New Yorker Stuart Damon was appearing in a West End musical about the legendary escapologist Harry Houdini when the producers of a new adventure series for British television happened to be looking around for an American to play one of the leads in their show.
Tall, dark, handsome – and cheap, Damon fitted the bill and although there was only a single series of The Champions, it became a cult classic. It has been broadcast repeatedly over the decades since it first went out in 1968, with Scotland one of the first places to see it. Its most recent rerun on ITV4 ended just last month.
Lew Grade’s ITC company was enjoying great success in the 1960s with The Saint, Danger Man and The Prisoner and it had its eye on breaking into the lucrative American market with a series that would mix elements of James Hilton’s classic Lost Horizon story and comicbook superheroes – except they would not be wearing masks and capes and would look like normal humans, albeit very telegenic ones.
Grade secured backing and cash from the NBC network in the US after promising that he would have an American actor as one of the main characters and his team negotiated Damon’s release from his duties as Houdini in Man of Magic.
He played one of three characters rescued after a plane crash in the Himalayas and given enhanced powers, including telepathy, by the mysterious locals, who might have stepped straight out of the pages of the Hilton novel. Over the course of 30 episodes The Champions use their powers to defeat various megalomaniacs and evil foreigners.
Damon looked dashing and fronted the action sequences, while William Gaunt looked puzzled and got more of the dialogue and Alexandra Bastedo won and broke the hearts of a generation of young viewers.
It was a formative viewing experience for many, despite a snooty Guardian review that suggested the principals’ powers included “the ability to lift huge papier-mache rocks and hear ridiculous dialogue from a ridiculous distance – unfortunately one detects no improvement in their acting ability”.
The Champions was a big international hit, though it fared less well in the US than had been hoped and NBC passed on the option of a second series. But over the years it has won new fans as parents introduced children to its low-budget, but imaginative charms.
And as well as the endless repeats, two episodes were re-edited as a single feature-length film in the 1980s, with Damon as the principal character. By that time he was a star in the US as one of the regulars on the soap opera General Hospital, a show on which he appeared for more than 30 years.
Such is the lingering appeal of The Champions that in 2007 it was reported that the Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro was working on a new feature film reboot of the show, though that project appears to have stalled.
The son of Jewish immigrants, Damon was born Stuart Michael Zonis in Brooklyn, New York, in 1937. His family were a mix of Russian, Romanian and Greek. His father arrived in the US with just $15 and built up his own successful clothing manufacturing business.
Damon studied Psychology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he also developed an interest in acting. Putting aside thoughts of becoming a lawyer, he decided to attempt a career as an actor, landed roles in a few small productions and in 1959 appeared in the chorus line of First Impressions, a Broadway musical version of Pride and Prejudice.
The following year he was Keith Michell’s understudy in the original Broadway production of the comedy Irma La Douce. It was later filmed with Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine. It was while appearing in the show that he met the English actress Deirdre Ottewill and they married in 1961.
His first few years in the business were punctuated by the periods of unemployment, he later noted that he survived mainly on peanut butter and thought of giving up.
His fortunes improved when he won a Theatre World award for his performance in an off-Broadway production of The Boys from Syracuse, Rodgers and Hart’s musical version of The Comedy of Errors, and he played the Prince in a 1965 television adaptation of Cinderella in a cast that also included Ginger Rogers.
His wife’s family were in England and he was able to combine visits with appearances in a few television shows, and then the musical Man of Magic and the role of Craig Stirling in The Champions.
Despite the NBC money, The Champions was shot on a very tight schedule, with locations and props being reused in several episodes. Actors often shot the final scenes for one episode after starting work on the next.
It was shot in 1967, but ITC held onto it for a year as it had been filmed in colour and British television channels were only just moving gradually to colour. Even after a year’s delay, some parts of the UK got it before others, with Scottish audiences among the first to enjoy the mix of drama, action and whimsy. Much of the show’s success was down to the three leads.
Although there was only one series of The Champions, Damon appeared in guest roles in other ITC shows, including The Saint. In The Ex-King of Diamonds, one of the final episodes, he played a brash American who teams up with Roger Moore’s urbane Simon Templar.
It provided the inspiration and template for The Persuaders! a few years later, which teamed Moore with Tony Curtis and it is even included on a box set of Persuaders DVDs.
In 1974 he sang Bad, Bad Leroy Brown and The Yellow Rose of Texas on The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, a variety show set in a fictional working men’s club, presented by Bernard Manning. And he was one of the stars of the wartime sitcom Yanks Go Home, which ran for two series in 1976-77.
Taking the advice of that show’s title, he landed not so much a role as a career as one of the doctors on the American soap General Hospital. He was a regular on the show from 1977 to 2008 – and even after that his character reappeared occasionally as a ghost.
He is survived by his wife Deirdre and their children Jennifer and Christopher.
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