July 24 is the birthday of Lynda Carter (b. 1951), so we take the occasion to recall the role she is best (almost exclusively) known for, the title role in the TV series Wonder Woman (1975-79).
The Amazing Amazon has of course been re-introduced into pop culture in a big way since the success of the 2017 film. But as we wrote here in our review of the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, the character’s roots go back to the 1940s and even earlier.
Unlike male superheroes of that era, such as Superman and Batman, as late as the 1970s there still had not yet been a live action screen version of Wonder Woman (though there had been animated ones). Interest in the character as a feminist icon was stoked in 1972 when Gloria Steinem placed her on the cover of one of the first issues of Ms. Magazine. A 1974 TV movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby (then best known as a tennis player) followed. I saw it when it originally aired! This first draft attempt to dramatize the comic book misfired, at least in part by tampering with the proven formula. Crosby was a blonde, dressed in something resembling a track suit rather than the traditional Wonder Woman costume, and she didn’t seem to have superpowers.
A second pilot was made the following year with Lynda Carter. And she was much closer to the mark. Carter was the winner of the 1972 Miss World USA pageant, who had a few screen credits under her belt. Like many pageant professionals, she possessed an icy, non-sexual, porcelain beauty that clicked nicely with the Greek Goddess echoes laid out in Wonder Woman’s backstory (her character’s alter ego is even named Diana, after the Goddess that epitomizes that athletic, “pure” ideal). The half-Latina Carter’s wavy black hair also was closer to the conception in the comic book.
Like the early issues of the comic, the first season of the show was set in the World War Two era, and the villains were often Nazi spies and such. For the remaining seasons the show was updated to the present, with Lyle Waggoner playing the son of his character in the first season, intelligence officer Steve Trevor. A young Debra Winger played her sidekick Wonder Girl!
There was much that was quintessentially 70s about the show: the soulful, indelible theme song, for one. The amount of bare flesh Carter reveals in every episode has got to have been close to unprecedented in regular series television at the time. In my head, the show melds easily with other signifiers of the time: Charlie’s Angels, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, The Village People ,Donny and Marie, The Love Boat, etc etc etc.
If you think about it, Wonder Woman was also on the leading edge of the great Hollywood comic book franchise reawakening. There had been serials in the 40s, and TV shows like Superman in the 50s, but by the ’60s the entire concept had been reduced to camp on shows like Batman and The Green Hornet. With Wonder Woman and the Filmation kids shows Shazam! and Isis (which both launched in 1974), the idea of serious super heroes began to be rehabilitated. Then came Superman (1978) and its sequels, and Batman (1989) and its sequels, and then the huge opening of the floodgates in which we are still in the midst of, and which shows no signs of abating.
Carter of course found it hard to escape the Magic Lasso of her best known character. Some notable later work included the title character in a 1983 TV bio-pic of Rita Hayworth, and the 1984 TV series Partners in Crime, in which she co-starred with Loni Anderson. The latter show was no Charlie’s Angels or Cagney and Lacey; it only lasted 13 episodes.
For almost four decades Carter was our only Wonder Woman; now the torch has been passed to Gal Gadot. Themyscira’s Champion is of course immortal.