Friday, January 27, 2012

Going to Court, Part I: If the Mask Fits, Wear It!

The Salt Palace, home of the 1993 NBA All-Star Game and Jam Session

I wasn’t even aware Marvel’s Personal Appearance Program had commissioned a new Hulk costume. Not that I was surprised. The one in use looked like a Muppet on steroids with a facial expression like that of someone who’d just had their first good dump in more than a week. Wearing the thing was akin to being swallowed by a giant teddy bear, its innards molding itself around the user like a memory-foam mattress.

But the worst part was the odor, a faint combination of vomit, old mayonnaise and musk that became geometrically more acute the longer someone portrayed the character. The suit was dutifully sent out for professionally cleaning following every gig, but the bacteria that accumulated after four hours of wear—the standard Hulk business day—entrenched itself so firmly in the depth of the costume’s padding that even the most Spartan treatment couldn’t extinguish every trace of the cause. And that remaining ember simply multiplied between each washing, so the results steadily worsened over time. Fortunately, the stench was contained within the suit. Still, the Jade Giant reeking wouldn’t necessarily be out of character. He wasn’t the sort to take baths, after all.

There were only two actors—Mark Grayson and Gary Schneider—who played The Hulk since I started at the company. But neither expressed a hint of the onus that accompanied the donning of the green. The way they clambered into the get-up without the least bit of hesitation or complaint, then interacted with their adoring public, you’d suspect the experience was downright euphoric. Maybe the heady bouquet that enveloped them while in the costume made them high. It had to be something. I tried the mask on once and felt as if I’d walked into a frat house the night after a toga party. No thank you, sir; I will not have another!

Imagine my surprise when I was asked into the office of the department’s director, Alison, and on her desk sat a glowing fluorescent-green head. Though the hue was more akin to tennis balls than that of the character’s signature color, the mask’s cement-block cranial structure, unkempt shock of black hair and menacing mien told me at once that this was the Hulk. Its presence could only mean that finally Marvel had ponied up the money for a new costume. And a hefty chunk of change from the look of the updated head.


“Cool!” I exclaimed, the reason for my summoning overwhelmed by the moment of “geek” I was experiencing.

“Try it on,” Alison instructed as she handed me the chartreuse noggin. She seemed as giddy as Carrie showing off a new pair of Manolo’s to Miranda and the gang. Little did I suspect the sinister underpinnings of her excitement.

The head was constructed of a molded foam latex—soft to the touch and pliable—a far cry from the hard, sculpted, cloth-covered topper of the original suit. The hair and eye brows were either real or an amazing simulation, a more authentic alternative to the frayed yarn-like substance used before. And its teeth—yes, Virginia, the Hulk has teeth—were solid; I’m unnerved thinking about what they may have been made out of or from whom or what they were obtained! Regardless, their mere presence bumped the latest Green Behemoth’s IQ several points. No banjo playing on a porch in the Ozarks for him!

There was the merest hesitation as I raised the mask to my head; a sudden flash of the old skull’s unpleasant aroma. I suppressed the urge to duck behind the desk yelling “Incoming!” and slipped it on. A vertical slit along the back of the neck facilitated the job. The green bean fit perfectly, and unlike its predecessor which offered limited vision through its goofy toothless grin, this design’s eyeholes lined up evenly with the wearer’s, offering excellent sight. My nose conformed nicely with the nasal niche, too, the mask’s nostrils matching my own. This meant breathing fresh air as opposed to the stuff tainted by the effluvium of the former suit’s cranium. It was as if the thing were fashioned from my own skull.

“Well, how does it feel?” Alyson asked with anticipation, her eyes a twinkle like a grifter closing in on a mark.

“This is great,” I replied. “Much more comfortable than the old costume.”

Nutting as the Green Behemoth with veteran Spidey Jeremy

I was surprised when Alyson revealed that the mask was molded from Grayson’s head. Sure, he was one of Marvel’s go-to Hulk actors, but his head was rounder than mine, which is more narrow. Then a couple of years ago—after re-connecting with another former Marvel character actor, Mark Nutting on Facebook—I discovered that it was he on whom Bruce Banner’s infamous alter-ego’s noggin was fashioned. I’d only assumed it was Grayson’s, because Nutting most often portrayed Captain America—a damn fine Cap he was too—and had never performed as The Hulk to my knowledge. It’s a wonder us character thesps never suffered from multiple-personality disorder!

Nutting’s face was prominently vertical and angular with a chiseled, manly jaw—much like the thinner character in the classic, computer-animated Dire Straits video for “Money for Nothing”—which made him perfect for the Star-Spangled Avenger. While also shaped more north-to-south than east-to-west, the mien of Yours Truly would be described as less manly, more Muttley. And my jaw line appeared as if it were molded from Play-Doh. There was a reason they kept me in a mask!

It was then that I noticed Alyson’s over-the-top enthusiasm. She’d always enjoyed showing me cool new things the department was working on because, as the only comic-book geek among the performers, I got downright giddy whenever she revealed the latest, and she’d get a thrill from the inevitable Snoopy dance I’d go into. But she was nigh-salivating and on the edge of creepy upon discovering the updated Hulk topper fit me.

“Why?” I finally asked, narrowing my eyes.

Turns out my suspicions were correct—she was up to something—but the fears that accompanied them were unfounded. Alyson was looking for an actor to portray The Hulk at that year’s NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Nutting was unavailable. It hadn’t dawned on me until later, that much like the prince’s attempts to find the damsel with the foot that fit the glass slipper in Cinderella, Alyson had gone through a string of my fellow performers before getting to me. How else to explain her intense relief when I slipped on the Hulk head so effortlessly? Okay, so I wasn’t Alyson’s first choice… or second… or third… But I didn’t care; I was the one going to the NBA All-Star Game!

More precisely, it was the “NBA Jam Session”—a week of basketball-themed festivities leading up to the big game—at which the Hulk, along with fellow superheroes Spider-Man and Wolverine, would be appearing. But it was an important event nonetheless. No surprise, veteran Jeremy would be donning the webbed red-and-blue. And although I can’t recall the name of the Wolverine performer—I’ll call him “Joe” for the purposes of telling the tale—I do remember his portrayal of the feisty Canadian mutant as being spot-on. Out of costume, Joe was funny and a pleasure to hang with. The fact that we were hand-chosen by the director of the department for this auspicious appearance spoke volumes. Alyson would also be on hand, further proof of the gig’s gravitas. Us heroes were to be on our best behaviors. Not that we were ever anything less.

I know what you’re thinking my ever astute Bloglodytes: my selection had more to do with fitting the Hulk costume. But truth be told, Alyson was not about to jeopardize this major undertaking with anyone less than someone in which she had the utmost confidence. She would’ve dropped the character from the gig entirely had she not found the right person for the job. I’d been with her as Spider-Man two years earlier at Super Bowl XXV (see “Football Hero”), so my worth at VIP affairs had been proven. Still, I had more than a few years as Spidey under my belt when I was selected for that job and this would be my virginal portrayal as Bruce Banner’s Gamma-irradiated alter-ego.

Yours Truly as ole Jade Jaws, posing with Wolvie before hitting the court. The nifty NBA bag at lower left was awaiting each of us heroes when we checked into the hotel;
it was filled with All-Star Game souvenirs,
including caps and t-shirts.

There was less worry about the fit of the rest of the costume. Like the walking sofa that preceded it, the new Hulk suit was one size fits all, that size being the one all the actors—except the Wolverines who were noticeably shorter—conformed to. The torso was much like Iron Man’s chest piece, a hard molded shell which rested upon the wearer’s shoulder’s, but otherwise barely touched the performer therein. Thus, one did not feel like the meat stuffed into a sausage casing as was the case with the suit of old.

Once donned, the performer’s hips shared in carrying the weight of the piece, which included the shoulders and extended to the elbow joint. From that point the forearm and hands—each combined in single pieces—were sculpted from the same rubber used in the facial construction. These lower ulnal segments were removed only at the cleaners, meaning the actor stepped into the upper body maneuvering his appendages down the arm cavities much like a doctor being helped into his surgical gown.

The chest cavity encircled the neck base—the rear slit of which could not be seen behind the mask’s thick mullet—which extended a few inches past the collar bone. It connected with an eyehook at the top and a heavy-duty zipper running down the spine. The Jade Giant’s hands fit like a glove… literally. The actor’s fingers slipping into their psychedelic verdigris counterparts, enabling movement of the digits. I wouldn’t be playing the piano as the character, but I could open and close my fists.

Covered segments on the chest, sculpted to emulate musculature, effected the Hulk’s massive irradiated physique. The rubber areas were also designed as such—there was even a large artery running down the underside of each forearm—and accentuated with airbrushing. A frayed shirt—fastened with well-placed and minuscule transparent snaps—ably cloaked the spinal zipper and the connective openings at the elbows.

The Incredible Hulk issue—#402, cover dated February 1993—which was on sale at the time of the NBA All-Star Game

Since the dramatis personae needed mobility, the butt and upper leg area was not rigidly constructed, but rather similar to the costume of yore: padding, cleverly camouflaged by the character’s signature concord capris. No belt was needed. An adjustable set of two-inch-wide canvas suspenders affixed to the pants held them in place and aided in carrying the weight of the torso. The female side of a strip of Velcro sewn into the waistband of the Jade Giant’s Jordaches attached to its male counterpart, which circumnavigated the base of the torso, concealing the gap where the two body segments met.

Only the femoral section of the leg was padded. The wearer’s knees were left unimpaired for maneuverability but again hidden by the pant legs, which extended several inches past the patella. Back to the hard molded material of the torso for the calves and feet, the bottom of which were lined with heavy rubber treads, which elevated the wearer three inches, ensuring the hero’s hulking over most everyone around him. But the Great Green Galoot’s massive tootsies were designed in such a way as to appear actual—albeit gigantic—without so much as a hint of industrial sole showing.

The brilliant Hulk design came out of California-based costume creators, Shafton, Inc., the same company that later created the awesome Thing suit and less-than-perfect re-imagined Iron Man ensemble (see “The Thing Is” Parts I, II, III, IV, V and VI). The whole enchilada was massive and would needed crating; a mere duffel bag would not do. But it was a tremendous costume, far cooler than its predecessor. Unfortunately, it was no less heavy. Still, the new suit wouldn’t be sopping up the performer’s sweat, increasing its mass as a gig progressed. And thankfully, the breathing was vastly improved over the previous model—no vomitous stench!

Shafton, Inc. crafted this Sleestak ensemble for the release of the the Land of the Lost movie

Now I had to find my inner Hulk; how would I interpret the character?

Gary stuck to the na├»ve, child-in-a-giant’s-body approach most remember from the comics: a simple-minded keg of dynamite, easily set off by the grandest attack or the merest misunderstanding. Of course, his portrayal never encompassed the former aspect and worked well with the previous suit’s stuffed-toy design and bubble-headed visage. Grayson’s Hulk was similarly child-like, but more of a youth with a severe case of ADD. He’d barrel through throngs of kids and wrestle them like a full-grown Bull Mastiff that had retained the wits of a puppy.

As with my characterizations for other heroes I’d portrayed, my Hulk would draw inspiration from the costume and the Green Behemoth’s current representation in the comics. Temper that with the general public’s perception of the character, which was part 70’s TV series—Lou Ferrigno’s savage unspeaking id to Bill Bixby’s calm scientist super-ego—and Stan Lee’s early “Hulk smash!” representation, and you can envision my take on the Jade Giant.

Much like the creature in the TV series, the updated
Hulk costume sported a mullet

By 1993, under the deft hands of popular scribe Peter David since the 80s, The Hulk had gone through a series of personality alterations, from deep-green, mindless, super-rampager to charcoal-gray, less powerful canny schemer to a melding of all that’s gone before, including Bruce Banner, the root from which the other’s bloomed. He’d become a lime-green—emulating the new togs—intelligent powerhouse who you still wouldn’t like when he was angry. Unfortunately, the hoi polloi were unfamiliar with this aspect, so I occasionally spoke in the third person and threw in some bad grammar to boot to satisfy the ignorant. The voice was gruff, but not evil; pure Grover when confronting wee ones, but with a trace of Oscar the Grouch’s snide tone when dealing with adults.

“Hulk think Tin Man is pain in groin!”

More unwieldy and less graceful than Daisy Fuentes, portraying the Hulk would be far removed from playing Spider-Man. Gone was the freedom and agility of the Web-Spinner. Normal stairs were out and I’d have to be vigilant in confined spaces. I’d also be dealing with heat issues for the first time . . . heft! Moving about with an additional thirty pounds or so was the type of workout to which I was unaccustomed. But at least the suit wasn’t painful to wear, like Iron Man’s, and surprisingly, it offered arguably the best vision of any of the costumes which included headpieces in their designs.

Pshaw! Piece o’ cake!

NEXT: A Stranger Walks Among Us!