Doc Savage on film

Hollywood’s interest in Doc Savage has hardly languished since the character’s debut in 1933. But it wasn’t until 1975 — more than 40 years after he first appeared on news stands — that Doc Savage made it to the screen.

Numerous attempts have been made over the years to get Doc to the screen. In the 1930s or ’40s, the idea of a Doc Savage serial was floated, but failed because author Lester Dent insisted on writing the script though he had no screenwriting experience, according to Doc authority Will Murray. Plans for a 1950s TV series died for a similar reason.

In the 1960s, Doug Wildey, who created The Adventures of Jonny Quest, roughed out an idea for a Doc Savage animated series. Millennium Publications’ Doc Savage: Manual of Bronze, published in 1992, included a couple of preliminary drawings from this Doc project.

Wildey had a pet peeve when it came to updating vintage characters to contemporary times, according to Murray in a 2004 article in Comic Book Marketplace. Previously he had abandoned a Tom Swift cartoon project for this reason.

“I hired a young guy named Dave Stevens,” Wildey is quoted by Murray. “At the time, he was a Doc Savage freak. I had never personally read Doc Savage. Dave explained who the characters were and what they did. I felt that Doc Savage had enough strength and I went ahead and did it in my off hours. I brought it in to Joe Barbera (of Hanna-Barbera Studio, the producers of Jonny Quest) and said, ‘What do you think?’ But he wanted to update it. The charm was gone.”

In 2011, Hollywood memorabilia auction house Profiles in History sold an animation cel of proposed Doc Savage cartoon attributed to Format Films. A second Doc Savage animation cel was offered on eBay in 2013.

Format Films produced The Lone Ranger cartoon that aired Saturdays on CBS from 1966 through 1969. It’s unclear if these cels are related to the proposed Doug Wildey series.

In 1967, TV Guide reported that actor Chuck Connors was being considered to play Doc Savage in an adaptation of “The Thousand-Headed Man.” That project went nowhere, but Gold Key Comics put out a tie-in comic book adaptation of the story in conjunction with the project.

Finally, under the guidance of George Pal, who produced such science fiction classics as Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, Doc hit the big screen in 1975. Unfortunately, the completed film led Doc down the road of campy humor popularized nearly a decade earlier with television’s Batman series.

Who is to blame — Pal or the studio — is uncertain. Either way, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was neither a popular nor critical success.

Pal wrote the screenplay with Joe Morhaim, using the pulps as only a passing reference and imbuing Doc Savage with “psychic” powers and a strong urge to personalize everything. Doc’s aides fared worse, with more comic relief than scientific talent. As fluff, the movie can be somewhat enjoyable, but most true Doc fans will be cringing in their seats.

Actor Ron Ely swapped his Tarzan loincloth for the Man of Bronze’s riding pants in what was touted as the first of at least two films. In fact, the final sequence of the movie teased to the never-produced sequel, Doc Savage: Arch Enemy of Evil. Two scripts apparently were written for the sequel: one by Philip Jose Farmer; and a second by Morhaim. It was the Morhaim version that was posted on the Web, but has since been removed.

Despite the poor reception for The Man of Bronze, screenwriter Alvin Sapinsley (Hawaii Five-O, Kojack and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery) penned a TV pilot script, “The Secret in the Sky,” in 1976, according to Pal’s papers at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Two years later, in 1978, screenwriter Barry Oringer (I Spy, The Invaders and Mannix) drafted a TV movie script and series proposal for producer Allan Balter (Mission: Impossible, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Six Million Dollar Man) at Universal Studios. Universal pitched the idea to ABC, but it went nowhere.

The script, “Doc Savage: The Mind Assassins” updated the Man of Bronze to the 1970s, where he had headquarters in the World Trade Center. Doc turns into a James Bond-like character, who romances the women, while the personalities of Ham and Monk are swapped (with Monk being the dapper one; and Ham, a former longshoreman and oil field roustabout). Johnny doesn’t fare much better: He’s called simply “Littlejohn,” is 19-years-old, and “a little bit of Rocky, a little bit of the Fonz.”

The storyline seems as if it were pulled straight from Mission: Impossible, with a science-fiction twist involving a mind-control ray and a bevy of female ninja-assassins.

In 1996, a pitch for a new Doc Savage animated series was made to Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks SKG’s TV division. Veteran comic book artist Frank Brunner drew several scenes, based on the 1960s Bantam cover Doc, for the presentation. The project never moved beyond the pitch.

In 1999, rumors began circulating that a new movie might be possible, with names such as Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Frank Darabont and James Cameron mentioned as being attached to it. Warner Bros. went so far as to reserve Internet domain names for the possible movie.

A 2000 screenplay, written by David Leslie Johnson (The Walking Dead, Red Riding Hood and Wrath of the Titans), finds Doc (who has been turned into a nationalized U.S. citizen to accommodate Schwarzeneggar’s accent, no doubt) racing Nazis and Japanese spies to find a stolen teleportation device. He’s joined by Monk and Ham (no reference is made to his other three aides).

Troubles with cost projections of the script and Schwarzeneggar’s election as governor of California stalled that project.

In 2006, word came that Conde Nast, owners of the Doc Savage copyrights, had signed a movie deal. In 2008, it was announced that Michael Uslan (Batman Forever, The Spirit and Batman Begins) was lined up to produce a new Doc Savage movie. And in 2010, Shane Black was on board to write and direct the film.

Then little word was heard regarding Doc Savage after Black became involved in Iron Man 3. After that movie debuted on May 3, 2013, with blockbuster box office figures, Sony Pictures announced that Black was back at work on Doc Savage, which would be his next picture.

Sources:; Doc Savage: Manual of Bronze; Comic Book Marketplace; Eyes of Light: Fantasy Drawings of Frank Brunner; other Web sources.