Underdog is an American cartoon television series that appeared on air in the year 1964. It broadcasted on the NBC network under the primary sponsorship of General Mills and continued to air until the year 1973. The cartoon series had a total run of 124 episodes.
Underdog was Shoeshine Boy’s alter ego. An anthropomorphic dog superhero who would reach for help whenever Sweet Polly Purebred was being victimized by villains such as Simon Bar Sinister or Riff Raff. Whenever needed, Shoeshine Boy would dunk into a telephone booth, where he would transform into a caped superhero, demolishing the telephone booth in the process.
Underdog’s lady love is Sweet Polly Purebred, voiced by Norma MacMillan, and who would have thought that the character was modeled after Marilyn Monroe? Even today, the charm of these characters continues to inspire artists and pet lovers alike, sparking creativity in unique ways. The character of Underdog was famed for speaking in rhyming verses. The most frequent and famous one is, ‘There is no need to fear—Underdog is here!’.
The Underdog Show and Its Making
Watts Biggers was an account executive with a top tier advertising agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, in New York. He was the one who handled the General Mills account. In 1959, to promote and sell breakfast cereals for General Mills, Biggers teamed with Chet Stover, Treadwell D. Covington and artist Joe Harris, to create several cartoon shows. Biggers and Stove also took part in the script and songwriting for the series. Wally Cox has been the voice behind Underdog.
When the Underdog series became famous, Biggers and his team left Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and formed their agency which was named Total Television. The animations for Total Television were created in Gamma Studios in Mexico. However, in the year 1969, Total Television winded up when General Mills dropped out as a sponsor.
Underdog became so popular that it appeared as one of the giant balloons in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 25, 1965, a year after its debut. In 1984, it made its final appearance in the parade.
In 1967, when the series was brought to Japan, it was called “Urutora Wan-chan” (“Ultra-Puppy”) because of the huge popularity of Ultraman: A Special Effects Fantasy Series and Ultraseven at the time. It is also because “Ultra” cleverly fits the “U” on Underdog’s chest.
The syndicated version of The Underdog Show comprises of 62 half-hour episodes. A few elements of this version differed from the original series. The initial 26 episodes featured Tennessee Tuxedo as a supporting segment. Tennessee Tuxedo was a separate character that had its own show. The syndicated version that aired in the US was an amalgamation of segments previously aired on the show.
According to George S. Irving, who voiced the Narrator and scores of other characters in the series, all of the actors, including Wally Cox as Underdog, recorded their lines in New York, except for Norma MacMillan as Sweet Polly Purebred, who recorded her lines in Los Angeles.
From June 1992 until the mid-1990s, The Underdog Show was aired on Nickelodeon. It also aired on Australian Broadcasting Corporation on February 18, 1966.
In 1995, a sale of the rights of Underdog was negotiated between Biggers, Stover, Covington and Harris, and the Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels who further sold the rights off to Golden Books.
After the acquisition of Golden Books by Classic Media, the rights to The Underdog Show also transferred. In 2012, Classic Media was purchased by DreamWorks Animation. The series eventually came under the ownership of Universal Television.
Underdog has been ranked at the 23rdslot by TV Guide on its ‘Fifty Greatest Cartoon Characters’ list. IGN ranked Underdog at 74th number on its ‘Best 100 Animated Series’ list.
Just like any other superhero, Underdog transforms when called for help. On a few occasions, Underdog is shown to take ‘Super Energy Pills’ to regain back his powers. Episode 9 had the first instance where this Energy Pill was introduced.
Underdog would keep the pill in a special ring that he always wore. Before swallowing the pill, Underdog would often chant, ‘The secret compartment of my ring I fill—With an Underdog Super Energy Pill!’. If the pills weren’t taken, Underdog would start growing weak as his superpowers slowly faded.
For many years, all scenes showing Underdog swallowing his ‘Super Energy Pills’ were censored due to the fear of kids watching the cartoon and finding inspiration in eating pills unsupervised.
Underdog is shown to have superhuman powers, however, the powers change subject to the need of the episode. The creators tried following the conventions of superhero comics, but also the standards of humorous cartoons. The show is a tad bit sober with a hint of light humor and fun. Some of the superpowers of Underdog as shown on the show are extraordinary physical strength, X-ray vision, super speed, atomic breath, heat vision, etc.
Did you know that an attempt was made to re-release “Underdog” in syndication in the early 1990s? However, all references to the secret energy pill were removed due to the prevalent drug culture at the time. Without them, the cartoons did not make sense. It was ironic considering that the pills were originally provided to encourage kids to take their vitamins.
The underdog show is remembered for its title song, “Underdog”, which was written by Chester Stover, W. Watts Biggers, Treadwell Covington, and Joseph Harris. There have been several notable covers of the theme song. In fact, the Underdog theme was used in a commercial for Reebok ZQuick shoes in 2014.
One more thing, the words to the Underdog theme tune almost match the meter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Excelsior.” You can therefore sing the poem’s lyrics along with the theme.
Books and Comics
Charlton Comics produced a comic book that had 10 issues published from July 1970 to January 1972.
Underdog is also known to appear in one of the publications by Little Golden Book which is a popular series of children’s books. It came out in 1975 and was named ‘Underdog and The Disappearing Ice Cream’.
Later, between 1975-79, Gold Key Comics produced a comic book that ran around 23 issues. Spotlight Comics did an additional 3 comic book issues for The Underdog Show. Harvey Comics did a single-shot in 1993 and made 5 issues between 1993-94.
During 2005, an announcement was made by Variety, an American media company, that a live-action Underdog movie was in the making. The film was shot in Providence, Rhode Island, and was released on August 3, 2007.
The story was revealed to introduce, ‘a tiny and harmless hound named Shoeshine who gets superpowers after a lab accident’. Later, the dog gets adopted by a 12-year old boy. Shoeshine and the boy are shown to create a bond on the mutually shared knowledge that Shoeshine is in real The Underdog.
The character of Underdog became very famous throughout the series. The innocence of Shoeshine, and the humorous display of strength by Underdog, won the hearts of many. It is the very reason The Underdog Show, today, is considered a classic among the many cartoons of the time.