An excited crowd whooped and cheered for Billy Batson and Captain Marvel’s first appearances on screen during a special screening of an episode of Filmation’s mid-seventies live-action “Shazam!” series. Presented as part of last weekend’s Retro-TV Action-Adventure-Thon hosted by the Paley Center for Media and the Warner Archive Collection, fans of the vintage DC Comics TV adaptation were treated to an episode of the series, coming to DVD in late October, before Billy himself, actor Michael Gray, took to the stage for a lively Q&A session. The actor spent the event amicably recounting stories and looking back fondly on his time as a Saturday morning teen idol.
Panel host Alonso Duralde opened the post-screening panel, quipping, “If you want to keep a secret identity, put your superhero logo on the front of your R.V. and no one will ever know!” “Shazam!” was Filmation’s first foray into live-action television, blending scenes with a green-screened Gray and the animated Elders. “When The Elders would call, they’d superimpose me later on,” Gray said. “The voices of The Elders were actually the executive producers of the show. A little known fact — Adam West played an Elder and spoke the ‘”Shazam!” will be right back’ line prior to a commercial break.”
Gray’s interpretation of Billy Batson, the alter ego of superhero Captain Marvel (Shazam!), was unique from the comic book character and detached from the DC Universe. “I was doing the writer’s things — whatever they wrote down I did it,” Gray said. “I didn’t read the serial, so to some degree I created my own backstory.” Among the changes from the comic book origins were the inclusion of the character of Mentor, Billy’s sagacious father figure played by Les Tremayne, and the way the pair travelled together in the previously mentioned R.V. “I didn’t really go into the history of Shazam! when I took the role. Les was my guardian, my father figure — he was cast in the role and I accepted it. [Laughs] I wasn’t in the position to say this was the right or wrong decision. Les and I were very tight. I was very impressed with Les Tremayne.”
Aside from learning from Tremayne, Gray stated he “didn’t really hang out with the cast much at all.” “Les and I had a good relationship, and I hung out with the crew sometimes, but when I was off the show, I had my own friends to be around.”
Despite the show having been off the air for nearly 4 decades, Gray still finds himself recognized by fans on the street. “It’s an ongoing thing and it amazes me still 37 years later. I did Comic-Con International in San Diego and was totally blown away by it. It was mind boggling. I did a Warner panel and saw 700 people — it almost brought tears to my eyes. One day someone screams, ‘Oh my God!’ and it’s a construction guy. I thought I’d have a problem there, but he recognized me and gave me a big hug. People still recognize me — I don’t know how. I look more like Mentor now.”
To this day, Gray is somewhat unsure as to the details of how he was cast as Billy. “I don’t recall really being in the audition, but I met with the people of the studio. The show was all shot within an hour, hour and a half from the studio in the Los Angeles Valley. Lots of guys from the crew worked on the ‘Lassie’ series. It was good, quality stuff for what it was back then. We did an episode in two and a half days, shooting from sunrise to sunset. I’d get up at 4:30am and shoot at 6am.
“It was a grind. We shot mostly in the summer, so it was extremely hot and dusty,” Gray continued. “There are a lot of things in the show that could have been perfected, but there was no time for it. They’d sometimes change the dialog in the morning — 5 or 6 more pages we had to memorize immediately. Could it have been a better show? Probably, but it ran on a Saturday morning and there just wasn’t enough time.”
In addition to the long, hot schedule, the cast also faced the dangers inherent in performing their own stunts. “There was a scene where I’m running through a field and I hit a rock — I didn’t see it. Another time, Les was in a tree and the next thing we know, he’s covered in red ants. I remember when we were experimenting with the change from Billy to Captain Marvel using a sort of flash device, and POOF — the smoke would clear, and I was a little singed. They changed that real quick. That didn’t work.”
Gray’s off-camera life had its share of challenges as well, including the young actor having to deal with being a teen idol. “It was exhausting and thrilling,” Gray said. “Before I took the role, I was told by a few people in the biz it wasn’t a good idea — that I’ll be typecast. But a job’s a job, so I took it. It truly was a thrilling show to work on and ended way too soon as far as I’m concerned.
“The teen idol angle was orchestrated to some degree,” Gray continued. “I was interviewing for ‘The Brian Keith Show’ with Warner Brothers, and they also owned a news company that produced a lot of magazines. They wanted me to be the next David Cassidy. I was on the front cover of ‘Tiger Beat’ and it worked. Back then, when the show was running and all the fan magazine coverage was going on, I couldn’t leave my house. It got pretty ugly sometimes. I remember a time where The Osmond Brothers were doing a concert in Los Angeles and I sat second row center. As I’m walking down to my seats, I hear whispers and it got to the point where I was mobbed and the show was delayed — the fans were pulling my clothes off, taking hair out of my head. It was scary. The Osmond’s were thrilled, too, I’m sure. Another time, in Las Vegas, people recognized me and I picked the wrong door to run through — the Osmonds were performing, and I ran across the stage to go out the other door!”
Despite the trials and tribulations of being a former teen star, Gray still looks back fondly on his experience as Billy Batson, joking about going through “about 10″ red t-shirts per episode,” saying “Shazam!” “way too many times” in his life and more. “I’m selling the old Billy underoos on my website,” the actor joked. “They’re a little worn, but they’re available for $150 a pop!”
Following his “Shazam!” run, Gray found the warnings about becoming typecast were very real, a situation which ultimately led to the end of his acting career. “I went out for a part of a psychopathic killer for a nighttime soap and one of the guys on production said I couldn’t do it. It didn’t work,” Gray recounted. “After a while I gave it up and tried something else. I moved up north and worked in theatre education for kids. Eventually I came back down to LA to give it another shot, but again, it didn’t work. I had odd jobs here and there and then I found a lady, got married and ran a flower shop for many years. After too many hours working and not enough money, I quit that too, and now I work in one of the best men’s clothing stores in the country. It’s a job and I enjoy it.”
Given Gray’s time working with children on an educational level in the performing arts, an audience member asked if he counseled against the career choice to his students considering his own experiences. “My son is sitting right there, and he wanted to be an actor and do voiceovers. I was against it to some degree, yes. When I wanted to do this, it was a battle with my parents. ‘I don’t want you to be an actor — you need something to fall back on,’ my dad said. I decided to try it anyway and worked immediately on a pilot for Fox. I was very successful for the first 10 years, saying to my dad, ‘Hah!’ Then after ‘Shazam!’ my father said, ‘I told you so.’ It’s a tough business.”
Gray’s closing thoughts on “Shazam!” were simple and revealing. “It’s a job I’m very proud of,” he said. “I have Direct TV and there are thousands of shows to watch — but there’s nothing to watch. People still love ‘Shazam!’ It’s fun, there are family values and it has a plot. When I found out about Warner’s DVD release, I was very overwhelmed. There was a ‘Shazam!’ movie in the works, but it’s been shelved for now, so it’s nice a show of that quality is being brought back so people can show it to their grandchildren.”
“Shazam! The Complete Live-Action Series” is slated to be released October 23 from Warner Archive.