The Spirit TV Series That Almost Happened

In 1987, the writer of Die Hard teamed up with the star of Flash Gordon to make a Spirit TV movie. It's better than you've heard...

A staple of comic convention bootleg booths for decades, The Spirit, the 1987 TV movie that first brought Will Eisner’s most famous creation to live-action, finally got an official home video release a few years back courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.  A blend of ’60s Batman-style surreal comedy and serious crime show, The Spirit doesn’t always quite hit the mark, but when it does, it’s tremendously entertaining.

The Spirit stars a post-Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones and a pre-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Nana Visitor, and was written by Steven E. de Souza right between high-profile gigs like 48 Hrs and Die Hard. Director Michael Schultz is perhaps best known to Den of Geek readers as the director of The Last Dragon and a key episode of Arrow, “The Scientist.” While The Spirit never made the jump from pilot to television series, it came closer than you may think, and the story behind its short life is fascinating. A few years back, Steven E. de Souza was kind enough to chat with us about his experiences with The Spirit, and to open his archives to us. With his assistance, we try and make sense of this unique piece of superhero TV history.

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While The Spirit is an oft-maligned (when it’s even remembered) piece of transitional superhero television, watching it now reveals that it is not without its charms. Despite its simplified origin story (the original Spirit comic premise and subsequent revisions all involved Denny Colt’s apparent death coming in the midst of his exposure to chemicals by a Doctor Death, none of which are on display here), The Spirit still makes for a reasonably faithful interpretation of the source material. From the primary colors of his suit to the light comedy in the main characters’ interactions, it has more than a touch of Eisner.

The Spirit was shot in 1986, although it didn’t air until 1987 for reasons that we’ll get into soon enough. We have to remember what the state of comic book adaptations were at this point. If there was ever a time when the prospects for comic book adaptations were ice cold, 1986 might just be the year. This was several years after the tepid critical reaction to Richard Lester’s Superman III (which nearly, and perhaps should have, sank the franchise for good) and several years before Tim Burton’s Batman film brought the idea of the mega-budget superhero blockbuster back into vogue. The Incredible Hulk had been off the air for nearly five years, and there were no first-run superheroes anywhere in sight on the networks or in syndication. The template for most four-color crimefighters remained either Christopher Reeve’s earnest all-American Superman performance or Adam West’s subversively tongue-in-cheek (and occasionally psychedelic) Batman. The Spirit tries to walk the line between these interpretations, with varying degrees of success.

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The Spirit rambles back and forth between a hard-boiled crime show tone (notably when Sam Jones, in the Spirit’s civilian guise as Denny Colt, gets shot in the dead of night down at the docks) and the more stylized, hyper-real elements of the famous 1960s Batman TV show. In particular, Jones’ Spirit is cut from the Adam West mold, and his impossibly straight-laced Denny Colt spouts lines like “Crime, especially murder, is never a laughing matter,” and dishes out lessons like “The ends never justify the means, and the road to hell? That’s paved with good intentions.”

On the subject of The Spirit’s tone, Steven de Souza recalls, “The producer, Paul Aratow, our director Michael Schultz, and I originally wanted it to be played so straight that you’d wonder if it was straight. But if you know Sam, Sam has his default. If you’ve seen his other work, he has that master thespian, deadly serious setting, and then that nod and a wink that served him so well in Flash Gordon. Those are his two speeds. The dead serious one didn’t work for this, so Michael had the whole ensemble play to match Sam.”

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The casting, however, couldn’t be better. It seems physically impossible for anyone to look more like the Spirit than Sam Jones, while Nana Visitor is a perfectly adorable Ellen Dolan. There is legitimate romantic and comedic chemistry between the two, and an otherwise poorly lit scene with questionable audio that takes place in, of all things, a museum bathroom, giving way to some impressively funny screwball antics. Night Heat’s Laura Robinson is Eisner femme fatale, P’Gell (P’Gell Roxton, here), and she is every bit the sexy bad lady that you’d expect. Even the Spirit’s problematic sidekick of Ebony White (a character Eisner later in life expressed some regret over) is given a more acceptable makeover as Eubie, played by a young Bumper Robinson (who can currently be heard as the voice of the Falcon on Disney XD’s Avengers Assemble animated series).

What might also contribute to the uneven feel of The Spirit is something which, were they working with a larger budget, might have been a little easier to handle. The Spirit’s costume is a perfect, primary colored translation of his comic book counterpart and his secret headquarters at Wildwood Cemetery also follows the stylized “comic book” look used to such great effect on the Batman television series and, several years later, in Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy film. You can see some of this in other elements like Ellen Dolan’s wardrobe and the bright yellow raincoats that the police sport in one scene.

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“We did this three or four years before Dick Tracy,” de Souza recalls, “but we made some of the same exact choices — only first! Whenever we designed things like costumes and locations, they would be your basic Crayola box of colors. So there’s one blue, one red, and one green. That’s exactly what Richard Sylbert did for Dick Tracy in 1990.”

There’s also a curiously timeless element to the proceedings. “Michael, and our production designer Fred Harpman (Deliverance, Omen II), and I also made the decision that since on $2.5 million we couldn’t afford to do ‘period,’ we would instead do ‘no period,'” de Souza says. “So we deliberately chose cars that were not even new then, and used telephone handsets that were already out of date, and that’s exactly what they did in The Spirit [movie] that [Frank] Miller did, mixing older cars with modernity. People watching the Miller movie a few years ago were like, Oh isn’t that clever, that’s an old car and the men wear hats. But now people are looking at the one we shot in 1986, but twenty-five years later they don’t realize it isn’t straight up ’80s –too much time has passed!”

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Again, when it works (Wildwood Cemetery and the basement of the City Museum, complete with a serial-style death trap are perfect examples), it’s brilliant. But when these scenes then give way to more traditional locations and sets, often with the “Crayola” colored Spirit and Ellen running around in them, the effect is a little jarring. But once again, The Spirit has moments of visual daring that no other live-action superhero project had attempted in decades at that point, right down to a few remarkably accurate reproductions of Eisner’s comics on the screen. On the subject of this, Mr. de Souza says:

“Replicating the exact look of a comic or graphic novel is a tricky proposition. There is a great deal of similarity between the two mediums, but only up to a point. Sin City of course is a great example, because Frank Miller as an artist is not only very cinematic, he’s very noir.  When Robert Rodriguez had Miller on the set, they took pains to make as many camera set ups as possible perfect replications of Miller’s original panels. Fortunately, decades before Miller, Will Eisner was one of the first artists to approach comics with a conscious cinematic look, starting with The Spirit. So, wherever it was possible, we totally did panel for panel some famous moments from the comic. When the Spirit first meets Dolan, that sequence was shot almost exactly like the scene in the original Eisner comic. It was like a storyboard. You have the clock, and he’s backlit, and his hat is at that angle, complete with Eisnerspritz! The later torture scene with P’gell was a recreation of a cover that Eisner did for the Kitchen Sink era, with all the shadows on the wall. We really took great pains to give it that kind of look.”

The two scenes referenced here, are a stunning example of what The Spirit (and any subsequent television show, had this gotten picked up) might have been capable of. The scene where the Spirit is getting tortured by P’Gell’s goons is certainly a more faithful visual representation of the (ahem) spirit of Will Eisner’s work than anything seen in the more expensive big-budget film, and one wonders what this pilot could have looked like with a little more time (it was done on a frantic 16-day shooting schedule) and money. According to a Warner Bros inter-office memo, the final budget on The Spirit was $2,483,660. Also, a little more network faith would have been helpful.

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And that’s just it: The Spirit would have worked extraordinarily well as a television series, but that just wasn’t in the cards. “Just as we began production,” de Souza recalls, “there was a wholesale massacre of staff at ABC when the network was sold, and every single person we worked with, from top to bottom, was replaced. When we turned the pilot in, nobody who had ordered it was there, so no one had a stake in it. So, while normally a network would take a completed pilot, then round people up in a shopping mall for a test screening, when there’s a big management change like that, nobody is invested in the previous administration’s projects, and as a result we went right on the shelf.”

Nevertheless, there was still hope among the people involved that The Spirit would see the light of day, and there remains some visual evidence of their efforts, including a petition that is a fascinating artifact of comics history in its own right. The petition, dated August, 1986, and titled, simply, “Save the Spirit” tells the tale of ABC executives who think that the shelved TV movie was “too offbeat and morbid to attract an audience!” It even compares The Spirit, perhaps quixotically, to the fan movements that saved Star Trek, Cagney and Lacey, and Remington Steele. “We took a trailer and a petition to the 1986 San Diego Comic-Con, where some of today’s biggest comic and television names signed it. People like like Paul Dini, Ed Brubaker, Peter David, Len Wein, and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez.” 

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He’s not kidding. The signatures include comic stars like Len Wein (who, in the summer of ’86 would have been fresh off his editorial duties on a little comic called Watchmen), Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Tom Mandrake, Kyle Baker, and future superstars like Paul Dini, Peter David, and Ed Brubaker, as well as popular science fiction author Arthur Byron Cover among the people wishing to “save The Spirit.” Despite the impressive turnout on the petition (dated August 1986), The Spirit was shelved for nearly a year, missing its intended September 1986 airing by ten months, with, according to Mr. de Souza “virtually no promotion…by then, the ship had sailed on any series.” But evidence remains of The Spirit’s intended TV series status.

Steven de Souza’s own guidelines for a Spirit TV series are dated December 12, 1985, roughly four months before shooting began in earnest on the Spirit pilot. The character breakdowns alone promise more than what could have been delivered in that initial 70-minute pilot, and it’s clear that as straight-laced as this character is intended to be, he’s also as faithful to Will Eisner’s character as possible. Notably, “The Spirit is tough, and he combats crime the old-fashioned, two-fisted way, and one of the hallmarks of our show will be rough and tumble mano-a-mano action between a hero who makes no compromise and villains who give no quarter.” Anyone who has read Eisner’s original tales will recognize this as the guy who is never without a bruise, a torn jacket, or worse. The pilot isn’t shy about shredding the lead’s clothing, either, and in these sequences, as in others, Sam Jones looks like he stepped right out of a comic book panel.

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Another document, dated April 3, 1986 is listed as “The Spirit: Future Storylines.” These five one-paragraph outlines of future Spirit episodes range from boilerplate ‘80s adventure show outlines (a Spirit imposter committing crimes, forcing the Spirit to clear his name; an encounter with an illegal animal experimentation ring) to stories ripe with potential for Eisner-esque storytelling (the framing of Dolan for the murder of a “notorious crime kingpin,” who we can only dream might be the Octopus; P’Gell’s return, including the Spirit fighting her henchmen in the desert). It’s a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been, and when read in tandem with Steven de Souza’s original outline for the series, it’s frustrating to think how close we came to seeing a fully-realized Spirit TV series, one with a clear understanding of the source material.

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Reflecting on The Spirit, Mr. de Souza jokes, “I was shocked, because i realized for the first time that Hans Gruber’s escape plan at the end of Die Hard is exactly the same getaway plan P’Gell has in The Spirit! I have no memory of consciously ripping myself off, but the only difference is P’gell is more hardcore: Hans Gruber’s willing to blow up a bunch of drunk partygoers in an empty building to mask his escape, but P’Gell’s ready to take out a fundraiser packed with children!”

Whether you choose to view The Spirit as a failed experiment, a relic of transitional superhero television miles removed from the slick programming of today and suitable only for completists, or as a sincere attempt to bring one of the most important figures in 20th century heroic fiction to live-action for the first time (how the hell did this not happen sooner?), it’s all good fun. The truth of the matter is it’s considerably more watchable (and faithful to the source material) than the big-budget Frank Miller film from several years ago. Time has been kinder to this version of The Spirit than the other, as it currently enjoys a 6.1 on IMDB compared to Miller’s 4.8. Maybe The Spirit will get another chance at the screen some day, but for now, this one remains your best bet.

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Follow the always friendly, often candid Mr. de Souza on Twitter @stevenedesouza

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