What the hell is Man from Atlantis? In 1976, NBC commissioned four made-for-TV movies chronicling the plight of a webbed handed/footed survivor of the mythical city Atlantis. Portrayed by Patrick Duffy in his first starring role (the actor would later go on to much greater heights of fame as Bobby Ewing in Dallas), the Man from Atlantis (otherwise known as Mark) possesses super-human abilities – like breathing under water, super strength, a sonic whistle and great unkempt hair. Of course Mark’s powers inevitably draw the attention of certain wayward characters intent on harnessing his abilities for their own nefarious purposes. The films were relatively high-rated and soon thereafter NBC greenlit a Man from Atlantis television show… It lasted for only thirteen episodes.
It’s here that I’m supposed to remiss on what a colossal mistake NBC made and how great a show Man From Atlantis is. Cancelled too soon or whatnot. But the simple truth is this: Man From Atlantis… isn’t very good. In fact it’s downright terrible – but in a sort of gloriously sincere fashion. Usually thirty-five year reunion Q&A’s are reserved for some highly regarded work – shows that pushed the boundaries of television and ran for years doing so… This night however – Man From Atlantis, a little seen/oft forgotten/not particularly good show, got it’s due. Stars Patrick Duffy and Belinda J. Montgomery (Dr. Elizabeth Merill) were on hand to discuss and celebrate a show that may or may not even be listed on their resumes. For highlights, hit the jump.
The Paley Center for Media in conjunction with Warner Archives hosted the exclusive Man From Atlantis panel & screening as the opening night event for their two-day “Retro TV Action-Adventure-Thon.” In the episode screened, entitled “Meltdown”, Mark (i.e. the Man from Atlantis) has been recruited by the Foundation for Oceanic Research, a secret government organization that explores the hidden depths of the ocean in a submarine called the Cetacean. The scenes on the submarine, with the rest of the crew, have a certain early Star Trek vibe – with Duffy/Mark as Kirk and Montgomery/Elizabeth as the pseudo-Uhura. Various crew members will stare out, flipping random switches, spouting various lines of jargon while looking incredibly pensive as the ship… err submarine narrowly avoids whatever catastrophe/obstacle that’s gotten in it’s way this week. Montgomery and Duffy reminisced on some of their most difficult lines – “It’s the Mud Worm and it’s heading straight towards us…” The line so absurd the duo no matter how hard they tried could not say it without breaking character. “It took over ten takes [for us to get it]” Duffy confided.
In Meltdown, Duffy and Montgomery must deal with rising ocean tides – the source of which the twosome discovers is a giant microwave. You did not read that wrong. A giant microwave is melting the icecaps. Mr. Shubert (Victor Buono – a recurring villain on the show) has built a giant global-warming microwave as leverage to get Mark to turn himself over for genetic testing. Shubert wants to use Mark’s DNA to strengthen regular ol’ human DNA and then sell that DNA to the highest bidder(s). Why Shubert just can’t ask for Mark’s DNA and instead has to go through some elaborate scheme like building a giant microwave and destroying the polar icecaps isn’t ever fully explicated – other than the fact that the guy is sort of a prick.
Duffy, in the Q&A, stated that he wanted Mark to maintain a wide-eyed “child-like” innocence. As the last remaining survivor of Atlantis, Mark is unfamiliar with such human customs like hotdogs (when asked by a pretty girl at a stand what he would like to eat, he responds matter-of-factly ‘Plankton’) or proper emoting. Every line Duffy utters has a monosyllabic blank tone to it. It’s hard to tell if he’s playing a man-child or a sociopath or someone mildly autistic. He just stares out with his frighteningly green eyes, never smiling, never even so much as contorting his face into any semblance of human emotion – it’s an oddly affecting performance in it’s lack of any sort of affectation. And those green eyes: Duffy noted the contacts used made his eyes “red and raw and gave [him] countless infections”. The contacts were hand painted with green airplane paint – and at one point, Duffy, who had had just enough, demanded that he no longer be required to wear these horrible contacts. The producers told Duffy “that if he didn’t wear the contacts, they wouldn’t shoot any close-ups, only wides.” And so there was a standoff on set; however because the role was Duffy’s first big break and because of the miniscule pay he received (“Pathetic pay” the actor noted), Duffy inevitably gave into wearing the airplane painted contacts.
This wasn’t the only challenge Duffy dealt with for the role. Merely getting the part was a herculean challenge for the young actor. The studio, of course, didn’t want an ‘unknown’. Duffy, who only weighed 160 pounds at the time, wasn’t “built enough”. And according to studio executives didn’t have the look of an “Eight 0’Clock hero.” Duffy responded by going on a vigorous workout routine – bulking up to 180 to 195 pounds. Even still – Duffy recalled having Fred Phillips (renowned makeup artist) build him a muscular body suit. Duffy put the suit under a tight fitting shirt and sweater. He then went into a meeting with the NBC executives who were all shocked and impressed by his newfound muscular physique. He got the part on the spot.
“Don’t get too close to the giant microwave. If you get too close it will melt you.” Dr. Elizabeth shouts at her sort-of-will-they-or-won’t-they paramour. Mark stares blankly at the pretty young blonde doctor and swims away towards the microwave. Hard to say if he’s being heroic or he has absolutely no conception of the English language and what words like “don’t” or “melt” even mean. Regardless, Elizabeth swoons worriedly. Mark, like most Atlantians, swims like a spastic fish. It’s like he’s an alien trying to do an imitation of the dance move “The Worm”. Duffy later opines that the move was incredibly difficult to perform and most of the shots of the odd swim stroke aren’t even of him, but his stunt double Tom Morga.
Duffy recalled his initial “swim-test” for the role. He was told beforehand “to bring a bathing suit.” Problem was – Duffy, an incredibly poor carpenter at the time, didn’t own a bathing suit or have the necessary money to purchase one. So he showed up to the test “in only his tidy-whities”. “You can imagine the sight when tidy-whities get soaking wet…” Duffy chuckled to himself.
On the show, however, Mark/Duffy doesn’t have to wear tidy-whities – but a super tight yellow bathing suit. Which also doesn’t leave much to the imagination. In fact every wide shot of Duffy in his short tight yellow bathing suit was met with constant giggles from the ladies in the audience.
Back to the show — Mark (The Man from Atlantis) heroically but spastically swims up to the giant microwave and using his sonar whistle dramatically blows the bloody thing up…
This all happens within the first fifteen minutes of the show.
From here – Mr. Shubert finally catches Mark, but is kind enough to build him his own underwater home in a pool. The image of a man reclining on an underwater couch, reading an edition of Scientific Weekly is without-a-doubt the most oddly absurd thing I’ve seen all week. And, of course, the episode has to climax with a giant pool fight. There are moments where it seems Man From Atlantis is playing everything completely straight-faced and then there are times where it seems like everybody involved realized just how absurd the show really was. It’s a difficult balance between sincerity and farce – and I’m still not quite sure where on the spectrum Man from Atlantis falls.
When the episode ended and the lights came up, Patrick Duffy – wide-eyed, grinning – stared out at the audience, quickly deadpanning “It’s a wonder I ever worked again…” He shuffled his feet, continuing “…It was great fun – in the moment. I mean… I didn’t really know any better.” What a perfect way to sum up Man From Atlantis: the quintessential ‘doesn’t know any better’ show of the 70s.
The entire season of Man From Atlantis and the four preceding films can be purchased through The Warner Archive Collection. And for your viewing pleasure: the opening credits of The Man From Atlantis.