Underdog – The Unsung Superhero
Underdog is among the greatest of superheroes; but it appears, that not coming from a Marvel series has him, and his good deeds, overlooked. Recently, a website security question, asked who is my favorite superhero. In the box, I wrote Underdog. The site’s auto-response did not accept it. ” it is an in valid answer.” I tried two more times; and had the same result as well as being given examples of more acceptable super heroes names … Batman, Spiderman, Superman. How could anyone or business overlook Underdog? How did this good-will-based canine become Underdog – The Unsung Superhero?
Time to Defend Underdog – That’s What He Would do for Me
As, “there is no fear, because Underdog is here.” Hard to believe a shy, shoeshine pup had the ability and kindness to jump into a phone booth, take his secret energy pill to transform into a Superhero whose powers, when ignited, can burst the phone booth into pieces while he immediately trajects into the air.
Both villains focus on trying to harm poor, Sweet Polly Purebred as well as others. Many times these scoundrels would hide their identities to try to trick Underdog or Polly.
Polly is very naïve and unaware; which made her an easy target. In her frequent perils, she would sing “oh where oh where could my Underdog be.” She knew she could count on him.
A subplot to it all is the demure relationship between Polly and the shy Underdog and the shoe-shine boy who loved her. However, the writers made sure the first cartoon romance to ever air was clearly platonic.
You would think with such determination to right wrongs, protect and restore good, Underdog would be harsh and speak with aggression, but not true. Underdog spoke mostly in rhymes.
That’s pretty impressive in its own right. Try it … you are in a discussion or trying to solve a puzzle and you have to innately speak in a rhyme through the whole conversation. Not easy is it?
Each episode also ended in a cliff hanger with the narrator saying, “Looks like this is the end! But don’t miss our next Underdog Show!” And, Underdog delivered in the next episode too.
His altruism was also second to none.
From his first moment on TV, he was an instant hit.
Throughout his 124 episodes, he protected the world in space, from evil, bubble-headed creatures, robots, from Riff Raff’s gang of mis-deed doers.
Remember Sandy the Safecracker, Spinny Wheels (who always drives the gang’s getaway car), Dinah Mite (the underworld’s greatest bomb-tosser), Nails the Carpenter, Needles the Tailor, Smitty the Blacksmith, and the Witch Doctor?
They were a bunch of no good so and sos (trying to keep language in the time-period).
And who knows how much more he did without cameras or animators present.
It would be wonderful to write that Underdog came from the evolution of a lost species of pooches who lived among buried magic crystals to give him powers.
That would explain how any animal can have such ability and fortitude.
Does any dog have super-strength, x-ray vision, atomic super-breath, superspeed, supersonic flight, cosmic vision, ultrasonic hearing (that’s how her heard Polly in Peril), supersonic high-pitch hi-fi voice and an instantaneous calculating brain?
No; and, no Marvel superhero has all these skills.
Although I long for an idyllic superhero such as Underdog is portrayed, it is, alas, not the case.
Underdog was actually a 1958 figment to sell General Mills cereals. An Ad agency called Dancer Fitzgerald Sample created him. They, with Underdog cartoons, helped sell Lucky Charms, Trix and Coco Puffs.
I loved Trix the most. Frankie liked Coco Puffs, but later moved to Count Chocula. Thought you’d like to know.
How Did Underdog Come to Be – Inspired by I Love Lucy
In a quest to find content to attract children and make them hungry for cereal, one of Underdog’s creators, Chet Stover, found his muse in an I Love Lucy rerun. The episode is “Lucy and Superman.”
In that episode, Ricky manages to get Superman (played by George Reeves, of course) to show up at Little Ricky’s birthday party. Lucy grows concerned that the Man of Steel might not show. In a panic, she dons her own makeshift Superman suit and goes out on their apartment’s ledge in order to make her entrance through the window.
And, the idea of a hapless superhero was born.
Making Underdog Relateable
Joe Harris then designed a canine superhero in a red baggy costume and oversized blue cape.
The Underdog color scheme was intentionally designed as the reverse of Superman’s costume in an attempt to mix cute and cuddly with a serious crime fighter.
Underdog’s occupation of shoeshine boy came about as a result of Wally Cox (Underdog’s original voice) saying it was a fitting occupation for a character who spoke softly and slowly.
For the other major characters on Underdog, Harris looked to the big screen.
Underdog’s romantic interest, Sweet Polly Purebred, was inspired by none other than Marilyn Monroe.
His arch nemesis, Simon Bar Sinister, not only took his appearance from Lionel Barrymore in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, but his voice as well.
His other arch nemesis, Riff-Raff, was inspired by George Raft and other similar movie gangsters.
Underdog Message is About Integrity
In many respects, Underdog taught children of the Sixties and Seventies more about what is right and wrong than cartoons that proliferated the Eighties.
Chet Stover and producer W. Watts “Buck” Biggers wrote nearly all of the scripts and provided Underdog with much of his mythos. Biggers would also write the famous theme song.
The scripts were original and imaginative, going beyond simple superhero parody. Perhaps that’s the reason Underdog remains loved by so many. It’s the fact that, it was driven very much by its complex characters. It is also a Saturday morning cartoon- character appeaing to parents and kids alike.
Despite his great power and the fact that he speaks with a lower voice than Shoeshine Boy, Underdog isn’t really that far removed in personality from his alter ego.
Both have a strong sense of right and wrong; both seek to live their lives with honor; both are compassionate to other; and both lack any sort of narcissism whatsoever. They are humble.
The stories didn’t lack backdoor humor. Remember, “look it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s a frog?” Who could mistake Underdog as a frog?
Animation Miracles on a Budget
The animation was not done here in the United States, but at Gamma Studios in Mexico. It was said, if they did it in the US they could not even afford to buy paint for the animation cells.
Due to the shoestring budget, Chet Stover, W. Watts Biggers, and Joe Harris worked a good deal of magic by using filters and camera angles to show motion when none was present.
But, the character had quite a run. From cartoons, lunch boxes, videos, fan clubs, cereal toys, portrait artwork, books, comics, radio shows, ComiCom participation, YouTube channel, several games (board and video), tee-shirts, frisbees, stuffed figurines, plastic figurines, major motion pictures, and international acclaim with syndication. It even sparked the creation of an animation studio opened by the advertising team who created Underdog.
The first 24 episodes ran in 10 minute shorts. Each half-hour had Underdog followed by Tennessee Tuxedo followed by the Sing-along-family. I remember Mr. Tuxedo, but not the Sing-along-family.
The syndicated version of The Underdog Show consists of 62 half-hour episodes. The supporting segments differ from the show’s original network run from 1964 to 1967. The syndicated series, as shown in the United States, ran until 1973 on NBC and CBS.
By the way, Underdog was one the first syndicated shows ever and started in syndication before it was done filming. Another first.
The final two syndicated Underdog half-hours feature two one-shot cartoons that were originally part of an unsold pilot for a projected 1966 series, The Champion (Cauliflower Cabbie and Gene Hattree),
NBC and CBS; Then A New Beginning
For many years, starting with NBC’s last run in the mid-1970s, all references to Underdog swallowing his Super Energy Pill were censored-out of fear that kids would see medication that looked like the Underdog pills (red with a white “U” on them) and swallow them.
In 1994 the show was remastered. This was after the show started running on Nickelodeon starting in June 1992. This lasted until the later 1990s.
You’d think that would be it for Underdog. “Looks like this is the end! But don’t miss ….”
“Underdog also aired on Australian Broadcasting Corporation on February 18, 1966. In 1995, Biggers, Stover, Covington, and Harris (with General Mills) negotiated a sale of their creations to Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels‘ Broadway Video, who later sold the rights to Golden Books. When Classic Media took over Golden Books, it acquired the underlying rights to Underdog. In 2012, Classic Media was sold to DreamWorks Animation, and ultimately became the property of the series’ current owners, Universal Television.
Underdog is a money-maker; even 55 years after its release.
In my humble opinion, that ranking is way too low.
A Major Motion Picture Filmed in Rhode Island
Surprised?! Rhode Island is a small place where most people think nothing much happens from a national standpoint.
However, it has many highpoints great restaurants, waterfront downtown Providence, beaches, yachting, mansions, and more. For my friends of Italian heritage, it has a piazza in a Providence section called Federal Hill. Parts of it you’ll feel like you’re in Italy. And, lots of Italian imported items. Come visit.
But it was in 2006; when they filmed the 2007-released non-animated film Underdog. So an actual, living, breathing dog, with superpowers starred in this movie. Maybe there were some special effects.
The film was distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. Shoeshine/Underdog, was played by a lemon Beagle named Leo, sporting a red sweater and a blue cape. Hardly an homage the real, undisputed Underdog-garb.
The only thing that would make this film better would be if my film-maker son produced it. He was 8 at the time of filming; but I still think he would have created a masterpiece. This isn’t only because of the multi-faceted characters and deep, thought-provoking plot; he would have molded it into the action-adventure it deserved to be.
The premise …. A normal, bumbling, everyday bomb-sniffing , unnamed, beagle gets exposed to a substance that gives him superpowers gained during a mishap at City Hall. Along with all the other superpowers, is the ability the speak. He is adopted by a security guard – an ex-cop, who’s a widower with a 12-year-old moody son, Jack Unger. He names the pupster Shoeshine. Shoeshine uses his superpower to protect his love and the citizens of Capitol City from the evil Simon Bar Sinister. Underdog dedicates himself to good, quickly becoming revered as a superhero for his unassumed acts of bravery, but ultimately it will take the combined efforts and understanding of Underdog, Jack, Dan, Molly, and Polly to defeat Bar Sinister and save Capital City from destruction. Phew, they do save the day.
The film grossed $65.3 million worldwide. Critics hated it.
Underdog – The Unsung Superhero a Macy’s Parade Balloon
Underdog is here, there and everywhere.
Underdog had quite the stature: 63 1/2 feet Width: 34 feet Weight: 320 pounds Helium Volume: 8,000 cubic feet
The mild Superhero, first appeared in Macy’s Parade as balloon in 1965. One year after his television show started. He was accompanied by an Underdog float for his debut. There was also a skit performed in the parade judges’ circle in front of Macy’s 34th Street main store.
On NBC, following the broadcast of that Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1965, a special episode of Underdog was aired –“Simon Says…No Thanksgiving.”
He became an instant classic for the parade and flew for many more years even though his TV Show ended in 1973. The balloon was eventually retired in 1984. It made 20 parade appearances overall.
Over time, the balloon deteriorated beyond repair. There were also 8 mishaps with it. One, including it nearly flying away over Central Park.
But Underdog’s signature “U” still exists and is framed in Macy’s Parade Studio.
Macy’s would love to bring the beloved Underdog back to the parade. Its licensing company has no new Underdog balloon in the works.
But That Isn’t the Last of the Underdog Balloon
The balloon made a couple of appearances in pop culture.
In 1994, the first Thanksgiving-themed episode of NBC’s sitcom Friends centered around the accidental release of the Underdog balloon, which caused everyone to go to the roof to watch and get locked out of the apartment.
Underdog also appeared in a 2008 CGI ad for Coca-Cola, where he chases a Coke bottle-shaped balloon through New York City, along with a balloon of Stewie Griffin from Family Guy, a show that was never actually represented in the parade.
FYI … Family Guy is based in Rhode Island. More than meets the eye here.
A walk-round version of Underdog appeared on the “75th Parade Superstars” float, along with other characters who had balloons that had been retired, such as Popeye, Kermit the Frog, and Ice Skating Snoopy.
Underdog Still Alive and Well in Pop Culture
Let’s just accept it. Everyone loves Underdog. Here is a quick list of other places Underdog has appeared:
- The Robot Chicken episode Dragon Nuts featured a parody of Underdog who came to the rescue of a woman having her purse stolen, only to have everyone (including criminal) drop everything, awed over the fact that he was a talking dog.
- In a 2005 commercial for the Visa Check Card a woman’s credit card is stolen, prompting the appearance of Marvel Comics superheroes. Dismissing the threat, the heroes leave, just as Underdog arrives.
- In the Powerpuff Girls episode “Super Zeroes”, when Bubbles adopts the identity of Harmony Bunny, she parodies one of Underdog’s catchphrases.
- Underdog’s theme song was performed by the rock band Butthole Surfers for the 1995 tribute album Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits.
- Buck Biggers, the co-creator of the animated TV series, made a public appearance at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Aberdeen, Maryland, September 2006, to meet and greet fans and sign autographs.
- In a Thanksgiving-themed Reba episode, Van is revealed to be a huge Underdog fan, owning the complete DVDs and ecstatic over the prospect of seeing the Underdog Macy’s balloon in the annual parade. Later his daughter Elizabeth is seen at the dinner table in a full Underdog super-suit.
- In the Scrubs episode “My Hero“, Ted Buckland’s singing group (The Blanks) sing the Underdog theme. An extended version of this song is included on their album Riding the Wave.
- The Rachel Maddow Show uses music from the Underdog theme song as a segue to commercial breaks.
- The Underdog balloon from the Macy’s Day Parade appears in the Woody Allen film Broadway Danny Rose.
- In a 2017 Coca-Cola commercial that aired during Super Bowl LII, the Underdog balloon fights with a balloon of Stewie Griffin from the Family Guy TV series over a Coke bottle. The Charlie Brown balloon ends up taking the bottle from both.
- It has been referenced in the movie Detroit Rock City
- Episodes of In Living Color (a recurring line from the episode “Round and Round” occurs in a Handi Man sketch)
- In 2005 his image was featured on the No 37 R&J Racing Dodge Charger, driven by Kevin LePage, for two Nascar races.
- Will and Grace, Thanksgiving episode.
- Craig McCracken has also acknowledged Underdog as one of the influences on The Powerpuff Girls.
- It may also have been an influence on the Nickelodeon series Kappa Mikey
- And the children’s book series Captain Underpants.
- Dennis Miller has given regular guest Jake Tapper, ABC News Senior National Correspondent and Senior Political Correspondent, the nickname “Tap Tap The Chiseler,” a reference to an Underdog villain that was only explained to Tapper on the May 6, 2008 installment of Miller’s nationally syndicated radio talk show.
Celebrating 55 Years of Underdog
Even in its earliest years, the cartoon produced a large number of merchandising tie-ins. These are all alive and well today. I couldn’t find the current or past amount of money made on Underdog cartoons and merchandising. They do currently have clothing and other items available at Walmart and JC Penny.
If you Google Underdog merchandise, there are pages and pages of goods to buy.
Here are the people who brought Underdog to life and may also get some royalties.
The Voices of the Characters – Some Nostalgia
George S. Irvin – Narrator -Broadway Actor, All in the Family Producer and Heat Miser from the Santa Claus Rankin/Bass animations.
Wally Cox – Underdog – Was a well known comedian of slight stature. He was a personal friend of Marlon Brando and a regular on Hollywood Squares. He’s been the voice of Mr. Peepe; and had roles on the Beverly Hill Billies and The Cosby Show.
Alan Swift – Simon Bar Sinister and Riff Raff – Swift was the first host/performer of WPIX TV Ch. ll NYC’s “Popeye Show” weekday evenings from Monday, September 10, 1956, to Friday, September 23, 1960. He hosted the show as “Captain Allen”.
Norma McMillan – Sweet Polly Purebred – was a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, She’s the voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost and Pokey on the “Gumby Show.” MacMillan was also the voice of John-John and Caroline Kennedy in the 1960’s recordings of the “First Family.” Her daughter Alison Arngrim, played Nellie in Little House on the Prairie (1974); and her son, Stefan Arngrim, played Barry Lockridge on the short-lived 1968 television show Land of the Giants (1968).
Bradley Bolke – Chumley – He was an actor, known for The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974), Diary of a Bachelor (1964) and Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales (1963). His name was also assigned to worker on Pawn Stars.
A couple other quick mentions – Don Adams from Get Smart fame was the voice of Tennessee Tuxedo and Larry Storch – Agarn from F Troop and was voice of Phineas J Whoopie.
Series Produced by
|W. Watts Biggers||…||producer (124 episodes, 1964-1967)|
|Treadwell Covington||…||executive producer (124 episodes, 1964-1967)|
|Joseph Harris||…||producer (124 episodes, 1964-1967)|
|Peter Piech||…||executive producer (124 episodes, 1964-1967)|
|Chester Stover||…||producer (124 episodes, 1964-1967)|
Big Business – Time to Recognize Underdog as a 1st-Teir Superhero
Hopefully this lineage of success, populous love; and him still going strong, is enough to persuade businesses to add Underdog to their approved superhero list. I’m hoping I do not need to boycott these businesses for the cause.
And, really, Underdog is all about security; it’s only natural to add him to the acceptable answer list.
If you share a love for Underdog, please tell us about it.
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