When we look at the whole universe of DC Comics characters, it’s very easy to pick out who the big three are…Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. However, while there have been numerous film and TV incarnations of the two male members of that trifecta, DC has struggled to bring Wonder Woman to the screen. Both the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader have been appearing in movies since the 1940’s. With Wonder Woman, things took much longer. She actually didn’t make her big-screen debut until 2014, in of all things The LEGO Movie. For all her struggles when it comes to movies, Wonder Woman did, however, have a very iconic television incarnation in the mid 70’s that gave many children of my generation their definitive version of the character.
Wonder Woman debuted in comics in December of 1941, just as the US was entering World War II. She was the creation of a psychologist, William Moulton Marston, who saw great potential in the medium of comics. He wrote an article on the subject which attracted the attention of comics publisher Max Gaines. He gave Marston the opportunity to create his own superhero. The psychologist’s wife suggested the character should be a woman and Wonder Woman was born. By the way, one of Marston’s other credits was creating an early version of the polygraph machine. Interesting when you consider Wonder Woman’s ability to make people tell the truth with her magic lasso.
Wonder Woman would quickly become a very popular comics character. She starred in both her own series of comic books and was one of the headliners of the original incarnation of the Justice League of the America. The first attempt to bring her to the screen, though, came over 25 years after her debut. In 1967, with his Batman TV series a ratings champ, producer William Dozier was commissioned to create a Wonder Woman pilot in the same style as Batman. A script was written and a five minute portion of it was actually filmed. It featured Elle Wood Walker as Diana Prince (Wonder Woman’s alter ego) and Linda Harrison (who would appear as Nova in Planet of the Apes the following year) as Wonder Woman. This short test was called Who’s Afraid of Diana Prince? It never aired and the project did not advance further.
Another attempt was made in 1974 when ABC aired a made for TV movie simply called Wonder Woman. This version of the character was quite a bit different from how we usually picture Wonder Woman. To start with, she was played by Cathy Lee Crosby, who is blonde, whereas our favorite Amazon princess typically has very dark locks. This Wonder Woman also did not wear the character’s traditional costume or seem to have any sort of superpowers. The movie was intended to be the start of a series, but even though the ratings were respectable, it was not picked up. Warner Brothers, though, was not done trying.
Just a year and half later, on November 7, 1975, ABC aired a new Wonder Woman pilot movie. This version was given the awkward title of The New Original Wonder Woman. Despite this strangely titled debut, the series was picked up and began airing regularly on ABC in April of 1976. Unlike the Cathy Lee Crosby version from the previous year, this new concept stayed truer to Wonder Woman’s comic book roots. It would focus on her adventures as both Wonder Woman and Yeoman Diana Prince alongside Major Steve Trevor. In a unique move the series was set during World War II, so storylines were often about defeating Nazi threats stateside.
Starring as both Wonder Woman and Diana was a former beauty queen named Lynda Carter. After being a semifinalist in the 1972 Miss World pageant, Carter took some acting classes and began appearing in a few TV roles. She also appeared in a low-budget crime film called Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw which was released just before Wonder Woman began airing. The film has earned a bit of a cult status, in no small part because it features the only nude scenes of Carter’s career. Despite her limited acting experience at the time she was cast, Carter really excelled as Wonder Woman. Her natural charisma is undeniable and she is arguably the primary reason this series remains so endearing.
Also appearing in the series was Lyle Waggoner as Major Steve Trevor. Waggoner had appeared on many television programs throughout the late 60’s and early 70’s, but was probably most notable for being a regular on The Carol Burnett Show from 1967 to 1974. The first season also featured Beatrice Colen as Etta Candy (a character with origins in the Wonder Woman comics) and Richard Eastham as General Blankenship.
There were only 13 episodes in season 1 of Wonder Woman. Though ratings were decent, ABC dragged their feet on renewing the series. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers entertained an offer from CBS. They agreed to pickup the series on the condition that it now be set in present day rather than the 1940’s. Period pieces were more expensive to produce, you see. The change was made and when the fall TV season began in 1977, Wonder Woman had jumped to CBS. Moving forward in time was no problem for Wonder Woman, who is basically ageless, but Steve Trevor (still played by Waggoner) was now actually Steve Trevor Jr., son of the previous character. From this point on the series was officially known as The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. A few more changes were made in the series’ third season to try and appeal more to a teenage audience, but ratings gradually declined. The series ended after three seasons and a total of 59 episodes, plus the pilot movie. The series regularly aired in syndication throughout the 80’s and 90’s. All three seasons are currently available on DVD, and the 1974 Cathy Lee Crosby pilot is also available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.
Lynda Carter would go on to a variety of other projects in the years since this series, but for many she will always be remembered first and foremost as Wonder Woman. Over the years she has appeared on many TV shows, on stage, and has recorded several albums. She was also the guest star on a 1980 episode of The Muppet Show which I consider to be the series’ absolute best. Inspired by her most famous role, the Muppets all decide to become superheroes themselves, using an instructional book called Invincibility Made Easy. Miss Piggy even appears in a skit as Wonder Pig.
I don’t think anyone is going to make the case that Wonder Woman was the height of the television medium…even putting aside the lower production standards of the 1970’s. However, it is a series remembered fondly by many who experienced it back in the day. Whether you tuned in for some comic book style adventure brought to life, or because Lynda Carter looked dang good in that outfit, it was a series that provided a lot of fun. Next time we’ll begin going through the show episode by episode by looking at the series’ pilot, The New Original Wonder Woman.