Max Headroom just turned 30 — it was April 4, 1985, that the character first appeared on UK TV screens in the hour-long TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. In the course of two years, the world’s first virtual TV personality exploded to a level of celebrity that made him one of the true icons of the ’80s. He had the TV movie, he shilled for New Coke, he was a music-video show host, he was a talk show host, he had a dramatic series on American TV that made it into a second season, and he was on the cover of Newsweek and Mad magazine at the same time. There were two Max Headroom books, Max Headroom trading cards from Topps, and talk of a Max Headroom movie (rumored title: “Max Headroom for President”), but Max mania came to a screeching halt with the cancellation of the U.S. show in November 1987.
Thank god The Verge put together an ace feature, “The Definitive Oral History of 1980s Digital Icon Max Headroom”, by which we were inspired and to which we are indebted.
But we were saying, “11 Things…”
1. Max’s dad was User Friendly
User Friendly was an animated newscaster from a 1984 project called 3DV — a pilot of sorts for a computer-generated TV show that was hindered by the fact that computers of the time were utterly incapable of doing any such thing. User Friendly and co-host Dot Matrix were designed by visionaries Bil Maher, Carter Burwell, Dick Lundin, Rebecca Allen, and Lance Williams (among others), and User himself was used on the cover of Creative Computer Graphics (1984) by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton — 2/3 of the team that created Max Headroom.
2. Max’s idol was Ted Baxter
The newsman played by Ted Knight on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was what actor Matt Frewer was shooting for. “I particularly wanted to get that phony bonhomie of Baxter … Max always assumes a decade long friendship on the first meeting. At first sight he’ll ask about that blackhead on your nose.” What a victory it must have been when, as a guest on Max’s 1987 talk show, Mary Tyler Moore herself told the host “You remind me of a young Ted Baxter.”
3. It cheated someone, somewhere out of a BAFTA award.
Max Headroom, of course, was not computer generated. It couldn’t be done with the computers of the day. Max Headroom was Matt Frewer wearing prosthetics and a stiff fiberglass suit, doing his thing with extreme sideways lighting and a weird background. But Max was billed as a computer animation. “It was very galling,” visual effects artist Peter Litten told The Verge. “It won a BAFTA [British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award] for graphics, and of course other than a few lines, there weren’t any graphics. A few wobbly lines. And they refused to enter us in the make-up [category] because they didn’t want anyone to know it was make-up.”
4. Letterman had him first
He had already been seen in commercials for New Coke, and had a show airing on Cinemax, but before he showed up on his own series on ABC, he appeared as a guest on NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman. According to Dave, this was his “American network television debut.”
5. It’s the show that changed parking garages
This is what George Stone, the third co-creator (with Jankel and Morton), told The Verge: “There is a huge firm that specializes in car parks, and [their] height restriction [notice] is ‘Max. Headroom, 6.5 feet,’ or whatever. From this single piece of signage, you had this title which everybody knew. As a consequence of [Max Headroom], national car parks spent about 3 million [pounds] changing all their signage to ‘maximum height.'”
6. The Ray-Bans weren’t just a cool look
Sometimes Max Headroom wore shades, other times not. Why’s that? Well, Frewer wore contact lenses to achieve the Max look, very large lenses called “haptic lenses” — and he ended up with severely lacerated corneas. Very painful. Putting Wayfarers on Max allowed the show to keep shooting while Frewer’s eyes healed — so that he could again put the dreaded haptic lenses in.
7. George “Game of Thrones” R.R. Martin wrote the Christmas episode
A lot of the writers on Max Headroom (the ABC dramatic series) came over from the CBS revival of The Twilight Zone. George R.R. Martin was working on The Twilight Zone, and he wrote one script for Max Headroom, titled “Xmas.” Writer Michael Cassutt described it to The Verge: “‘What is a commercial holiday like in a world that makes a virtue of just rampant commercialism?’ We came up with the holiday, ‘Xmas,’ in which everybody gathers around the TV and home shops. The person in the family or the community that home shops the most is the one who celebrates Xmas the best.” The show was canceled before they could get around to shooting “Xmas” — but Martin has it listed in his official bibliography under “Teleplays — Not Produced”.
8. Max had the last laugh.
The second season of Max Headroom was essentially doomed from the start. ABC gave the show the 9 PM Friday time slot, which put it up against Miami Vice and Dallas, two massively popular series at the time. Five episodes in, ABC pulled the plug on Max. Max took a few shots in his final episodes, at one point remarking that “Shakespeare would have loved your ratings system; Twelfth Night would have been lucky to have lasted one.” Max also delivered his own version of a famous Winston Churchill speech: “We will fight them on the beaches of Miami Vice, we will fight them on the sidewalks of Dallas, we will fight them on the Knots Landing stage, we will nev-nev-nev-never surrender. And if the rating system lasts for a thousand years, men will say this was Max Headroom’s finest hour.”
9. The identity of the Max Headroom in this infamous and super creepy video
Even if you do know a few of the things in this list of things you supposedly don’t know, this is one you definitely don’t know. Nobody does. This is a hacker interrupting a broadcast of Doctor Who on a Chicago PBS station on November 22, 1987. To this day, the culprit has not been identified.
10. Max came back
Frewer reprised his famous character for the first time in 20 years back in 2007 for a UK campaign alerting Channel 4 viewers to the impending switchover to digital.
11. The Max Headroom revival has already started
Ok, you knew Eminem did a Max Headroom impression in his 2013 video for “Rap God.” But that didn’t come out of the blue; in 2011, Selena Gomez did a Max Headroom impersonation in her “Love You Like a Love Song” video, and 50 Cent did one in Tony Yayo’s “Pass the Patron” video in 2010. And the inspiration behind this Anonymous taunting of Scientology, also from 2010, is unmistakable:
It would seem that there’s never been a better time for Max Headroom to make his full and triumphant return, and Matt Frewer is saying it could happen: “Yes! We’re talking about that right now, as a matter of fact,” he told Onion AV Club. “It’s in the middle of this sort of massive legal logjam of who owns what, with rights here and rights there and all the rest of it. … hopefully it happens, because 20 minutes into the future? We’ve arrived!”