Whatever Happened to Condorman?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Toy Story Toons: Small Fry is a theatrical short featuring the Pixar Toy Story characters that was released with the Disney film The Muppets in November 2011.
At a fast food restaurant called Poultry Palace, Buzz Lightyear gets lost in the ball pit play area. Crawling through the vent system in an attempt to reunite with his friends, he falls into a storage room where a fast food-toy support group is meeting.
One of the discarded toys is Condorman, voiced by Bob Bergen (the primary voice in recent years for Porky Pig). Obviously some sort of superhero, the big-headed, smiling figure is sitting in an elaborate yellow car.
It is understandable if some viewers felt the character was Pixar's attempt at creating an original superhero or some type of homage to Hanna-Barbera 1960s superhero characters like Birdman or the Blue Falcon.
In actuality, Condorman was the first Disney movie superhero who appeared only once in a rarely seen 1981 live action film simply titled Condorman.
When the Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel Comics in 2009, The Amazing Spider-Man editor Stephen Wacker lobbied aggressively in issue #691 to have Condorman brought into the Marvel Universe but his pleas were unanswered.
Director of the Small Fry short Angus MacLane said in a November 2011 interview:
"I put a Condorman toy in the movie. It's in there. I'm hoping for a very small sub-set of the Disney animation fans to be stoked that there is actually a Condorman toy.
"Maybe it will stir up some buzz about a gritty re-boot. I enjoy Condorman. In 1981, what did you have for superhero movies? There was nothing.
"The idea of a comic artist that then would become a superhero, and he had a car that turned into a boat, it doesn't matter that it's glacially paced, it's amazing to a 6-year-old. So, it's a nod to Condorman."
The movie Condorman was Disney's attempt to take advantage of the popularity of spy films and the renewed interest with comic book characters with the first two Superman movies and the Wonder Woman television show by mixing the two concepts together into a comedic family film but they were over a decade too late.
The Walt Disney Company lost $9.5 million dollars on the film even though during production hopes were so high that a sequel was planned. The Los Angeles Times called the film "dull" and "dispiriting" in a review titled "It Doesn't Fly". Similar critical reviews reinforced that conclusion but over time, the film has gained a cult following with Disney fans.
CEO Card Walker and President Ron Miller were trying different things in order to increase Disney's film business having announced in 1980 that Disney films would have "A New Look". Thomas Wilhite was promoted to Creative Developer for Motion Pictures and Television.
In 1981, the company also released The Devil and Max Devlin, Amy, Dragonslayer and The Fox and the Hound. The next year, it would release Night Crossing, Tron and Tex.
Condorman was inspired by author Robert Scheckley's 159 page novel The Game of X published in 1965. Although primarily known as a science-fiction author, Sheckley wrote this tongue-in-cheek novel about Bill Nye (years before "The Science Guy") who became the notorious Agent X whose legend is totally unearned. It is both an actual spy thriller as well as a send-up of the excesses of the popular James Bond spy movies and their imitators.
Nye helps out Colonel Baker of the British Secret Service by being a courier and carrying a briefcase of sensitive papers from Paris to Vienna on the train. It is stolen by Soviet spy Karinovsky but that was the whole intent so that the bad guy could get captured.
A few months later, Nye is asked to do another favor. The Russian spy now wants to defect and will only surrender to the guy who trapped him on the train because the man fooled him completely into thinking he was an idiot. For the sake of his honor, the Russian must turn himself in to the master spy. Of course, everything quickly goes wrong in this seemingly simple assignment.
There is no Condorman in the story, nor any allusion to comics or superheroes. Those elements were added by screenwriters Mickey Rose and Marc Stirdivant.
Stirdivant would later be the associate producer for the Disney film Night Crossing (1982) and be attached as the producer for the Darrel Van Citters version of the Roger Rabbit feature before leaving the studio and becoming an assistant director on several television series including Frasier.
Rose had supplied writing for Woody Allen's films Take the Money and Run (1969) and Bananas (1971) but primarily concentrated on writing for television shows like The Dean Martin Show, The Odd Couple, and The Smothers Brothers Show.
The two screenwriters kept the basic premise of a good-natured, optimistic amateur whose only training was reading and watching spy thrillers but gets mistaken for a master super spy and some of the major plot points.
It was Disney's hope that the film would spark a franchise like the Pink Panther films, as evidenced by having composer Henry Mancini write the music, Mancini's first score for a Disney film.
His lush, energetic theme song that includes a bombastic choir continually proclaiming "Condorman" (Those overdub sessions were held after the orchestra sessions had been completed) was played under the three minute opening comedic animated credits of the Condorman character.
The animation was done by Michael Credeno to blend with live action footage shot in Paris.
Credeno worked as a character animator at the Walt Disney Studio starting in 1978. He worked on The Fox and the Hound (1981) and left to work with Don Bluth for several years. He returned to Disney to work on the 1988 Oliver and Company and the 1989 The Little Mermaid and continued until Kronk's New Groove (2005).
Disney described the plot of the film in its pressbook:
"The Paris skyline at dawn – magnificent architecture awash in the emerging hues of the sun. Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe spanning a deserted Champs Elysees, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, where a man dressed as a bird is about to leap from a ledge. A man in a bird outfit?
"For Woodrow 'Woody' Wilkins (Michael Crawford) who authors Condorman comic books and authenticates his work by testing Condorman's heroics in real life, a swoop across the Seine is all in a day's work. Unfortunately, in this instance, the wings the hero needs to 'save Princess Juliet from the evil Count Lorca' malfunction and Woody must be fished from the river by his pal Harry Oslo (James Hampton), a frumpish functionary in the CIA's Paris office.
"Woody, frail of body but endowed with a mighty imagination, is rooming with Harry while concocting Condorman's Paris adventures. Soon, a chain of events begins which leads the cartoonist and his friend across Europe on Condorman's greatest caper.
"Harry's superior at the CIA, Russ Devlin (Dana Elcar) asks him to draft a civilian to deliver diplomatic papers to a Russian contact in Istanbul. Woody, a spook at heart, jumps at the chance. A briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, he has a rendezvous in a Turkish nightclub with Natalia Rombova (Barbara Carrera), a beautiful Russian agent and introduces himself as a top American spy, code-named 'Condorman'. In bumbling fashion, he fends off a trio of Turkish thugs who are after Natalia and transfers the documents to her.
"Shortly, the CIA gets word that an important member of the KGB, code-named 'The Bear,' wants to defect to the West, and will only operate through the American agent known as 'Condorman'. The CIA is puzzled until an embarrassed Harry realizes that Woody must have overdone the espionage routine.
"Reluctant at first, Woody accepts the assignment when he learns that the CIA will build all of Condorrman's comic gadgetry for the mission. Then he learns that 'The Bear' is Natalia. Enraptured by the possibilities, he begins drawing a comic book story in which 'Condorman' rescues 'The Bear'.
"Woody meets Natalia at an abandoned castle in Yugoslavia. Surprised by a pair of KGB men, the couple escape and motor away in a gypsy truck.
"Sergei Krokov (Oliver Reed), Natalia's mentor in the KGB and former lover, learns of her defection and dispatches the Brochnoviatch, an elite pursuit squadron, to recapture her and eliminate Woody. Woody employs a panoply of exotic weaponry, including a gypsy truck turned racing car turned hydrofoil to elude Morovitch (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), the leader of the squadron and his men.
"In Italy, Krokov has the fugitives framed on murder charges, but Harry posing as a government official springs them from jail. It is in Switzerland that the Russians, anticipating the trio's actions by reading Condorman comics, recapture Natalia.
"Disguised as Arab Sheiks, Woody and Harry crash a party at Krokov's villa in Monte Carlo. While Harry creates a distraction, Woody finds Natalia and leads her to a balcony where he spreads his Condorman wings and flutters towards the waiting Condor Boat.
"The Brochnoviatch give chase in black ocean racing boats but Wood dispatches them with a laser cannon.
"Desperately, Krokov tries to stop them in a boat equipped with rocket launchers but Woody always a step ahead drives his boat underneath a waiting helicopter which hoists his craft out of range of the raging Russian.
"Natalia is free at last and to celebrate, Woody arranges a treat she never could have experienced in Russia: box seats at a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game and a 'Welcome' message from the Goodyear blimp."
That description leaves out some key elements of the story. In the opening scene, Harry is taking photos of Condorman in action so that Woody can use them for reference.
This conceit is similar to the film How to Murder Your Wife (1965) where cartoonist Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) does the same type of thing for producing his adventures of his comic strip secret agent Bash Brannigan photographed by his valet.
Woody disguises himself with a hat and a trenchcoat when he in on his train mission because he thinks that is how real spies dress. Natalia when she returns to Russia tells Krokov that her contact was code-named 'Condorman'.
Harry convinces Woody to participate a second time by reminding him that he could put it all in his comic book stories. To escape the agents at the castle, Woody uses a machine gun that is disguised as a walking stick. The gypsy truck is actually a shell for the Condor Car that has special features like laser beam bullets and a surveillance system.
At one point with a Russian black sedan in front and another behind, the Condor Car raises a ramp on its front so that one sedan drives over the Condor Car and crashes into the sedan that was behind it.
To escape the silver-eyed Morovich, the Condor Car drives off a pier and a rubber raft inflates around it to become a boat. Harry, disguised as Inspector Jean-Paul of Monaco, handcuffs himself to Woody and Natalia to help them escape jail but they end up in a wedding where chaos ensues.
Natalia gets recognized by local children at an inn where they are staying at the Matterhorn because Woody has drawn her as a character called Laser Lady in the Condorman comic book. The next day, Harry, Woody and Natalia get on a ski lift which will take them to freedom but Natalia is captured by Krokov and Morovich.
Krokov is hosting a party for oil ministers in Monte Carlo and Harry and Woody show up in disguise. When he escapes with Natalia up to the balcony, he changes into his Condorman outfit and the two fly away. When they land, Woody, Natalia and Harry board the Condor Craft speedboat but are chased by black speedboats. Woody uses a laser gun to blow them up.
However Krakov and Morovich have their own larger, more powerful speedboat that deflects the laser beams. The villains try to ram the heroes but a helicopter hoists the Condor Craft out of harm's way at the last minute and the villainous speedboat is blown up and Krokov captured.
In the last shot with the blimp, it shows that CIA agents are piloting the blimp and they radio down to the three friends to offer them another mission.
While actor Michael Crawford finally achieved international fame when he appeared in the Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit stage musical, The Phantom Of The Opera in 1986, he had already appeared in many stage productions and films, including A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum (1966) and Hello Dolly! (1969).
Crawford was committed to the role of Condorman, even attempting an American accent. In the opening scene where the character falls into the River Seine, the weight of the costume and the strength of current dragged him 10 feet under water before two lifeguards pulled him out. Crawford was willing to do the stunt again but the director replaced him with a trained stuntman.
Just after filming Condorman in 1981, that same year Crawford starred in the original London stage production of Cy Coleman's Barnum as American showman P.T. Barnum. Crawford's Barnum is one of the longest runs by a leading actor.
Crawford had already worked with actor Oliver Reed in a 1967 British comedy film called The Jokers as brothers who plot to steal the crown jewels. Reed was well known for his excessive binge drinking, eventually dropping dead of a heart attack during a drinking competition in a bar in 1999.
During the filming of Condorman, Reed was sitting outside drinking when he spotted Crawford walking nearby. Using his character's Russian accent, he invited Crawford to sit with him for a drink but Crawford declined.
Reed shouted, "Come here into Russian Embassy and have a drink, you little feathered fart!" The nickname stuck and throughout the rest of the filming Crawford was referred to as "Condorman the Feathered Fart".
One night while drunk, Reed threw his tuxedo costume from his Monte Carlo hotel room into the sea. The following morning, an assistant on the film had to row out into the Mediterranean to retrieve it to avoid additional expense to the production.
Feeling that inexperienced actress Barbara Carrera would be unable to project true fear when menaced by his character, Reed actually opened the door of the helicopter they were in during the escape from the ski lodge and threatened to throw her out.
Once the real look of terror on her face was captured by the camera, he pulled her back and then relaxed. She responded by elbowing him which can be seen on his face.
Carrera was a Nicaraguan actress who started as a high fashion model but appeared in several films notably as the animal woman in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and two years after Condorman as the villainous Fatima Blush in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again (1983).
The film was shot on location in Paris, France; Monaco and Zermatt, Switzerland, as well at the Pinewood studios outside of London. Two production crews under the supervision of director Charles Jarrott spent three months filming.
Oscar winner Colin Chilvers was in charge of the crew responsible for the special mechanical effects including the machine gun walking stick, laser cannon, self-propelled jet rods used by Woody to ride up the cable car to the top of the Matterhorn and the semi-aeronautic Condorman wings. He enforced a gag rule that his crew not disclose the methods that were used to create the effects.
Chilvers had worked on the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films and used the same rigging at Pinewood Studios. However, Crawford was unable to use the same mold made for Reeve so a new mold had to be made.
In the motor boat sequence, the choppy waters caused boats loaded with explosives to break from the cable that were supposed to guide them to a "controlled explosion" situation when making contact with the seacoast rocks.
One boat was able to be detonated by remote control while the other circled out to sea and then toward the boat containing the camera crew before veering into a cliff where it blew up. Thirty spectators had been removed from that cliff just moments earlier.
Chilvers was also responsible for devising a method of hanging Crawford suspended 200 feet above the Alps on a cable car two-thirds of the way up the Swiss Matterhorn.
Actor Jean-Pierre Kalfon wore a specially made contact lens to give Morovitch the appearance of having a metallic eye.
Remy Julienne, who was renowned for his work as a stunt driver including the ones in the James Bond films, coordinated the car chases and stunts. High quality cars were used in the production including seven Porsche 935 Turbo Carreras for the deadly KGB squadron and two Group 5 Lemans Porsches for Morovitch.
The Condor Car was a British built Nova kit car combining a fiberglass shell on a VW Beetle chassis and mechanicals. A two-seater, it was highlighted by a dramatically opening canopy that combined roof and doors into one. Four modified cars were custom built in England by Nova Cars Ltd. in West Yorkshire.
Produced from 1978 to around 1996, the Nova car was featured in films like Cannonball Run II (1984) and Winners and Sinners (1983).
The Condor Craft was a Formula 1 racing boat powered by a 200 horsepower Mercury Outboard engine capable of a speed up to 85 miles per hour. The bad guys used twenty-two foot long Daycruisers imported from America with Morovitch using an Abbate speed boat thirty-eight feet long with a top speed of 80 miles per hour.
To make the comic book artwork look authentic, Disney hired comic book artist Mike Sekowsky who at the time was working at Hanna-Barbera. Sekowsky had a long career working in comic books including the early issues of the Justice League of America. He was hired by art director John Mansbridge and co-producer Jan Williams to create the comic book artwork that was seen in the film like the cover of Zowie Comics featuring The Amazing Bazooka Boy that Reed's character reads.
To help promote the film, the movie was adapted like other Disney films into the Sunday newspaper strip Walt Disney's Treasury of Classic Tales from November 30, 1980 through April 12, 1981 (ending five months before the film was released to theaters) with a script by Greg Crosby
Comic artist Russ Heath who specialized in war and western comic book stories but also contributed to many other genres as well did the illustration. He saw a rough cut of the film and was given a series of photographs from which to work and had to submit his work each week for approval from Disney. He would later illustrate the graphic novel adaptation of the Disney film The Rocketeer in 1991.
Whitman Comics issued three 32-page issues of a Condorman comic book written by George Kashdan and drawn by Frank Bolle. There had to be three issues so they could be marketed in Whitman's three comics in a bag that were being sold in toy stores.
The first two issues adapted the film and the third was an original story taking place in the United States where Krokov attempts to abduct Natalia and sends a sexy woman agent named Minx to the J. Fraxley Fribble company that makes and sells all the Condorman gadgets. Krokov does capture Natalia and takes her out to sea back to Russia but she is rescued by Condorman. The character of Russ Devlin is made an African-American in the comic books.
The novelization of the film was written by Joe Claro for Scholastic Book Services in a printing of 350,000 copies.
The most unusual promotion was a limited specialty ice cream flavor offered at Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors. Called "Condorman Crunch" it was chocolate ice cream with crunchy praline pecan bits and a milk chocolate ribbon.
Many Disney fans, myself included, hope that one day Condorman will fly again either in animation or live-action. but with a better script and faster pacing.