The Thousand-Headed Man (almost) on film

Much has certainly been written about the Doc Savage film that never was. In brief, the story was that producers Mark Goodson & Bill Todman, interested in capitalizing on the success of the James Bond films, acquired the rights to Doc Savage from Conde Nast in 1966, and went into pre-production on a film, to be based on Lester Dent’s novel The Thousand-Headed Man. Then rising star (TV’s Rifleman) Chuck Connors was chosen for Doc, and other publicity items, like a comic-book adaptation of the film, were done.

Doc Savage, Gold Key, 1966

Rare to see a comic book with a James Bama cover! But of course the art was simply lifted from the painting done for the Bantam Books novel, zoomed in on the figure of Doc fighting the snake.

An article in Newsweek examines the Doc Savage paperback phenomenon (the tone of the article is anything but reverential…at one point it describes Lester Dent’s writing style like so: His style read as if he had a stopwatch in one hand and a thesaurus in the other!) But at the end of the article it discusses the upcoming film, which — despite the craze for camp at the time — would not be camp in tone! An odd reference to “missing cities”, I presume should have read lost cities.

Clipping from Newsweek article, 1966

The film of course was never made. Goodson-Todman discovered that they did not have the film rights after all…Conde Nast owned only the book publication rights. Lester Dent has retained control of any film to be done using Doc, and those rights had passed to his wife Norma after his death. She was apparently not averse to doing a deal, but instead the project was dropped (I can imagine the chaos between movie execs, Conde Nast execs, lawyers for both sides…)

A further legend about the film is that since the whole cast had been signed, they simply transferred the entire cast to another property that they did have the film rights to, a Western called Ride Beyond Vengeance.

How much of this is true and how much is Hollywood hearsay, I certainly don’t know. But the comic book is an intriguing artifact of that project. Written by Leo Dorman and drawn by Jack Sparling, it was actually a pretty skillful adaptation of the novel, managing in one issue to condense the novel without it feeling completely rushed (a problem with later Marvel novel adaptations). Sparling certainly was basing his visuals entirely on the James Bama depiction of Doc and his aides.

Despite getting Monk’s name wrong (calling him Blodgett, instead of Blodgett Mayfair), it was interesting to see the characters so utterly Bama-styled. Well, not entirely Bama-ized. Doc wears a normal business suit (as he does in the pulp magazines), and a white shirt with rolled up sleeves when in action scenes. Not a jodhpur to be seen. Doc’s hair was so light, apparently, due to limitations around Gold Key’s printing process. This was also responsible for the skin tone of the oriental characters. Monk’s hair should be red of course…a misinterpretation of the Bama black-and-white depiction of the aides on the back of the paperbacks. The setting had modern updates (jet planes, for instance), though when one looks down into the street below Doc on the page where he is clinging to the wall, the traffic does not appear to definitively be 60’s vehicles.

I have never read if Dorman was working from a film treatment provided by Goodson & Todman, or from the novel, in crafting his script. Dorman had quite a bit of experience doing film/TV-to-comics adaptations (like The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits).

A clever (if improbable) shift from the novel was to make the “black sticks” of the novel into mysterious black keys (best not to wonder too much how explorer Calvin Copeland had a key-shaped mold available…).

Inside front cover, Doc Savage, Gold Key 1966

The inset picture of Doc holding the keys is practically a line for line swipe of the back cover head portrait of Doc on all of the Bama paperbacks.

The comic, as promised by the Newsweek article, is done completely straight…no camp. So there is certainly a strong likelihood that the film would have been done in the same style. Here is the last page of the comic.

Doc Savage, Gold Key, 1966

And the inside of the back cover was also printed, with a seeming invitation to follow more exciting adventures to come.

It would be a while before Doc returned to comics, with the eight-issue Marvel run beginning in 1972. And Doc made it to the big screen in 1975. But it is fun to think of what might have been!

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