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After 5 1/2 Years, Hercules Has Turned In His Sword

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The man with the strength of 10 was feeling “lightheaded,” he said. The man who rails weekly about petty, cruel gods plaguing people’s lives was feeling weak, but not from a Herculean labor or an Aegean feat or even a piece of bad dialogue. It was Sentiment that gripped Hercules. After 111 episodes, his TV show is ending. Kevin Sorbo is hanging up his gauntlets.

So many gods, so little time, so many benign anachronistic liberties. “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” produced by Renaissance Pictures and starring Sorbo as the guy-god Herc, airs its series finale today at 2 p.m. on KTLA.

Repeat episodes will run into January, when a package of two half-hour action shows now in production in New Zealand will replace it. Both promise the same formula of campy, contemporary sensibility applied to an unaccustomed scenario that Renaissance invented with “Hercules,” in which Hong Kong action flick meets post-modern ancient Greece on the lush, antipodean landscape. And please, heavy on the special effects.

The series’ conclusion, “Full Circle,” is a family reunion featuring Zeus, Hera and the ever-petulant god of war, Ares. Half-brother Hercules deals with the usual stuff of mythology: dysfunctional families, absent dads, vengeful stepmoms, child-custody battles, Titan bullies released from the Abyss of Tartarus. The jokes are corny and self-aware. The issues, classic: reparation, redemption and retirement.

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“I have a weird, surreal feeling already,” Sorbo said in late July on the ‘Hercules” set. He’d been working 14-hour days bare-chested and in 12-pound leather pants for 5 1/2 years. He’d been gashed on the head with a real metal sword, and had injured his neck twice shooting three fights an episode. Maybe, Sorbo admitted, he is a little tired and “ready for some semblance of a life.”

One of the crew wandered over with a Polaroid camera between takes, and Sorbo cracked up. “No, no, no. You don’t need to do a continuity shot. Pull a Polaroid from Episode 7. I’ve been in exactly the same makeup for six years . . . really.”

The crew member snapped the picture. “Last day, Kevin, and you’re being mean.”

A goofy, self-conscious “buddy” property from the start, “Hercules” became a cult favorite, then a TV genre-maker, spawning spinoffs and setting first-run syndication trends. Seen in some 115 countries worldwide, the show’s popularity has made heaps of money for Renaissance and distributor Studios USA. Now with more than 100 episodes in the can, the series is ripe for so-called strip syndication--like the five weeknight broadcasts of “Seinfeld” reruns--allowing it to reap profits without costing a cent for production.

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Yet the decision to end the show was “only partially motivated by economics,” insisted executive producer Rob Tapert, who, with his childhood buddy, filmmaker Sam Raimi, was the brains behind the blending and bending of genres for “Hercules” and its successful “girlfriends” spinoff, “Xena: Warrior Princess.”

“Kevin had done his dash,” Tapert said, “and the forces of the market offered a perfect opportunity to launch a new show.”

Make that new shows. The “Hercules” replacement will time-travel for a weekly “Back 2 Back Action” hour packaging two half-hour series. In the fantasy-action “Cleo 2525,” an exotic dancer cryogenically frozen in the present defrosts 500 years in the future to team up with two other women and an equipment man a la James Bond’s Q to wrest control of the Earth’s surface from evil machines.

“Jack of All Trades” is a gumshoe swashbuckler set during the Age of Enlightenment--a sort of Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd moonlighting for Thomas Jefferson against Napoleonic imperialism in the East Indies.

The back stories for the shows are still evolving as scripts are being hurriedly faxed from L.A. to casts and crews ready on the set in Auckland. Six months of deep thought went into the “Hercules” conclusion, Tapert said, “because we didn’t want to make the ‘Seinfeld’ mistake,” referring to the critical pans that series finale received.

Actor-director Bruce Campbell, a regular on “Hercules” as Autolycus, king of thieves, and just cast as the lead in “Jack of All Trades,” said he directed the series finale as a send-off for Herc and Iolaus, his lifelong friend and much shorter sidekick played by Kiwi actor Michael Hurst.

“There are no teary goodbyes, no dying in each other’s arms,” Campbell said. “These two are buds for life. It’s you and me, bro, doing this forever, the two of us together. No question, this is a guy show, with a capital G.”

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It was the last lunch break on the “Hercules” set, and the cafeteria had been draped with chiffon and ostrich feathers borrowed from costumes (which oversees a separate Stud Room that liberally applies metal to all that Hercules and Xena leather). A jazz trio performed live, and Sorbo cut a “Sword of Veracity” cake.

The mood was jolly but not much more so than usual, even regular extras on the show attested. Most everyone credits the happy, flexible workplace to Sorbo’s good nature. Others acknowledge the benefits too of the production’s distance from Los Angeles.

“I love coming here to work for this company,” said California director Charles Siebert, a veteran of numerous “Hercules” and “Xena” episodes. “People being nice and human to each other, it’s got to have something to do with being far, far away from the suits.”

Still, the suits had arrived for the last sword fight on the “Hercules” set. Also on hand were the head writers. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, both 26, were anxious to be identified correctly as members of Generation Y, not X, because their age-based sensibilities inform how they handle the “very real themes” in their scripts, they said.

Explained Orci: “If you hang with Gen Y, you know they are much more conscientious as opposed to Generation X, who are really just a bunch of consumers.

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“Generation Y feels their parents are money-grubbing polluters, so they rebel by being extremely conscientious. Being good is not how you usually rebel. Hercules, you see, comes from a broken home and he’s got a selfish dad, Zeus, who was never there for him. He’s the most powerful latchkey kid in the world,” Orci continued. “So Hercules rebels against Zeus by being good. It’s a model for how to behave.”

Kurtzman nodded. “That’s what we do every week,” he said. “How do you inform and educate? You can hide a message in entertainment, but you cannot entertain with a message.”

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Whatever the myths or the metaphors, Sorbo will be trading the past for the future, helping to develop and star in “Andromeda,” a “more adult-based” futuristic series for fall 2000 from the Gene Roddenberry archives. The syndicated series will be filmed in Vancouver, Canada. Meanwhile, Hurst is directing his first feature film in New Zealand.

Sorbo was poised for the last shot. It was standing-room-only on the set. His biggest regret is that “Hercules” never produced a send-up episode of “Gilligan’s Island.”

“I have a weird feeling. I’ll just deal with it,” Sorbo, stoic, told those gathered. “I’m going to go home and have a good cry.”

Hurst had handled what he called “the grief, the letting go” differently on his last day of work a couple of weeks before.

“I drank champagne, I made a speech, I gave presents, I stayed up until 4 o’clock in the morning,” he said, “and then I cut all of my hair off.”

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“Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” final episode will be shown at today at 2 p.m. on KTLA. The network has rated it TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for violence).


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