Michael Gray and a TV role touching lives for 44 years

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Forty-four years ago, on a Saturday morning, CBS-TV debuted the children’s live-action, adventure show, SHAZAM! Based loosely on the comic book character, Captain Marvel, the program followed the adventures of teenager Billy Batson (played by actor Michael Gray) and his Mentor (Les Tremayne) who travelled around the country helping troubled youth. Whenever danger threatened, Billy shouted “Shazam!” and was transformed into adult superhero, Captain Marvel (played by Jackson Bostwick and later John Davey).

The show was very popular in the mid 1970s. Children loved it for its superheroics and teens loved because of heart-throb, Michael Gray. But, perhaps, it is best remembered now for the moral lessons the show taught in each episode. It stood against bullying, drugs, running away from problems, peer pressure and many other issues.

Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with actor Michael Gray and asked him about the series which taught morals through a superhero.

KJK: Where were you born and raised, Michael?

Michael Gray: I was born in Chicago then we moved to Miami Beach while I was still very young. It was too cold for some members of my family so Florida seemed to be a better deal.

KJK: How did you get involved in acting?

MG: My parents were contacted by an agent in Florida who had seen me somewhere on the streets and asked them if I wanted to be an actor. I never knew how she knew who I was or my parents phone number.
I got involved in school drama classes and local community theatre then on to Summer stock and loved it so I asked what’s the best training facility and picked Pasadena Playhouse and auditioned and got it and that’s the beginning.
An agent saw me in one of the productions and asked if I was serious about acting and wanted to sign with her. I said I was and signed. I was very lucky and got everything I auditioned for.

KJK: What movies and TV series did you appear in before SHAZAM?

MG: My first job was the pilot for “Room 222,” then I did small parts in shows like “The Flying Nun,” “Marcus Welby” and in a few films like “Myra Breckinridge” and a TV movie of the week called “Run Simon” Run where I played Burt Reynolds brother. There were several more jobs then another pilot called “Bobby Jo and The Big Apple Goodtime Band.”
The big break came with “The Little People” starring Brian Keith and Shelley Fabares a series shot in Hawaii. It ran for a year then the format was changed and name as well to The Brian Keith Show and I was written out. “The Brady Bunch” was next where I played Marcia’s boyfriend in an episode then “SHAZAM!”
The teen idol thing started with “Run Simon Run” when the kids started to write to Tiger Beat to ask who is Michael Gray from “Run Simon Run.” The publisher called me in to talk and do a photo session. They ran a  very small photo along with a story. Within a short time I was all over the magazines. Then when “The Little People” was on I was on the covers. Very interesting time.

KJK: How did you acquire the role of Billy Batson?

MG: My agent called and told me they wanted to talk to me about playing Billy so I went to Filmation to meet and the rest is history.

KJK: What was it like filming that series? What do you remember most?

MG: It was a great time. Great crew and scripts. Lots of great guest stars that I got to work with plus I liked working with Les , Jackson then John. Loved the moral values of the shows too.

KJK: You worked with two different actors who portrayed Captain Marvel. Can you tell us a little about each actor?

MG: They were both very talented and professional guys. They both did a fine job. I felt lucky to have worked with both of them.
Jackson was more physically fit for the role as John had to get in shape. I liked working with both of them and would have loved to have had cameos in the [upcoming SHAZAM] movie so I could see both of them again.
I worked with John at The Hollywood Show last year and would really like to work with Jackson too at some point. Time will tell and hopefully all three of us can hook up again.

KJK:What was it like working with a veteran actor like Les Tremayne?

MG: Les was amazing. He had such a fantastic career going back to the days of radio before there was TV.
I worked with lots of really big stars over the years like Mae West, Burt Reynolds, Shelley Fabares, Forest Tucker, Ed Begley Jr., Robert Young, James Brolin, plus more but Les was just the best. Still blows me away thinking who I got to work with.

KJK: Watching the series on DVD again as an adult, I am amazed how groundbreaking it was for its time. It was the first realistic attempt at doing a superhero program on TV. It was the first children’s TV series to deal with drugs. And so on. Did you feel like you and the rest of the cast and crew were doing something unique at the time?

MG: Honestly I loved shooting it but really didn’t think about how special it was and was going to be. To this day I still hear from people that tell me how thankful they are because the show helped them through some very hard times. That alone makes me feel really happy.

KJK: How did SHAZAM! affect your acting career ?

MG: It was a tad difficult to get work after SHAZAM! Lots of producers told me I was too identifiable as Billy and couldn’t be cast in what I was auditioning for. Bit of typecasting.

KJK: You are now getting back into acting again. What have you done lately?

MG: I did an episode of “Archer” a few years ago and will do another next season. “Comic Book Men” had me on an episode too. I did a superhero movie called “Surge of Power Revenge of The Sequel” a couple of years ago and just shot another sequel called “Surge of Dawn” last week. Fun shoots. Not sure what the future holds especially when SHAZAM! [movie] comes out next year. I was out of the business for a long time and really missed it as it’s my first love and hope it starts to happen again.

KJK: You have also made appearances at some comic cons around the country recently. It is a little more difficult than one might expect to get into these. Can you explain the process? And how can readers help bring you to a con near them?

MG: When SHAZAM! was on I did car shows every weekend as there were no Cons back then. I had my first taste back in 2012 when I went to San Diego Comic Con with Warner Bros to promote the release of the SHAZAM! DVD. I did Monterey a few months ago and another San Diego last month to promote “Surge of Dawn.” They’re fun and would like to do more. I have talked to a few promoters of other Cons but some of them aren’t until a year or two away. Not an easy thing to get into but I’m there if they want me. I’ve heard if people want me to come to their cities they should contact the Con promoters and tell them so.

KJK: Looking back on the SHAZAM! TV series now, what are your thoughts about it?

MG: I am totally blown away at how popular the show is all over again.  I never thought this would happen but it really makes me feel good. It was good clean family entertainment back then and I’m totally proud to have been a part of it.

KJK: What else would you like readers to know?

MG: Thanks for watching it and letting us be a part of your lives. Thanks for continuing to support it. Shazam to everyone!

Among the area comic events which might bring Michael near to the area are:

Kurt Kolka
Kurt Kolka
Kurt J. Kolka grew up in the small community of Grayling, Mich., near the forested AuSable River. After majoring in English at college, he began a career in writing and newspapers spanning more than two decades. In his spare time he creates a Christian comic strip, The Cardinal, which has a 28-year history of publication. He has also authored a book, “Bullying is No Laughing Matter” (Front Edge Publications, Ann Arbor, Mich., 2014) and is working on his first novel. Kurt and his wife Diane have been married for more than 25 years and have one daughter, Rebekah, and an overprotective dog, Alli. Of life, Kurt says, “Life is never dull with God at the steering wheel, but, man, does He have a lead foot!” More about Kurt and his musings may be found at www.betweenthepines.org.
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