Today superheroes are big business on the big screen and there are none bigger than the characters published by Marvel Comics. As hard as it may be for some to believe now, this was not always the case. Despite a number of serials made in the Forties featuring various comic book characters (not to mention Fleischer Studios' classic animated Superman shorts), a Marvel comics character only appeared once on the big screen during the Golden Age of Comics. That was the Captain America serial released in 1944. Sadly, it departed so dramatically from its source material that it was pretty much Captain America in name only. If the legends are to believed, however, Golden Age Marvel Comics character The Sub-Mariner very nearly made it to television in the Fifties.
According to Roy Thomas in the introduction to Atlas Age Heroes Masterworks Vol. 3: Sub-Mariner, Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett in an interview around 1969 said that in 1954 negotiations had begun between Martin Goodman, publisher of the company that would become known as Marvel Comics, and a TV producer named Frank Saperstein about bringing The Sub-Mariner to television. Goodson-Todman Productions , best known for their many game shows was involved in the project, and some money was even provided by popular radio and television personality Arthur Godfrey. Those involved in the planned Sub-Mariner TV series had even settled on a star, movie actor Richard Egan, who had agreed to do a pilot. Supposedly the entire project was spurred by the wildly successful Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves. Eventually nothing came of the planned show because negotiations broke down between the TV producers and the company that would eventually be known as Marvel Comics.
Here I must note that in 1954 the company that would become Marvel Comics revived its Golden Age superheroes Captain America, The Sub-Mariner, and The Human Torch, none of whom had been published since 1949. According to Bill Everett it was because Martin Goodman was hoping the television deal for The Sub-Mariner would go through that the revival of his title lasted so much longer than either of the titles of Captain America or The Human Torch. While the revived titles of Captain America and The Human Torch only lasted two issues apiece, The Sub-Mariner's revived title lasted an entire nine issues. Presumably Martin Goodman did not wish to cancel the character's magazine with a television deal in the works.
Roy Thomas brought up the proposed Sub-Mariner TV show in an interview with Stan Lee conducted in May 1998 and published in Comic Book Artist #2, summer 1998. Mr. Thomas told Mr. Lee about the interview with Bill Everett and how Mr. Everett had said that in 1954 TV producers had approached Martin Goodman about a Sub-Mariner TV show that would star Richard Egan, how comedian Herb Shriner was involved in the deal, and how Arthur Godfrey had even provided some of the money. Roy Thomas asked Stan Lee if he knew anything about the deal for a Sub-Mariner show, to which Mr. Lee said, "Martin never discussed business deals with me, and that would have fallen under the heading of a business deal. This is the first that I've heard about it."
Regardless, the possibility of a television show in the Fifties featuring The Sub-Mariner and starring Richard Egan has become a bit of a legend among Golden Age comic book fans. In fact, in some ways it has taken on a life of its own. A publicity photo of Richard Egan from the film Underwater! (1955) that someone Photoshopped to make him look like The Sub-Mariner has been floating around the internet for ages. Curiously, many people have mistaken it for a still photo from a pilot for the show, even though the project never even made it that far. The question for Golden Age comic book fans has always been how seriously to take the stories of a proposed Sub-Mariner TV show.
In some respects it would seem that the idea of a planned Sub-Mariner TV series in the Fifties perhaps should not be taken too seriously. There is no mention of a proposed Sub-Mariner TV show in issues of Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, or Billboard from the era. It would seem that if plans for a Sub-Mariner television series had gotten very far it would have mentioned in at least one, probably more, of the trade papers.
I also have to wonder how likely it was that Richard Egan would have agreed to star in a Sub-Mariner TV show. I suppose it would largely depend upon when it had been offered to him. If The Sub-Mariner television show had been offered to him prior to signing with 20th Century Fox, he mighthave considered it. After all, prior to 1954 he primarily played secondary roles in films. It was in 1954 that he received his first starring role, in the science fiction film Gog. It was also in 1954 that Richard Egan signed with 20th Century Fox. Once that happened it seems highly unlikely that he would have considered starring in any television show. Quite simply, to do so he would have had to have broken his contract with 20th Century Fox. As it is, he would have little reason to do so. In 1954 at 20th Century Fox he played a significant role in Demetrius and the Gladiators and starred in the film Khyber Patrol. He would go on to star in several films in 1955. One has to wonder if Bill Everett confused Richard Egan with another actor or if the project was offered to Mr. Egan before he signed with 20th Century Fox. If it was offered to Mr. Egan and he accepted, then it would seem plans for the show would had to have fallen apart very quickly, otherwise he would not have signed with 20th Century Fox in 1954.
As to the likelihood that either Herb Shriner or Arthur Godfrey would have been involved, that is anyone's guess.
While no mention is made of a planned Sub-Mariner television show in any of the trade papers of the time and it seems dubious that they could have gotten Richard Egan as its star, that does not mean that plans for a Sub-Mariner show were a product of Bill Everett's imagination, especially given there is nothing to indicate Mr. Everett was prone to such things. While today Goodson-Todman Productions are best known for their game shows, they did produce a few dramas over the years. Among their earliest shows was a mystery anthology show called The Web that ran on CBS from 1950 to 1954. In the Fifties they would also produce such dramas as Goodyear Theatre (1957-1960), Jefferson Drum (1958–1959), Philip Marlowe (1959–1960), and The Rebel (1959–1961). While there appears to have been no producer named Frank Saperstein or Frank Saverstein in the industry at the time, there was a director named Frank Satenstein who worked for Goodson-Todman Productions. Mr. Satenstein directed several episodes of I've Got a Secret and What's My Line, and produced the show By Popular Demand for Goodson-Todman. Given Goodson-Todman Producitons did produce dramas, it seems possible that they could have been interested in a Sub-Mariner TV show. It also seems possible, especially as there seems to have been no producer named Frank Saperstein or Frank Saverstein working in the industry at the time, that the producer to whom Bill Everett was actually referring was Frank Satenstein.
While we really know nothing for certain about the planned Sub-Mariner TV show, with the above information it may be possible to develop a theory of how events unfolded. I imagine it went as follows. In 1954 the success of The Adventures of Superman led Goodson-Todman Productions to approach the company that would become Marvel about producing a TV series based on one of their superheroes. At that point it is possible that Goodson-Todman Productions was able to interest actor Richard Egan in the project. Unfortunately, talks between the television production company and the comic book publisher broke down very quickly, quickly enough that the project was never announced to the press. In the end, it seems most likely that the Sub-Mariner series never got beyond the discussion stage.
Unfortunately, unless there are documents in the possession of FremantleMedia (the company that now owns the rights to the Goodson-Todman library), the children of Mark Goodson or Bill Todman, or Marvel Comics that deal with the proposed Sub-Mariner TV series, we will never know the truth. Most everyone who would have been involved with the project is now dead. Bill Everett died in 1973. Bill Todman died in 1979. Frank Satenstein (the producer to whom Bill Everett may have been referring) died in 1984. Richard Egan died in 1987. Mark Goodson and Martin Goodman both died in 1992. It would seem that for now the planned Sub-Mariner series in the Fifties will remain both a legend and a mystery for Golden Age comic book fans.
Of course, in many ways it seems a shame that a Sub-Mariner TV show never got off the ground in the Fifties. The decade was a good one for shows based on comic book and comic strip characters. In addition to The Adventures of Superman, there were shows based on Dick Tracy; Buck Rogers;Flash Gordon; Jungle Jim; and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. It must also be pointed out that later in the decade undersea adventures proved popular on television, including such shows as Sea Hunt, Assignment: Underwater, and The Aquanauts. The Sub-Mariner could then have turned out to be a very popular show, and in doing so could have changed pop culture history. At the very least the history of Marvel Comics and comic books in general would be very different.