“Captain Video & his Video Rangers”: This 1950s sci-fi adventure TV show was a Night Flight fave

By on May 31, 2017

The story of “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” covers a lot of ground.

As an early phenomenon of television’s golden age, it showed how ingenuity could overcome low budgets. It’s also a sad story in that an actor, Al Hodge, rose to great heights on the show’s success, only to be forgotten.

In some ways, it’s a typical show biz tale, though we’ll bet you’ve never heard it…

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There’s a classic episode of “The Honeymooners” where Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton win a television set and agree to share it. The problem is that Ralph wants to watch movies, while Norton is a loyal fan of “Captain Video.”

Hilarity ensues, and not only because of the way Art Carney as Norton says, “Captain Videooooo!” His nightly viewing routine also includes wearing a space helmet roughly the size of a fish bowl.

It’s unfortunate that “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” is nearly lost to history. Though it ran from 1949-1955 on the old DuMont Network (which also aired, incidentally, “The Honeymooners”), very little of it is available for viewing today.

Some historians estimate there were more than 1,500 daily episodes produced, but “Captain Video” suffered the same fate as many shows of the period. In those days, networks rarely preserved their programs.

This is bad news for a number of reasons, the main one being that the show’s scripts were written by some of the biggest names in science fiction, including Damon Knight, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov.

Sam Fuller, the director of such gritty Hollywood classics as The Naked Kiss and Pickup on South Street, also worked briefly as a writer on the show.

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“Captain Video” was also a pioneer in that it was one of the first sci-fi adventure programs created for the early days of television, a time when westerns and comedies dominated. Granted, no one is going to compare “Captain Video” to “Star Trek,” but in many ways it was a groundbreaker.

Writer Larry Menkin usually gets the credit for creating “Captain Video,” but it was DuMont program director Jim Caddigan, inspired by the Captain Marvel movie serial, who gave his staff the task of inventing a “Captain” character of their own.

Regardless, the DuMont Network couldn’t have asked for a bigger success.

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The show, which was set in the distant future (though sometimes in the present), followed the exploits of The Video Rangers.

Their mission was to protect the entire solar system, especially those planets that had been populated by humans. They took their orders from the brave and true Captain Video, who received his commands from the Solar Council of the Interplanetary Alliance.

Though Richard Coogan played the Captain during the show’s first seventeen months, Al Hodge replaced him and became more closely identified with the role.

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“Sometimes it’s frightening, the responsible position I’m in, but I try to do a good job – and naturally I’m very happy about it all,” Hodge said.

Hodge, a strapping ex-college athlete whose father once rode with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, was born for the part. He’d had a good preparation by playing the Green Hornet on radio for many years.

As Batman had Robin, Captain Video had a teen sidekick known only as The Video Ranger, played by Don Hastings. At one point Hastings was so beloved that he purportedly received at least one marriage proposal per week from the show’s female fans.

The look of the Rangers was certainly unique, and likely a major part of the program’s appeal. Though they wore what appeared to be baggy army surplus uniforms, they were topped off with impressive white helmets and heavy black goggles, giving them an aura that was both official and mysterious.

Their weaponry included an array of imposing, though cheaply made, ray guns.

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Add to this the Captain’s secret mountainside headquarters, theme music from Richard Wagner’s “Overture to The Flying Dutchman,” some nasty villains, evil scientists, robots, rocket travel, car chases, and some old fashioned fistfights, and you had the same sort of campy, action-packed formula that would rise again in the ‘60s on shows like “Batman” and “Lost in Space.”

The show was done on an excruciatingly low budget – it was originally broadcast from a studio in the building occupied by Wanamaker’s, the famous Philadelphia department store. The production crew simply would run downstairs for props, often just minutes before airtime.

Years later, humor columnist Dave Barry would recall the “Captain Video Rocket Ring,” one of many promotional items associated with the program, as having “a higher production value than the actual TV show.”

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Merchandise became the show’s calling card. The gamut included cast photos, electronic goggles, a toy ray gun, a rocket ship key chain, decoders, membership cards, a set of twelve plastic spacemen, and a mini-rocket with a launcher.

In fact, Coogan’s departure from the show was because the producers wouldn’t cut the actors in on the take from “Captain Video” merchandise sales.

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The show’s other actors supplemented their scanty salaries by appearing in character at supermarket openings and county fairs. The grind of low pay and a grueling daily schedule, however, was the undoing of at least one of them.

Actor Bram Nossen, who played Captain Video’s archrival Dr. Pauli, dropped out of the show after suffering a nervous breakdown. He blamed his health collapse on the program.

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Hal Conklin and then Stephen Elliot replaced him. The fact that none of the substitute actors resembled Nossen was explained away as Dr. Pauli undergoing plastic surgery to fool the good Captain.

Of course, some actors needed work and thrived on the schedule. Many recognizable faces appeared on the program, including Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine, Frank Sutton (best known as Sgt. Carter on “Gomer Pyle, USMC”) Alan Hale Jr. (The skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”) familiar character actors Arnold Stang and Jack Weston, and former child star Dickie Moore.

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Cast members Alan Hale (Gallagher), Elaine Williams (Moy Sing), Richard Coogan (the first Captain Video) and Don Hastings as The Video Ranger.

The show’s success inspired a few imitations, namely Space Patrol,” and “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” both of which aired occasionally on “Night Flight.”

“Captain Video” stood tall, though, outlasting the competition and inspiring endless tie-ins.

There was a short-lived comic book from Fawcett, a board game (allegedly the first based on a TV show), and a 15-chapter Columbia serial called “Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere” (with a different cast of actors).

The show even spawned its own spinoff series, “The Secret Files of Captain Video,” which ran on Saturday mornings.

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At its peak, the program was so popular that presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson delayed a scheduled TV announcement until after “Captain Video” had aired because he feared everyone would be watching the show.

Through it all, Hodge proudly embodied the lead character, an onus that wasn’t lost on him, especially when it came to his younger fans.

“At least three times a week on ‘Captain Video,’ Hodge said, “we deliver short messages to our youthful listeners. We stress the Golden Rule, tolerance, honesty, and personal integrity. I’m thankful for the opportunity of being associated with the show that helps, in a small measure, to illuminate for the young people of America the importance of courage, character, and the sense of moral values.”

During the early 1950s, Hodge testified at a Senate hearing on television violence. He explained to those present that “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” was not overly violent, and that weapons used on the series caused only temporary paralysis rather than death.

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Ironically, the legislators continually addressed Hodge as “Captain,” a symptom of how closely Hodge had become identified with the character. Maybe they were fans.

In his free time, Hodge would tour the country aiding such causes as muscular dystrophy, the Kiwanis Club, orphanages, and various patriotic and religious organizations.

Hodge also served as a Sunday school teacher at the First Congregational Church in Manhasset, Long Island, NY.

“Every week, without fail, I see several new faces in class. At the end of each session, I notice that the newcomers have been taken aside and, in hushed whispers, learn that I am Captain Video himself. The identification does have a very good aspect.”

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Sometimes, though, Hodge was overwhelmed by the expectations of his admirers:

“Fans expect me to be extremely conversant in every new technical marvel of the years to come. It’s not unusual for a youngster to approach me after a program to question me about remote carrier patterns, designs for flying saucer rings, radioactivity, time elementation, and other terribly complicated mechanisms.”

Despite Hodge becoming an icon, DuMont treated “Captain Video” rather shabbily. At one point the cash-strapped network invested in a collection of old westerns, cutting ten minutes off the “Captain Video” show to insert snippets of these vintage horse operas.

A ranger would inform viewers that the cowboys on the screen were Captain Video’s “undercover agents” on Earth.

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Though the series soon expanded to half hour programs, it would be cut again by the final season, this time to a 15-minute broadcast.

Reportedly, the show’s prop budget stayed at a meager $25.00 per show throughout the six year run, which explains why Captain Video’s “Opticon Scillometer” gadget was made from a car muffler, a mirror, a spark plug and an ashtray.

Meanwhile, the interior of Captain video’s spaceship was made entirely of cardboard.

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Don Hastings once recalled with humor the show’s scrappy atmosphere:

“Our first space suits were reducing suits made of yellow plastic, and we’d lose a hundred pounds every time we went on. On Saturdays, a hoedown show called Country Style followed us, and one time during one of our scenes, a couple do-si-doed right through our set. Here we were in our space suits. That was rather interesting.”

The budget problem was not surprising. Unlike ABC, NBC, and CBS, DuMont wasn’t affiliated with a major radio network, and steady sponsors like Skippy peanut butter and Post cereals weren’t enough for DuMont to compete with the big three.

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As the network’s financial woes mounted, “Captain Video” was shut down in 1955. DuMont itself closed in ’56. NBC expressed an interest in buying “Captain Video” and continuing the series, but DuMont stubbornly refused to sell.

Hastings went on to have a 40-year run as Dr. Bob Hughes on the popular daytime drama, “As The World Turns.”

He appeared in 1,558 episodes, which stood for many years as the record for the longest-serving actor on a television serial.

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Al Hodge wasn’t so fortunate. He found it incredibly difficult to land acting work once he’d hung up his Captain Video uniform.

Told he was too closely identified with a kids’ space show and wouldn’t be taken seriously, he ended up working in low-paying clerical jobs, and making personal appearances as the Captain.

Though an appearance at Macy’s Department Store in 1959, four years after the show ended, drew record crowds, Hodge grew frustrated. He once joked that he’d attended every supermarket opening and “every doughnut shop around New York in the past six months. How do I lick it? What do I do?”

Hodge never figured it out. He ended up working for a Manhattan temp agency. He died broke and forgotten in 1979.

It was a rotten ending for a man who brought so much joy to a generation of youngsters.

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Still, Howard Zimmerman, editor of Starlog magazine, remembered Hodge beautifully in his monthly column:

“Al Hodge was the idol of an age and spurred many to pursue careers in a variety of futuristic fields, from science-fiction publishing to astrophysics and astronautics. We remember the Captain with warm smiles and gratitude . . . we do not mourn his passing but rather celebrate his legacy. Thank you, Captain . . . and Spaceman’s luck!”

Even Ed Norton would approve of such an elegant sendoff.

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About Don Stradley

Don Stradley has been a busy freelance writer for several years, covering everything from the pop culture to sports to crime. His work has appeared in various places, including Cinema Retro, ESPN.com, and the Film Noir Foundation's official magazine, Noir City. He's currently serving as editorial consultant for The Film Detective, a massive archive that specializes in restoring vintage films. He lives in the Boston area.
  • Videonitekatt

    I recall episodes of SPACE PATROL airing on NIGHT FLIGHT but I don’t recall episodes of CAPTAIN VIDEO – from the DuMont series or the Columbia Serial airing. Any information what/when they aired CAPTAIN VIDEO?

  • Bryan Thomas

    We may have misstated the fact that complete episodes aired on Night Flight (no one’s quite sure), but our full-episode from September 1982 does feature a special look at “Captain Video: Spotlight on 50s Sci Fi” which mentions the show. You can watch that here:

    https://www.nightflightplus.com/videos/night-flight-full-episode-9-28-82/5751ce971c026e0d83000c5c