[Note: This review was conducted a little while back on an older site but we felt the need for the life to be breathed right back into it, just as should be done to the amazing series that was AUTOMAN]
Every generation is defined by the icons of it’s childhood. Those of you in your 20’s probably live your lives based on the moral values of The Golden Girls and The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. You are filled with hope, love, sass and friendship.
I, however, am in my 30’s and was raised on Cop Rock and Duran Duran, psychologically-speaking, I’m 31-flavours of fucked up.
If the 80’s were to be believed, right about now, I should be living in a world where the greatest weekend of my life would involve comically fooling around with a dead-body and true love would be found in the fuck holes of a shop-floor-mannequin.
Knight-Rider, Manimal, Quantum Leap, Star Cops and Battlestar Galactica promised a ‘very near future’ filled with hope and lasers. But apparently they lied. NASA just announced a 30% cut in its space exploration budget reducing the chances of us rescuing Buck Rogers from ‘VERY’ to ‘absolutely-fucking-never’, and as far as I know, the current government have no plans to lower crime figures via Airwolves and Streethawks. It may have all been a insane dream, but it was the best of crazy dreams.
I lived in a decade where evil was kept at bay by crazy heroes in ridiculous vehicles. It comforted me to think that while bad-guys were out there plotting their evil deeds, Michael Knight was also out there driving a car thats tires smelled of crime’s ass.
T J HOOKER, ALF, MR T and Jan Michael Vincent were what got me through those long dark nights.
But the brightest heroic light of all was AUTOMAN.
AUTOMAN was a HUGE part of my childhood and you probably remember AUTOMAN in conversations that start with the phrase ‘I DON’T FUCKING REMEMBER AUTOMAN?’
AUTOMAN wasn’t a particularly well known character. He came out at a time when we were all at least 12 channels deep in A-Team and Macguyver and he was competing with at least a hundred other shows involving someone fighting crime with a robot car or with the power to turn into a ….. Panther.
But AUTOMAN WAS AWESOME!
AUTOMAN’s plot was the sort of madness that made ’80s TV so special. Walter Nebicher was a cop who was better with hard-drives than he was at not-screwing up. Taken off the streets by his disapproving chief, he was relegated to fighting crime from behind a computer keyboard. Now history shows that if an ’80s man is trapped in a room filled with computer screens and terminals covered in blinking lights, he has only 2 options: Start a Thermo-nuclear war or build a robot. Walter absolutely chose the latter. Utilizing several thousand databases of unpaid parking tickets and photo-fits of suspected rapists, he created our planet’s first unkillable-glowing-computer-cop. AUTOMAN exploded out of the screen complete with a laser-car, an impossible helicopter and a flying sidekick who could create ANYTHING his adventures required. The first time I saw the show, I suspected the producers had been stealing pages out of my boner’s hope journal.
Despite ‘Hologram-Policeman technology’ being light years ahead of our primitive ‘make a god-damn-bit-of-sense’ technology, AUTOMAN was portrayed with handsome, straight-faced believability by Tennesseeian actor Chuck Wagner.
Chuck played Automan for the full run of the series until it was cancelled and presumably fired into the sun. But what does a man do after a year of pretending to be a policeman made up of downloaded police reports on burglaries and sex-crimes? BROADWAY!!!!!!
Almost 3 decades after the show, we find Chuck Wagner as a respected and dedicated musical-theatre actor. If knowing all the words to ‘KISS ME KATE’ was a martial art, Chuck would have a Black Belt in Jazz-handery. He left his days of holographic-crime-fighting long behind him and recently embarked on a new touring-production of ‘ANYTHING GOES’.
His passion and dedication to his art is something to be admired and respected, and obviously, given the opportunity to speak to him about the Broadway show, I was totally going to get hammered and talk to him about AUTOMAN. Here is that interview:
My name is Fred Fletch.
I think it’s only fair to warn you that this interview is likely to be a little on the unusual side. Please be assured that there is as much love for you in me as there is Vodka and what we are about to do here is hopefully going to be pretty special.
In terms of ‘professional journalism’, I’d be quicker traveling back in time and punching Joseph Pulitzer’s mother in the face.
I’m really not a journalist, more of a ‘thing’ that editors unleash if they want to give a PR team a seizure.
The following questions came from a place you can only reach through drinking and NETFLIX. It’s kind of like reaching Neverland via happy thoughts but instead of ending up with fairy dust, all i get is the Mexican Halloween of hangovers
I was asked to interview you based on my background in ’80s culture and my professional credential in knowing exactly what the fuck an ‘AUTOMAN’ was. I have a Degree in Milli Vanilli and pretty much all of my DVD collection are movies about Andrew McCarthy having sex with a Mannequin and things that rhyme with ‘POLICE ACADEMY’. I couldn’t be more ’80s if I ate Urkel’os and shit Rubik’s cubes.
The 80’s were exactly 32 years ago and I know the days of glow-in-the-dark mobster-punching are long behind you. You are now a successful, acclaimed and serious star of Broadway stage with outstanding performances in some of our planet’s most exciting Dracula-based musicals. You cut your teeth in the Three Musketeers alongside the robot from Star Trek and even contributed towards ‘Into The Woods’ winning a Grammy in 1987. You have established yourself as a confident and passionate performer. Respected and admired in your field…….So I’d like to ask you about the 13 episodes where you played a crime-fighting-computer Hologram.
AUTOMAN played a huge part in my childhood. I grew up on shows where cops foiled bad guys using talking cars, flying motorbikes and ‘not giving a fuck’. It was the accepted rule during this era, that if crime needed to be fought, you would do it in something absolutely crazy. If you were a diamond thief or unscrupulous sweat shop owner during the ’80s, it was a good idea to let your coroner know that the reason for your future-death would most likely be ‘ROBOT DUNE BUGGY’ or ‘A-TEAMED HARD’.
The shows back then were crazy and AUTOMAN was no exception. I guess TV executives knew what they were doing when someone screamed: “Computer-genius-cop slides inside a glowing superhero who owns a car that turns into a helicopter”
Could you tell me how your agent pitched the role to you?
I was fresh out of College (BFA Drama at USC Los Angeles) was playing Musical Theatres throughout California (Sacramento Music Circus in their Tent, San Diego’s Starlight Bowl and The Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood) and I had played a small role on ABC’s General Hospital for a couple of years. I signed with Leon Raper of Raper Enterprises (with a name like Raper he has to be good!) and booked a guest star spot as a bad guy on The Dukes of Hazzard (Joey Bryan in Welcome Back Bo & Luke). I was eager and open to every opportunity.
Leon called me about the audition and sent me the script. As a Sci-Fi fan I loved the Tron connection in reverse. I was thrilled to read for a Glen Larson pilot, having been an avid watcher of Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Fall Guy….and all of the Glen Larson Television Family. When I was cast I felt it was the fulfilment of a childhood dream. (My Mom made me my first Superhero costume for my 6th birthday.) Dreams do come true!
Every star who has ever had to wear more costume and prothetics than dignity, has a story about what a pain in the ass it was spending 10 hours on set looking ridiculous. I have Peter Mayhew’s autobiography and 90% of is just chapters entitled ‘DO YOU KNOW HOW DIFFICULT IT WAS TO SCRATCH MY BALLS WHILE WEARING 210lbs OF IMPOSSIBLE SPACE MONKEY FUR?”
Throughout the course of the series, you wore a costume that looked like something Joel Schumacher would produce if he took a career in designing ‘casual fuck suits’. I’m pretty sure they must have added all the glowing razzamatazz post production, but it still looked like a bitch to wear. Do you have any memories you wish to share about the costume and subsequent onset difficulties?
In my years on the Broadway Stage I have had many elaborate costumes. I love the animal roles I’ve played-The Wolf in Into The Woods and Disney’s Beast (both designed by the Tony winning Ann Hould Ward). Those costumes were heavy on the fur but liberating in performance. Javert’s Big Black Wool Coat was dynamic in it’s weight. My Musketeer costumes were magnificent. Ah, the actor’s Life!
My Automan costume was actually quite simple: a navy blue custom unitard that zipped in the back. I wore a dancebelt underneath, then the suit, the gloves and of course my blue leather 4″ high heeled boots. The panels were cut and applied while I was in the suit, and only a few suits were made. It moved well, though it could be very snug in the rise as I crammed into that Lamborghini!
I assumed since AUTOMAN was so cutting edge-futuristic, you could just have taken a dump in that suit while still wearing it, you know, like Astronauts or Disney Mascots?
Not really…I did need help unzipping but it was easy enough to get in and out. I did have some quick changes from the Autosuit to regular wardrobe that were done in the wings of the set…that was liberating as well! We worked long hours, and I knew how valuable the time was so there were times I was suited up for many hours at a time. I had to stay mostly upright to protect the refective panels, but we were all so excited to be making this magic that the time flew by. There was perhaps some chafing, but no more than would be expected. I loved every minute of it!
Now the AutoJeans were really fun. It was the Jordache Jeans era. Today they’d be called compression jeans!
How the hell do you approach a role like that? What was the audition like?
After the excitement of getting the script and feeling a real connection to the material I walked into my first reading and it was like walking into Valhalla. Dozens of strapping godlike men were seated comfortably in Glen Larson’s waiting area. After the first several ubermen had been seen I was asked into the room and all I recall was a good feeling from everyone. I tried to play Automan honestly and sincerely. Soon after I was called back and I treasured this moment before I went in. I had been asked if I had any video, so I gave them what I had- my spot on The Dukes of Hazzard. Larry Brody (tvwriter.com), one of our writers advised me after watching it that I refrain from showing it to anyone ever again! Good advice. Thanks Larry!
Then came my network audition at the Big Towers in Century City. I read with one other Walter. It was Jeff East, the actor who played young Clark in Superman: The Movie. (My roomate at USC at the time was Ryan Wagner who had been stand-in and double for Jeff up in Canada…coincidence.) Jeff was very nice. Then came Desi and he was perfect. We had an instant comraderie and the rest is history!
While shows like Knightrider and the A-Team went on for years, AUTOMAN was canceled after only one season. Now I absolutely loved the show and rank it higher than Dukes of Hazzard on my list of ‘Greatest ’80s anythings’, but the fact is, on average, more people remember AIRWOLF than Automan. Without using the phrase ‘Because it fucking sucked’, why do you think AUTOMAN didn’t stay the course?
I would never use that phrase. Automan was a CG concept before CG was realized. I feel blessed to have been infused with the SFX magic of David Garber and his team. His Viper launches on Galactica are the best, and I wish we had run longer and really used the Autoplane! Today much better effects can be generated on laptops! Our shooting and processing the SFX on film was expensive, and we cost over a million dollars an episode…a huge amount back then. Automan came before his time. I think we could use him now!
Around my 5th vodka, Google quit being so frigid and produced a link to a film called THE SISTERHOOD where you blew my mind by playing a villain. The Sisterhood was apparently a Filipino movie and I’ve seen enough Filipino movies to know that they spend more money on dick-tape and moustache wax than on anything vaguely watchable. As usual, everything you-shaped in this film was awesome. The everything else in it was pretty shitty. I made it through the first hour before I realized that there wasn’t enough vodka on the planet to wingman me to the finale: Could you tell me how it all ends please?
That’s a good question. That film was like my tour of duty in the Philippenes. Cirio Santiago, the legendary Philipino director kind of made it up as we went along. The bikes we rode were horses in the script, and it was hard to follow what was happening. In the end he had me do a voiceover tag to wrap it up, something like “I found my sister and all was well”. I improvised and that did it! Deep. Rebecca Holden (from Knight Rider) and Lynn Holly Johnson and I were all surprised with what little we had to work with. Very primitive. I was nearly immolated in a gas explosion…real gasoline! and Lynn Holly accidently removed the tip of a stuntman’s finger in a swordfight sequence They taped him up quickly and kept right on shooting. Very tough people! It was a rugged adventure.
HOLY SHIT. The Sisterhood was bad-ass. I better get drunk enough to finish watching that someday. Since this interview is already going totally left-field, I should just go for broke and ask you, HAVE YOU SEEN THE MOVIE PLUTO NASH? Don’t worry. You’re not in it, I was just wondering if you had seen it? and if so, what did you think? If anyone ever makes fun of you for appearing in a less-than-good movie, always remember: AT LEAST IT WASN’T PLUTO NASH. I have made it my life’s work to reach the makers of this movie and make them answer for their crimes. Your support is appreciated.
I actually did see it…big Eddie Murphy fan…and I didn’t hate it. It was silly but it had some production quality. It has to really be bad for me not to like it. Too many friends who make their living making the good ones and the bad ones. Somebody greenlighted it, and it got made. That is a good thing.
Now I feel bad about dissing Pluto Nash. Automan, you still manage to be my moral compass, even after all these years. From now on I shall aim to look upon Eddie Murphy films with better eyes. Attached is a picture from the movie. Could you possibly provide a comical caption for this whimsical eddie-murphy-filled image for our readers enjoyment.
Have to think about a caption….I want to avoid things like…”My careeeeeeeeeeer!” Any work is good work!
The movie The Expendables totally got me thinking about ‘team-ups’. There was that film Extraodinary League of Gentlemen where the great iconic characters of fiction were banded together to fight Hitler or something. If we were going to do the same thing, but in the ’80s, I’d OBVIOUSLY want Automan on the team. If we were going to try and take on STALIN and his armies of Kung-fu strippers, I’d exactly want his ass smelling of holographic hero foot. Who would you select on a team of ’80s icons to kick crimes ass in the balls?
Automan and Tron, Michael Knight and Kitt, Streethawk (I toured with Rex in Kiss Me Kate), Manimal and perhaps Remington Steel. Maybe The Greatest American Hero too, as long as we get Robert Culp. With Heather Locklear as needed! (Heather McNair is already included in Team AUTOMAN!)
Awesome. If I was 80’s crime, I’d be shitting my pants at the thought of that.
I see you have been in a new stage version of ‘ANYTHING GOES’ playing ‘The Captain’ (A character so awesome he doesn’t even need a first name- Like Robert D’Zar in Tango & Cash where he played ‘Guy with huge jaw’) It may surprise you that my knowledge of the Musical ‘Anything Goes’ directly contradicts my Masters Degree in Iron Eagle movies, but I am a sucker for show tunes and tightly orchestrated dance routines. This is pretty exciting news and is bound to be a massive success. So I can plug your show appropriately, could you tell me a little about it and how you are feeling about hitting the stage so hard you will leave a smoking hole in the song ‘Public Enemy Number One’.
I’m so glad you are a fan of Musical Theatre! I cannot express the thrill to work again with Kathleen Marshall. Her amazing choreography raises the bar of what Broadway means, and our cast is extraordinary. Led by Rachel York (who your West End audiences will remember from Kiss Me Kate in London) the company shines. In my role as the Captain I strive to bring an air of nautical authority to the proceedings. As a chorus we fill the hall to the rafters with’ Public Enemy Number One’ and ‘There’s No Cure Like Travel’…which could become my theme song! Like the title of Kathleen’s Tony Winning show now running on Broadway, “IT’S NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT!”
I will end this futuristic-computer-car-crash of an interview by asking the obvious question that you probably get asked all the time.
HAVE YOU EVER PLAYED ‘BATTLE TOADS’ on the Nintendo? If so, how far did you get in the game?
Sadly no, I’m not a gamer. My son Stewart is a master however, so he probably has finished it…if in fact it has an ending!
HOLY SHIT. Your son rules. Chuck, it has been an absolute pleasure and I’m so glad you reached this far without calling the whole thing off. You are an awesomely talented guy and have had a huge impact on me as a child. You were Automan. You now are so much more
Thanks again Fred, and thanks to everone helping to preserve this ancient series!
So there you have it. Scientific proof that Chuck Wagner totally rules.
He is far more than just ‘Someone who once played Automan’, he is a star, a gentleman and an awesome guy.