Long before Andrew Garfield or Tobey Maguire ever went up the wall, Nicholas Hammond amazed young fans by leaping across the screen as the amazing Spider-Man. The actor was no stranger to pop-culture sensations — he played the Friedrich von Trapp kid in “The Sound of Music” (one of the three biggest hits in film history, if you go purely by the number of tickets sold) and figures prominently in a classic episode of “The Brady Bunch” — yep, he was the guy who broke a date with Marcia Brady when she got bonked on the nose with a football. Guest writer Mark Edlitz (who recently wrote about Broadway’s Superman for Hero Complex) interviewed him.
HC: This is the 50th anniversary of Spider-Man and the 35th anniversary of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the CBS series that you starred in it. There’s also a new onscreen Spider-Man due this summer. With all of that, where do you think your series fits in with the history of live-action superhero portrayals?
NH: I’d like to think that we were one of the first that were at least trying to do it in a legitimate, serious way. And we were. They wouldn’t have hired me otherwise. I was doing theater at the time I was hired. I was doing two plays in repertory at the Center Theatre in L.A. We were doing Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and I was doing the leads in both of them. Somebody from CBS saw me in one of the plays. Playing a superhero was the last thing on my mind. I had been very impressed with what Christopher Reeve had done. You have to give him credit because he was an actor who maintained a certain degree of gravitas in the Superman movies. Reeve’s standards and work ethic were undeniably high. He somehow gave everyone else permission to go into that world and not feel like you were going to be doing something beneath you that would put you in cartoon-land.
HC: What did the role mean to you at that point in your career?
NH: I was about 28 at the time and I had been working as an actor since I was little. I started working here in New York when I was about 11. Spider-Man was the first chance I had to carry my own prime-time television series. I had played the lead on Broadway. I had been in a couple of movies that were very well known and I had done lots and lots of guest-starring roles. I had always recognized the fact that when you walk onto the set of a television series that there’s one person upon whose shoulders that show rests. Everyone’s job on that entire show is dependent on that one person. I remember thinking, “What an extraordinary responsibility that would be knowing that it ain’t just me who I’m responsible for. If I make an idiot of myself and the ratings don’t stay high enough for the show to be renewed then there are 150 people who will be out of work. When the opportunity came for me to do it I thought, “This is another box” for me to check off as an actor.” Where you can say, “I climbed that mountain. I did that.”
HC: What did you like about playing Peter Parker?
NH: The thing that any actor would love about playing Peter Parker is his vulnerability. The fact that he’s vulnerable and not a muscle-bound, rock-jawed superhero. He has asthma, he lives with his Aunt May, and he’s the nerd of all nerds. To go from that to having this burden thrust upon you… How do you deal with the moral responsibility of having this power? I thought that was an interesting question. I used to say, “I would really like it if someone tuned in late and they didn’t know they were watching a show based on a comic book.” I would want them to become involved in the story of a young man dealing with his problems. I would want it to come as a surprise that he’s also a superhero. I didn’t want the human part to be irrelevant. I wanted to investigate the idea that if he has to keep his identity secret what happens with girls? Any woman that he allows in his life becomes a target. If he entrusts her with his secret, then it’s going to be hugely dangerous to her. I was always intrigued by that idea. He’s a young guy who is very interested in girls but he can’t have a relationship. That’s his moral dilemma. We touched on it a little bit in a couple of episodes. I always thought it would be great to do an entire show on that — where he’s fallen head over heels for some girl and really wants to pursue her, but he can’t.
HC: Were you ever worried that the Spider-Man suit would upstage the rest of the show?
NH: No, I wasn’t. I probably would have been if they told me, “In this episode you’re only going to be in it 20% and the stuntman will be in it 80%.” Then I would think, “Where’s the story there?” I understood that there was a responsibility to all those Stan Lee fans, to the millions of people around the world who loved the comic book — there was absolutely a responsibility to honor that. But at the same time I was trying to do something with it that I thought would make it better. And I never thought that I didn’t get that chance because the stories are really Peter’s stories. They’re not Spider-Man’s stories.
HC: Peter was a very complex, funny, sweet and shrewd character.
NH: Thank you. That is very nice to hear because that was the intention. One of the things that I was very happy about — and I know that this didn’t please the orthodox comic book fans — but I was very happy that the nemeses that my Peter Parker faced were real people. They weren’t cartoon monsters. I know that in the films and because of the miracle of what they can do – that they can now have larger than life and fantastic evil forces that Peter goes against. Because of our budget limitations it would have been stupid for us to have attempted that. I was happy that Peter went up against drug syndicates, corrupt scientists and criminals. It kept the series more rooted in a world that I could relate to. If I were standing there with a sword in my hand and attacking a giant bumblebee, I would have thought, “Why am I here? This isn’t what I do.” If you convey three different emotions conflicting with one another — on one hand I want to save the woman who is about to die but on the other hand I don’t want her to find out my secret and at the same time I want to get my pictures back to the newspaper because I don’t want to lose my job — that to me is fun. That to me is acting.
HC: When you put the suit on for the first time how did that feel?
NH: I really liked it. I was completely anonymous. I found it quite freeing. Truth be told, the only times that I can remember actually wearing the suit was when it was a scene with another actor. I did always say that [stuntman] Freddy [Waugh] — bless his heart — was really great at climbing up and down the building, but he was no more an actor than I was a circus performer. I said, “It’s not fair to the other actors to play these scenes and do dialogue with Freddy. I would always come in and do whatever action is involved when there is going to be dialogue. I wore the costume quite a lot in the pilot. And the costume was always evolving. Spider-Man’s outfit was a never-ending issue because, for instance, the glasses covering his eyes would fog up and you could never see while wearing them, and the suits would be incredibly hot and they would tear. The wardrobe department kept experimenting with different kinds of material. The suit was almost completely airtight. To have it on more than half an hour was not much fun. Especially in the middle of summer in L.A.
HC: How did you approach the physical nature of the show?
NH: I just tried to stay as physically fit as I possibly could. I went to the gym a lot. I didn’t try to bulk up. I just tried to look like someone who was in good shape but not overly muscular. I believed that he should look like a guy who can play a couple of sets of tennis two or three times a week, and not like a guy who spends time in the weight room. I think we sort of achieved that.
HC: How did you approach how Spider-Man moved?
NH: This was something that I wasn’t completely happy about. Freddy had this idea that he should move with these spider-like moves. Which was something I wasn’t totally comfortable with. We had to compromise a bit. I think even to this day, in my eye there’s a difference between the way Freddy moves and the way I do. In my mind the only time that it’s justified for him to move like a spider is when he’s trying to intimidate his enemies into thinking that he’s a creature. In some of the fight scenes, I think Spider-Man seems to convince his adversaries that he’s got some powers that he doesn’t actually have. But in the scenes where Spider-Man is just standing and talking to someone, I would just stand there and talk. He’s an absolutely average guy who is no different from you or anyone else except when he needs to use his skills and then he seems to become 10 times stronger than any other person on the street. And he can also jump up and hold on to the ceiling.
HC: How did the suit help you in your approach to the character?
NH: It does. It’s liberating. It’s a mask that you’re behind. You are no longer thinking that the audience is going to be looking at my character and thinking, “That’s Nicholas Hammond, the actor.” They are going to be thinking, “That’s a powerful presence in the room.” I always thought there was something anonymous about putting the suit on. When you’re wearing it, you’ve got no features. OK, he’s recognizably a male, but other than that there’s really nothing you know about him. When the fan mail started coming in, what surprised me was that an enormous amount of it was coming in from African American kids. When I was asked to speak at schools, the reactions I would get at African American schools were mind-blowing. Stan Lee said that was true for kids who read the comic as well. For me — a nice, little middle class white boy who had grown up in the suburbs — this was perplexing because this had never before been a significant part of my audience base.
HC: Did you get a sense of the reasons for that audience connection?
NH: I think that the show was very, very popular with kids of color because essentially Spider-Man has no ethnicity. As soon as the suit was on he could be any of them, whereas with Superman and a lot of other superheroes there was always a white face. It’s a weird thing because they look at me as Peter Parker. When I walked the streets in New York, if 10 people called out “Hey Spidey,” eight of them were black. Here I am this white guy and yet so many young African Americans felt a connection — and obviously it wasn’t due to my face. It’s got to be because when the suit is on, they can relate. That’s my theory. I’m not exaggerating, even now on the odd occasion that I still get recognized as Peter Parker, it’s almost always by African Americans. They seemed to have a real love of the show. When I went out on these readership drives to encourage inner city elementary school kids to start reading, afterwards the teachers and the principals would invariably come up to me to say, “To have you stand there and say that Peter Parker loves to read books means more than you can imagine. We can talk to them for a year and we wouldn’t have as much luck at getting them to go to a library and get a book out as you saying that.” Again, I can’t take any of the credit myself. If I had been on some other series they wouldn’t have listened to me. I just attribute it all to the suit. It has to be.
HC: Did you ever allow yourself to feel heroic in the suit?
NH: Of course, of course. That’s part of being in character. When I say “heroic,” I mean that I used to allow myself to feel capable of doing everything the character had to do. I don’t think there’s any part of Peter that feels that he’s better than anyone else or heroic in that sense of the word. But putting on the suit was part of the preparation to convince an audience that this one guy can frighten 10 bad guys.
HC: How are you similar to Peter Parker?
NH: I think any actor lives something of a double life. Particularly if you’ve been a child actor, because you do have two personas. You have a persona when you’re at school where you just want to fit in and be anonymous. You want to be a teenager like every other teenager. And then you have another persona when you’re on a film set or on a stage on Broadway. They are radically different. They have to be radically different because you have to draw upon different aspects of yourself. You asked me if I felt heroic putting on the suit. In a sense when you walk onto a film set you better damn well feel pretty good about yourself or else you’re not going to deliver the goods.
HC: Did you keep your costume?
NH: To my bitter regret I didn’t. It’s that stupid thing you do at the end: I just thought, “I never want to see that thing again.” I had sweated in it. My eyes were blinded by sweat in it. I had been hot in it. I wished to God I had kept it.
HC: Did you write a letter to fellow Spider-Man Tobey Maguire?
NH: I did. I wrote a long letter and sent it to his agent. I don’t think he received it because he would have answered or someone would have answered. I feel very badly because it was when I first heard he got the job. The letter said: “I think it’s great that you got it. I’m a big fan of your work. I’m thrilled to pass the torch to you. I know you’ll do a terrific job. It’s a great idea. You’re just the right age. You’re just the right type. Have a good time. I’m sure your movie will go miles and miles beyond what we were able to do.” It was just as simple as that. I was sad when I realized that he never got it. It probably went into a big stack of fan mail and he probably never got it. It was a little stupid of me. I probably should have invested a little more time in actually finding out specifically how to get it to him. I should have done it better. I hope somebody someday tells him that I did write it to him because I’d like him to know.
HC: Who would win in a fight? Spider-Man vs. the Hulk?
NH: Spider-Man for sure. The Hulk is brute strength but Spider-Man is agility and cunning. With all due respect to the Hulk, the Hulk is a rhinoceros. A very good one and a very frightening one. If it were only a contest of brute strength then Spider-Man would lose, but he’s got these other things going for him.
— Mark Edlitz
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