Marvel fans have been delighted by the return of Charlie Cox’s Daredevil to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, long before either Cox or previous big screen Daredevil Ben Affleck took the role, another actor played the Marvel superhero.
Best known for cult 80s TV show Street Hawk, Rex Smith was the screen’s first live action Daredevil, first bringing the character to life in 1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. A Daredevil TV show starring Smith was set to follow but never came, thanks largely to the arrival of a rival superhero series.
Rex Smith started out the 1980s looking like the next big thing, but by the decade’s end he seemed perilously close to a has-been. Hailing from Jacksonville, Florida, Smith had made his first waves in the entertainment industry as a singer – he was best known for 1979 hit single You Take My Breath Away – but soon pivoted into acting.
Smith made a splash with a Broadway production of Grease on Broadway, and soon became a popular pin-up in teen magazines. To most children of the 80s, however, Smith would become synonymous with Jesse Mach, the cop-turned-vigilante crimefighter on a high-tech motorcycle in TV’s Street Hawk.
Though a childhood favourite of many, Street Hawk proved surprisingly short-lived, being cancelled after only 13 episodes. Smith’s screen career subsequently faltered; he landed a few minor film and TV appearances but struggled to secure any leading roles. Then Marvel came along.
At the time, Marvel was a comic book label-turned-entertainment empire in need of a hit. On the brink of bankruptcy in the 80s, Marvel’s solution was to adapt their wealth of superheroes for the screen, but their earliest film efforts – 1986’s Howard the Duck, 1989’s The Punisher and 1990’s Captain America – proved unsuccessful.
Big screen takes on Spider-Man, X-Men and Black Panther were all in early stages of development, and by the late 80s Marvel also decided to their attention back to their only real live action success up to that point: The Incredible Hulk. The TV series had enjoyed huge ratings in its initial run from 1978 to 1982 and remained popular in reruns.
Incredible Hulk actors Bill Bixby (the Hulk’s human alter-ego, renamed David Banner in the show) and Lou Ferrigno (the Hulk himself) were both keen to reprise their roles. Bixby had even tried to get a Hulk/Spider-Man TV movie made in the mid-80s co-starring Nicholas Hammond, who had taken the title role in short-lived late 70s series The Amazing Spider-Man.
Starting in 1988, The Incredible Hulk came back to screens in a series of TV movies, but Marvel had bigger plans than simply bringing back their one proven live-action property. The first film, 1988’s The Incredible Hulk Returns, co-starred Eric Allen Kramer as Thor (plus Steve Levitt as Donald Blake, Thor’s human alter-ego who was omitted from the more recent Marvel movies).
The idea was that The Incredible Hulk Returns would serve as a stealth pilot episode for a Thor TV series. Before anyone knew that wasn’t going to happen, steps were already in motion to take much the same approach to another Marvel superhero: Daredevil, the Man Without Fear.
Like the Hulk, Daredevil was another creation of legendary Marvel Comics writer and artist team Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (although Bill Everett also had a hand in creating Daredevil). Introduced in 1964, he was the first blind superhero, possessing uniquely sharp senses and fought crime both as a vigilante and as lawyer Matt Murdock.
There had already been attempts to bring Daredevil to the small screen. David Bowie’s then-wife Angela Bowie had tried to launch a TV series featuring the character in the mid-70s, with Ben Carruthers as Daredevil and herself as Black Widow; this seemingly never got further than a photoshoot. Later, a Daredevil TV movie was written in 1983 but never produced.
When Rex Smith was cast as Daredevil, it was – according to Smith himself – the second superhero role he’d recently been considered for. The actor says he had not long since screen-tested for the title role in 1989’s Batman, and claims he wound up a close second: “Warner Bros wanted me, [but] Tim Burton wanted Michael Keaton, and he won that argument.”
On top of introducing Smith as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk also marked the first live-action appearance of one of Marvel’s most iconic villains: Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin. The role went to John Rhys-Davis, best known as Sallah in the Indiana Jones movies and later Gimli in The Lord of the Rings.
Many comics fans may have been left disappointed by the liberties taken with the characters’ iconic looks (no horned red suit for Daredevil, no shaven head for Kingpin), but the prospect of them appearing in an ongoing series was still cause for excitement – not least from Smith and Rhys-Davis themselves.
Smith recalls The Trial of the Incredible Hulk as “not just a guest star thing… [but] a springboard for a series for the Daredevil. We were so excited, John and I both. He was signed on for the series too, to be my Moriarty for Sherlock Holmes. There’d be other baddies, but the real baddie that always had his hand in it was going to be John.”
On top of giving us the first live action takes on Daredevil and Kingpin, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk was a landmark Marvel movie for another reason: it was the first to boast a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance from Stan Lee, as a juror in the trial sequence of the title (which, in a move that many viewers felt cheated by, is actually just a dream).
Rex Smith says “it was quite a thrill to pass muster” with the legendary comics creator, who at that time was still “the owner of Marvel itself.”
When first aired on NBC, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk didn’t exactly set the world on fire. The reviews were tepid, but viewer ratings were high (it was reportedly shown at the same time as the US TV premiere of Witness, and high-profile miniseries The Winds of War). This proved sufficient for a third and final Hulk TV movie to follow, in 1990’s The Death of the Incredible Hulk.
Alas, much as The Incredible Hulk Returns had failed to launch a Thor TV series, so too did The Trial of the Incredible Hulk fail to launch Daredevil. (Tellingly, final TV movie The Death of the Incredible Hulk features no other Marvel characters – although a She-Hulk appearance was considered, and not long afterwards a separate She-Hulk project was almost made with Brigitte Nielsen.)
While Daredevil’s lack of a green light may be attributed to lack of interest from networks or audiences, Smith says the show was axed for business reasons – as rival network CBS were already at work on a comic book show of their own, the first live action take on The Flash.
Smith recalls, “I hear from my agent… He goes, ‘We have a problem.’ I go, ‘What kind of problem?’ He goes, ‘Well, [CBS] bought your contract for Daredevil, because they’re coming out with The Flash and they don’t want the competition. So NBC sold your contract.’ They wanted to have the only superhero show. So Flash got it and Daredevil got buried. But what a strange twist of events, isn’t it?”
Ironically, this first TV take on The Flash starring John Wesley Shipp proved a ratings flop and was cancelled after a single season. It wouldn’t be until 2014 that The Flash was successfully revived for the small screen with Grant Gustin in the lead. (The role has also been played on the big screen by the troubled Ezra Miller.)
As for Daredevil – beyond cameos in Marvel’s animated shows X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man (plus a brief appearance in 2001 comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), the character would not hit screens again until the poorly received 2003 Daredevil movie starring future Batman actor Ben Affleck.
Finally, in 2015 Daredevil became the figurehead of Marvel’s brief run of Netflix shows (along with Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher and crossover show The Defenders). Most fans agree Charlie Cox gives the definitive screen take on the character, alongside with Vincent D’Onofrio as The Kingpin; D’Onofrio has also since returned to his role via Marvel’s Disney+ shows.
After the plug was pulled on the 1990 Daredevil, Rex Smith spent two years on soap opera As the World Turns before largely disappearing from the limelight. Still, though his fame fizzled out, Smith has still kept busy, doing more musical theatre, notching up plenty of TV guest appearances and recording several more albums.
His superhero days may have proved limited, but Rex Smith says he’s “rather proud to be part of the Marvel universe,” though he remains wistful that he didn’t get to do more.
“I’m glad to be able to let people know [why Daredevil was cancelled]. And also let them know that, this thing [The Trial of the Incredible Hulk], every intent of it was to bring to television the Daredevil. And we’ll never know how that could have gone.”