Now you see him, now you don’t? Many viewers haven’t seen ‘him’ in over thirty years if we’re referring to Daniel Westin, the David McCallum-shaped ethereal adventurer that bore the title of The Invisible Man in the 1970s. This celebrated TV offering is finally available on Region 2 DVD thanks to Acorn Media, so to celebrate the release we felt it was about time we took a look back at transparent television’s finest hour. Twelve hours. Whatever.
The Invisible Man, of course, started life on the printed page compliments of H.G. Wells in 1897. Henry Wellcome’s had ‘invented’ invisible ink some twenty years previous, but if Wells was a prankster he resisted the urge to take advantage of a topical gag opportunity, writing his classic novel the old-fashioned way and serialising the story in the Pearson’s Weekly periodical.
The protagonist of Wells’ cautionary tale, known merely as Griffin, was an unsympathetic sort; a slave to scientific experimentation, Griffin finds himself intangible quite by accident and is far from pleased with the state of affairs before making his peace with this new-found inconvenient imperceptibility. Taking the opportunity to steal, murder, intimidate and generally act like a dick, Griffin saw invisibility as an opportunity to begin a self-proclaimed ‘reign of terror’.
This was an approach retained by the most memorable big screen adaptation of the tale, in which Claude Rains portrayed a classic Universal Monster for Frankenstein director James Whale. There was only so much mileage in madness, however, and it would only be a matter of time before Wells’ creation would be recruited to the side of the angels; ITV created the first Invisible Man TV show in 1958.
The show changed Griffin’s name to Peter Brady and installed him in the British secret service, acting as an agent for the crown while searching for a cure to his condition. The writing and plotting was occasionally sketchy, but this was imaginative filmmaking; the invisibility effects were achieved through suspending items in mid-air via puppetry, and an uncredited small person was cast as Brady while dressed (ensuring the diminutive actor could see through the holes in the character’s coat, enabling, the ‘headless’ effect on-screen).
It was uber-producer Harve Bennett who decided to bring unperceivable action back to the small screen, almost twenty years after ITV’s short-lived but successful series. Having enjoyed success with The Mod Squad, Bennett switched his attention to more fantastical fare; having served as executive producer on Kenneth Johnson’s Six Million Dollar Man and sister show The Bionic Woman, the Chicago cigar-chomper learned that science fiction high concepts were a smash with younger audiences. NBC didn’t need much convincing that The Invisible Man could work as a concept in then-contemporary America; all the show was missing was a star.
David McCallum, the Glaswegian star of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. , was that star. The Robert Pattinson of the late 1960s, McCallum was a heartthrob that captured the imagination of audiences through his portrayal of enigmatic Eastern agent Illya Kuyakin and the hearts of female viewers through his piercing baby blues and trendy Beatles-esque moptop. McCallum’s post-U.N.C.L.E. career wasn’t quite flying, however; his most notable roles before The Invisible Man were appearances in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and the aforementioned Six Million Dollar Man.
McCallum was cast as Dr. Daniel Westin, an employee of the KLAE Corporation trialling attempts at matter disintegration. Naturally it’s only a matter of time before Westin experiments on himself, finding that his work results in a more permanent state of evanescence than he had in mind (ain’t that always the way). Fortunately he enjoys the support of a good woman – wife, and fellow scientist, Kate, played by the impossibly glamorous soap opera actress Melinda Fee . Fee’s role was an uncharacteristically strong one for an actress in 1970s TV, with Kate an integral part of her husband’s missions – portrayed as David’s equal at worst, and more often than not as the brains of the operation, Kate Westin was one of the most appealing characters of 1970s TV science fiction.
The Invisible Man arrived on screens in May 1975 in the shape of a feature-length pilot. This opener set the scene for the series that would follow, but it was a darker affair than the show – Westin’s mishap is played for tragedy as opposed to a sense of opportunistic fun here, and his employers are infinitely shadier than in the episodes that would follow. Indeed, by the climax of this maiden show the diaphanous doctor had destroyed the very equipment that turned him translucent in the first place, fearing that the head of the KLAE Corporation (Walter Carlson, played by one-time Perry White Jackie Cooper) holds nefarious intentions to weaponise the technology and fly in the face of Westin’s pacifistic intentions.
Naturally all’s well that ends well, however. NBC were never going to cast such a star as McCallum and keep him off-screen permanently, so the role of a plastic surgeon was written into the pilot, ensuring that Westin is presented with a perfect replica of his impossibly handsome mug and impeccable head of hair. Westin also makes his peace with his employers, taking on a new role as The KLAE Resource, allowing twelve episodes of classic genre television tomfoolery to début just four months later.
As already intimated, The Invisible Man as a show was a considerably frothier affair than the pilot. This much was clear from the opening credits, which featured an effortlessly hummable (and none more 70s) Henry Mancini theme tune, and extended to recasting the role of Walter Carlson, with the more sympathetic (and probably much cheaper, in fairness) Craig Stevens replaced Jackie Cooper. As was typical of 70s genre TV, the show was created with syndication in mind – there is no overarching plot arc to concern yourself with here, just a dozen done-in-one romps that can be watched in any order. Perfect post-pub viewing in 2013, The Invisible Man is similar in style and tone to Kenneth Johnson’s celebrated take on The Incredible Hulk.
Nobody could accuse the writers behind the show of serving up anything spectacular. The interplay between David and Kate is welcomingly warm, convincing as a married couple without failing to hold the interest, but the scripts are fairly standard-issue fare. Over the course of the season the husband-and-wife team find themselves frequently ‘loaned out’ by KLAE to foil reprehensible schemes and protect the interests of the Corporation, other characters and America as a whole. Ergo our heroes find themselves partying in Vegas while disrupting a Middle Eastern hijack of a fossil fuel deal (The KLAE Resource); helping a sweet old lady who is attempting to fund her retirement by indulging in high-stakes gambling (Pin Money); discrediting fraudulent spiritualists (Man of Influence) and bringing down small-town corruption (Stop When the Red Lights Flash), among the more traditional plots of espionage and adventure.
Meanwhile, the effects mostly hold up well today – The Invisible Man was one of the first shows to utilise green- and blue-screen techniques, and whenever Westin removes his mask it’s an impressive outcome. Granted some of the floating object gags can look a little hokey today when compared to the CGI money shots in the likes of Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, but they’re all the more charming for it.
Sadly the show was cancelled after just one season – blame genre fatigue in American TV at the time, and some suicidal scheduling from NBC – though fortunately most of the cast and crew went on to enjoy further success. McCallum returned to the UK and took the male lead in celebrated sci-fi series Sapphire and Steel, while Fee returned to the world of soap before facing off against a certain pizza-faced dream demon in Freddy’s Revenge. Harve Bennett, meanwhile, moved into movies – he produced a quartet of cinematic Star Trek ventures, starting with The Wrath of Khan.
The concept also lived on through viewers TV screens. A 6-part BBC mini-series, returning to Wells’ source material for its inspiration, aired in 1984, while a SyFy series developed by remake specialist Breck Eisner ran in 2001. That’s not to mention the cinematic outings, such as John Carpenter’s underrated Memoirs of an Invisible Man and the previously-namechecked Hollow Man. With David Goyer attached to a new cinematic remake of Whale’s original movie it’s surely only a matter of time before we fail to see The Invisible Man on-screen again. Until then, the 1975 vintage makes for a warm and nostalgic wallow in one of cult genre TV’s most rich and satisfying forgotten treasures.