As a completely superhero-obsessed kid in the early 1970s, I was powerfully impressed by one particular episode of a popular TV series called Room 222. This award-winning show was set at the fictional Walt Whitman High School in Los Angeles and is remembered for pioneering “socially relevant” themes in primetime. Various stories dealt with sexism, racism, homophobia, drug use, teenage pregnancy, the plight of Vietnam War veterans, etc.
The episode that struck a deep chord with me was called Paul Revere Rides Again and guest-starred a very young Kurt Russell. His character was an idealistic Walt Whitman High student who assumed the disguise of “Paul Revere” - complete with a white mask, black cape and tricorne hat - to pull various stunts and pranks warning of the dangers of pollution.
“Paul Revere” showers anti-pollution leaflets from the rooftops of Walt Whitman High.
The episode begins with students eating lunch in the outdoor quad, unaware that the hooded Paul Revere is about to make his presence felt, which he does by showering them with papers from a nearby rooftop. More mysterious events follow until history teacher Pete Dixon, played by actor Lloyd Haines, figures out Paul Revere’s secret identity (which is no great feat of detective work, really, since there’s only one kid in the school who is a total Paul Revere geek).
Dixon initially attempts to get his student to tone things down, but once he’s seen the damage being done to the local river first-hand, he decides to support Paul Revere’s campaign and promises to keep his secret.
During the course of the episode, Paul Revere also dumps a cooler full of dead fish - poisoned by the toxic run-off from a plastics factory - into the plastics company’s corporate offices, among other acts of creative protest.
At the story’s end he again appears dramatically on the school rooftops and sends a paper airplane sailing down to the teachers and principal, bearing a poem written in the style of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic Paul Revere’s Ride:
Don’t litter, my children, or you shall hear
of the return of Paul Revere ...
All of this just seemed amazingly cool to me, and I never forgot that episode of Room 222. Much later on, the protagonist of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta reminded me of Paul Revere; obviously V was much darker, but both characters shared a sense of theatricality and a deep moral purpose, as well as drawing symbolic inspiration from historical figures.
I was, and still am also really intrigued by the idea of people melding “superhero” motifs with political activism:
Flash forward to 2013 ...
Several months ago I came across an archive of newspaper articles recording the exploits of a real-life mystery man known as the Fox; an ecological activist who had been active in Illinois during the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s.
Keeping his true identity a closely-guarded secret, the Fox had employed creative, non-violent sabotage and what might today be called subvertising to protest against the pollution of the Fox River, which had reached dangerously extreme levels by 1970. He pioneered many tactics that would later be employed by environmental activist groups such as Earth First! and Greenpeace.
Reading these old news stories, I was struck by how successfully the Fox had created his own legend, in the tradition of Robin Hood and el Zorro (which is, of course, Spanish for “the Fox”). He frequently “signed” his acts of civil disobedience by leaving behind calling cards reading simply “The Fox”, with the “o” rendered as a stylized fox face.
Part of his mission was to inspire young people and in the early ‘70s he set up a clandestine organisation known both as the “Friends of the Fox” and as the “Kindred Spirits”. This was a loose network of high school student activists with whom he would communicate by phone, using an electronic device to disguise his voice. The “Friends” undertook missions to help protect the Fox River from pollution.
The Fox even starred in his own comic book (printed on recycled paper, of course). It was called Tales of the Fox: Pollution Fighter.
The man known as the Fox died on October 3rd of 2001, after which his friends and family publicly confirmed his identity for the first time. When he was not capping smokestacks or plugging sewer outlets in the dead of night, he had lived as Jim Phillips, a mild-mannered middle-school science teacher. You can read more about him here, here and here.
The more I learned about the Fox’s escapades, the more convinced I became that they must have somehow inspired the Room 222 Paul Revere story - especially when I read that the Fox had once famously dumped a vat of slimy, polluted water on the carpet of the US Steel corporate office in downtown Chicago.
The chronology matched up perfectly - by 1971, when the Paul Revere episode first aired, the Fox’s “ecotage” campaign had been national news for some time, championed by Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko. That sent me down another rabbit hole, when I discovered that Royko and famed film critic Roger Ebert had co-written an un-produced screenplay inspired by the Fox’s exploits. I tracked the screenplay down to the only known manuscript, which is now part of the Royko Archive in Chicago’s Newberry Library; honestly it wasn’t a great screenplay, but I’m still glad I read it.
Looking for clues to confirm my hunch, I bought a DVD of the second season of Room 222. Re-watching Paul Revere Rides Again for the first time in about 4o years, I discovered that the writer for that episode was a fellow named Anthony Lawrence. Google informed me that Lawrence was a prolific screenwriter, with over 3000 published works to his credit.
The combination of nostalgia and curiosity is an oddly powerful thing, and I felt that I had to try to find out whether Lawrence’s Room 222 story had been inspired by the exploits of the Fox. But where to start, and realistically, what were the chances that he would even remember writing the Paul Revere episode, let alone recall what his inspiration might have been?
They seemed vanishingly slim, really; but hope springs eternal.
I managed to track down an expert on 1970s TV shows, who directed me to a Hollywood movie car designer known professionally as Fireball Tim, who happened to be the son of screenwriter Anthony Lawrence. Tim agreed to ask his dad the question; was Room 222's Paul Revere inspired by the Fox?
Yesterday I received an email from Mr. Lawrence, who is now 85 years old, and what he has to say made me smile:
I do believe that it was an article or some such thing that caused me to come up with the story for Room 222 so many years ago. I have the faint impression in my memory of “The Fox” and I do believe it was the trigger for the concept. Being something of an environmentalist for as long as I can recall, I imagine that it was an idea that appealed to me.
I was always interested in telling a story “about something” rather than just the same old stuff.
Thank you for your interest; it’s always rewarding to a writer (especially at my age) to know that people still care about something that you have written so long ago.