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THE FLASH : Actor Seeks Substance Under Hero's Surface

December 21, 1990|JERRY BUCK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

When he was cast in the CBS series "The Flash," John Wesley Shipp said he had second thoughts about playing a fantasy superhero in bright tights.

"One of the issues I wanted to address before I took the job was how much time he spent out of the costume," said Shipp, who was selected from about 50 actors who auditioned.

"When I first heard about 'The Flash,' I said, 'No thanks.' I thought I'd just be running around in a union suit. But they are taking the character of Barry Allen, his alter ego, very seriously, so there is something in it for me as an actor. It has a fantasy element, but we also try to deal with social issues. We've done shows about drug addiction and the homeless."

Nevertheless, the attraction of the CBS show is the fantasy of the Flash's incredible speed--and the startling special effects that make it look real.

"The Flash" comic book made its first appearance in January, 1940, but never achieved the fame or the appeal of such comic book classics as "Superman" and "Batman" and disappeared by 1950.

It was revived--and modernized--in 1956, and the CBS series is based on that version. A third incarnation is currently running in comic books.

"The Flash" is also Barry Allen, a young scientist who comes from a family of Irish policemen. Allen's father is none too happy that he hasn't also become a policeman.

"One of the things I liked is that when Barry gets the super powers in a laboratory accident, his first reaction isn't, 'OK, I'm going to save the world,' " Shipp said. "He goes to another scientist, played by Amanda Pays, and asks her what it means. He worries that it might mean premature aging. He decides to use the powers after his policeman brother is killed."

Shipp said he thinks some comic book characters have been treated in a ludicrous manner by television.

"You have to create a world of your own," he said. "You can't put a guy in a red suit with wings on his head on Hollywood Boulevard.

"I don't want 'The Flash' to become a vigilante. I don't want him to abuse the power. I'm after the writers to explore its effects on Barry. Some people just want to make it the good guys versus the bad guys."

The show is expensive: The pilot cost $6.5 million, and each episode costs $1.4 million, Shipp said.

A great deal of the technical wizardry goes into making superhuman speed look authentic.

"We walk a thin line between something that can be sophisticated and something that can be laughable," Shipp said.

"We do a lot of night shooting. We use a lot of wet streets and reflected lights. You have to be careful how you use the suit. To me, it has to be used as a visual effect. It has to be carefully lit and photographed."

The look of "The Flash" is a mixture of vintage styles with the 1990s, completely omitting the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The wardrobes combine long coats and fedoras from the 1930s with contemporary clothes. The vehicles are from the '30s, '40s, '50s and '90s.

The look of speed comes from an unusual smear effect. It requires a long exposure of the main scene and a second film in which Shipp recreates his movements exactly in front of a blue screen. The two images then are combined on digital videotape to give the appearance he's moving at 600 m.p.h. while everyone else is moving at normal speed.

The special suit Shipp wears is a type of body appliance that gives him an imposing, heavily muscled appearance. It's in 30 pieces and takes about 30 minutes to put on. And it's so hot that it's equipped with a cooling system.

Before beginning "The Flash," Shipp played the father in the sequel to the film "The NeverEnding Story." He also worked in such soap operas as "The Guiding Light," "As the World Turns" and "Santa Barbara."

"The sequel takes the father-son relationship further," he said of "The NeverEnding Story."

"It's funny. In that father-son relationship, I was the father. In 'The Flash,' I'm the son in the father-son relationship. The actor in 'The NeverEnding Story' who plays my son, Jonathan Brandes, plays a street kid in a 'Flash' episode."

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