Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD looks like a fan’s dream come true, but it isn't the first time SHIELD has made its presence known on network television. In May of 1998, Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD, a two-hour TV movie, premiered on FOX. It didn't exactly set the world on fire, having finished fourth in the ratings to reruns of JAG and a showing of the second half of Titanic along with sitcom reruns on two other networks. FOX’s SHIELD arrived stillborn and lives on as an amusing footnote that can be considered the last of the Marvel superhero b-movies to come along before Blade and X-Men changed everything.
David Goyer, writer of Blade, Batman Begins, and Man of Steel, wrote Nick Fury for FOX . It’s not as if the Nick Fury film is all that bad, it's just kind of...there: a time filler that doesn't stray too far from Marvel’s established SHIELD characters but didn't do anything terribly compelling with them either. Saddled with actors with limited range and a limited budget to execute a world where hellicarriers and flying cars are commonplace, SHIELD became a one night wonder that wasn’t very wondrous.
According to comic and Hollywood historian Andy Mangels, USA Today best-selling author of such books as Iron Man: Beneath the Armor and Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation, “One of the earliest plans for Nick Fury in live action was announced in Weekly Variety. The September 17, 1986 issue had a multi-page salute to Marvel for their 25th anniversary, and it included articles and ads. One of those ads, from the talent agency The Kopaloff Company, touted Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD for Hill-Obst Productions (Debra Hill and Linda Obst) and Paramount Pictures. Of the others announced in the same ad -- Captain America, The Chameleon, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Fantastic Four, The Protector, She-Hulk, Spider-Man, Decathalon, Sub-Mariner, Thor, and Power Man -- only two of them were made: the low budget Captain America and Fantastic Four features. Amusingly, Hill-Obst did utilize Thor significantly the following year in their Adventures in Babysitting.”
Captain America and Fantastic Four went on to become bootleg staples at comic-cons and punch lines in their own right, but there was yet to be any traction on the Nick Fury front, until, according to Mangels, “In mid-May 1995, Fox Broadcasting announced that it had acquired a number of New World Entertainment (the owners of Marvel until 1988) projects for television, including Nick Fury as a pilot for 1996, as well as telefilm pilots for Generation X and Black Widow. At the same time, New World sold NBC a pilot telefilm for The Punisher, and CBS a pilot for She-Hulk. These were all put into place by relatively new chairman Brandon Tartikoff. At that point in time, the writer was set to be David Goyer, who was already scripting films for Blade, Ghost Rider, and Dr. Strange, as well as Flash Gordon (for producer Peter Guber).
The production company clearly had high hopes for the property as they turned to David Hasselhoff, star of Knight Rider, Baywatch (then completing its eighth season), and Baywatch Nights to give SHIELD some recognizable star power. One of the more compelling decisions the show made was to fill out the rest of the cast with a who’s who of the Marvel spy scene straight from the minds of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Jim Steranko. Other actors included Lisa Rinna (Melrose Place) as Fury's former lover, Contessa "Val" Valentina Allegro de Fontaine; Sandra Hess (Mortal Kombat) as the villainous head of Hydra, Viper; Ron Canada as Gab Jones; Neil Roberts as the British officer, Alexander Pierce; and Garry Chalk as Dum Dum Dugan.
No one can deny that the show honored the comic’s past, which is no surprise considering that Goyer is a self-professed comic book fan, and has even written for such titles as DC’s JSA. Goyer’s love for the medium and its history is evident in every film he pens, and FOX’s SHIELD was no exception. Mangels explains the other creative talent involved in the project, “David S. Goyer wrote an early script for the telefilm, with on-set revisions by Robert Megginson. The director is...Rod Hardy (ABC’s recent 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). The Producer is David Roessell, who also produced the Generation X telefilm, while the Executive Producers are Tarquin Gotch and Bob Lemshen for National Studios and the ever-present Avi Arad and Stan Lee for Marvel."
In a pre-Blade 2 interview with Revolution SF, Goyer discussed his thoughts on the project. “I wasn't on the set of Nick Fury at all," said Goyer. "I wrote the script a few years before the telefilm was shot. At the time it did shoot, I was running my own short-lived series, Sleepwalkers. I was also initially unenthused about Hasselhoff's involvement. I think the film was pretty mediocre but Hasselhoff turned out to be the best thing in it. He got the joke. The script was meant to be very tongue in cheek and Hasselhoff understood that.”
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Hasselhoff's gruff (almost to the point of camp) approach to Fury gave a charming Bronze Age feel to the story, he chewed scenery with as much gusto as he chewed his cigars and brought an honest simplicity to the classic character. Despite Hasselhoff’s game performance, there was some resistance internally at Marvel to the casting, “I didn't hear much directly from Marvel, other than talking to a few people editorially,” Mangels remembers. “The reaction was essentially that Hasselhoff might be a groaner in the casting department, but that the show looked much closer to the comics than the Generation X telefilm had.”
Marvel Comics longed for a day where they could move past camp and produce a film that captured the pure essence of their characters, a day which was right around the corner with Goyer’s Blade and Bryan Singer’s X-Men, but in the meantime, they would have to settle for Hasselhoff. Although the film failed to make an impact, it can be argued that the doomed telefilm was the first in a long line of Marvel projects that respected and utilized the comic roots of the project, a philosophy that Goyer carried over into the much more successful and genre defining a Blade, and a philosophy that would be utilized by Bryan Singer and later, Sam Raimi on Spider-Man.
It seems that FOX had high hopes for Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD as it had been indicated in trade and fan press that the film would have been the first of many SHIELD television projects. The first fan magazine mention of a SHIELD film was in the "Trailer Park" column of Wizard #71, which confirmed that FOX planned to have Hasselhoff don the eye patch many more times. In fact, the "Trailer Park" in Wizard #73 confirmed that “the budget for Nick Fury is one of the largest ever for a FOX telefilm, pushing $6 million."
“We went with the eye patch and the history to try to capture the depth of the characters,” Hasselhoff told Wizard, the interview showing clearly that the actor was respectful of Fury’s roots, and states that the Hoff signed on for five additional SHIELD movies and the very next issue quoted Hasselhoff saying he “would love to see it graduate into feature films.” Alas, it was not to be, but the character would certainly have a future on the big screen played by Sam Jackson, a fact that curdles Hasselhoff’s milk to this day.
In a May 2012 interview with Movieline, Hasselhoff reacted to Sam Jackson’s casting of Fury on the Iron Man films and The Avengers, “I love Sam Jackson, but you know…my Nick Fury was the organic Nick Fury that was written and discussed with Stan Lee before anyone got in there to change it. Nick Fury was written to be tongue-in-cheek, and he had a cigar in his mouth, he was a tough guy — he was cool.” Hasselhoff recalled Stan Lee and Avi Arad’s words to him regarding his performance as the super spy, “Stan Lee said, ‘You’re the ultimate Nick Fury.' Avi Arad, when they bought it, said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be the Nick Fury forever,’ and they lied.” Well, that’s what happens when your Nick Fury loses to reruns of JAG.
Whether Hasselhoff was actually in Marvel’s plans or not isn't known, but Marvel planned to continue trying to find the right note for SHIELD and Fury and set up a SHIELD feature helmed by David Goyer, a project the writer was forced to abandon when Warners offered him the rebooted Batman franchise. In a February 2004 interview with IGN, Goyer recounted leaving SHIELD behind. “Originally, they wanted me to do Nick Fury at DreamWorks, and, then, the whole Batman thing happened. I called Avi, and I said, 'Listen, they've offered me Batman. Ever since I was a little kid, I told my mom that I want to go to Hollywood and make a Batman movie. I've got to do it.' And Avi said, 'No, you have to do it.'”
As for the possibility of other Marvel characters appearing in future, hypothetical Hasselhoff films, Mangels tells Den of Geek, “Since Black Widow was also on tap, there was a slight possibility of some kind of cross-over -- at least in the mention of the SHIELD name or something -- but all the Marvel hero characters were booked for their own projects or movies, so there wasn't even the possibility of a tie-in Marvel TV universe otherwise. I suspect we would have seen things like Agent 13 or Scorpio or other SHIELD elements pop up."
Whatever the case, there were big plans for Nick Fury by Hasselhoff, Arad, and FOX, but alas, the film failed to make even the slightest ripple on the public and remains nothing more than a well-intended curiosity that preceded the Marvel film explosion of the twenty-first century. There is a quaintness to watching the film now, even though it's diluted by the big budget spectacle of Sam Jackson and The Avengers. There isn't much meat on its bones but the film stands quietly proud as an early attempt to bring the Marvel Universe to the masses.
Special thanks to Andy Mangels for answering our questions, providing a treasure trove of research materials, and generally being an inspiration to folks who love forgotten superhero properties from other media. Go check out his website and acquaint yourself with his work!