Did You Watch The 1987 TV Pilot For The Spirit?

Friends, nine years after Superman made audiences believe a man could fly and two years before Michael Keaton would portray the Dark Knight in the box office juggernaut that was Batman – Sam J. Jones (Flash Gordon) donned the domino mask and brightly colored business suit attire of Will Eisner’s The Spirit in a TV pilot film. Featuring Nana Visitor (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Bumper Robinson (Transformers: Animated), Garry Walberg (Quincy M.E.), and Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia) to name a few – it was a fun if most assuredly cheesy attempt at bringing the iconic comic book character to the small screen in a regular series.

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My Grandfather and I caught The Spirit when it was originally broadcast on the evening of July 31st of 1987 on ABC. There was no way I was going to miss a comic book character TV movie – although I will have to admit I had only a passing knowledge of the comic book icon at the time. I could not know that eleven years later I would be able to ask Will Eisner in person what he felt about the television adaptation of his character – his response was genuine – that he wasn’t too thrilled with it. Although I should add that when I shared my memory of watching it with my Grandfather – he said that he was extremely happy to hear that the pilot generated such a positive memory.

I’ll leave the importance of Will Eisner to the comic book industry to those who are better equipped to speak on the matter. I can tell you that the TV movie for The Spirit was completed in 1986 – reading online it was meant to be broadcast in September of ’86 – but was shelved when there was a change in the staff line up after ABC was sold to Capital Cities Communications in ’85. The Spirit was aired thanks to comic book fans – as you can read in greater detail in this 2017 article by Mike Cecchini for Den of Geek – when a petition was started and signed by attendees of the San Diego Comic-Con in ’86!

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Directed by Michael Schultz (Car Wash, The Last Dragon) in 16 days, the teleplay was courtesy of Steven E. de Souza – probably best known for penning the scripts for the likes of Commando, The Running Man, and the first two films in the Die Hard series. So the TV movie definitely had more than a few scenes of the Spirit trading blows with the various thugs and henchman that crossed his path… as well as becoming barechested quite a bit in the one hour and fourteen minute running time.

At the moment you can watch The Spirit on the DC Universe app – although as I understand it you will be able to check it out on HBO Max next year after January 21st. It really is a fun movie – it might not completely stick the landing – but after watching the film you can’t help but wonder where the series would have gone if it had been picked up. While I am not attempting to be negative I will admit that I feel the 1987 TV Pilot for The Spirit is a far better version of the character than the big budget 2008 picture starring Gabriel Macht, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, and Sarah Paulson.

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Check Out This 1980 Pencil Test For The Spirit Animated Film!

The Spirit Animated Pencil Test - 1980 - Brad Bird

Friends, I am a devotee to pretty much all forms of animation – although some of my favorites are what I would consider to be the classics such as the theatrical shorts by Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, as well as the likes of Disney’s Nine Old Men. It was at Walt Disney Studios that a young Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) after graduating the animation program at CalArts found work. A few of his early credits include Disney’s The Small One, which was a theatrical short film released in 1978 along with the re-release of Pinocchio. As well as acting as an animator on the ’80s Animalympics, The Fox and the Hound in ’81, and even the emotionally charged The Plague Dogs in ’82. Why, back in 1990 he acted as the animation Director for the “Bart Simpson: Do the Bartman” music video – three years after he had delivered Family Dog for Amazing Stories.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdntmGp7lO4
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As I’ve read though on Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Research – in an article by Jim Korkis from December of 2019, Brad Bird was not happy with the direction of animation at Disney after he had been hired. A similar feeling that Don Bluth, who was animation Director for The Small One, apparently shared as he left the studio in 1979 – on his 42nd birthday. Although it would appear that Brandon Bird was not one of the 16 artists from the Walt Disney Studios that Bluth would convince to join him in his exodus to create their own company, as 1985’s The Black Cauldron was the last Disney project Bird worked on until 2004 with Pixar’s The Incredibles.

It turns out that in 1980, Bird was ready to try and change the direction of animated features and shorts, attempting to get backing on some projects he wanted to work on. We know this thanks to Korkis’ article on Cartoon Research which includes a letter to Steven Spielberg, which is dated April 11th of that year. Also included with that letter was a reel of rough animation – that Bird points out took about five months to complete – worked on by himself as well as some fellow animators. One of those projects that Bird was interested in pursuing was an animated film for Will Eisner’s iconic comic strip character The Spirit. In total the pencil test runs just a tad over three minutes in length… but there is an amazing amount of love for the comic book universe that Eisner created and even in this rough state it shows it definitely had potential!

Video and Article Image Provided by Steven Paul Leiva.