spider-Man.
But fans (including this writer) would happily settle for cleaned up versions of these episodes released online for paid download or streaming. I don’t expect much in the way of a physical release, but at the very least, I imagine that stuntman Fred Waugh (the man who wore the Spider-Man suit and dangled hundreds of feet above ground on the side of buildings, all while wearing what could be described as a primitive GoPro) has some interesting stories to tell about his dangerous time in the Spidey costume, which would make for a fine special feature.
Check out this bit of archival behind-the-scenes footage of Fred Waugh in the Spidey suit, which seriously looks like actual footage of actual Spider-Man creeping around the rooftops…
I had an informal chat via Twitter with George Khoury, co-author of the excellent Age of TV Heroes book available from TwoMorrows Publishing, and his take on the situation was the same as that of many fans: a resigned acceptance that there just isn’t enough demand for a release. But he did say one thing, which we should probably take to heart. “The studios don’t see this stuff as fans…it’s our job to let them know they exist.”
So maybe we should make some noise on social media. Do you want to see The Amazing Spider-Man get an official release? Let us know. Maybe we can get something going. I will continue to update this article if and when new information becomes available. But the fact that both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home were big successes at the box office and we still get no love for this show isn’t encouraging. Hopefully Marvel and Sony’s recent Spidey-related bust-up hasn’t hurt matters further.
In the meantime, there’s a petition to the folks at Buena Vista Home Entertainment that you can sign. It’s worth a shot, right?
Until then, I leave you with this glorious video, encompassing lots of the brilliant stuntwork that went into making this show, if nothing else, an interesting relic deserving of a second look. Dig the crazy tunes, too.