The iconic stars recall their roles as Classic TV’s Diana Prince and Steve Trevor
From 1975 (in ABC’s World War II setting) to 1979 (for the CBS then-contemporary version), Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner utilized grace and humor in portraying lead characters Diana Prince and Steve Trevor in the same, but different — if twin — television adaptations of Woman Woman.
Today, the seemingly-immortal Carter remains active in nearly every aspect of the entertainment industry. But sadly, Waggoner succumbed to cancer at 84-years-old on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2020.
Before Wonder Woman, Waggoner was best-known as the announcer-turned-performer on The Carol Burnett Show from 1967 to 1974. While the Burnett program continued until 1978 without him, Waggoner found new fame as the father and son editions of Steve Trevor opposite Carter, then a fresh-faced newcomer (and former Miss World USA), in the 1975 TV-movie and backdoor pilot, The All-New, Original Wonder Woman.
TV watchers tuned in by the groves, and that film turned into a series of ABC one-hour specials, followed by two more regular seasons on CBS.
Many viewers were charmed by Carter and Waggoner’s very human and approachable TV interpretations of their comic book roles. “That’s exactly what I tried to do,” Carter in particular once recalled. “Wonder Woman possessed superpowers, but her special abilities did not solely define who she was. With Wonder Woman, people had a chance to see something that they hadn’t seen before on TV -a physically able, emotionally and psychologically stable, independent woman with a fantasy element.”
The First TV Trip To Paradise Island
Before Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner starred in 1975’s The New, Original Wonder Woman TV-movie/pilot, ABC aired a previous, initial Wonder Woman pilot, written by John D.F. Black and directed by Vincent McEveety, which aired in March 1974.
This updated reworking of Charles Moulton’s 1940 comic, featured Cathy Lee Crosby and failed to score with critics, viewers or network executives. Crosby’s Diana Prince lived in contemporary times (the early 1970s), had blonde hair and appeared without her star-spangled wardrobe. She was athletic but lacked super-powers, and her double life as Wonder Woman was not clearly defined.
In this first pilot film, Diana left Paradise Island to combat villains with Steve Trevor, as played by Kaz Garas, and the U.S. government to bust an international spy ring run by Abner Smith, played by Ricardo Montalban (just shy of playing Mr. Roark on Fantasy Island).
In the subsequent Carter/Waggoner Wonder Woman pilot of 1975, Carter had replaced Crosby as The New, Original Wonder Woman alongside Waggoner as the new Trevor. And this time, the original World War II from the comic book was in full play.
The plot involved U.S. Army pilot Trevor being shot down by Germans in a remote section of the Atlantic, crash-landing on Paradise Island, an uncharted isle inhabited by agile, nubile and immortal Amazons.
Diana, Princess of the Amazons, nursed Trevor back to health, fell in love and returned to America with him (after erasing his memory of Paradise Island with a drug). Before long she, as Wonder Woman, was facing Nazi spies out to steal an advanced bomb prototype.
Switching Wonder Gears
In 1977, one-hour periodic Wonder Woman specials left ABC for CBS and became a weekly series re-titled The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. It what ultimately became a third pilot for the TV edition of Wonder Woman, the script was written by Stephen Kandel and directed by Alan Crosland, and took place 32 years after WWII, with the immortal Princess Diana having long since returned to Paradise Island.
Diana again discovers a downed U.S. aircraft on the island, this time carrying government agents. One passenger, to Diana’s amazement, appears to be a youthful Trevor.
The agent is, in fact, the original Trevor’s load ringer of a son, also played by Waggoner, who works for the Inter-Agency Defense Command (IADC). Diana resurrects her Wonder Woman persona and teams with Trevor Jr. to combat evil, assisted by IRA (a.k.a. Internal Retrieval Associative), a talking computer who knows her true identity.
Cramer Vs. No One
Although producers Wilfred Baumes, Charles B. FitzSimons and Mark Rogers worked on the various TV versions of Wonder Woman, it was executive producer Douglas S. Cramer, a one-time Paramount Pictures Television producer responsible in part for such mammoth TV hits like ABC’s Love, American Style and Room 222, and CBS’s Mannix, who initially retooled Wonder Woman to match Charles Moulton’s classic comic book image.
According to what Cramer once said, the key to Wonder Woman’s success was four-fold, starting with the Ugly-Duckling-into-a-Swan transformation. “There really was the sense that this plain, ordinary woman Diana Prince could turn into someone special like Wonder Woman. This aspect, which gave hope to many who were without hope, was really at the heart of the show’s appeal.”
Next, there was the non-lethal content. “Virtually no one was ever really killed on the show,” Cramer clarified. “People would get tossed and even shot at, but no one would ever die. They would always bounce right back.”
Another component was the mythical Wonder-Land aspect. “Wonder Woman’s heritage, her coming from another place [Paradise Island] was equal to the Superman mythical, extraterrestrial origins. That concept has always appealed to people.”
Finally, and most importantly, there was the Women’s Liberation element. “We have to remember that the series appeared just as women in our country were really beginning to voice their emancipation. In many ways, Wonder Woman was a sign of the times.”
The Burnett Break-Away
Lyle Waggoner, the handsome romantic-comedy veteran of The Carol Burnett Show was spot-on perfect as WWII flying ace Steve Trevor and his secret agent son. Writer Stanley Ralph Ross, an acquaintance of Waggoner’s, who penned the second Wonder Woman pilot, did so, with Waggoner in mind as Trevor. “He called me and told me so,” recalled Waggoner of Ross. “He said, ‘This is the perfect Lyle Waggoner part.’”
“Lyle was always so chipper on the set,” said Carter. “I think because his business got off to a good start.”
Waggoner, while filming Wonder Woman, began Star Waggons Inc. — a manufacturer and supplier of studio location trailers that’s still the top choice of most Hollywood production companies. “He was also just a really content and happy guy. All that joy and excitement bubbled over into his performance.”
“He was ideal,” said Cramer. “With his good looks, leading-man ability, years of experience and comic polish from the Burnett Show, there was no one better to fit the role. In fact, all those cast around Lynda were essentially comedic actors. We had Richard Eastham [as General Blankenship] and Beatrice Colen [Corporal Etta Candy], and they were each tremendous at playing camp, and adept at comedy.”
The Trevor Tryouts
Despite the Stanley Ralph Ross connection, Lyle Waggoner had to audition for the role of Steve Trevor. “And I almost didn’t get it,” he mused. I knew it was a cartoon, and that it was a put-on, but you had to play it with a straight face. You had to say silly lines seriously, and hopefully make the viewers, at home, smile.”
Waggoner’s tongue-in-cheek performance fit perfectly the “war-corn” premise of the 1940s Wonder Woman — and he was “quite fond” of those early shows. But the second season saw the war’s end, which did not please Waggoner. “They should have kept it the way it was,” he said. “The entire laugh-at-yourself-view of the show was gone when we moved into the 1970s. There were not many shows at the time that took jibes at themselves as we did. It was unique, and I was sorry to see all that altered.”
One alteration Waggoner couldn’t get used to was the change in the Prince disguise. Gone was the uniform that Yeoman Prince had worn during WWII, along with her military cap and hair tightly done up in a bun. After a few episodes in the present, Diana Prince now looked more glamorous, sporting only glasses as a ruse, and soon she was not wearing even those; her raven tresses were likewise only swept back in a ponytail.
“I always felt silly playing Steve in those moments,” Waggoner acknowledged. “To look straight at Diana and not be able to say that I recognized Wonder Woman, now that took a bit of acting. I just think the show would have stayed on a lot longer if they had left her fighting Nazis. It was so much more fun.”
Carter Stood Out
Lynda Carter entered the hero biz through Alan Shane, head of casting for Warner Bros. Shane introduced Carter to Stanley S. Cramer, who was responsible for her getting the part. “She was so far ahead of any other actress up for the role,” insisted Cramer.
Unfortunately, ABC did not agree, preferring someone with more experience. “There were those at ABC,” Cramer said, “….who felt that Lynda could not have carried a show of her own, because she had not previously appeared in a series. But the minute she stepped into that wild costume, I knew — and we all knew — that we had found our Wonder Woman.”
That included co-star Waggoner, who had screen-tested with all the actresses auditioning for the amazing Amazon. “Lynda, in my opinion, looked the part. And I don’t know how much weight that carried, but that was my suggestion.”
Cramer however, was easily Carter’s staunchest supporter. He even refused, at once point, to produce the series if it didn’t feature her. “Unless I get to cast this girl,” he told ABC, “…you can forget it. She is Wonder Woman. She resembles her exactly, she can pull a off and there’s just no point in doing it without her.”
Ironically, Carter had tested for the first Wonder Woman pilot of 1974. “I didn’t even get a callback for that one,” she said. But eight or nine months later, when Cramer set out to revamp the concept, Carter’s phone rang, and an interview for the second pilot was scheduled.
“I walked in,” Carter recalled of the conference, “…expecting, of course, that anyone who was anyone in television would be there. And they were…the whole gang: Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith, Kate Jackson, Suzanne Somers, Lindsay Wagner, Cheryl Ladd. We all went to the same auditions, at the time. None of us had done that much, just a couple of commercials and small parts on various shows. Kate was really the only one with any extensive experience [e.g., The Rookies]. The interesting thing is that we didn’t have to do a cold reading, which I’ve never been too fond of anyway. I never won a role from doing one. I’m terrible at them. I freeze up.”
It didn’t matter. Cramer had warmed up to an early screen test of Carter’s and told her it was unnecessary for her to audition. “So, I just went home,” the actress recalled, “…very keyed up and excited. Here I was, this brand new actor, just starting out and studying, without anything but a couple of bit roles to my name, and Doug was ready to cast me in the lead. He really went to bat for me, and I was thrilled.”
As was ABC when the second Wonder Woman pilot became a hit. Periodic one-hour specials followed, broadcast by the network to fill in for its other superheroine, The Bionic Woman (which was temporarily off the air while Wagner recuperated from an auto accident, and before that show switched to NBC).
But then ABC passed on the show after two years. “They believed the WWII storylines were too limiting,” Carter said, “…with the only major villains being the Nazis. They thought if we took it into the 1970s, there would be more to explore, from a creative standpoint.”
CBS To The Rescue
Jerry Lieder, then-president of Warner Bros. Television, went to CBS with the notion of shifting the Wonder Woman series ahead in time. CBS bought the idea hook, line, and magic lasso. Doug Cramer was initially hesitant about the change. “It was a fresh approach, which CBS thought would reach a wider audience. Because, at the time, the other superhero shows, like The Incredible Hulk [also on CBS] and The Six Million Dollar Man [ABC], seemed more real in comparison, if you can imagine anyone saying such things about SF-adventure shows.”
Like Lyle Waggoner, Cramer believed it was the campy WWII version that first appealed to viewers, and told Lieder that “there was no way to play it straight in a contemporary setting, and that it must be produced with its tongue firmly implanted in its cheek. Those first [WWII] episodes are the ones people still talk about and remember the most.”
After talks between Lieder and Cramer, the idea was sold to CBS. The network executive in charge of series production at the time was programming whiz Brandon Tartikoff, who, Cramer said, “also understood exactly what the concept of Wonder Woman was supposed to be.”
“Many people involved with the show,” Cramer added, “…were just really grown-up children. We had writers like Bruce Shelby and David Ketchum [who penned dozens of Love, American Style for Cramer at Paramount]. They had never done one-hour drama shows before, and they needed the story and dramatic beats worked out for them. But they brought the humor to Wonder Woman that I thought it required.”
Also aboard from Love, American Style was Stuart Margolin (a.k.a. Angel from The RockfordFiles), who directed several episodes of Wonder Woman. Other behind-the-camera talent included directors Seymour (Bewitched) Robbie, Alexander Singer, Michael Caffey, Jack Arnold, John Newland, Gordon Hessler, and Herb Wallerstein.
“Herbie was always a frustrated director,” Cramer said, “…so we let him direct Wonder Woman, mostly because his particular sense of the world was right for the show. He had the passion that we all shared. We were all very clear on the show’s vision, and respected that vision. We were all very particular on what Wonder Woman and Steve would or would not do. There were often long, detailed discussions about [whether] she, under one circumstance with one particular villain, would or would not use, for example, her magic lasso.”
“The one thing that we didn’t do, that I always wanted to do,” continued Cramer, “…is run with more regular heavies, as [we did] on Batman. But everyone was really afraid of doing that.”
Wonder Guests and Girl
Throughout the ABC and CBS editions of Wonder Woman, many veterans, and then-upcoming stars played roles both naughty and nice on the show.
The guest list is representative of pop-culture royalty, including Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes), Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), John Calicos Battlestar: Galactica, Robert Hays (Airplane!), Anne Francis (Honey West, The Twilight Zone), David Hedison (Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea), Ross Martin (The Wild Wild West), Eve Plumb and Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch), Tim O’Connor (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), Rick Springfield (General Hospital), Henry Gibson (Laugh-In), John Hillerman (Magnum, P.I.), and many more.
Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment) made a brief career stop on Wonder Woman as Drusilla, a.k.a. Wonder Girl — the younger super-sister to Diana Prince. Winger became so popular that after only two guest shots, she was receiving thousands of fan letters, enough to spark interest in a spin-off series.
“We thought she would be fabulous in a show of her own,” Doug Cramer said. “So we sold the network on doing a Wonder Girl series. But ABC wasn’t enthusiastic about it. Also, after people had seen Debra on film, they all told her that she was going to be a big star. And the last thing she wanted to do was be stuck in a series.”
Consequently, as Cramer put it, a Wonder Girl solo series was “allowed to die graciously.”
But according to Lyle Waggoner, “That was unfortunate, because Debra was loads of fun, and she played the part well. She was this tiny 15year-old whose eyes were a little too close together, and who had this look of wonderment. She was the kind of person you wanted to go up to, tweak her nose and say, ‘Hey kid. How ya’ doing?”’
Latching onto Leachman
Cloris Leachman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) played Wonder Woman’s mother and Queen of Paradise Island in the first Lynda Carter pilot. Carolyn Jones, The Addams Family’s archetypal Morticia, played the Queen in subsequent W WII-era episodes, while Beatrice Straight (Poltergeist) played her in the contemporary shows.
Waggoner recalled Leachman’s antics fondly. “I remember watching Cloris work, and how she always just cracked me up. In one scene, she was all dressed in that crazy queen gown, burning incense and coughing. That’s exactly how she planned it. Here she was, doing this very serious scene, making sure the incense would get into her face at just the right time, and then she would cough. She was so clever the way she would put herself on like that.”
Rogers, Evans, Shields, Yarnell, and Kennedy
Western icons Roy Rogers and Dale Evans paired up onscreen in a 1940s Wonder Woman episode called “The Bushwackers,” which centered around adoption-an issue close to Rogers’ heart.
As Lynda Carter explained, Rogers “wasn’t really doing any acting at the time, but he decided to do Wonder Woman because of that story. He was such a kind man to work with. The whole crew adored him. He would sing songs on the set during breaks, and we just had a great time.”
Lorene Yarnell starred with husband and performing-partner Robert Shields, both of the mime-duo Shields & Yamell, in one of two ’70s Carter capers of Wonder Woman.
In “Formicida,” Yarnell played Dr. Irene Janus, a scientist imbued with the ability to control hordes of insects, who sets out to stop the manufacture of a virulent pesticide.
A later episode, “Knockout” (featuring Jayne Kennedy as a black Wonder Woman), saw the return of Janus. Both were series pilots but, according to Waggoner, “…things didn’t work out.”
Christopher George appeared in an episode of ABC early ’40s edition of Wonder Woman, titled, “Fausta, the Nazi Wonder Woman,” which also featured his wife Lynda Day George as the Teutonic terror of the title.
Doug Cramer first met George while supervising the production of the ABC’s 1970s heralded sci-fi series The Immortal, of which Cramer remained “particularly proud.”
Cramer claimed The Immortal “…was never really accepted, nor given a chance. Along with The Invaders, (ABC, 1967–68) I believe The Immortal, more than anyone will ever realize, helped to lay the groundwork for much of what you see on science fiction television today, including The X-Files.”
Tarzan and Bubba Smith meet Wonder Woman
Ron Ely (Tarzan, ABC, 1966–1968) guest-starred in a segment of the CBS ’70s edition of Wonder Woman called “The Deadly Sting,” as well as in a 1995 episode of Lynda Carter’s syndicated Hawkeye series. “He was great to work with both times,” Carter enthused. “And he’s such a big guy. In Hawkeye, he played this evil character who had to pick me up over this wagon. He lifted me up like I was a feather. I felt like a piece of balsa wood.”
Sports legends also guest-starred on episodes of Wonder Woman.
In “LightFingered Lady,” the able Amazon was supposed to fling Bubba Smith aside, but the ex-football star initially refused the scrimmage. “‘No woman is going to toss me around,”’ Lynda Carter recalled Smith saying.
“Aw, come on,” she replied. ‘I’ll show you what I’m going to do. It’s a dip-under your-shoulder type-of-thing. You can just lift yourself up, sort of sideways.”
“Well, when we did the scene” Carter recalled. “I flipped him over on his back, and everyone on the set stared in shock.”
Then-Future Potential Wonder Women
Decades before Gal Gadot delivered a stunning feature film performance as Wonder Woman in 2017, Warner Bros., the proprietor of the franchise, had long contemplated bringing back Diana Prince to both big and small screens.
“It has been in development at Warner Bros….for years,” Doug Cramer said. “I tried to sell it myself on a number of occasions, but I kept on getting turned down because I’m not known in the feature film world.”
Those who tried, said Cramer, included, Jon Peters, who was working on “developing one” with director Ivan (Ghostbusters) Reitman. “At one point,” Cramer said, “Lois & Clark’s Debra Joy Levine was developing a Wonder Woman TV project.
If he could have been part of a Wonder Woman revival, who would Cramer have cast in the lead? “I would definitely go with an unknown,” he replied. “It would be a huge mistake to go with someone like a Jennifer Aniston, God help us, or a Cameron Diaz. The strategy must be like it was when we did the series with Lynda, who was an unknown, or like when they remade Superman.”
Pre-Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, which Lynda Carter endorsed, TV’s original Diana Prince said, “You never know how things will turn or what’s around the corner.”
Lynda Carter Still Rules
Today, Lynda Carter lives in Washington D.C. with her devoted husband, attorney Robert Allman, and their two children, James and Jessica. She remains ever active in the entertainment industry with her music, live-performing, and film and television roles, including TV’s Supergirl.
And in a recent heartfelt tribute on Instagram, Carter remembered her former co-star. “Lyle Waggoner was a memorable colleague and co-star, but he was also a friend. His kindness meant the world to me when I was very young and just starting my career.”
In recalling her final conversation with Waggoner, the statuesque actress added, “Lyle and I last spoke in 2018 and I’m so glad we had the chance to catch up. We talked about how lucky we both were to be surrounded by such wonderful family and friends. I will miss you, Lyle.”
And just as Waggoner will always be remembered fondly as the screen’s ideal Steve Trevor (as well as for his work on The Carol Burnett Show), Carter will always be known as Wonder Woman, and in some sectors, the best Wonder Woman of all. In addressing the show and the character’s popularity, she once said:
“Wonder Woman has always had a life of her own, for whatever reason. Why it reached into the hearts of so many people may never be fully explained.”
Carter still receives lots of fan mail, including “a wonderful letter” from a woman who, in a college thesis, named Wonder Woman as the inspiration for her career.
“She came from an underprivileged background,” Carter explained, “…and she went out and attained what she wanted in life because of Wonder Woman. It all stemmed from when she first watched the show as a little girl, when the ideas of, who she wanted to be, coupled with her determination to be that person as an adult, were just forming. I was overwhelmed.”
Overall, Carter viewed her experience on Wonder Woman as “a phenomenon unto itself. I enjoyed doing the series,” she said, “…especially the stunts, and that twinkle-in-your-eye humor. We never made fun of anything, but we had fun with the material.
“I’m grateful for everything that the show has allowed me to do as a performer,” she continued. “Wonder Woman gave me my, start. She was the big hand up that helped me to realize all of my dreams, and all of the things that have happened, subsequently, with my career [singing, TV movies, videos, a Maybelline cosmetics contract]. I was young and somewhat naive back then. Yet what I learned was substantial, and it was all because of Wonder Woman.”
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- This post is edited material from an article that was originally published by Starlog Magazine in 1999. See the link below for the original edition.