Herbie J Pilato: The Glory of Wonder Woman

by Herbie J Pilato

Her name is Lynda Carter, and on November 7, 1975, this former Miss U.S.A. debuted as Diana Prince in the TV-movie, The New, Original Wonder Woman.

This was the second take on the comic book character that was first brought to the small screen the previous year in a failed contemporary take on the concept which featured Cathy Lee Crosby as a blond Wonder Woman in a modern world, alongside Kaz Garas as love-interest Steve Trevor, and Ricardo Montalban (Kahn from the original and future Star Trek, and soon-to-be Mr. Roark from Fantasy Island) as the main villain.

Penned by John D.F. Black (another original Star Trek veteran), and directed by Disney veteran Vincent McEveety, this first edition of Wonder was similar to the powerless “I Ching” Diana Prince of the late 1960s but set in the then-current era of the 1970s.

While the film scored high ratings, ABC opted not to take it to series and instead, moved forward with Carter in a rebooted version that was developed by Douglas S. Cramer (former Vice-President of 20th Century-turned-Paramount-Studios/ABC-programming chief) and the prolific writer Stanley Ralph Ross (Batman, All in the Family, The Electric Company).

Set in the World War II era of the 1940s, this second pilot more closely replicated the original comic book concept created by Charles Moulton (who, among other things, also invented the lie-detectors test, thus, his inspiration for Wonder Woman’s truth-inducing magic lasso).

Lyle Waggoner, hot off of The Carol Burnett Show, was cast as U.S. Air Force Col. Steve Trevor, who crash-lands on Paradise Island, the utopian home of Amazonian princess Diana, who ultimately returns with him to America to help with the war effort to fight Nazis.

In the process, and with guidance from her mother (played by Cloris Leachman in the pilot film, and then Carolyn Jones and Beatrice Straight on the series), Diana begins her double life as Yeoman Diana Prince and Wonder Woman, a super-heroine who she retains her special abilities off the island by wearing her secret golden belt.  (Also in her arsenal: an invisible plane.)

This second pilot was a massive hit, significantly helped along by Cramer’s insistence that Carter play the part.  As he once told network executives of the actress, “She looks exactly like Wonder Woman should look, and if she is not cast in the role, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.”

The network wisely adhered to Cramer’s demand, and Carter, who studied all forms of dance, brought her poise to portraying Diana, including inventing the now-famous transforming spin that Diana utilized in literally turning into Wonder Woman.

Now basking in the solid success of their revamped super female re-do, ABC aired in April 1976 two additional Wonder Woman special adventures, each one-hour in length.  Those were followed in the fall by 11 additional segments, some of which aired on Saturday nights, while others pre-empted The Bionic Woman on Wednesday evenings.

The mid-week/hump-night strategy worked particularly well, as Bionic star Lindsay Wagner had been injured in an auto accident, which disrupted that show’s schedule.

By the spring of 1977, however, ABC was in a quandary:  as a period piece, Wonder Woman was an expensive series to produce, and the villains were limited to Nazis of the ‘40s.  By this time, the network now had two super female-geared shows in the form of Bionic and Wonder, and found it a challenge as which to choose.  Instead of selecting one or the other, they cancelled both, which were then picked up by rival networks.

In the fall of 1977, NBC aired the third season of The Bionic Woman, while CBS, upon inclination from Warner Bros. president Jerry Lieder, picked up the Wonder ball, as it were, and broadcast what became the second full-season of the newly-titled All-New Adventures of Wonder Woman.

Carter’s series was now based in the less-expensive-to-produce ‘70s, with her immortal Diana Prince and Wonder Woman (in a tweaked edition of the costume) performing alongside Steve Trevor, Jr., son of the original Trevor, and still played by Waggoner.

Gone were World War II secretary and comic-relief Etta Candy, played by the winning Beatrice Colen (former malt shop waitress on Happy Days), and Richard Eastman’s General Phil Blankeship, whose ‘40s command was usurped in the ‘70s by Joe Atkinson (played by Norman Burton, a.k.a. Normann Burton), Diana and Steve’s supervising agent for the I.A.D.C. (Inter-Agency Defense Command).

By the fall of 1978, the now-simply titled Wonder Woman played out its technically third and final season, while a fourth season was readied with a two-part episode called “The Man Who Could Not Die,” which aired out of sequence in August of 1977.

Here, Diana relocates to Los Angeles, and reports to a new supervising agent and an all-new cast.  CBS, however, decided not to renew the show, and the final segment, “The Phantom of the Roller Coaster,” finds Diana back in Washington once more under the supervision of Wagner’s Steve Trevor, Jr.

Forty years later, as Warner Bros. preps to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen with Gal Gadot in the lead, Carter’s popularity continues to soar with her live music shows and studio recordings, and other TV appearances such as her portrayal of United States President Olivia Marsden in the second season of the CBS-turned-CW  Supergirl series.

As the world waits for Carter’s presidential stance on Supergirl to twirl into Wonder Woman, the actress looks back on what made her version of the character an original across the board:

“She was about intellect and attitude, because it’s essentially about who she is as a human being or an Amazonian; that’s really who she is in the core of her being.  I tried to make the cliché a reality.  When the show first started it was a little tongue-in-cheek, everything and everyone around her was tongue-in-cheek.

“But I played her for real, and totally straight.  I did not play her with a wink.  I believed in her and what she was about.  I gave her a sense of humor about herself, so that she wouldn’t take herself too seriously…in terms of how other people reacted to her.

“And she certainly wasn’t a predatory female, as much as people have tried pigeonhole because she looks good.”

Carter is quick to point out that her Wonder Woman was feminine, caring, and compassionate, but that you also didn’t want to mess with her, and that the actress refused to “dumb down” Diana Prince.

“I played it like they wanted me to play in the first portion of the series,” she says.  “I knew that just by putting glasses on Diana no one was going to [be fooled into thinking she wasn’t Wonder Woman].  There wasn’t any mask or anything like that, so you had to suspend the belief that Wonder Woman and Diana are not the same person.”

“As the series progressed into the ‘70s,” Carter continues, “I wanted her to be [increasingly] capable and smart.  That was important to me.  She was about something [that mattered] …she can meet challenges.”  Carter sought for Wonder Woman to represent that “you could stand up for your rights…and that you don’t have to be or act like a man to do that.”

“She didn’t have any particularly-super x-ray vision or anything [along those lines],” Carter adds.  “She just wasn’t going to put up with anything from anybody.”

At the same time, Carter says she tried to show the character’s “vulnerability…that she was good and sweet.”

Wonder Woman was indeed kind, loyal and dedicated to her cause, which partially included the personage of Steve Trevor, certainly in the show’s initial 1940s segments.

Case in point:  In the two-part episode, “The Feminum Mystique” (which aired in November 1976, and involved a debuting teenage Debra Winger as Wonder Girl, Diana’s younger sister), Wonder Woman at one point finds herself running to catch an Air Force jet plane, literally, on an airstrip. She’s uncertain if the aircraft is manned by Waggoner’s Trevor (Sr.) or Nazi-incognito Peter Knight, played by Charles Frank.

No matter, she must pull-out all-stops to prevent that jet from leaving the ground.  Yet, before doing so, she turns to those listening and states in her most concerned and sincerest voice, “If it’s Steve, he’ll thank me.  If it’s not Steve, he’ll forgive me.”

Fortunately, it is not Steve, and Wonder Woman ends up halting the aircraft and preventing a disaster.  But once the dust settles, and all villains are captured, she once more speaks with earnest regarding Steve Trevor, praising his courage, and denying her own, stating simply, “Isn’t he wonderful.”

It’s those kinds of heartfelt moments that forever sealed Lynda Carter’s graceful and powerful place in pop-culture history as the best of what Wonder Woman has to offer.

Herbie J Pilato is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. You can learn more about him HERE. This article first appeared on the Emmys website.