Throwback Thor's-day: How Eric Allan Kramer became the first live-action Thor

The Incredible Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) meets the Mighty Thor (Eric Allan Kramer) for the first time in live-action form in <em>The Incredible Hulk Returns</em> (Photo: Everett Collection)
The Incredible Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) meets the Mighty Thor (Eric Allan Kramer) for the first time in live-action form in The Incredible Hulk Returns (Photo: Everett Collection)

As the mightiest members of the super-team uniting Earth’s mightiest heroes, Avengers Thor and the Incredible Hulk have long had a love-hate relationship. As in: they love fighting each other to prove their strength, and hate being the one to lose. Marvel Studios’ latest blockbuster, Thor: Ragnarok, gives the Asgardian warrior (Chris Hemsworth) and the mean, green smashing machine (Mark Ruffalo) by way of performance capture) one more chance to punch each other into oblivion with a centerpiece sequence set in an alien gladiatorial arena. We won’t spoil who wins, but suffice it to say it’s not an entirely clean victory, which means only one thing: Rematch!

Three decades before this current clash of champions, Hulk and Thor tangled on television in the 1988 TV movie, The Incredible Hulk Returns, the first of three sequels to the popular series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno as scientist David Banner and his growling alter ego, respectively. Picking up two years after the events of the show, the plot brings Banner into contact with former student Donald Blake (Steve Levitt) who regales him with a whopper of a story: while on a fact-finding mission to Norway, the diminutive Blake came across an ancient hammer that awakened the Norse legend, the Mighty Thor, played by Eric Allan Kramer in his first big role. And Thor is none too happy about being stranded on Earth with only a nerdy researcher for company. In their first encounter, the Thunder God’s fury rouses the Hulk-ish side of Banner’s personality, leading to an epic wrestling match.

Thor vs. Hulk in <em>Thor: Ragnarok</em> (Photo: Marvel Studios)
Thor vs. Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok (Photo: Marvel Studios)

In classic Marvel fashion, this fight eventually turns into a team-up, with Hulk and Thor uniting their powers to take down a crime syndicate. And as Kramer reveals to Yahoo Entertainment, that inaugural adventure was supposed to lead to more derring-do for Thor. “The Incredible Hulk Returns was really a backdoor pilot for a Thor series,” the now-55-year-old actor says, adding that it would have been more of an Odd Couple scenario than The Incredible Hulk, with his Thor and Levitt’s Blake working together to outsmart and outfight criminals. But those plans were scuttled in the wake of the famously lengthy 1988 Writers Guild of America strike that took a heavy toll on existing shows, as well as those still in the works. “Any chances for a series were shattered [by the strike],” Kramer remembers. “Obviously, you’re disappointed when it doesn’t go, but you come to learn fairly quickly that’s the business.”

It didn’t take Kramer long to find gainful employment outside of Marvel anyway. A working character actor for three decades now, he’s since graced such TV shows as Down Home, Good Luck Charlie and AMC’s upcoming series, Lodge 49, as well as feature films like Robin Hood: Men in Tights and American Wedding. (Contrary to IMDb rumors, though, he’s never made a return visit to Asgard. For a while, his filmography included a cameo in 2011’s Thor that Kramer confirms never happened. “I think the only people that didn’t realize I could have had a cameo in that movie were my agents,” he jokes.) This Thor-sday, we reminisced with Kramer about being the first live-action Thor (not counting Vincent D’Onofrio) and facing off against the muscled mountain that was Lou Ferrigno.

Yahoo Entertainment: How did the role of Thor come your way?
Eric Allan Kramer:
It was literally one of the first things I auditioned for when I first came to Los Angeles. I think it was as much as a surprise to my agent as it was to me when it all came around. I was completely green to the whole process of auditioning and castings so it was a great learning experience, on top of being very exciting. I was big into comic books growing up, and I was a huge Spider-Man fan. So I was well versed in that whole universe.

Since you were familiar with Thor from the comics, you clearly knew that the version of the character we see in The Incredible Hulk Returns looks substantially different. How did you feel about that as a comic book fan?
I liked the idea of making the character a little more gritty, and a little more where he would actually be from. I also liked that the armor was pretty much real; there wasn’t anything plastic about it. Unfortunately for my stunt double, it led to a few stitches; he kept catching his chin on the chest plate. The helmet was also as heavy as anything. The big joke was that it kept sliding down the front of my head. In the running scenes, I was always fighting to keep that helmet up.

Was it heavier than the hammer you had to carry?
I would say they were pretty close! The whole outfit was metal and leather; it was a serious costume.

Did you miss having a cape?
I think a cape would have only added to my somewhat uncoordinated tendencies. As it was it, it was hard enough to move around in that thing; adding a cape would have been one obstacle too many.

Is that your real hair we see on camera or did you have a wig?
My hair was actually fairly long at that time, and I was blond, but it was just too thin, so that was all wigs. And the wig actually made me realize that my hairline was receding! I went in to get it made, and the hairstylist made this skull cap as the base for the wig. A couple of producers were there, and she asked them, “Where do you want his hairline? Where it is now or where it used to be?” Then she said to me, “Would you like to see where your hairline used to be?” She took a red marker, had me scrunch my head up, and drew a line that I swear was about an inch below where my hairline was! You live with yourself every day, but that was the first real sign that things were changing on top of my head.

Kramer in a 2015 episode of <em>Good Luck Charlie</em> (Photo: Ron Tom/Disney Channel/Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Kramer in a 2015 episode of Good Luck Charlie (Photo: Ron Tom/Disney Channel/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Speaking to the gritty depiction of the character, your Thor doesn’t talk in the kind of flowerly Asgardian language present in the comics.
I think that Nick [Corea, the screenwriter] wrote a character that loved life, and wanted to taste everything life had to offer after being locked away for so long. That was pretty much where the character was coming from. The idea was to make him accessible and trying to find that line of being from somewhere very magical and landing in the real world.

Unlike Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, who were rarely in the same frame together, you frequently interacted with Thor’s alter ego, Donald Blake, played by Steve Levitt. What discussions did you have about dramatizing that relationship?
They’re weirdly connected in the fact that they’re tied at the hip. Each character got to share something from the other character, and learn and grow and do all of that. Because everything came together so quickly, a lot of the play between Steve and I happened on set. We would certainly get together to talk things out and toss ideas back and forth. In fact, I remember when I tested with him; I’d already been cast and they were casting his role. Steve came in and went off-script, just throwing things at me that I threw back at him. It just worked.

Who did you film your first scenes with: the Hulk or David Banner?
The first stuff we shot was in the lab, so it was pretty much everyone — Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, and the whole crew. They were both great; Bill was exactly who you thought and wanted him to be — just one of the nicest, gracious, most giving people I’ve ever met on set. Lou was terrific. I believe he said that he was the biggest he’d ever been when he came back for that movie. He was just a mountain!

Did you feel any pressure to be as big as Ferrigno?
I was in shape, but not certainly in shape by today’s standards, you know what I mean? This was 1988, and the superhero build had not come in yet. The minute you get a role like this where you know your shirt is going to be off, the first thing you do is get in the gym and try to cram years of body neglect into a couple of weeks, hitting it hard every day. One day, we were doing publicity stills for the movie and Lou walks in, looking phenomenal. He caught me drinking a Gatorade and gave me crap for it, because of all the salt that’s in it. So we’re standing together, and I was feeling okay about how I looked. Then Lou goes, “So… do you work out?” [Laughs] Like I had done nothing! I laughed and said, “I’m trying, Lou. I’m trying.”

Let’s talk about the Thor vs. Hulk fight scene. How was that choreographed? And did Ferrigno break character between takes or did he only grunt at you throughout shooting?
[Laughs] He was on and off. Every once in awhile, he’d crack a joke about something. Those were some long days in armor being thrown around the set. Back in the days before CGI was common, we’d use the trick of blurring in and out of scenes. But we were going at it like a regular stage fight; it was all the real deal. The guy doubling Lou had to jump off the building. I forget how many stories up he was, but he had a huge fall down to the mat. The guy doubling me was hanging from helicopters and being thrown through windows and all the rest of it. He took some punishment. I was there for all the big moves, but I was taken out of the stuff that would have halted production if I had gotten hurt.

Did you also chug that whole glass of beer on camera when Thor and Donald go to the biker bar?
I remember I drank a lot! I didn’t drink the whole thing, but I drank most of it. It was all near-beer, like O’Doul’s, which I’ve actually sort of grown to love over the years. That whole scene was just a blast to shoot. In fact, I used it on my demo reel for a good couple of years afterwards.

The other great beer-related gag is Thor stabbing cans of beer with a kitchen knife.
Yeah, I think that sent waves of panic through most of the crew, who were thinking I was going to cut my fingers off. Me, too, actually. It wasn’t until you actually did it that you realize, “This was a really good idea in my head, but it that could have gone seriously wrong.” One slip, and it’s a whole different scene. We only did it the one time, because it just freaked everybody out.

Do you like to tell people that you were the first live-action Thor?
I don’t know if I like to make it known, but I’m definitely proud of it. It was my first big thing, and it’s something that a lot of people really enjoyed. I’m glad I have a very small slice of the Marvel universe that I can call my own. It’s funny how often I still get recognized for that. I think it all depends on when it reruns. And, of course, when the movies start coming around, suddenly people get a little nostalgic and they go back and take a look.

Are you a fan of Chris Hemsworth’s take on the character?
Oh my God, yes! He’s fantastic. He’s got the look, the sound and he’s funny. I see all of the Marvel movies, and I’m blown away by what movies can do now. It would have been nice to maybe get some CGI abs back in the day! [Laughs]

Thor: Ragnarok features another epic Hulk vs. Thor smackdown. Why do viewers like watching these two heroes fight? And did you advocate for your Thor to win a round?
They’re perfect combatants. One is so completely primal, and the other is so mythological. But I was just a guest in his house, man. You want to pummel me, I’m fine with that!

Had the Hulk appeared on the Thor series, though, you would have won that fight.
Yeah, if he’s on my turf, then maybe I get to win that one. [Laughs]

The Incredible Hulk Returns is available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu. Thor: Ragnarok opens in theaters Friday.

Watch: Director Taika Waititi talks gratuitous shirtless Chris Hemsworth in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’:

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