A boxer comes to David’s aid when he is mugged and then finds him work at a gym, but the gloves are off when it’s discovered that the boss is also a drug dealer.
In November, 1977 CBS aired two pilot films of The Incredible Hulk TV series. The first was the pilot movie telling the origins of how David Banner became The Incredible Hulk. The second, called Return of The Incredible Hulk, and renamed Death in the Family for syndication, was the first episode showing the formula the rest of the series would follow.
When those two TV movies were a hit in the ratings, CBS ordered a full pick-up of The Incredible Hulk as a weekly TV series, but since no regular episodes of The Incredible Hulk were made pending Return of The Incredible Hulk’s ratings, fans had a long wait before the green Goliath would again grace their television screens.
Finally, in March of 1978, the first weekly episode of The Incredible Hulk was broadcast: Final Round.
It’s lucky The Incredible Hulk had the preceding two TV movies before it, because as a first episode this one is quite ridiculous, and incredibly dumb.
It begins with David Banner (Bill Bixby), on the run, and arriving in Wilmington, Delaware…or a reasonable Universal Studios back-lot facsimile thereof. A quick Google search tells me Wilmington has a very high crime rate, something David finds out pretty quickly as he is mugged within minutes of his arrival in the city.
The three gang members drag David into an alley and start to beat him, and I am expecting a very early episode Hulk-Out. But series creator and episode writer Kenneth Johnson played me well! Before David’s transformation can begin a stranger clad in a gray sweatsuit comes to David’s aid.
The stranger is Henry Welsh. Calling himself “Rocky”, Welsh wants to be “a contender, like all those other Rockies”. The problem is–he can’t fight. His girlfriend Mary knows it, the other fighters at the gym know it, everybody knows it but Rocky. In a clumsy scene where someone’s car just so happens to have broken down we’re shown Rocky does have a talent for fixing engines, but his dream of a heavyweight belt has him rejecting a job at a garage owned by Mary’s brother.
Welsh is played by Martin Kove, best known for his role as The Karate Kid‘s evil sensei John Kreese. Before he played the Karate teacher for rich kids of Reseda, Kove played an aspiring boxer in The Incredible Hulk and it’s amusing to see him try to put on a bad fake accent here. Less believable than the accent is Rocky’s behavior. In the first five minutes of seeing this character, I hate him. I hate him because he makes me feel dumb. First, he invites David back to his apartment, and his every word and action sell him as being a boxer. He can’t walk back to his apartment–he has to bounce like a fighter the whole way. And he can’t be named Hank. Despite there having been Hank Armstrong, Henry Hank, and many other boxers named Henry, this Henry wants to be “Rocky”. Why? Not because of Rocky Marciano specifically but because of “all those other Rockies”. Like Balboa? Who was in theaters the year before?
So it has hit me within Rocky’s first few lines that this script is lazy, but like an uppercut it’s hammered home when, during the run back to Rocky’s apartment, there just happens to be someone outside with a dead car that Rocky fixes instantly. Immediately this entire story’s arc is completely evident. I know every “what” and just need the “how”.
The laziness continues as Rocky, for no apparent reason other than he’s a good guy, offers David both a place to stay and a job. While I do like David’s cover story of having been a medic while serving in Viet Nam, it’s far too convenient a way to integrate David into Rocky’s everyday life. Through David we learn that Rocky is a terrible boxer but a really nice guy, and that gym owner Mr. Sariego is using Rocky to deliver mysterious packages across town. Rocky thinks the packages are gambling related, but we find out the truth.
Hulk-Out #1: David is keeping Rocky company on one of the deliveries, and they are ambushed. The muggers from the first scene found out where Rocky worked and they wanted revenge. They beat up David and push him into some garbage, then turn their back and gang up on Rocky, allowing David to conveniently transform unseen.
The transformation is very primitive compared to later seasons. We get the white eyes, but they color Bill Bixby’s face with an animated green glow as they did in the pilot films. Then the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) stands up–wearing very different pants…no seam down the front. Hulk is still in his green wig and makeup with the large forehead and eyebrows as seen in the pilot, a look that evolves as the season goes on.
After knocking down the muggers, Hulk then leans over Rocky and starts to growl. It’s an odd scene as the Hulk has never before threatened to any of David’s friends, but here are left to we wonder what Hulk might do. But one of the muggers attacks from behind, and Rocky is left alone, save for the bag Hulk stepped on revealing Rocky has been transporting heroin for Mr. Sariego.
The rest of the Hulk fight is fairly entertaining. The Hulk throws one guy through a car roof, crushes a garbage can lid, and then when the thugs try to run Hulk chases them through a brick wall! It’s a shame the DVD shows so clearly that the bricks were just stacked, not mortared in any way, but my memory of Hulk is always running through walls and this is his first full-on Kool-Aid Man moment. (Yes in Death in the Family he knocks out part of a wall, but that’s the part next to a window.)
After the fight we see Hulk transform back into David with some fades, bad false eyebrows on Bixby, and the green glow again. After returning to his human form, David sees the white powder on his feet, and has a memory of the Hulk stepping on Rocky’s bag. So here we see that David at least retains some memories of what was done as the Hulk, in contrast to what we saw in the pilot movie.
Rocky doesn’t want to be used to run drugs, but in a moment that makes the character less sympathetic he refuses to go to the cops immediately. First he decides to leverage this knowledge. He confronts Sariego, who then offers Rocky a championship fight against champ Bill Cole–a fight that not only Rocky thinks he can win. Worse, Sariego intends for the fight to actually kill Rocky. In the most silly plot twist yet, Sariego went to his heroin supplier to get a liquid that, when mixed with Rocky’s water, will cause Rocky’s already high blood pressure to spike. That, combined with the exertion of the fight, will cause Rocky to have a heart attack and Sariego will be minus one snitch.
David overhears this nefarious and inane plot, so Cole, working for Sariego, knocks David out with one punch. That was actually a twist I liked–we’ve seen David has to be beaten quite a bit to transform, so a boxer who can deliver a one-punch K.O. shows that David is not invincible. When unconscious he could be hurt or killed without transforming.
But that one good idea for the plot is then quickly undone as the criminals first decide to wait until after the boxing match to kill David, and then think the only good place where they can hide their captive is, of course, in a wrestler’s cage hung in the rafters above the boxing match. Not a closet, not the basement, not an office, but out in the open in a room filled with thousands of people.
Thousands of people, including Mr. Jack McGee (Jack Colvin), reporter for the National Register. After the initial Hulk sightings, McGee came to Wilmington. Due to the Register’s impressive sports section he ends up being convinced to cover Rocky’s fight. Sitting next to an annoying boxing promoter, McGee shows no interest in the fight until
Hulk-Out #2: David awakens in his cage, tied up above the fight. Rocky is taking a severe beating and, knowing Rocky will die, David begins to transform. This time we get the button-popping, seam-ripping transformation (but still the green blob on David’s face). The Hulk then rips the bars off the cage and leaps into the ring in the best scene of the episode.
Colvin’s facial expression is priceless during these Hulk scenes. While everyone else around him thinks this is all part of the show, Jack shows fear and recognition. A smile plays across his face as if he can smell the riches he will get by breaking this story.
Cole, who knocked David out with one punch, hits Hulk in the ribs, and is slapped off his feet, into the air, out of the ring, and lands in the lap of McGee and the fight promoter. While subtle, this is great comedic use of the Hulk, undermined only by repeated shots of Hulk mugging and growling into a fish-eye lens.
Sariego and his goon Wilt flee, and the Hulk goes after, but is stopped by the boxing promoter who wants to sign Hulk for a show. For his enthusiasm, Hulk throws the promoter up in the rafters to dangle from a bar, which seems a bit extreme given the offense, but I think this is all now being played for comedy not action.
But Colvin again steals the scene. Sitting next to the promoter he is always in frame, and Hulk even flexes and growls at McGee. Colvin’s facial expression is not one of fear; he’s downright giddy to be seeing the creature again. When Hulk runs after Sariego, everyone sits stunned except McGee, who chases after the Hulk.
Hulk knocks a door down on Wilt, and throws Sariego across the room, and by the laws of 70’s television that means the fight is over. And truthfully I feel a bit bad seeing an old man beaten up by a bodybuilder, even if the old man was a heroin dealer. It looks like Hulk may smash the man further, but they are interrupted by McGee, Rocky, and a dozen others who think they have the Hulk trapped in Sariego’s office. So Hulk jumps through the window in a great shot, and runs off down an alleyway into the night.
The episode concludes the next day with David packing to leave and saying goodbye to Rocky and Mary. In the chaos the police found out about Sariego’s drug dealing, and gave Rocky immunity in exchange for testimony. Also, having faced a champ, Rocky realizes he’s no boxer. He takes on the name of “Henry” and accepts the job as a mechanic. But with Mr. McGee sniffing around, David must say his goodbyes.
So with McGee coming in one door of the gym, David walks out another as the Lonely Man theme plays.
For a first episode this sets the bar fairly low. Plagued with silly plot twists, cartoonish characters, and a complete aping of the movie Rocky for a plot, this show is the epitome of what I consider 70’s television cheese. But both Hulk-Outs are fulled with well shot action, and Jack Colvin steals the show (in slo-mo) with his performance here as McGee. The final boxing scene is a lot of fun, but I can’t get past the set-up so I give this episode a mild not recommend.