Question: Please help settle a battle of memories. I say Cathy Lee Crosby played Wonder Woman before Lynda Carter did, but a colleague of mine says she was a superpowered girl on a different show. Who's right? Tim M., Cicero, N.Y.
Televisionary: You are, of course, though the ABC 1974 TV movie Crosby starred in had her wearing an odd '70s getup that bore so little resemblance to the comic-book version that your friend almost has a point.
In that adaptation of the classic comic heroine, Crosby (That's Incredible) played a contemporary Wonder Woman. However, she didn't fit the part because, as TV Guide writer Bill Davidson quipped in 1977, she was "an ethereal blonde who looked more suited modeling chemises at Bergdorf Goodman than hurling 200-pound men through the air like Frisbees."
That she did. After all, as all comics fans could have told the suits, the Amazonian Wonder Woman was supposed to be an imposing brunette. And though she was furthering the cause of justice in modern times in the popular comic book of the day, her image fit best in the era in which she was created the early '40s. "Let's stop fooling around with modernizing this thing. The network liked the comic strip, so let's just do a live-actor version of the original," producer Douglas S. Cramer recalled saying when hashing out the concept. "We'll put it back in 1942, an age of innocence when you could tell the good guys from the bad guys; and we'll get a dark-haired girl who looks like the girl in the strip. She should be built like a javelin-thrower, but with the sweet face of a Mary Tyler Moore."
Warner Bros. executive Edward Bleier, whose company controlled the rights to the character, reportedly responded to that concept with his own unique take. "Sure," he replied. "We'll cross-pollinate Olga Corbut with Godzilla."
Not quite. Enter the 6-foot Carter, a former Miss World-USA who fit the bill perfectly, though her height hadn't always brought her joy. ("I was taller than all the boys except the tackles on the football team and all my girlfriends seemed to be 5-foot-3-inch blondes," she said in '77 when asked about her high school years. "I even was rejected as a pompom girl because I towered over everyone else.")
Those extra inches got her the part. Some New Original Wonder Woman specials established that the audience had an appetite for this incarnation and the series launched in December 1976. So everything was as golden as the lady's lasso, right?
Not if you were Lyle Waggoner, who believed he was going to co-star as Maj. Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman's hunky guy-pal, when he signed onto the series but soon saw his part grow ever smaller. "That may have been true at first, in the days when Lynda still said please and thank you," a former associate on the series said of Waggoner's equal-billing notion. "Then one day someone told her she was a star, and she simply didn't want anyone else in the same scene. She feels Lyle brings the show's energy level down. As for him well, you can't say anything bad about Lyle because the only time he ever becomes angry is when he's ignored. Maybe he's angry now, I don't know. But at least he isn't the one who throws his hairbrush across the stage when he is."
For his part, Waggoner tried to take the high road and avoid kvetching in public. "Lyle isn't on the set often enough to form a relationship with Lynda, good or bad," his publicist said. "They're cordial and that's it." The actor himself soft-pedaled any resentment. "Just say," he said with a slight smile, "the spotlight is not willing to be shared." Four years later, he couldn't even muster that. "Lyle can't think of anything positive to say about her," his representative said when asked for a comment in 1981, "so why say anything?"
But the actor, who was beaten out by Adam West for the lead in Batman before landing an announcing gig on The Carol Burnett Show, didn't take himself or his part too seriously, which probably helped him weather any tension on the show. "[H]ow realistic can you get with a gal who picks up 10-ton boulders?" he said. "It's hard sometimes not cracking up, the situation gets so bizarre."
Not that Waggoner minded much. After a former life selling encyclopedias, he understood how lucky he was to have steady employment. "I don't knock what I'm doing," he said. "It's an on-the-air show and I'm a working actor. There aren't all that many around. When you take a role, you accept the territory."
And that kind of pragmatism underlies a fact of life for the average TV actor, who's often paid too much to gripe about the quality of the show. Carter, too, understood that, particularly since the time spent in star-spangled briefs and a red-and-gold bustier (the series moved from ABC to CBS in the fall of 1977 and lasted another two years there) helped land her and her then-husband an 18-acre ranch in the Santa Monica mountains. Would she ever be able to shake the Wonder Woman image? "Probably not," she said. "It's in reruns every day all over the world." Then she added, looking around at her rambling house, tennis court, lush pastures and huge lawns: "I don't mind."