The Flash: The Secret Origin of the Original TV Series

In 1990 The Flash was unlike anything that had ever been seen on network television. John Wesley Shipp and Danny Bilson reflect on the history of the beloved show and its long legacy.

John Wesley Shipp as The Flash (1990)
Photo: Warner Bros.

A flash of lightning. An iconic red and gold costume. Weird sci-fi villains and blockbuster special effects. We could only be talking about the beloved The Flash TV series, right?

Ah, but this isn’t Grant Gustin and Team Flash from the CW’s The Flash. No, this is The Flash TV series from 1990, the one starring John Wesley Shipp and boasting a theme song by none other than superhero movie maestro Danny Elfman.

The Flash was an expensive gamble for CBS and ultimately only lasted one season, but its legacy lives on and it remains an important part of superhero TV history. The show has crept back into the pop culture consciousness in recent years, with every major cast member making appearances on the current show, and it was even acknowledged as part of official DC canon thanks to recent TV crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, a fitting bookend for a series that once seemed destined to only be remembered by die hard fans.

In honor of the show’s 30th anniversary, this is the story of how the 1990 The Flash TV series came to be and its brief, bright run.

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UNLIMITED POWERS

The Flash began life as a pitch for a different show entirely. The men who would eventually steer Barry Allen’s network TV destiny, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo had made a name for themselves in genre circles with their work on films like Zone Troopers and cult classic Trancers, and as big comic book fans, were looking to bring superheroes to the screen. And in 1989, they wrote a feature length pilot script for a series called Unlimited Powers.

But Unlimited Powers wasn’t a Flash show, and instead dealt with an entire team of superheroes. While Barry Allen was a key character, he would have been joined by other DC Comics heroes including Green Arrow, Doctor Occult (a minor creation from Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), Blok (of Legion of Super-Heroes fame), Wally West, and Oliver Queen’s teenage daughter (three decades before a similar character would become a fixture on Arrow).

The Flash of Unlimited Powers wasn’t a man first coming to terms with his powers, but rather a 40-something Barry Allen recently released from a 15-year prison sentence, in a world where superheroes have been outlawed. Bilson and De Meo drew inspiration for Unlimited Powers from the “adult” takes on the superhero genre in the comics of the moment, an influence that Bilson freely admits.

“We were really into the comics of the ’80s that sort of reinvented comics and wrote them more for adults,” Bilson recalls. “Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, American Flagg!, and The Rocketeer were our favorites… so when we were adapting comic stuff at Warner Brothers, when it came around for us to do something, our sensibility was in those books and in the direction that Tim Burton had taken the Michael Keaton Batman movie in 1989. We wanted to make them as believable for adults as they were when we were 10.”

Bilson describes Unlimited Powers as “one of my favorite scripts that we wrote” but its near dystopian vision of a world secretly run by supervillains and most heroes having been forced into hiding or retirement was a little too much for CBS at the time, though it sounds incredibly timely right now in an era where The Boys and Watchmen are prestige TV darlings.

“One of the things that is proven true over time is that…The stuff that we couldn’t get done, somebody did it later,” Bilson says. “There was this weird thing where we were always a little bit too far ahead of the curve or something, but it is what it is. It was what it was.”

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THE STARTING LINE

Bilson doesn’t remember whose idea it was to develop The Flash as a more “traditional” solo superhero show, but work began on a feature length script for The Flash pilot soon after Unlimited Powers fell apart. But while the pair were comic book fans, they weren’t completely beholden to them, either.

“We didn’t study the comics,” Bilson says. “We knew and liked The Flash. We read comics in general. Paul [De Meo] was much more of a comic book head as a kid than I was.” 

That devotion might explain why their version of Barry Allen freely borrowed from other eras of the character, notably DC Comics of the era which featured Wally West as the Scarlet Speedster. Elements such as Barry’s upper limit of speed being around the speed of sound, his need to replace caloric energy with vast quantities of food, his close ties to STAR Labs, and even the character of Tina McGee, all came from the Wally West era of the book.

“We didn’t dig through all the lore,” Bilson says. “We looked for the elements that would be good for the show.” 

Bilson and De Meo fought hard for their vision of what the series should be, but the guiding principle was to “play it straight.” The pair saw the project as a “descendant” of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman movie and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, the latter of which would be a considerable influence on the look, feel, and even sound of the show.

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Like Batman, The Flash took a heightened and “timeless” approach to its production, blending fashion and technology from the 1940s and ‘50s with the modern day. And like its big screen cousin in Gotham City, the series boasted a memorable, heroic theme composed by Danny Elfman. But the rest of the show’s music was composed by Shirley Walker, who went on to do memorable work on Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series soon after. 

“She used a 35-piece orchestra every episode,” Bilson says. “It wasn’t synthesizers or faked. We budgeted for it. I think she had 65 pieces in the pilot, and we managed to budget 35 pieces an episode to keep that orchestral score going. Shirley was amazing.”

The pair resisted CBS’ efforts to bring in more experienced TV executive producers, insisting on creative control. 

“We were young enough to go ‘Who cares? We don’t care about money. We just care about what we care about,’ which was The Flash at the time,” Bilson says. “So they balked. They backed down, and we ran the show.”

THE ORIGINAL BARRY ALLEN

While Barry Allen was a key piece of Unlimited Powers, the version that would be showcased on CBS wasn’t a seasoned or cynical hero, but one at the very start of his career. The Flash pilot plays like a superhero movie origin story, introducing police scientist Barry Allen and his supporting cast, and detailing every step along the way from the moment he’s struck by lightning to how he earns his iconic red suit. Modern audiences are far more familiar with superhero archetypes than in 1990, so finding the right balance of heroism and humanity for their leading man was essential.

“At that time in our career and our writing maturity, I would say that [Barry] was the model of an empathetic, leading man who was a little bit of Danny and Paul and a lot of every movie hero we’d ever seen,” Bilson says. “It was a little bit of us and a lot of traditional, classic American movie hero stuff, a certain amount of modesty, in over his head, a little romance, a little surprise.”

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Those qualities led them to series star, John Wesley Shipp. Shipp had spent the ‘80s as a daytime soap opera mainstay on shows like Guiding Light, As The World Turns, and One Life to Live, a run that earned him two Daytime Emmys. The Flash meant his first shot at primetime. The New York-based Shipp found himself in LA in late 1989, getting ready for an audition in January of 1990.

“There was a lot of talk about this new show that was happening, that was the most expensive show Warner Bros. had ever done,” Shipp recalls. “It was coming on the heels and was in development at the same time as Tim Burton’s Batman. I was very cautious about it, because I fancied myself a serious actor and I didn’t want to run around in a pair of red tights and I didn’t want to spoof. Comedy wasn’t really my thing.”

But Shipp was impressed by Bilson and De Meo’s pilot script, particularly the idea that the police scientist Barry was “the geek son of a cop family where real cops work the streets… this ordinary guy who’s the safe one in the family,” before getting powers and becoming a hero.

Shipp took the audition and eventually landed the role.

“As I understand it, they saw about 60 guys,” Shipp says. “I think I may have been the first guy they saw, as I recall Danny [Bilson] telling it. I auditioned for them… then I had to go in for the suits at Warner Bros. They liked what they saw. They took me and one other actor to the network.”

The other actor in question was another daytime soap alum looking to make the jump to primetime, Another World’s Richard Burgi.

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 “It came down to Richard Burgi and John Shipp, and Burgi became our lead later on in The Sentinel,” Bilson says. “The ironic thing about The Sentinel was John Shipp was our first choice and Richard Burgi was our second choice. John knows this, but for The Flash at that moment, Richard Burgi was our first choice and John Shipp was our second choice, and everybody at the network liked John better. Of course, once we started going, you forget about Burgi and it’s all John.”

Ultimately, it was about the trust between Shipp and the producers that helped bring Barry to life properly. 

“Danny was very collaborative,” Shipp recalls. “They really trusted me, and went with what I felt emotionally was the most truthful.”

Bilson agrees:

“He looked the part and gave it a hundred percent. I don’t remember ever having to talk to him about interpretation. He nailed it most of the time. It was just like he knew what it was. It was this thing that we all created together, that character.”

STAR Labs

Barry needed a scientific (and possibly romantic) foil and that came in the form of Amanda Pays as STAR Labs scientist Tina McGee, who had actually been cast before Shipp. 

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“[Amanda Pays] was coming off Max Headroom, which was a cool show,” Bilson says. “It was all about that [and] Amanda seemed perfect for this.”

The particular sci-fi demands of Max Headroom meant Pays was uniquely suited to a key component of the show.

“My god, I couldn’t believe the amount of technobabble here,” Shipp says with a laugh. “If you’re going to listen to technobabble, you need to listen to it being said by Amanda Pays. It’s just that voice.”

And while Tina was a fixture from the pilot, there was the little matter of another character, Barry’s longtime comics love interest and wife, Iris West. Iris was played by Paula Marshall in the pilot episode, and never seen again on the show.

“We realized we wrote ourselves into a corner, and it would be much more interesting if he was single, and then we could do the Moonlighting thing with Tina and bring women in and out of the show,” Bilson says. 

But even the Barry/Tina dynamic presented challenges.

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“Their template was we’re doing an hour movie a week and didn’t have time to be as careful as the new show is about character arcs and relationship arcs,” Shipp says. “There were times when I was confused. Are we flirting? Are we going to get together? Are we not? We’d flirt one episode and then it would be dropped the next and then there’d be a little flirty something.” 

But with the principles in place, along with Alex Désert as Barry’s lab partner and best friend Julio Mendez, The Flash was just about ready for primetime.

“There was so much buzz about the show,” Shipp says. 

But there was still another race to be won…

John Wesley Shipp Flash (1990) TV Costume

THE SUIT

“They were going to go darker than The Flash really is,” Shipp says. “We had to ground it in some kind of grit to sort of overcompensate for the lightness, the comic bookness, which if not taken seriously might alienate the kind of audience that we would need to draw to stay on the air.”

How much darker? Well, for one thing, the network was initially resistant to the idea of putting their hero in his trademark costume. 

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“In development, CBS just wanted a tracksuit with LEDs on tennis shoes,” Bilson says.

But The Flash costume is arguably one of the greatest superhero designs in history, and Bilson and De Meo weren’t going to let this opportunity pass them by.

“We were doing The Rocketeer at the time, so we had [comic artist and Rocketeer creator] Dave Stevens draw an illustration of a Flash suit [to convince the network], and then Bob Short built it.”

Dave Stevens The Flash TV series design sketch
The Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens created this design sketch to convince CBS executives to give The Flash his iconic suit. (courtesy of Pet Fly Productions)

The result was one of the most impressive live action superhero costumes that had ever been realized on the screen. The primary reds and yellows of the comic were replaced by a striking crimson and gold, with built in muscles that gave the character an unmistakable silhouette.

While The Flash TV suit was a remarkable achievement for its day, and remains a powerful visual, it was quite a process for its star.

“They said ‘you won’t be in red tights,’” Shipp jokes. “I came to regret that later.”

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While Shipp was in excellent shape and already sported a superhero-worthy physique, the suit was designed to follow in the footsteps of the recent Batman movie costume, with molded muscles and a hyper-real, enhanced look.

“They wanted it to be larger than life,” Shipp says. “Remember, it was 1990, we were in the post Pumping Iron, Jose Canseco, Mark McGuire, larger than life steroid haze, you know what I mean? Heroes had to be larger than life.”

As a result, Shipp’s first fitting for his Flash suit was perhaps more than he bargained for.

“It was quite an involved process,” he says. “I stripped down my underwear and they greased me with Vaseline all over, wrapped me in cellophane, and then I put on a spandex suit. They had individually sculpted foam latex muscle pieces, and they would glue them on to this spandex suit. They wrapped me in cellophane because the glue would get really hot while it was setting, and they glued the pieces on the suit with me in it.”  

And that was just the fitting! Shipp had to endure long hours in a very physical role in that suit, which was just as hot as you might imagine. 

“I was so enthusiastic. It was my first primetime show. I would have done anything that they asked me to at that point,” Shipp says. “They sprayed it with a sealant to keep all the water inside. They’d pull a glove off and it would be full of water up to the wrist and they’d just dump it out. After the pilot, they got a vest like race car drivers wear, with tubing so they could plug me into an ice chest and circulate the water because I started to get fuzzy because it was so hot.” 

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Ironically, after their initial resistance to putting their title character in a traditional superhero costume, once filming got underway, everyone’s tune changed.

“After the first footage came in, all the people at Warner Bros. and particularly at the network [wanted] to see the suit,” Shipp says. “It’s always the back and forth and a series of compromises.” 

But even Bilson and De Meo, despite having fought for a proper superhero suit on the show, had to lay some ground rules for how it should be deployed.

“One of our rules was you never want to see it in the daytime,” Bilson says. “It wasn’t like Batman where he only comes out at night. We just don’t want to see it in the daytime, and the few times we did, it was rough.”

And yet, even in a red and gold superhero costume with enhanced musculature, Shipp was determined to bring as much humanity to the role as possible.

“My absolute commitment was not to be humorless because there was humor in the script, but it was rooted in character,” he says. “It was to play with this guy as truthfully as I could. Once the suit came out, the lights went down, and Shirley Walker’s music and the Danny Elfman theme came up, my work was pretty much done emotionally. Then it was up to Dane Farwell, my very fine stunt man, who I cannot to this day give enough praise to. He was almost as much the Flash as I was. I was Barry Allen.”

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“NO SUPERVILLAINS” 

With the pilot out of the way, The Flash embarked on its first run of hour-long episodes. And while the series eventually brought familiar Flash rogues like Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and most famously, Mark Hamill’s Trickster to the screen, that wasn’t the case early on.

“The first six episodes, [the network] wouldn’t let us do supervillains, and it was our worst nightmare,” Bilson says. “We grew up with The Adventures of Superman TV show with George Reeves, and we used to make jokes about how he always fought safe crackers, counterfeiters, and bank robbers. We got in there with the first six episodes at CBS, and they kind of wanted safe crackers and bank robbers, and we had to kind of prove our way into supervillains.”

Despite that obstacle, those early Flash episodes still work, thanks to a writing team that included TV veteran Gail Morgan Hickman, and comics stalwarts Howard Chaykin and John Francis Moore, whose work Bilson and De Meo had been admiring on American Flagg!.

“We didn’t have formulas,” Bilson says. “My thing was every episode is a different movie, so let the director and the creatives go make that movie. Sometimes the movies are good and sometimes they’re not, and if they’re good, we bring them back, and if they’re not, we don’t.”

But even the episodes that didn’t go all in on the comic book elements were still big productions, with some episodes taking nine days to shoot and long hours required of the cast and crew.

“We were there from the third week in August until the second week in May with four days off for Christmas and that was it,” Shipp recalls. “I was there 55 to 80 hours a week. You can imagine how long the crew was there. We didn’t have CGI. We were doing live action practical effects. We were blowing shit up. We were blowing out windows in back alleys in Hollywood … [it was an] enormous undertaking in 1990.”

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For his part, Shipp was fine with the show straying from its comic book roots.

“We were CSI before CSI was cool,” he says. “I think what they originally intended and what attracted me to it was it was going to be a cop show with the superhuman element of speed. It wasn’t going to be supervillain of the week.”

John Wesley Shipp as The Flash and Mark Hamill as The Trickster

ENTER THE SUPERVILLAINS 

But of course, the show did soon give audiences three of Flash’s most iconic comic book rogues in the form of some TV-tweaked versions of Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and most famously, the Trickster. Unlike those other two comic book baddies, TV’s Trickster fully embraced the multi-colored weirdness of his comic book counterpart, costume and all, with a wild performance by Mark Hamill.

“It did concern me when we were suddenly having supervillain of the week,” Shipp says. “Of course, when you have the opportunity to have Mark Hamill as the Trickster, you’re going to do it. He really helped me with not shying away from the comic book element because I didn’t want to be a mascot. I wanted to be taken seriously. Mark came roaring onto the set, no holds barred, absolutely committed, and made me look at it from a different perspective.”

Hamill’s Trickster would ultimately appear in two episodes, including the series finale, both directed by Bilson.

“For me, it all came together with the first Trickster episode,” Bilson says. “To me, that’s really the pinnacle of the show of where it was kind of what we wanted it to be. Mark wanted to play the part. We got a call, and then he just took it to that thing that became the Joker later on [in Batman: The Animated Series]. But what he came up with … I was just directing. Directing is just guiding. Mark invented the heck out of that thing. It was amazing. He’s a great actor.”

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THE FINISH LINE

“I think we wrapped the season and they made the announcement a week later,” Shipp says. “I know I left LA and was back in New York when the announcement was made. It was kind of like, good news, bad news. You don’t have to go through that again and there’s so much more story to tell.”

The Flash was well reviewed, and its ratings would be considered astronomical by 2020 standards. But it was also one of the most expensive shows ever produced at the time, and one that found itself bounced around the schedule, first because of the 1990 MLB playoffs, then the arrival of the first Gulf War, and then ultimately as it competed with legendary series like Cheers, The Simpsons, and The Cosby Show.

“We finished shooting the last episode, and I think either we found out we were canceled while we were shooting or it was shortly after that,” Bilson says. “So there was no starting down the path for next season. We knew we were on the bubble, I’m sure. I think it was even a close one that we got picked up for the back nine, so we weren’t even close to a sure thing. It didn’t feel like a death march at all. It just felt like you knew what the numbers were, and I guess we knew we weren’t going to make it.”

But was it really just the ratings?

“There was a lot going on behind the scenes that I think contributed to us not getting a second season,” Shipp says cryptically.

Bilson is more blunt.

“It was network politics,” he says. “I heard the next year that the boss’ bonus was tied to rating share points and that he traded our 16 for a show that had a 17. I remember hearing that the next year, but I’m not naming any names or anything.” 

Despite this, Bilson still thinks the best was yet to come.

“We were figuring it out as we went along, and we thought we were hitting our stride there,” he says. The arrival of genuine supervillains seemed to point the way forward, and the hope was to come back for a second season with another two-hour episode teaming up Trickster, Captain Cold, and Mirror Master. 

“I really hooked into this ordinary guy caught in extraordinary circumstances,” Shipp says. “This is what I always say to people at conventions, we all have our own vein of gold. We all have that thing that lights us up and draws us out that we do as well or better than anyone else. We’re all extraordinary in our own way.”

Despite being a one season wonder, Shipp looks back fondly on his time in Central City, and of course has remained a part of The Flash legacy with the current CW series, first as the father of Grant Gustin’s Barry, then as original Flash Jay Garrick, and then returning to his version of Barry to give the Flash of Earth-90 a fitting final bow in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

“I certainly feel 30 years later that The Flash has been more of a blessing in my life than I ever expected it to be,” he says. “I have an enormous sense of gratitude towards the people that have kept this show at sort of the forefront of the comic genre. I’m just deeply moved and deeply grateful for that.”

The Flash is currently available to stream on DC Universe. Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo wrote the screenplay for Da 5 Bloods, which is now on Netflix.