feature hercules: the legendary journeys from TV Zone #Special 40
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The many adventures of Hercules (Full-page version in issue)

Ancient Greece has provided the inspiration for much in modern society, and it also produced some rather popular heroes….

parallel Xena feature here

Looking back, the idea probably shouldn’t have worked. Devising a weekly television series based on the exploits of the mythological hero Hercules could easily have resulted in a camp disaster à la the terrible Steve Reeves movies of the Sixties. Instead, its creators came up with a fast-paced action adventure series that combined cutting-edge FX, stunning New Zealand locations and the talents of an amiable young actor named Kevin Sorbo into something pretty unique.

During its six-year history, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys became a bona fide international phenomenon, spawning its own successful spin-off series (Xena: Warrior Princess) as well as a legion of second-rate imitators, none of which managed to recapture that mythical lightning in a bottle.

This saga of Hercules began in 1992 when Universal Studios began assembling a series of syndicated tv movies collectively dubbed 'The Action Pack'. The first of the tv movies, Hercules and the Amazon Women began shooting in the autumn of 1993. In addition to a 34-year-old Minnesota native called Kevin Sorbo, the movie also introduced Michael Hurst as Herc’s brash sidekick Iolaus. “I’d always been a fan of SF and Fantasy,” remembers Hurst, “as well as epic films such as The Fall of the Roman Empire and Ben Hur that I saw over and over as a kid, so Hercules was a bit of a full circle for me in that regard. It was a lot of fun to do.”

Although four Hercules tv movies were originally commissioned, a fifth, Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur was added when one of Universal Studio's other Action Pack movies reportedly fell out. At that point, most of the cast and crew were still unaware that a weekly series could happen.

As director Josh Becker recalls, “Once we finished Minotaur, I took over on second unit again shooting all the work that had built up for the other films, so I was shooting after everyone else had gone. They were bringing in one person at a time and I would pick up their scenes, so I had Kevin on his very last day. It was muddy and raining as it always is in New Zealand, and as we were walking away, I said to him, ‘I was talking to Rob, and everybody really likes these movies; there’s a good chance we could get picked up for 13 episodes’. Kevin looked at me and said, ‘You know, I’ve been in five pilots, I’ve heard this bulls**t so many times before; I’ve got other plans!’”

Herc’s Back!

As it turned out, Universal was so pleased by the success of the Hercules movies that they did indeed commission a 13-episode series. The new one-hour format retained many elements of the original, notably the good-natured camaraderie between Hercules and Iolaus, but Anthony Quinn’s Zeus disappeared. In addition, Herc’s family was quickly dispatched by Hera during the opening scenes of episode one, The Wrong Path, leaving the grieving hero free to roam the countryside in future adventures.

The primary architect for most of these changes was John Schulian, an irascible but brilliant writer, who created a large part of the show’s winning formula. “For one thing, we couldn’t afford Anthony Quinn on a regular basis,” explains Schulian, and secondly, Tawny Kitaen [who played Herc’s wife, Deianeira] was doing something else, so what we did was to wipe out Hercules’s family with a fireball.

"That was another fight we had with [Universal exec] Dan Filie, but Rob Tapert to his credit dug in his heels and said, ‘What about Bambi?’ so we used the Bambi defence. I know it wasn’t a popular decision with the Universal brass, but it was the only way to free up Hercules and give him a cause, because he’s honouring his dead family by doing good on Earth. I thought it made a lot of sense, and ultimately our audience did too.”

The actors notwithstanding, one of the show’s biggest calling cards was its elaborately choreographed action sequences, which were often designed with tongue firmly in cheek. “The thing I kept stressing about the fight sequences,” says Doug Lefler, who directed a number of early Hercules episodes as well as Hercules and the Circle of Fire, “was that they should be constructed like a three-act play. I’d always try to give the sequence a necessary objective, an interesting challenge to that objective, and why that objective has to be achieved at some point, a ticking clock. Those were the three elements I’d try to find.”

Despite the care and attention that the directors and stunt co-ordinator Peter Bell put into each of their fight sequences, minor, and sometimes not so minor, injuries were inevitable. “There were a lot of knocks, bruises, things like that,” remembers Hurst. “We had Kevin in stitches because of a misjudged sword stroke, which I did, actually. I felt absolutely terrible about it, but there were no bad feelings; we just finished the rest of the day with me, and Kevin came back the next day...”

continued in TV Zone Special #40

Joe Nazzaro

Also in this eight-page feature...

Kevin O'Neill on Hercules effects: "Since everything also had to look different, we had to come up with new looks for things; in other words, there were no transporter beam FX on the show.."

Producer Liz Friedman on recasting Xena original appearance on Hercules: “Whoever it was, was going to have to get on the plane right away. As far as we knew, this was a three-episode deal...”

Rob Coyle on Iolaus II : “I don’t think a lot of people had a handle on how to write him...”

John Schulian on behind-the-scenes strife : “All I will say is that the only person who wanted me gone from the show was Kevin Sorbo...”

Rob Tapert on Journeys' end: “I did everything I could to keep Hercules on the air...”

Hercules images © Renaissance TV / Studios USA

Feature © Visual Imagination Ltd 2001. Not for reproduction

Previous Xena covers on TV Zone

TV Zone #109

TV Zone #120

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