The Great Saturday Morning Experience

Show Spotlight: The Underdog Show

As yesterday was my birthday, I thought for this Saturday morning’s blog entry I would focus on one of my own personal all time favorite cartoon characters, Underdog. So please indulge me as we look more into this fantastic show.

Underdog was a super powered anthropomorphic dog. His powers most basically resembled those of Superman. You could easily say the show was a parody of Superman as Underdog’s secret identity was that of the bespectacled meek and mild Shoeshine Boy, not at all unlike Clark Kent. His lady love was Sweet Polly Purebred who like Lois Lane was a reporter, albeit a television reporter rather than a newspaper one. If that isn’t enough to convince you, then the icing on the cake would be the changing of Shoeshine Boy into Underdog in phone booths, which were exploded into pieces as a result. Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth is quite rare in the comics but because it happened on the radio show and the Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s it has stuck with the public, thus inspiring Shoeshine Boy to do the same. Underdog could fly, had great strength and speed, was immune to bullets, and even had some of Superman’s vision powers.

One main difference of course was Underdog’s penchant for growing tired causing him to need a Super Energy Pill which he kept in a ring he always wore. In some of the early 70s reruns the references to Underdog’s Super Energy Pill were censored. Hey, it was the 70s after all, who knew what us kids would do? I would imagine though that most of us that would have pretended to have such a pill would use an actual vitamin or a Tic Tac rather than look for some drug, but what do I know I was only an actual kid then.

Underdog had a great rogues gallery. Okay, so maybe not nearly as large or as colorful as Batman’s, Flash’s, or Spider-Man’s, but they made an impact, most especially Simon Bar Sinister and Riff Raff.

Simon Bar Sinister appeared in 9 episodes, and when I say episodes here I’m referring to complete four part stories as opposed to the individual segments. He would be the Lex Luthor to Underdog’s Superman, his arch nemesis for certain. Simon was a short, bald, evil genius with a catch phrase that went something like “Money and Power, and Money and Power, and Money and Power!” Why be complicated with a character’s motives? He was always trying to take over the world with some evil gadget or plan like his shrinking ray, or freezing ray, or a machine that created natural disasters. Simon had a henchman who towered over him by the name of Cad Lackey. The names on the show told you exactly what you were getting. Simon got really irritated when anything would get in the way of his plans and one time even went back in time to stop Thanksgiving just because the parade interfered with getting across the street at a particular time. 

Riff Raff also appeared in 9 episodes which would explain why you see him almost as much as Simon in Underdog merchandise to this day. Riff Raff was an anthropomorphic wolf who dressed in suits and was more or less a stereotypical mobster, but one that was smart enough to come up with all kinds of plans to stymie Underdog.

There was also Overcat who although only appeared in one episode made a big impression as a ruler of a cat world that ran out of milk and began stealing earth cows. There was also a vampire called Batty Man who appeared in a couple of episodes. In between super villains, Underdog fought a lot of creatures such as The Bubbleheads, who live under the sea; The Molemen, who live under ground; Irving and Ralph, a two headed dragon enemy of planet Zot; The Magnet Men, evil robots from another planet; The Marbleheads, marble people from another planet; The Wicked Witch of Pickyoon; Zorm, the ruler of another planet; The Cloud Men from planet Cumulus; The Flying Sorcerers, and Slippery Eel, who was in a couple of episodes.

Underdog always spoke in rhyming couplets. The one he used quite often was “There’s no need to fear! Underdog is here!”. He also frequently said “When Polly’s in trouble, I am not slow, it’s hip-hip-hip and away I go!”. During the end of most episodes after the story was over, a crowd would gather on the street with people invariably yelling, “Look in the sky!” “It’s a plane!” “It’s a bird!” and then someone would say “It’s a frog!” while another would reply “A frog?” to which the soaring overhead Underdog would respond “Not plane, nor bird, nor even frog, It’s just little old me …” followed by Underdog crashing into some object causing plenty of damage as he finished “…Underdog.” Speaking of damage, Underdog would do a lot of damage as he would often break through walls or ceilings as opposed to going through doors and windows, and then of course his fights with baddies would often end with plenty of destruction as well which would lead to someone inevitably asking him about it to which he’d reply “I am a hero who never fails; I cannot be bothered with such details.” I imagine it was difficult to come up with all those rhymes for each episode so it was probably good they had so many to use over and over.   

Originally created along with King Leonardo, and Tennessee Tuxedo to sell breakfast cereals for General Mills by an ad agency in New York, Underdog became so successful that the creators of the show left the ad agency and formed their own company, Total Television. The animation was produced by Gamma Studios in Mexico, which also worked on the animation for Jay Ward Productions known for “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show”, “George of the Jungle”, “Super Chicken”, and “Quisp” and “Cap’n Crunch” commercials. They made 62 half-hour episodes. The supporting segments differ from year to year and from original run to syndication, but included Tennessee Tuxedo, Go Go Gophers, Klondike Kat, The Hunter, Tooter Turtle, Commander McBragg, and briefly, The Champion. In any version they had no more than two Underdog segments usually comprising four part stories. Underdog originally ran from October 3, 1964, to 1973 on NBC followed by many years in syndication. Nickelodeon aired reruns in the mid 1990s.

Veteran television and movie actor, Wally Cox, provided the voice for Underdog and Shoeshine Boy. Wally may have been best known in the 1950s as the character Mister Peepers, originally seen on “The Milton Berle Show” and then on his own show running more than 100 episodes. Wally appeared in many showcase series during the 50s and early 60s. He appeared in such films as “State Fair”, “Something’s Got To Give” (Marilyn Monroe’s last movie which was left unfinished), “Spencer’s Mountain”, “Fate is the Hunter”, “The Boatniks”, and “The Barefoot Executive”. He also appeared in TV shows like “Car 54, Where Are You?”, “The Lucy Show”, “The Twilight Zone”, “The Beverly Hillbillies”, “Mission Impossible”, “The Monkees”, “Bonanza”, “The Bill Cosby Show”, “Love, American Style”, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”, and “The Magical World of Disney”. Sadly he passed away early in 1973 which would be the last year of Underdog on network television.

Norma MacMillan was the voice of Sweet Polly Purebred. As popular as Sweet Polly was, Norma is probably more well known for a couple of iconic character voices; Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Gumby.

George S. Irving was the narrator of each episode. He also played Tap Tap the Chisler, who was a gangster that looked just like Underdog. George was a well known actor on Broadway as well as his work in television and film. Among his other voice over work you may remember him as Heat Miser from “The Year without a Santa Claus.”

Allen Swift played a good deal of the villains on the show including Simon Bar Sinister, whom he modeled after Lionel Barrymore. You could sort of imagine old Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life” doing Simon’s money and power shtick. Allen was also the voice of Riff Raff, modeled after George Raft who was known for playing gangsters in the movies. Allen also played Batty Man and Overcat.

Ben Stone portrayed Cad, using Humphrey Bogart as a guide.

Mort Marshall voiced O.J. Skweez, who was Polly’s boss, the owner of TTV in 5 episodes.

Like so many cartoons of the 1960s and early 1970s, Underdog had an enormous amount of merchandise that could be bought as well as premiums with General Mills cereals. Underdog has become one of those iconic cartoon characters that has been so popular over the years that at almost any time over the last several decades you could find new Underdog products for sale.  Underdog got a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1965 to help promote the show and was so popular it went on to make 20 total appearances.

Of course like most  iconic cartoons, Underdog had a catchy theme song, so I’ll end our look back at one my all time favorites with the lyrics to the theme song:

ooh ahh ooh ahh ooh ahh ooh ahh ooh ahh ooh
When criminals in this world appear
And break the laws that they should fear
And frighten all who see or hear
The cry goes up both far and near
For Underdog! [Underdog!] Underdog! [Underdog!]

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder
Fighting all who rob or plunder
Underdog. Underdog!

ooh ahh ooh ahh ooh ahh ooh ahh ooh ahh ooh
When in this world the headlines read
Of those whose hearts are filled with greed
Who rob and steal from those who need
To right this wrong with blinding speed
Goes Underdog! [Underdog!] Underdog! [Underdog!]

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder
Fighting all who rob or plunder
Underdog. Underdog! [Underdog!]

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