10/06/2015

The Flash (1990) - Barry Allen\The Flash (John Wesley Shipp). Credit: CBS Television
Do you love the new CW The Flash series starring Grant Gustin? Then you'll be surprised to know that over 25 years ago a Flash TV show aired that barely lasted one season. While the show didn't always live up to its hype, the story of what happened and why it failed is a fascinating story in television history. Up till now it's been covered in various interviews, but the full story has never been told. Here's everything you never knew about the 90s Flash TV show.

The Beginning of The Flash

It's 1990 and live-action superhero shows aren't popular. Shows like Batman and Incredible Hulk peaked in the 1960s and 1970s. But, by the 1980s, parody shows like The Greatest American Hero and Misfits of Science had taken their place. In 1989, something changed. Tim Burton directed Batman which re-imagined the superhero as a dark and tragic figure. It changed everything. The campy 60s show was replaced with the dark vision from the comics and the time seemed right to do a serious live-action superhero show. Warner Bros already had some success with the syndicated live-action Superboy show on CBS. So, they decided to try a prime-time comic book show. The Flash began as a superhero team show pitched by executive producers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo called Unlimited Powers. The basic idea was that all the superheroes surrender their power. The "Limited Powers Act" between the U.S. and Russia is created to promote world peace. Flash refused to surrender and put into suspended animation. The series picks up twenty years later when he's forty. He gets unfrozen and discovers there was a conspiracy by the supervillains to get the superheroes to surrender their powers. By the time Flash gets unfrozen all the villains are running the world in suits. Flash reunites some superheroes to fight back using an old battleship as an underground base.

Flash Almost Killed Green Arrow

It would have been dark. The best example is that the Flash kills Green Arrow in the pilot, and his daughter joins the team as the new Green Arrow. She would have been joined by a man made of rock named Blok and a powerful psychic named Dr. Occult.

CBS loved the concept of a superhero show but balked at the price. The cost of costumes and effects were just too much to do four superheroes. "It would have been insane to do four," Paul DeMeo said, "What the studio liked out of our script was this one character—the Flash. So we said, 'Great. We'll do that.'.

The Producers Hated Barry Allen

The second man to become the Flash, Barry Allen, was killed in the comics and replaced by his sidekick Wally West. Bilson and De Meo were not fans of Wally though. "Wally West has always been a little too obnoxious for our tastes," laughed Bilson, "and so we decided to take the longest-running and most appealing Flash, Barry Allen, and use him." They combined elements of the original Flash and the current comic book one. They took Barry Allen's origin of a police scientist struck by lightning because a police officer could lend itself more to a crime drama setting. The character was combined with the youth of Wally West and the need to rest and eat a ton of food to maintain his metabolism. West's girlfriend Tina McGee replaced Iris West as Barry's love interest.

Batman Inspired Flash

Stylistically, they were influenced by the look of Tim Burton's Batman by using art-deco buildings and old cars. They fused the look of the 1980s with the 1950s and used modern-day technology like computers.

The Show Finds It's Flash

Promotional still of Amanda Pays and John Shipp for The Flash (1990)
Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo set out to cast The Flash. They looked long and hard for an actor that could play a superhero, but with the skills to give it the realistic tone they were looking for. Many actors turned them down because they thought it would be silly. 60 actors were considered for the role, but it came down to John Wesley Shipp and Richard Burgi. In the end, the Emmy award-winning actor John Wesley Shipp was cast as Barry Allen AKA The Flash. Richard Burgi would go on to guest star in the Flash episode "The Deadly Nightshade". He also starred in the short-lived superhero series The Sentinel.

Shipp Didn't Know Anything About Flash

Shipp had to do his homework. "I didn’t really know anything about The Flash when I was told about it," he explained. "I said the same thing that people have said to me: 'You mean Flash Gordon?" and they said, 'No.'"

"My first impression was ‘No, I don’t want to do a television treatment of a super-hero,’ because my experience with that had been the old Spider-Man series when somebody held a rope off-camera, and I knew I didn’t want to run around in a pair of red tights. But I read the script and thought that this, even free of its comic book roots, was a character that I would enjoy playing."

Amanda Pays Was Hired Because of "Max Headroom"

Amanda Pays was hired to play Christina "Tina" McGee partially for her work on the futuristic cyberpunk show Max Headroom. They felt it was a similar audience. "She was great," Shipp said, "They knew they wanted her before they knew they wanted me. Tina McGee, they saw as being Amanda Pays right away."

Alex D├ęsert played Allen’s co-worker Julio Mendez. "He was very funny, very dry, nothing ruffled him," Shipp remembered. "He was a real stabilizing influence on the set. I don’t fault myself for this, but I tend [to] take things a little seriously, as you can tell. He’d get me to lighten up from time to time. He’d remind that it wasn’t brain surgery, it was the crime lab."

The Flash Costume Design

Promotional still of John Shipp for The Flash (1990)
The mark of any good superhero movie or TV show is the costume. So the production worked hard to make a costume that was faithful, yet realistic and sophisticated. The studio didn't want a superhero costume. They wanted Barry Allen to wear a gray sweatsuit with lights in his shoes. This was the days before revisionist costumes, so the producers pushed for a comic book style costume.
Costume Concept Illustration by Dave Stevens for The Flash (1990) Credit: CBS Television
The look of the Flash costume was based on concept designs by artist Dave Stevens who was famous for the critically acclaimed comic The Rocketeer. Bison and De Meo had met him while adapting his comic into the movie.

Warner Bro successful Batman movie became the template for the show and they decided that the Flash wouldn't wear spandex. "The suit was critical," Bilson said. "You can't, after 'Batman,' have a guy running around in tights." Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo came up with the idea that the suit was a deep sea submersible suit made by the Soviets, which is why it's burgundy red. They also explained that it was a turnout for firemen and friction-proof.

Not only did they want to avoid spandex because they thought he would look silly, but there were practical concerns. Visual effects artist Robert Short, who'd worked on films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), was hired to make a costume. He agreed that Spandex just doesn't look right and never accentuates the actor's muscles properly. They decided to use a combination of latex and special "flocking" techniques to create the unique look of the costume.

Using a full body cast of actor John Wesley Shipp they made foam latex pieces out of all the muscles, about two to four inches thick. Then, they painstakingly glued each piece onto a spandex suit and covered it with a red material sprayed with a sealant. While Shipp was in amazing shape, the suit gave him the exaggerated body of a comic book superhero. They made a total of eight suits: two suits made for Shipp, two suits for the show's stuntmen, two for photo doubles, and two for close-ups. The suits cost $100,000 each. The costumes alone cost almost a million dollars.

The Suit Made the Actor Sweat Buckets

Unfortunately, while the suit looked great, it was incredibly hot. Shipp later said, "Nobody anticipated the amount to which I would sweat through this suit. I’d be in it for 15 minutes and you could walk up to me and squeeze my arm and it was like a sponge. I’d take the gloves off and they'd be full of water." They eventually gave him a cooling vest like race car drivers wear. Shipp laughed, "It had tubing through it and they would hook me up to an ice chest between takes and circulate ice water through the tubes simply to jolt me awake."

Shipp Almost Saw a Shrink Because of the Costume

The other problem with the costume is it was claustrophobic. Because it was hard to take the suit on and off he would have to keep it on for long periods of time. Although they tried to keep the scenes short, it was tough. Shipp looked so stressed out that the producers wanted to get him a psychiatrist. He said that it was hard to work in, but didn't need a shrink. "It was my choice," Shipp said, "I could have avoided all the discomfort of the suit by simply choosing not to do the series. I chose to do the series; part of the series involved the suit. They were simply the things that had to be worked out. It would have worked out more if we had gone to the second season. But that was the challenge as it would be for any actor who works in anything that requires a suit of that nature."

The Flash Pilot

Still of Amanda Pays and John Shipp on The Flash (1990) Credit: CBS Television
The show was going to very different of the campy Batman TV show. "Danny said if we had our way we’d have outraged PTAs from across the country calling and complaining about our show every week." star John Wesley Shipp recalled.

The 90-minute series pilot was shot over six weeks in May and June 1990 at a cost of $6 million. There were 125 special effects in the episode, and the filming was brutal. To achieve the complicated speed effects, they would film Shipp doing something repeatedly and speed up the film. He explained it saying, "If it was eating, if it was the card trick at the casino, you just had to do these things for a long time, and eat and eat and eat and eat. That was really the only boring part about it, was having to do this monotonous action and then they'd speed it up and it would take ten seconds of screen time." Some scenes were filmed with him and his stunt doubles doing the actions in different places. Scenes like him cleaning his apartment or fighting. Because the scenes would only take a fraction of the screen time it made a labor-intensive show.

For the music, the producers again looked to Batman for inspiration. They wanted everything to be on a "grand scale" including the music. So they hired composer Danny Elfman, who made the iconic music for Tim Burton's film to create the theme song and his long-time conductor Shirley Walker scored the show. She used a full orchestra and wrote her scores by hand. Walker always orchestrated and conducted her own scores by herself.

After all the work and preparation, it was time to air the pilot and see if the world would accept a new and different superhero show.

Cosby Crushes The Flash

Still of Bill Cosby on The Cosby Show (1990)
The TV movie was a hit and CBS picked it up for a series. Head writer Gail Hickman, and John Francis Moore wrote most of the episodes. The Flash was scheduled for Thursday nights to challenge the rating powerhouse The Cosby Show for younger viewers. It looked like a perfect time slot, but there was a big surprise. The day after The Flash schedule was announced FOX announced they were moving The Simpsons from Sunday to Thursday. "Nobody knew they were going to do that," Bilson said. "It was a total ambush," De Meo recalled, "They weren't ambushing us; they were doing the same thing we are--ambushing 'Cosby,' "

The Simpsons was a hit with the same audience that The Flash was going for. They had the same goal of taking younger viewers away from Bill Cosby. But the production was optimistic. "First off, I think The Simpsons are going to knock off Cosby," Bilson remarked. "But after The Simpsons, if you've got the choice of watching that Fox show about three fat women living together [Babes], or the second half of Father Dowling Mysteries, A Different World or the biggest, most exciting action show of the past 20 years, which one are you going to watch?" The stage was set for a three-way battle for ratings between two successful shows and a new superhero show in its first season. "There was despair in the office," Danny Bilson later admitted. "It's an obvious problem. It's the same audience, no question about it. The Simpsons is one of my favorite shows."

Still, they had the support of the network who did a media blitz for the new show. It was the first superhero show in decades and there was hope that would be enough to make it last. Warner Bros flew banners over beaches on both coasts. They unveiled the pilot with a big bash at the Burbank lot. CBS launched ad campaigns on radio and cable TV and bought commercials during wrestling matches and old episodes of the Adam West Batman show. CBS took out ads in comic books and "Flash" promo posters were being displayed in malls and over 2,000 K-marts across the country. Four-minute promos of the series were aired at all Six Flags amusement parks.

The show debuted September 20, 1990, and did well. But neither Flash or Simpsons could beat Cosby in the ratings. By the second episode, to try and win ratings, CBS moved The Flash from 8PM-9PM Thursday to 8:30-9:30 PM. This was a bizarre time for a 60-minute show, but airing against Cosby and Simpsons was killing them.

Then the 1990 World Series matched the defending champions and heavily favored Oakland Athletics against the Cincinnati Reds. This was to first World Series to be televised on CBS. Before this, the games alternated between ABC and NBC. The game was huge and the Reds shocked and delighted the country by sweeping the Athletics in four games. The Flash was preempted twice. It's not surprising since the network had over 30 million viewers tuning in. Then there was a huge story that dominated the news: The Gulf War.

The superhero show just couldn't compete and started slipping fast. The show needed to make big changes. While early episodes of the show featured criminals and street crime they started doing more exotic criminals. Then came the Trickster.

The Coming of the Trickster

Promotional Photo of Mark Hamill and John Shipp on The Flash (1990) Credit: CBS Television 
While the show focused on more traditional villains, like drug dealers and street crime, it was decided to bring in more elements from the comics starting with their first major villain. Bilson and De Meo were talking about doing the Trickster episode when the casting director April Webster she got a call from Mark Hamill. He said if they ever want to do the Trickster, he wanted to play him. Hamill was a huge comic book fan and even owned a comic book shop in Canada. He understood the Trickster and said that the villain's trademark flying shoes were why they cast him. Hamill joked he was literally a "Sky Walker". But he also understood how to make the Trickster work. "One of the most difficult things is translating these things that work on the page of the comic books, and doing it on camera without making it look totally ridiculous," Hamill explained.

The Trickster was a long running villain from the comics and always had a wild and colorful costume. The studio didn't want a costume for any of the villains, but The Trickster was the exception. De Meo pointed out, "The only reason he's got a costume is because he's completely out of his mind."  Hamill played Trickster as a schizophrenic, and said, "every time you saw him he was a different character. He couldn’t maintain a single character. So like you say, in one character, he’s kind of goofy and off the wall. And another character, he’s a scary grind-your-teeth psychopath. It was a dream come true… for someone who always wanted to become a character actor." He developed the laugh after playing Mozart in the stage play of Amadeus.

Comics veteran Howard Chaykin wrote the Trickster episodes and the show needed his comic book writing experience. "It was an opportunity to delve back into my own boyhood… ['The Trickster'] is much lighter and goofier than other episodes in the series," Chaykin said, "This was my first job in television... It was the best professional experience I've ever had in my life. I met people that I will gladly go to their memorial in good faith."

After the Trickster episode several other villains from the comics appeared. Captain Cold, an albino hitman with a freeze gun played by Michael Champion. Also the Mirror Master, a thug who used holograms played by former teen heartthrob David Cassidy. But for the Trickster, who's criminally insane and psychotic, they decided it could work. Captain Cold and the Mirror Master costumes were completely different from the comics. The Flash show was getting closer to the comics, but it was too late.

The Flash Runs Out of Time

With ratings dwindling, they moved the show off Thursdays to Wednesday. Finally, it was moved to Saturday. The Flash was struggling and the few viewers were having a hard time finding the show. The producers had one last chance to save the show: cut the budget. But they refused to compromise. "I mean, that’s what set us apart," Shipp said, "We were trying to do a good job, we felt, and we didn’t want to compromise on that. If you’re going to do a big show, you have to have it in the budget and you have to treat it right."

They filmed the last episode "The Trial of the Trickster". The Trickster's put on trial but escapes after an insane fan breaks him out. While the rest of the cast and crew were "running on fumes," Hamill jumped in with enthusiasm and energy. He dislocated his shoulder in a scene where the Trickster is throwing himself up against the wall of a padded cell, but he still kept going. "It was a real shot in the arm" according to Shipp.

After filming the last scene in a Los Angeles back alley, the cast celebrated. After all the problems he'd had with the suit, Shipp tore the wings off his ears and threw them away. Hamill screamed and dove to find them. He knew they had been part of something special and didn't want to let them get away.

But the show was struggling and the budget was the big tipping point. The Flash producers were told to cut the budget or the show would not come back for a second season. "None of us wanted to cut the budget," Shipp recalled, "I mean, that’s what set us apart. We were trying to do a good job, we felt, and we didn’t want to compromise on that. If you’re going to do a big show, you have to have it in the budget and you have to treat it right." They decided not to film season two.

If the show had continued, the opener would have had Captain Cold, the Mirror Master and the Trickster forming a team to take down the Flash. They were hoping to bring in Gorilla Grodd and have Rick Baker do the makeup effects.

The Flash Legacy Lives On

Promotional photo of Grant Gustin and John Shipp Credit: USA Today
It was a bold idea, but a bad time slot and a high budget killed the show. While the show was short-lived the legacy of the show lived on. Mark Hamill voiced the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series using a similar style. He even played Trickster on the animated Justice League Unlimited.

Amanda Pays returned to science fiction in shows like The X-Files and Thief Takers. John Shipp returned to television in critically acclaimed roles in shows like Dawson's Creek, One Life to Live and the Teen Wolf TV show.

Bilson and De Meo produced more television series like Viper (1994) and The Sentinel (1996) before returned to writing comics like "The Flash: Fastest Man Alive" for DC Comics.

John Shipp, Amanda Pays and Mark Hamill on The Flash (2015) Credit: The CW Network
The concept was brought back 25 years later with the CW show The Flash. The Flash executive producers Geoff Johns and Greg Bertlanti are huge fans of the show and cast some of the original cast members like John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen's father, Pays as McGee and Hamill as an older Trickster.

"We get a lot of credit for doing this giant movie every week, but you see what went into making ['Trickster' and 'The Trial of The Trickster'], and it wasn't digital."  The Flash executive producer Andrew Kreisberg said at a screening of the original series. Nodding to the cast, he said, "You guys blew all that stuff up. It meant the world to us. If you watch our iteration, you see so many nods to it."
After all these years, the show still means a lot. Plus, Mark Hamill still has the Flash ears.
References
What do you think of the 90s Flash TV show? Do you remember watching any of these? What do you think of the old show and the new one?

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