Superheroes... And Filling Those TV Tights

by JC Alvarez

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday March 29, 2015

With TV audiences hotly anticipating the season finales of The Walking Dead and the new Batman prequel Gotham on FOX, and The CW's Arrow and The Flash fast approaching their cliffhangers for this year, fans of the superhero genre are already excited for what the next fall season has in store for them. Supergirl starring Glee alum Melissa Benoist is all set to flap some skirts to the wind when the show (produced by Greg Berlanti also the producer of the aforementioned CW hit series) premiers next fall on CBS.

And it looks like this is just the beginning of more brightly colored, mysterious masked marvels, igniting imaginations on the entertainment landscape. Sure, we can guess that the summer's biggest hit will be delivered by the heavily-muscled, hammer-wielding might of one Thunder God assembling with his avenging allies to take on a rogue A.I., but superheroes have captured our imaginations beyond the big screen and brought the action home, in weekly-serialized capsules that we can just not get enough of it seems.

The biggest surprise hit of the season The Flash came from the likeliest of places: a spin-off of the very popular CW action series Arrow which is based on the DC Comics characters that inspired them. Grant Gustin also a graduate of the tv musical Glee fast-tracked his way into the fan base's hearts as everyday CSI investigator Barry Allen -- who just happens to run at the speed of sound and into the thick of very perilous situations. But Gustin is not the first actor to suit up as the progenitor of the "Silver Age" Comics (that's the precursor to the "Modern Age" for all the uninitiated) who is aptly enough celebrating 75 years in the public lexicon.

The "Original" Flash

Actor John Wesley Shipp portrayed The Flash and his alter-ego Barry Allen, in what is now assumed the "The Classic Series" of the early 1990's. Shipp was a muscle-bound far cry from the more speed-demon slick look of his successor, Grant Gustin who has inherited the role (literally so to speak) for The CW's weekly series. Shipp who appears to have a penchant for playing "super-dads" -- he was after all cast as Mitch Leary in the late '90s teen-angst soaper Dawson's Creek and now returns to Central City (home of the Flash) for the contemporary re-imagining in the role of Barry Allen's father Henry.

Shipp is part of a fraternity of actors who understand the responsibility of taking on the role of something as endurable as a superhero, and certainly the necessary endurance to portray such an icon.

"It's a pop culture take on an old theme," the actor says comparing the genre to the Greek A Deus Ex Machina. "It's escapism and wanting to believe -- that a god can solve everyone's problems; that we find immaculate deliverance from those problems." As a forensic scientist, his Barry Allen solve crimes, then returned to the scene as the Flash, a super-speedster granted the gift of running at high velocity after he is struck by lighting. Hence the lightning bold that adored the actor's mighty torso while in his super suit. "We're used to seeing actors in superhero costumes nowadays," Shipp reflected on when he was first approached to play the Flash, "but an actor in 1990, myself in particular, was very leery of doing a costumed character, especially for television."

After all there was the inescapable camp that was inspired by the '60s cultural impact of Adam West's original Batman; a fore shadow of Tim Burton's eventual reinterpretation for film of the Dark Knight with Michael Keaton in the famous suit. "I didn't come to regret my decision to take on the Flash," Shipp insists, "but when I was in the suit," which was a particularly expensive and layered construct, "it certainly presented its problems." Though the show relied on special effects and blurs to dramatize the hero's powers, most of the acting and dialogue was done out of the suit. "Grant is much more comfortable acting in his suit."

Fans have noted the distinct differences between the original suit and its reboot counterpart, comparing and constructing, debating and debunking, Shipp's bulkier frame to Gustin's more stealthy look. "The Flash's thing is supposed to be speed -- he's supposed to be aerodynamic," the actor says, citing that in the 1990s, when he was cast in the suit, baseball icons Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire's physical types were more in vogue. "Leading men had to be oversized; the archetype was Indiana Jones who had solidity -- our suit reflected that." Shipp also cites that over the Flash's history the character has always had a more triathlete-type look.

"I'm also glad I'm no longer wearing the tights." Though on the upcoming episode of The Flash Shipp will be rejoined by one of his Flash's most nefarious tight wearing foes when Mark Hamill (from Star Wars) reprises his role as the Trickster to take on the new Flash!

Sizing Up the "New" Guy

Though Shipp insists he had little advice and only encouragement to give his successor, he does have some words of wisdom for actors about to take the leap into the tights of the superhero genre. "When someone takes on a superhero," he says to actors, "they have to be prepared to essentially play two characters and with that come a lot of physical demands. You just have to be prepared." Shipp says he feels very protective of his onscreen son, Gustin and that it serves him very well in his current role of the incarcerated Henry Allen. "All those feelings serve me, from having been the guy in the suit, to now supporting Grant -- the new guy in the suit -- and I just genuinely like Grant a lot."

It's a mutual feeling we're sure, and we're certain that Gustin had already had his share of trials and tribulations getting accustomed to his super-suit, which has already evolved since the show's premiere last fall. It was designed by Oscar winner Colleen Atwood, who was also tasked with deigning the suit for the upcoming Supergirl.

Henry Cavill squeezed his six-foot something muscular frame into the watertight suit of Superman for his portrayal of the Man Of Steel and famously revealed having to endure limited bathroom breaks due to the challenges of getting in and out of the outfit. Hopefully they worked those kinks out for him when he reprises his role in next year's Batman vs. Superman which will finally see the dynamic duo teaming up alongside some of their other super friends.

Casting a "Titan"

Another one of DC Comics heroic teams are about to get the tv treatment are the Teen Titans. Rumors have circulated of a pilot script bringing to life the imprints most popular sidekicks in a weekly series for cable, that will prominently feature among the group an all grown up Robin, the Batman's former ward, who becomes a hero in his own right named Nightwing!

Coincidentally another one of John Wesley Shipp's TV sons, this one by way of a story arc on the daytime drama One Life To Live actor David A. Gregory fits the bill for what is sure to be one of the most sought after roles of this pilot season -- that is if the show is truly in development! EDGE boldly takes the plunge in beginning the campaign to get the darkly handsome, charmingly charismatic heartthrob noticed by the casting powers that be, if just to see Gregory running around in (and out of) the skin-tight kevlar suit that Nightwing famously wears to fight crime in.

Gregory laughs at the inescapably blatant reference to his getting naked (again), "It could be so awkward," and he takes it all in good stride, humbled at the compliment, but very well aware of the power of physical attraction and sex appeal. "I knew from the get-go that I had to earn my keep; I had to earn the stories that I really wanted to sink my teeth into. I took this time to learn." The New York City transplant, by way of Alaska has established a reputation for the dynamically well-proportioned physique that he's shamelessly (and to the adulation of his fans) displayed in some of the roles he's been given. " ...and those stories did come."

Fortunately for us they did. After several guest-starring roles on television and stage, he landed himself a leading part on One Life to Live as Robert "Bobby" Ford. John Wesley Shipp (also famously got his start as a heartthrob in daytime) would come onto the cast for a special arc as Eddie Ford, Bobby's very dangerous and volatile father. The two even went one-on-one in a boxing match.

"I grew up dancing," Gregory is a classically trained ballet dancer and studied musical theater. "I always knew I wanted to perform; and everyone always entertains the idea of doing film and television, but I've always known I wanted t be an actor," Fearing that he may be pigeonholed as "the guy who takes off his shirt" after leaving daytime, Gregory landed a lead part in the stage play "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," as Spike. "I thought to myself, why shouldn't I be that person, the one that the company can depended on to be in great shape. I take it very seriously. It is part of the job."

Another project that David A. Gregory has currently in development (which has teamed him up once again with John Wesley Shipp) is inspired by his creative antics as a kid playing at creating old-style radio dramas. Stay tuned for the original radio drama (working title) "Powder Burns" to hit the air.

Keeping Appearances

That overall dedication to actor's body and craft lead Gregory to a significant role in primetime appearing in NBC's Constantine -- a new television series based on the occult investigator also adapted from a DC Comic -- and even though it was a network show, Gregory was hired due to his being comfortable with his nudity.

"To a degree, there's a Catch 22... and I'm OK with that," the actor insists, knowing that his efforts are getting him and seen by the right people. He got to play a decidedly diabolical character; against the grain of the heroes that he's accustomed to.

A fan boy himself at heart, Gregory was overwhelmed by the attention to detail on the set of Constantine -- especially since he got to play inside the lair of the lead character. "That set is fully functional," he said. "it reminded me of Hellboy. It was so complete, and all the books on the wall, on the occult and witchcraft, are all real!" The director had given Gregory a note to play really big his character's initial reaction to entering the magical world of Constantine. It was perfect, since he was genuinely in awe of it all. "I didn't have to act that at all."

"I'm of course familiar to how he relates to Batman," Gregory says, "but he's mostly a leader -- and that's something that I'd really enjoy." That's the side of the Dick Grayson/Nightwing character that most resonates with Gregory. "Often times we see a lot of the lone vigilante," especially in this genre, "but never a 'gatherer' or problem solver," Gregory describes someone with the mentality of a Henry Ford. The role of a leader also comes naturally to David who already has that vibe about him. "I know I can rally the troops."

Suiting Up!

So we know that David A. Gregory would certainly be able to handle the responsibility that would come with Nightwing's leadership role as one of the Titans, but how about getting into the suit? He recalled a story he'd heard from, ironically, the Tim Burton Batman. "Jack Nicholson told Michael Keaton: 'Just let the suit do the work.' ...And it's really true -- you don't have to oversell it." Gregory also relates the superhero's suit as just part of what he also does as an actor. "This is just another part of my daily routine," he says. With the exception of the "beauty shots" putting on armor: "It's what I do. There's also now so much care to putting that costume together," he added citing the work that designer Colleen Atwood, who has been instrumental in epically envisioning for both Arrow and The Flash.

"These are wonderful shows," Gregory says about the superhero genre, "and this is definitely a world I would love to be a part of." It is important to note that Gregory had been considered for an original lead part on The Flash. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, he paid a visit to the landmark Hollywood Walk of Fame and he came across the star of the legendary George Reeves the original television Superman. "He really was wonderful in that part and people gravitated to his Superman." Perhaps it's a good omen then, but until then, we'll all hold out and hope that soon David A. Gregory will truly be swinging his way into primetime as Titans head honcho Nightwing.

As long as Arrow star Stephen Amell keeps testing the limits of his show's T-shirt wardrobe budget (they must have to cut corners some where), and The Flash star Grunt Gustin doesn't wear out the soles of his scarlet speedster sneakers, there is undoubtedly a move by Hollywood to expand on the superhero genre on television and create an energized, dynamic narrative. The advent popularity in just the last TV season alone (with the exception of NBC's Constantine) has guaranteed more shows -- and more spin-offs -- perpetuating the dominance of capes and cowls beyond just the limits of the summer blockbuster.

Native New Yorker JC Alvarez is a pop-culture enthusiast and the nightlife chronicler of the club scene and its celebrity denizens from coast-to-coast. He is the on-air host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Out Loud & Live!" and is also on the panel of the local-access talk show "Talking About".