Last weekend, the Paley Center for Media and the Warner Archive Collection hosted the Retro TV Action-Adventure-Thon, an event filled with rare screenings, exhibits and discussions of some of television’s greatest action-adventure shows and heroes.
During the show, CBR News spoke one-on-one with writer and story editor Stan Berkowitz, who became the head writer of “Superboy” beginning with its third season. Berkowitz has written numerous cartoons and genre TV series throughout his career, including the 1990s “Spider-Man” animated series, and more recently the “Super Hero Squad Show,” “Batman Beyond” and “G.I. Joe Renegades.” He also penned the script for the “Batman Live” live-action stunt show which is currently playing in Los Angeles.
Berkowitz spoke candidly about his time on “Superboy,” going into detail about what he brought to the show, the problems with shooting in Orlando, FL instead of Los Angeles, his general disappointment with the series and his thoughts on why it ultimately failed.
CBR News: Who was the target audience for “The Adventures of Superboy” originally supposed to be and why do you think the show has seemingly not survived the test of time?
Stan Berkowitz: Kids, around eight years old, were the target audience. There’s a relationship between the more obscure something is and the more people say they like it, but then when everybody sees it they go, “Eh.” You can decide for yourself about “Superboy.” There were 100 half hour episodes and it ran from 1988-1992. Right after that in ’92 or ’93 it started syndication and did not do well.
I grew up on the George Reeves “Adventures of Superman” show at age 3, and that had incredible ratings. One of the problems I think with the syndication of “Superboy” is you’d switch it on on Monday, and there’s another like it on Tuesday. I think it got better as it went along. It didn’t become a sequential story; at that time it was really hard to do sequential stuff. Plus, our primary audience was children and we figured they would not be able to see everything. They wouldn’t be able to sit there every Saturday night at 7pm and see it. There are a few two-parters, but mostly they’re self contained half hour episodes.
Was the episode screened today at the Retro TV Action-Adventure-Thon one you worked on?
No, it was from the first season. One of the problems they faced was plunking themselves down in Orlando, Florida where there was no film making community. In theory it looked promising. Fred Freiberger was the story editor — at that time he was a very old man with a huge list of credits including feature films and the first “Star Trek” series. He worked on all kinds of stuff, so there’s a guy who knows story structure. Then you had Cary Bates who was credited with writing “Superboy” who was sort of a wunderkind in the comic book world, starting writing comics for DC Comics at a very, very young age, still in his teens. So there’s one guy who knows structure, story and filmmaking and the other guy knows superheroes so it should work.
What was your experience watching this episode?
I had never seen it before. For me, watching it, I’d go OK — this all takes place in one place, the club, except the teaser and opening and closing taking place somewhere else. But it’s all in that club so it’d be easier to shoot. You can sort of imagine the scenes being played with better actors and a better director. It was made for roughly $250,000 as that was the budget per episode.
“Superboy” had its season one, and that was the end of Freiberger. For season two, a guy named Mark Jones took over, the worthless sack of shit. Anyway, Jones replaced Freiberger, Cary Bates stayed on, and they had their second season which geared more towards camp and humor. At the end of that season they went, “All right, we have the kids watching, now we need to make it more adult and less campy,” so they hired me. I had no experience with superheroes then.
Lets talk about your time on the series — what did you do to make your mark on the show?
The general feeling was it should be more adult, so instead of the cast being at the college paper they got involved in a place called the Bureau for Extraordinary Matters which was kind of like a pre-version of the “X-Files.” They investigated weird stuff which was a perfect place for Clark Kent to be because he’d hear about it if something happens. They worked at a big old repurposed building with all sorts of weird files in it — like “Warehouse 13.” So we set that up as the home base from which the hero and Lana Lang worked.
Besides Lex Luthor as the main villain, what other characters from the comics also appeared in the show?
In the earlier seasons before me they had Mr. Mxyzptlk played by Michael J. Pollard and a Toy Man character. We used Bizarro — there were a few of them. The first episode I worked on was a Bizarro episode. True to the comics, the character talked all bizarro and had good make-up, too. Then we had a second Bizarro episode where he becomes human and actually looks like a normal person. He’s in the world as a normal guy and they did this pseudo-scientific treatment to him where he becomes normal.
My favorite cameo appearances were not other DC Comics characters but actual actors. If you remember the “Superman” TV series with George Reeves — Lois and Jimmy — we used those two actors, Noel Neill and Jack Larson. We flew them in from Los Angeles to shoot in Orlando and it was great to work with those two.
After joining the show for its 3rd season, you stayed on until the end — were you given the freedom to “make it yours?”
Yes. The thing I hoped to see today [at the screening] was one of four episodes where the cast goes to alternate worlds. In the first one it’s a world where Superboy killed someone and he’s stopped being Superboy and then they go to another world where he has taken over Earth as a dictator. The one I’d hope to see today — there’s time travel also — is where Superboy meets a kid who is a younger version of himself and an old man who’s a retired version of Superman, played by Ron Ely. It was called “The Road to Hell” and aired in ’91. That might have been my most favorite episode.
In another episode we did the bit where there’s a mind swap between Superboy and Lex Luthor — it was like the movie “Face/Off” which came out a couple years later. The two actors had to act as if they were the other person and it came out really well.
In the comics, “Elseworlds” was starting around the same time as the “Superboy” TV show. Mike Carlin, who edited the “Death of Superman,” wrote scripts during the run of the “Superboy” show, so there was cross pollination between the comics and the TV show.
Looking back on it after all this time, are you happy with your work on the show?
No. I could have done better. When I see the finished episodes, I’d like one third, be indifferent to one third, and dislike one third. I could have done better. I wish I did.
Of all the episodes you worked on, which is your least favorite?
Well, there’s more than one [Laughs]. You’re working your ass off and it’s a world where they’re not — it’s Orlando. The people we worked with — it’s like if you have a basketball team and the starting lineup is fine, the five guys starting on the court, but there’s hardly any bench. If somebody doesn’t show up or quits you can’t really replace them with a first rate person. And that was the situation. In Hollywood there are so many different options, but we shot in Orlando because it was cheap. They were using a non-union crew. There was no IATSE [labor union]. What it amounted to was an astonishing situation with a non-union crew. One time the stunt guy came to me — I was called the producer but was basically the head writer — and says, “OK Stan, what kind of glass do you want me to run this guy through? If we use one kind it looks crappy before it breaks but it breaks with no problem. If we use the other kind it looks like normal glass but when it breaks our guy will probably get cut.” I said, “You’re asking me, the writer? Well, do the one where he doesn’t get cut.” And he goes “Yeah, but then the producer will get mad at me because the glass looks kind of phony beforehand.” We ended with a hospital trip. That’s non-union.
I must say I’m not fond of being represented as a writer by IATSE but I am very fond of IATSE crews because you don’t get any better than them.
Let me tell you one last story that has nothing to do with “Superboy.” I was using an IATSE crew on a TV show called “Players,” a Dick Wolf show from ’97 with Ice-T. The guys had just built the set and they were going to use it the next day, and as a producer you have to go in and inspect it to make sure it’s OK. I’m looking at it and — Shit! I tell the guy who built it there had to be two exits and they only put in one. He goes like he’s going to say something and then turns away and he says “We’ll take care of it.” Sure enough they worked late and they did it. That’s why you want an IATSE crew. They’re amazing.