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Producers try to make 'nomadic Superman' of ancient Greece accessible

Winston-Salem Journal

September 1996

Scanned/Transcribed by MaryD

By Tim Clodfelter

It's hard to believe that the highest-rated syndicated drama on TV began as an idea its producers weren't too crazy about. A few years ago, cult-movie producers Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi {Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, Darkman) were approached by MCA TV to do a series of movies about Hercules.

"We said Jeez, we'd really prefer to do Conan,' " Tapert said by telephone from his office in Los Angeles. "They went, 'No, Conan's rights are all tied up,' so we went and we watched all the Hercules movies. As kids they were great to watch, but nowadays they just don't hold up. So we kind of designed our own ancient world and infused modern language into it, and made it so it was relevant and not stilted and as accessible as possible."

The result was The Legendary Journeys of Hercules, a series of five movies that were shown in MCA's Action Pack of syndicated TV-movies. Tapert and Raimi's instincts in re-interpreting the character were right on target, and the movies proved popular enough to be spun off into a weekly series. As Hercules: The Legendary Journeys starts its third season this week (6 p.m. Sunday on WGHP), it is firmly planted at the top of the ratings for hourlong syndicated dramas. Its companion show, Xena: Warrior Princess (which starts its second season at 5 p.m. Sunday) generally comes in at number two, beating out such popular programs as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Baywatch.

"The biggest problem I had with the old Hercules is that, the Hercules character was good-looking but he really wasn't somebody you wanted to invite into your house every week, where I think Kevin Sorbo kind of embodies that," Tapert said.

Sorbo plays Hercules as a sort of nomadic Superman, traveling the countryside of ancient Greece righting wrongs and helping the helpless. The series relies on a mixture of wild stunts, state-of-the-art special effects, fantastic physiques (both male and female) and tongue-in-cheek humor, rarely taking it self too seriously.

The early success of Hercules made a spinoff inevitable, and a character who was originally a villain became the star of that spinoff, Xena: Warrior Princess.

"Xena was a way for us to try out some Hong Kong-style action and give it to a woman character," Tapert said. "Myself and my partner, and people working in the office, are big fans of a lot of the Hong Kong movies. We see a lot of them. We wanted to make a powerful, evil warrioress who Hercules has to come up against, and as soon as the studio saw the first one, they said 'Can you spin her good, and we can probably do a spinoff from that' and we went, 'Sure.' "

The third-season premiere of Hercules, "Mercenary," has a more intense tone than fans of that series are used to.
"It's a slightly darker, more dramatic show than we had done this past season," Tapert said.

In the premiere, Hercules is taking a mercenary back to Sparta to stand trial for murder. The ship they are on crashes, and a wounded Hercules has to join forces with the mercenary to survive on a desert island swarming with nasty pirates and nastier monsters that live underneath the sand, striking like sharks. Tapert describes it as Hell in the Pacific meets Tremors.

In addition to the sand creatures in "Mercenary," computer-generated effects have been used on Hercules and Xena to create such mythic creatures as centaurs, dragons, snake demons and assassins made of water and fire. Tapert speaks highly of the effects team, led by Kevin O'Neill.

Tapert and Raimi's production company, Renaissance Pictures, is now working on several other Hercules-related projects, both of which are straight-to-video: Young Hercules, a series depicting the exploits of teen-age Hercules (due out next spring), and an animated Hercules/Xena movie (due later in 1997).

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