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Toronto's Paul Soles recalls starring in original 'Spider-Man' animated series

Actor Paul Soles is seen in this undated handout photo. When Toronto actor Paul Soles snagged the lead role in Stan Lee's original "Spider-Man" animated series in the 1960s, he was caught in a web of worry. No one had ever portrayed the teenage Peter Parker and his arachnid-powered alter-ego onscreen before, and Soles certainly never felt like a superhero growing up. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

TORONTO — When Toronto actor Paul Soles snagged the lead role in Stan Lee’s original “Spider-Man” animated series in the 1960s, he was caught in a web of worry.

No one had ever portrayed the teenage Peter Parker and his arachnid-powered alter-ego onscreen before, and Soles certainly never felt like a superhero growing up.

“When it came time to dream up a voice for Peter Parker and Spidey, I was at a loss,” Soles, 88, recalled in a phone interview this week as he discussed the legacy of Lee, the legendary Marvel comic-book writer who died Monday.

“I was like the proverbial 19-pound weakling who gets the sand kicked in his face. I never considered myself a superhero or how he would sound. But as it turned out over the years, that is what Lee apparently intended.”

Lee wanted Spidey to be more of a human superhero, said Soles. And the actor understood teenage Peter Parker’s feelings of being an outsider amongst his peers, while bringing a deep and authoritative richness to the voice of his web-slinging personality.

Soles had previously voiced another misfit character, Hermey the elf, in the 1964 stop-motion animated TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

And growing up Jewish in Toronto from 1930-onward, Soles also felt at times like he wasn’t accepted “by the vast majority.”

“That helped me find a common ground to be able to at least play the character with those characteristics, with those qualities that I think Stan had in mind,” he said.

“That, in a sense, was a bit of a bond and why it was fun to do the character.”

Created by Lee, the original “Spider-Man” animated series was produced in Canada and the U.S., and ran on ABC from 1967 to 1970 with a cast of mostly Canadians.

Soles said producers had heard from Orson Welles and other great American performers “that the best pool of English-speaking actors was in Canada” and came up here to make “Rudolph,” “Spider-Man” and other projects.

The cast didn’t get to see the “Spider-Man” animation before recording and had to just go off drawings and the script, which often had Soles declaring: “Walloping web snappers.”

The theme song, composed by Paul Francis Webster and J. Robert Harris, began with the instantly recognizable, groovy big-band music and lyrics: “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can.”

Some producers and cast members had doubts that a friendly-neighbourhood character who “gets zits, can’t get it on with the girls and has trouble with friends” would be a believable superhero in viewers’ eyes, said Soles.

“Everybody said, ‘What kind of a superhero is that?'” he recalled. “That it worked out and connected with people — that’s Stan Lee.

“That was the creativity and genius of Lee as an author, to understand what it is that people respond to or look forward to or look for in the way of mythical figures and heroes and exemplars.

“There aren’t many people over the years who’ve created characters in the world of theatre, drama, acting, whatever, who have such a universal appeal.”

Soles’ other connections to Lee include playing supporting characters in “The Marvel Super Heroes” animated series in 1966, and appearing as a pizza restaurant owner named Stanley in the 2008 film “The Incredible Hulk.”

He also talks about his Spider-Man work at comic-book conventions while continuing his acting career, on projects including the digital series “My 90-Year-Old Roommate.”

Soles got to meet Lee once — when they were on the CBC game show “Beyond Reason” in the 1979-80 season — but feels Lee’s work made a big impact on his life. 

“To meet people who can remember back when they were kids watching the cartoons and proclaiming a life-long allegiance to the story, the values, the ethics, and meeting them at these comic cons is astounding,” Soles said.

“You realize the profundity or the depth to which these tales connected with people.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press