Live and direct

The definitive oral history of 1980s digital icon Max Headroom

By Bryan Bishop

On Thursday, April 4th, 1985, a blast of dystopian satire hit the UK airwaves. Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future was a snarky take on media and corporate greed, told through the eyes of investigative journalist Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) and his computer-generated alter-ego: an artificial intelligence named Max Headroom.

Set in a near-future where global corporations control all media and citizens are hopelessly addicted to dozens of TV channels, the movie follows Carter — working for the mysterious Network 23 — as he discovers that network executives have created a form of subliminal advertising known as "blipverts" that can actually kill. While tracking the story, Carter is flung into a barrier marked "Max. Headroom — 2.3m." Desperate to maintain ratings with its star reporter, the network enlists a young hacker to download Carter’s mind and create a virtual version of the journalist. But things don’t go quite right. The result: the stuttering, sarcastic Max.

20 Minutes into the Future kicked off an extensive franchise, and Max became a singular '80s pop culture phenomenon that represented everything wonderful and horrible about the decade. Max hosted music video shows; Max interviewed celebrities; Max hawked New Coke; Max Headroom became US network television’s very first cyberpunk series. Max was inescapable — and then almost just as quickly as he had appeared, he was gone.

Thirty years after the premiere, I spoke with the writers, directors, producers, actors, make-up artists, and network executives that helped bring Max Headroom to life. And it all began, like so many things in the ‘80s, with music videos.

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Hello, World (1981-1984)

Peter WaggProducer I was working for a record label, [Chrysalis Records]. I was basically head of what they called, in those days, "creative services." Once MTV started, it totally revolutionized the dynamic of marketing and selling music … music videos sort of becoming the most important part of our armory. Fortunately, that fell under my wing.

I went to Andy Park, a pal of mine who ran a commercial radio station and became commissioning editor for music at Channel 4, which was a new embryonic TV channel in the UK. Andy said, "Hey, what do you think about trying to develop a music video show for Channel 4?"

Of course if you looked at MTV, it was a bunch of video jocks, real people, linking and introducing music videos. I thought to myself, well, alright, that's been done. So the starting point for the project was, we don't need a real person: maybe it's animated; maybe it's a character we can create that's some sort of hybrid mix that has a trans-Atlantic accent, that has certain visual attributes, if you like. It’s like Johnny Carson meets Terry Wogan in England.

So, the first person I enlisted was a guy called George Stone.

George StoneCO-CREATOR / WRITERI worked for an ad agency. I was a writer and radio producer and commercial maker, I suppose, and we had a number of clients that were record companies. I was interested in what we'd call the "landscape of television," if you like.

We had the show title first: Max Headroom. I mean, there was a list of about 40 — one of them was called "The Tube," I think. I did it one weekend, and Max was the one that won.

"it's all sound, it's all vision, it's filling your head full of music and sound."

Peter WaggPRODUCER When I asked him, "Why Max Headroom?" he didn't really have an answer. So I said, well, I suppose it is "maximum headroom." I mean, it's all sound, it's all vision, it's filling your head full of music and sound.

George StoneCO-CREATOR / WRITER It's a joke that's very specific to [Britain], I think. 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".

Peter WaggPRODUCER I started to look around at animation folk, and of course Rocky and Annabel and Cucumber Studios, at that time, for me, were the most cutting edge.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTORAt the time, we were doing a lot of animation. You know, we did Elvis Costello’s "Accidents Will Happen" video and Tom Tom Club’s "Genius of Love," and that sort of thing.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTORThe original idea that was [pitched] to us was to put graphics — not computer graphics, because it was [in the] very early days — but some kind of graphics between music videos to kind of jazz it up a bit and give some kind of backbone to what otherwise would just be a bunch of unrelated music videos.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR I said to her that, you know, this is a really boring idea. We’re taking these music videos, which are really incredible, and then linking them together with stupid bits of graphics. It’s just not interesting.

I thought, maybe I should go with the whole idea of it being boring. What’s the most boring thing I could do just to annoy everybody? And the most boring thing that I could think of to do, which would really go against the grain for the MTV generation … was a talking head: a middle-class white male in a suit, talking to them in a really boring way about music videos.

And I thought, "Oh yeah, I’m on to something here. This is really dull and uninteresting."

George StoneCO-CREATOR / WRITER We were talking about it, and Rocky said, "I think he should be a man. And I think he should be computer-generated." That set me off on the whole narrative: Network 23, "20 minutes into the future," Blipverts, and everything else. It all came from that moment.

We thought, well why don't we, as a part of this show, produce every week a five-minute kind of info-burst drama, almost like a credit sequence, but which tells the story of how this computer-generated character came to be.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR George came up with a great storyline with most — if not all — of the characters in place. Nobody really knew what Max would look like or how he would develop.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR I came up with the idea that he already had a show as a real person. He was late for his show one night, and had an open-top sports car. He went into the parking structure, went through the barrier, and hit his head on [it], and he was basically knocked into a coma. In order to get him on air that night, they had to, sort of, download his brain, reconstitute him as a computer model of himself, and put him out on air.

George StoneCO-CREATOR / WRITER So what you have in the character is a consciousness — fully human, totally amnesiac — whose first experience to the world is exposure to 30,000 simultaneous channels of television. That's where the character comes from. He is a fusion of every evangelist, every sports reporter, everything you see on TV. And from his perspective he sees no difference or distinction between them.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR Peter Wagg wasn’t very interested in the idea of this talking, computer-generated TV host. In fact, [he was] quite dismissive of it, saying that "characters don’t travel." I remember that specifically.

George StoneCO-CREATOR / WRITER Peter didn't understand any of it, really. We were talking about Bell's Theorem, action at a distance, consciousness, artificial intelligence, and everything else. And Peter, for fuck's sake, is just an account man. I mean, it was a different language. He just wanted something easy that he could sell and make work.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR I pitched this to [Peter and] Chrysalis Visual Programming, and they didn’t like the idea. They said, "No. Channel 4 isn’t going to like this. They’re going to want, you know, these kind of little graphic-y things to do it." So I said, "Well, let me pitch it anyway."

George StoneCO-CREATOR / WRITER Channel 4 said, "This is a good story, why don't we make a film of it?" And so the five-minute episodes were strung together into a narrative.

"Go to America, go and pitch this to HBO or Cinemax."

Peter WaggPRODUCER So now I haven't got a half-hour music video show anymore. I've got a one-hour movie of the week that sets up a 13-part music video show. And nobody wanted to go back to the 13 half-hours anymore. The whole thing had just taken on a whole new level. [But] I only had enough money to do 13 half-hours from Channel 4.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR The entire production, including the music video shows with Max hosting them, was in the region of about 1 million pounds. HBO, [still] in their infancy, had an arm called Cinemax. We said to Peter Wagg, "Go to America, go and pitch this to HBO or Cinemax."

Bridget PotterORIGINAL PROGRAMMING VP, HBOWe used the original programming in that era to try to help define the pay TV services. We were looking for something kind of edgy and unusual for Cinemax, which was at that point just beginning to have some original programming.

Peter WaggPRODUCER I walk in, trying to pitch them something called Max Headroom. We've got no idea what it is, we haven't got any visuals of what he looks like, so it's a bit of a stretch, right?

Bridget PotterORIGINAL PROGRAMMING VP, HBO First of all, I liked the idea. It just all seemed to work and we thought it was pretty interesting for Cinemax. We wouldn't have thought of it for HBO because it was small and dangerous, in a certain kind of way.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR HBO said, "Listen, go back to your hotel room. Don’t leave, and we’ll be back to you within 24 hours. Don’t go to LA." They came back and said, "We want to do this. We’re going to pay for the making of the origin film of how he got to be Max Headroom, and we want to be involved with Channel 4, and we want to be part of this whole thing."

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20 MINUTES INTO THE FUTURE (1984-1985)

With funding and commitments from HBO and Channel 4 in place, the project started moving forward in earnest. But for the core creative team of George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton, problems had already begun to surface.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR Everybody got really excited. It came close to shooting [the movie], and the producer, Chrysalis Visual Programming, said, "Oh, I think I’ve got a director that can direct this." And I said, "What the fuck? This is our project. Annabel and myself are directing this."

We said, "Well, okay. We’re not going to make it then, because we own the idea. You have to go and do something else." [Finally] we had to release the rights of our own creation to Chrysalis Visual Programming. But we did get to make the film and direct it.

Peter WaggPRODUCER The difficulty then became trying to get a [shootable] script. The saddest part of the whole story for me was that I just couldn't get George to write me a script to shoot. And he is a genius. You'll always credit George, Rocky, and Annabel with the creative essence of what we came up with. But I had a producer's responsibility to Channel 4 and to HBO and to [Chrysalis co-founder] Terry Ellis.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR George had so many brilliant, genius ideas. A lot of it we would just compile and put into essentially a bible that I think made its way into the subsequent American TV series. But I don't know because I never saw the TV series.

George StoneCO-CREATOR / WRITER I recall writing the last draft and being so angry… I have a contract that’s never been honored.

"I just met this very weird guy, a fellow called Peter Wagg, and he's got this very, very weird project."

Steve RobertsWRITER My then-agent in London and I were meeting over some other project, and she said, "I just met this very weird guy, a fellow called Peter Wagg, and he's got this very, very weird project which he doesn’t quite know what it is and what to do with it. And I couldn't understand a word he said, and I can usually never understand a word you say, and I thought I should put you both together so you can talk nonsense to each other." So I said, "Well, alright, which pub?"

I arrived in my normal condition, which was jeans and a pullover, long hair and I think a ponytail in those days. He turned up in a suit. So we disliked each other absolutely instantaneously, but we had a pint and liked each other a bit more. And he said, "Well, we've got this script from George, but unfortunately it all ends up with people shooting at each other with laser guns and deflecting the lasers with hubcaps — it's not what we want, we want something else. We want to try and dig deeper and find out whether this idea has something else going for it." That's when I got excited, because I began to realize "Oh, this may be into the artificial intelligence area."

Peter WaggPRODUCER At the same time, we needed to try and find a Max fellow.

Matt FrewerACTORI was over in England for 11 years. This actor friend of mine auditioned for this thing called Max Headroom, and he very kindly said that he didn't think he was right for it, but he knew somebody who was. It was an incredible act of generosity on this actor's part, Bill Armstrong. I've always been very grateful to him for that.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR The casting director does a precasting, and I believe he was in the slush pile. I noticed [his] Polaroid and I thought, "Oh my god, this guy's got unbelievably well-defined features."

Matt FrewerACTORI got called in to do this 10-minute improvisation around six lines of what was then ostensibly Max Headroom dialogue. They just encouraged me to riff around, and it seemed like more of a weatherman or a newsman or something.

John HumphreysPROSTHETICS DESIGNER All you could hear in the audition tape is Rocky and Annabel and Peter Wagg's laughter. And he just is Max Headroom, even from his audition tape; he's perfect.

Max Headroom make-up and design images
"He just is Max Headroom...he's perfect."

Image courtesy of John Humphreys.

With their lead in place, the team turned their attention to what would become the most important element of the entire phenomenon: Max’s look.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR We actually did experiment, quite extensively, with computer graphics. It didn't take too long for us to realize that we had to fake this, because what we wanted was years down the line.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR I tinkered around with doing it like 2D, drawn animation, which didn’t really work. Then I tried a hand puppet. I molded a rubber head, and I put my hand inside and tried to manipulate it with my hand, and that didn’t work. I remember I suddenly said to Annabel, "The face. The human face. We’ll just use the actor’s face and just make it appear as if it was computer-generated by putting prosthetic make-up on it, and then shooting it in a certain way; we could make it look like it’s computer-generated."

Matt FrewerACTOR I gradually realized what I was getting into as plaster of paris head molds were made, and this prosthetics rubber make-up business goo was happening. You suddenly realize that it's going to be a pretty arduous process creating the look for Max.

John HumphreysPROSTHETICS DESIGNER There was no specific design. They just wanted Matt Frewer to look like a computer-generated TV presenter. You got to remember, in those days, what does a computer-generated person actually look like? There was nothing there. So we made a fairly simple make-up really, we just changed his features a little bit, as if the computer generation hadn't quite got it right. But we wanted to keep as near to Matt Frewer as possible because he's a great actor. He's very animated, very expressive, so you don't want to hide all of that.

Max Headroom
"You end up looking like this sort of jack in the box, squirming around."

Matt FrewerACTOR The Max suit was in two fiberglass pieces, and they screw you into it. [Later on] we had different versions of the suit. There was the tuxedo suit, there was a sort of golf suit, and then there was a white tuxedo — all equally cumbersome, and they went right down to your elbows, and you couldn't move around. But in a way, you compensate, and it becomes even more computer-generated [looking], because you're sort of rocking back and forth to make up for the gestures that you can do with your arms or your feet or whatever. So you end up looking like this sort of jack in the box, squirming around. The TV gods giveth, and they taketh away. And what they tooketh away, I added.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR We’d just made this commercial for a chocolate milk or flavored milk. And in this commercial, we had these moving, very primitive-looking CGI linear backgrounds. What I basically did was stole that from the commercial, and just put it behind Max.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR We then put him against blue screen. I remember this day particularly; oh my god, were we relieved. We put him against blue screen, we lit him dramatically, with this one light source from one side, and we rotated him ... we had our Max.

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CATCH THE WAVE (1985-1986)

Production on 20 Minutes into the Future got underway with Steve Roberts as the sole writer. The film is credited as being "From an original idea by George Stone, Rocky Morton, and Annabel Jankel."

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR We shot it where Stanley Kubrick had shot Full Metal Jacket, which was an abandoned gasworks called Beckton Gasworks — which is big, like equivalent of the Staples Center. Once we scouted that, we realized we had this perfect environment. You couldn't build that production design, and certainly in those days, we didn't have the funds to actually computer-generate anything.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR It had this kind of dystopian, sort of futuristic kind of look to it.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR It was really part of the visual zeitgeist at the time, if you think about it. There was Blade Runner, there was Brazil. There [were] a lot of dystopian landscapes out there. And it was post-punk as well, remember, and it was still post-war. London was pretty desolate then.

Peter WaggPRODUCER The launch was spectacular. We had the Thursday night slot, which was Channel 4's movie-of-the-week slot, and the 6:00 half-hour [episode on Saturday]. The way we started the half-hour [music video] show, there were no opening titles. There were no credits for anybody. When it came to 6:00, it was just that satellite chssssssss, snow and buzz. And all of a sudden, Max was there. Like, bang! And he's talking in German, and he's telling this joke about lederhosen all in German, he's roaring with laughter during the whole thing, and then the first music video we played was a German music video. And then Max in English: "And this week's award for the worst TV commercial goes to..." and a commercial break. We had no idea what the first commercial would be, but it already got the Max Headroom award for the worst commercial of the week. Then at the end, it just went chssssssss and to [static] again. It was like you'd woken up in Eastern Europe and turned the television on, and you're watching some weird station that you don't understand, and then it suddenly is cut off and gone.

Trailer for Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR We did about 12 or 13 of them… and that really established the look and the feel of it. I started to do this kind of stuttering effect on video — we were just looping. Everybody was, like, "Okay, Rocky. That’s enough stuttering." I said, "No. We got to take it so far that, like, the computer is jammed in this kind of… In this freeze motion."

Peter WaggPRODUCER It just caught fire. We'd doubled ratings within three weeks. We were renewed three weeks into the run.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR Anybody under the age of 25 just loved it. And anybody above that age was just completely confused. It was amazing, you know. It was a genuine phenomenon in its time.

"Anybody under the age of 25 just loved it. And anybody above that age was just completely confused."

Matt FrewerACTOR For a time it was... I won't say it was infuriating, but it was frustrating — you wanted to go, "That's me, that's me, it’s not a computer-generated man." But of course they wanted to swear me to secrecy because otherwise anybody could make a computer-generated man if they knew that it was as easy as putting on all this make-up.

John HumphreysPROSTHETICS DESIGNERI have to say, it was being presented as computer graphics, and I had people even say to me, who worked in some big companies in Britain, "Oh, you'll soon be out of a job, look at this, it's all done with computer graphics!"

Peter LittenVISUAL EFFECTS ARTISTIt was very galling. It won a BAFTA 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.

I'm trying to remember how long the make-up took. Probably four hours of make-up? When you get into the swing of it, we probably got it down to three hours or so in the end.

Max Headroom make-up and design images
"I don't know if you've ever had a lacerated cornea, but it's the worst pain I think I've ever felt."

Image courtesy of John Humphreys

Matt FrewerACTOR Over in London, we used, I think they're called haptic lenses, and they're hard lenses and quite a bit bigger than normal contact lenses. They were very painful to wear, and I ended up with severely lacerated corneas. I don't know if you've ever had a lacerated cornea, but it's the worst pain I think I've ever felt. I was popping painkillers, and it just wasn't working.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTORThat's why he then adopted Ray-Bans for some of the shows, and when his eyes healed we could put back in the contacts.

Peter WaggPRODUCER We knew that there's only so long "Max in between music videos" would last before it ran out of steam. So on the last show, we decided to do Max interviewing somebody. I called around to all my mates at the record labels and said, "What albums are you releasing around the air date that we had?" My pal at A&M comes back and says "Well, Sting's releasing his first solo album after The Police."

Matt FrewerACTOR We introduced live guests into the proceedings, and it kind of evolved into this bizarre talk show format. It sort of became the rite of passage for various pop stars and film stars to come on and shill their latest project. But in turn they would get roasted by Max.

Sting is interviewed on The Max Headroom Show.

The variety show version of The Max Headroom Show — complete with a live studio audience — soon followed, with Max facing off against the likes of Michael Caine, Jack Lemmon, and Vidal Sassoon. With two books, trading cards, and a legion of other merchandised tie-ins, Max was everywhere — and every single item was copyright Chrysalis Visual Media. Around the same time, Coca-Cola was looking for help as a reformulation of its flagship product, dubbed New Coke, was flailing.

Peter WaggPRODUCER A guy at [advertising agency] BBDO in London saw the show, sent a video to BBDO New York, and it went to the creative department. Arnie Blum who was a group head at BBDO, was about to move to a different agency to be group head on Coca-Cola.

So he stuck the tape in his bag, and didn't tell anybody. He arrives at McCann-Erickson, he's on New Coke that's dying, and his first job is "How do we save New Coke?"

Matt FrewerACTOR That was very exciting because we knew it had the potential to reach a global audience.

Peter WaggPRODUCER I got Ridley Scott to direct the commercials, which was a nice little circle. We did three years with Coke.

The Ridley Scott-directed Coke commercials featuring Max

Bridget PotterORIGINAL PROGRAMMING VP, HBO That was just insane! For Cinemax, it was like the biggest thing that had ever happened, that a character that was on Cinemax was on national television as the spokesperson for Coca-Cola. We just couldn't believe our luck at that point.

The "Catch the Wave" campaign garnered praise, national attention, and raised Max’s profile: Coca-Cola senior vice president John C. Reid later told Newsweek that Coke’s research revealed 76 percent of all American teenagers knew Max after the first series of ads. But it wasn’t enough to save New Coke’s crashing sales. Meanwhile, Wagg lined up another business opportunity as Max’s popularity skyrocketed out of control.

Steve RobertsWRITER Stu Bloomberg, who was head of development at ABC Television, happened to be in London the night [20 Minutes Into the Future aired]. At the end of it, apparently he started phoning around and found out who the hell had made it and where they were. And the next morning we were invited to go and see him.

Peter WaggPRODUCER ABC was, at that point, the third-place network. Like New Coke, they needed to make statements, and they needed to try and do something a bit more dramatic to make a sea change.

I went to see NBC, and to my great surprise they passed on the whole thing; I went to CBS, and they ended up offering me a movie of the week. Then I met with Stu, and all I got out of Stu was a pilot and six-script order. But again, I thought let's back a guy I believe in, who's gonna champion the show on our behalf inside the network, and they need us more than we need them. That seemed like a good combination to me.

One of the few Max Headroom commercials directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel

Max crossed the Atlantic, evolving from a niche cable character to a full-blown, mainstream global phenomenon. But as the franchise developed, the remaining two members of the creative team that dreamed him up — Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton — were left behind.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR They wanted somebody that was going to continue making this stuff, pumping it out, and playing the game. You know, somebody that they could parade around that would toe the corporate line. And we obviously weren’t doing that.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR There was a lot at stake financially, and we were not well-placed enough or well-advised enough to be protected. All sorts of heavy hitters got involved. Coca-Cola, BBDO, a big advertising agency. Ridley Scott had got himself involved. ABC, Chrysalis, the record company — and it all kind of blew out of all proportion.

Rocky MortonCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR We had lawyers, and we fought it. We tried to form a company with Matt Frewer to wrest control away from the producer, but then backdoor negotiations started to happen. We lost control, and it was costing us more and more money in lawyers' fees. By the time it got to America, they made a fortune because they made this whole TV series without us. And they took our "Created by" credit away on the American series.

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BIG-TIME TELEVISION (1986-87)

ABC went to work adapting 20 Minutes into the Future into the first episode of the US series, "Blipverts." Original cast members Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays ("Theora"), and William Morgan Sheppard ("Blank Reg") joined the new show, while all other roles were recast. However, the first attempt at rewriting Steve Roberts’ script proved less than successful.

Michael CassuttWRITERPhil [DeGuere Jr., the executive producer] basically took it over. He simply went back to the original movie. I remember passing his office; there was a video player with 20 Minutes into the Future on the screen. It was kind of reverse engineering the original movie.

Steve RobertsWRITER I finally get a phone call saying would I mind coming over to LA for a few days to put it back the way it was before. During that time, Waggie said, "You know, they're asking me [to] provide a sample of what we would do as a second episode."

So I vanished back to the hotel and spent two and a half days basically on room service and bottles of various encouraging fluids, and knocked out this 52-page script. And I get a phone call from Peter Wagg saying, "Well, they've just ordered a series of 13, mate. You're going to have to stay."

"'What’s my air date?' They said, 'March 27th.' I said, 'You’re shitting me.'"

Brian FrankishPRODUCER I went down there, and they went, "We got to get going, we got to get going." … "What’s my air date?" They said, "March 27th." I said, "You’re shitting me."

This is in December. "How many scripts you got?" "Well, we got a pilot and one." Oh, wow. You have zero data to start planning ahead with. But we had the English pilot to copy. And the conceptual work was fabulous.

Steve RobertsWRITER My job was to find writers. I was stunned shitless because there weren't any. There are an awful lot of people who are very good at standard American television, but nobody who could really grasp this very wild, off-the-cuff idea.

Michael CassuttWRITER September to October of 1986 I was working on The Twilight Zone, CBS revival, along with the obscure George R.R. Martin. Steve Roberts was the original guy who came from England. Everybody else was from Twilight Zone.

Brian FrankishPRODUCER Richard Lewis was hired as the production designer. There were some things wrong with the Channel 4 London thing. For instance, all of their wide shots of the environment were matte paintings. Stuck out like a sore thumb. I went, "Ah, miniatures." And Peter Wagg went, "Can you do that?" "Honey, this is Hollywood. We can do anything."

Max Headroom ABC show promotional images
"I vanished to the hotel and spent two and a half days on room service and bottles of various encouraging fluids, and knocked out this 52-page script."

Steve Roberts in his LA office. Image courtesy of Steve Roberts

Michael CassuttWRITER The cast was fabulous. You could write for Jeffrey Tambor. You could write for Amanda Pays, George Coe. I liked the look. I liked the action. It didn't feel chaotic when I saw it on screen, but it was a lot more challenging than standard television on its best day.

Brian FrankishPRODUCER The playback environment was so complex. They had all those TV screens [that Max appears on]. I went, "Gee, I can’t do this with traditional post-production." And how are we going to do the [Network 23] boardroom with the big screen? We found the GE Light Valve [projector] was the only thing that could project digital that big with that kind of clarity. That son of a bitch looked like a B-17 when it rolled on the stage. And the expense was astronomical. It was something that NASA used.

On the first six shows, I went $4 million over budget, and nobody said no.

Annabel JankelCO-CREATOR / DIRECTOR One of the most bizarre things that ever happened was that Rocky and I were in LA, and the ABC version of 20 Minutes into the Future came on. We could not believe our eyes: it was a shot-by-shot identical retelling, with American actors that kind of looked like the English actors. We were flabbergasted that they would do this. They would go to such lengths to recreate props that we'd found in skips and we'd found in old junk shops and things.

Neither "Blipverts", nor any subsequent episode of the ABC series, bears any mention of George Stone, Rocky Morton, Annabel Jankel, or the "original idea" credit.

The show’s quirky brand of cyberpunk struggled in its debut, coming in 26th for the night despite a strong lead-in from Moonlighting. But Max continued to be a cultural juggernaut — and the creative team took advantage, sharpening the TV industry satire with every episode.

Michael CassuttWRITER In my mind it was on my birthday, or close to my birthday in 1987, and there was Max on the cover of Newsweek. My episode was either airing that week or had aired the Friday before. And foolishly I thought, "Hey, I’m on my way to a real career in television!" Not realizing that probably my acclaim peaked right then.

Matt FrewerACTOR At the time we thought we were the coolest kids on the block, and we were the hippest show in town, and they would never take us off the air. So we were kind of cockily trying to get away with things, slipping things past the censors and then just kind of boldly holding our middle finger up to the whole business.

A commercial for ABC's Max Headroom

Peter WaggPRODUCER Every week, we'd always deliver the scripts late a) because we couldn't help it, but b) because it gave them less time to read it, and c) we'd always throw in about six things we knew they'd throw out immediately so that we could perhaps drift two or three others through that they'd just missed because they went for the obvious.

Steve RobertsWRITER It was vicious in its condemnation of the way television worked. If you were a fan in those days, you'll remember lines like, "The ratings are plunging, we're down to 58 million!" and the one says, "Well, we could go porno early." Of course we absolutely were biting deep into the bones and ligaments of the hand that was feeding us. And I don't think they noticed, I truly don't think they bothered to look at it until somebody somewhere said, "This is the fifth column, these are all probably communists or something."

Max Headroom Newsweek cover

Michael CassuttWRITER I'm not one of these people who's going to say they were too dumb to get it. I've been in the network. There are some smart people there. As I said, Stu Bloomberg was one of the smartest people I've ever run across at that level. He knew exactly what he was doing. In that world too, some of them were probably just secretly enjoying the tweaks because also it wasn't directed at ABC specifically. We were tweaking the whole industry and any industry we saw coming. The problem was we never had a lot of pushback from the network on anything we were doing. Let's face it, we were out there trying to do Blade Runner every seven or eight days. And for all my affection and respect for Peter Wagg and Steve Roberts, to some degree they were guys who not only had never done American network television — I'm not sure they ever actually watched it. There was a giant learning curve in terms of the pressures of schedule and money and production.

Brian FrankishPRODUCER I was preparing an episode for shooting the next day, and 4 o’clock in the afternoon I called up to the writers, and I said, "I need the script. I have no script for tomorrow’s work. Where is it?" And they said, "We’ll get back to you." I called them back at 5:30. I’ve got the driver standing by, and the machine picked up. And then the machine picked up at 6:30, and the machine picked up at 7:30, and the machine picked up at 9. And my messages got, "Where’s the stuff? Guys, I’m really being pushed against it" [to] "Holy shit, we’re really fucked here in this situation. What are my actors going to do tomorrow morning?" [to] "Jesus Christ, who are you guys? Don’t you understand what I’m doing?" And the last one was "I don’t give a shit anymore. I’m lighting my first joint. Hope you show up with the pages in the morning." And they played that — someone’s got that tape somewhere, and they played it at the wrap party.

Eager to capitalize on Max’s popularity, Cinemax launched a third variety show anchored by the character in the summer of 1987. The Original Max Talking Headroom Show was shot in New York and featured Max chatting it up with guests like Penn and Teller, Dr. Ruth, and William Shatner. Fears over Max media saturation didn’t stop the ABC show from getting another season — but there was a catch.

Peter WaggPRODUCER They moved us opposite Miami Vice and Dallas at 9:00 on a Friday, which back in the day meant you were in a graveyard slot.

Michael CassuttWRITER The moment we hit the air, the numbers were far less than they were, and you combine that with budget problems and just production problems — it was not long for this earth.

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OFFLINE (1987)

The second season of Max Headroom debuted on September 18th, 1987. Less than a month later, ABC pulled the plug.

Peter WaggPRODUCERThe president [of ABC] at the time was Brandon Stoddard. I’m in the edit bay, editing a show, and I get this call, and they say, "Brandon Stoddard’s on the phone." And I’m editing a sequence where George Coe, who played the chairman of the board of Network 23 … is saying, "What the hell do they know about television?" It was like, "I’m about to get a call from the chairman of ABC, to cancel the show."

Matt FrewerACTORWe got called up on set, and there was supposed to be this big meeting with a producer. I remember going to Jeff Tambor, "Oh god, it looks like we’re getting pulled off the air," just as a joke. And we were.

MHD Edison Carter

Image courtesy of Shout Factory

Steve RobertsWRITERI was on location on top of a building in the middle of LA. It was a shot where a helicopter lands, and I think Edison gets out and has a row with somebody. When suddenly, Peter Wagg walked across the roof. He was white as a sheet. And he just said, "We’ve got to stop everything, fellows, I’m very sorry."

Brian FrankishPRODUCERI’ll never forget the canceling. I turned to the A.D. and said, "Don’t release anybody. Keep them. Nobody goes home today. We’ll finish the day, and when we’re all done, up on the next block is the Player’s Club up on the 11th floor. They’ve got a big, nice, 1930s bar, and everybody meet me there for drinks." And everybody came up, and I told everybody we were canceled. I spent $700 at the bar.

MICHAEL CASSUTTWRITERWe all showed up there and had the usual drinks. We still had at least one or two episodes yet to air. [We] kicked around the idea of giving Max a little speech, which they were able to insert into the last episode.

Max's final speech from the episode "Lessons"

MICHAEL CASSUTTWRITERWe had a completed script still in the works, as we couldn’t do it right because it was a holiday thing. We had a Christmas show, written by George R. R. Martin, called "Xmas."

"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.

BRIAN FRANKISHPRODUCERThe writers and, actually, the people hiring the writers were not traditional thinkers. That’s one of the reasons why I think we failed and one of the reasons why we were successful. Michael Cassutt and some of the other writers were really trying to throw exciting stuff together. But they didn’t have enough time to really throw the ball and track it as it was flying to the catcher’s mitt.

STEVE ROBERTSWRITERMy private view is that Capital Cities, the outfit that ran this whole thing, was run out of New York. I think some top executive’s wife rolled over one day and said to him, "You know something? This program is taking the piss out of the way you make your living." And he probably looked at Max Headroom for the very first time and said "Can it."

Max Headroom Camera
"We were believers. It was like a religion to us. We gave and we gave and we gave, and it was glorious, wonderful, and we loved what we were seeing."

Image courtesy of Shout Factory

MATT FREWERACTORThere was always this awareness that we were always kind of walking on eggshells, but it was kind of cool because we sort of put up on screen what we wanted to put up on screen without it being compromised, without it being homogenized, without it being diluted. We were able to walk away from it without it being packaged into something that they wanted it to be packaged into.

BRIAN FRANKISHPRODUCERWe were involved in the passion. We were believers. It was like a religion to us. We gave and we gave and we gave, and it was glorious, wonderful, and we loved what we were seeing. It was a unique time. Everybody who worked on that show had an opportunity to be the best artists that they wanted to be at the time. And they really gave all of that.

"I was on the cover of Newsweek, and then it disappeared."

MATT FREWERACTORIt was this bizarre, short, sharp shock over the course of four or five years, where the show seemed to be the biggest thing on the planet: I was on the cover of Newsweek, and then it disappeared.

I remembered going to Lorimar, the MGM Studios. I think it was the day after we had the plug pulled. I saw the border security guy, and it was the strangest thing: he pretended not to know me. Because I was no longer worth knowing. I was persona non grata; my parking space had been taken away. And my nameplate, which is the ultimate insult, of course.

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STILL IN THE AIR (1987 - present)

A month after the cancellation, in November of 1987, television viewers in Chicago were hit by a "broadcast signal intrusion" when pirates broke into two local TV broadcasts with footage of a person in a Max Headroom mask. The culprits were never found.

Later that year, Matt Frewer told columnist Marilyn Beck about a Max-related film that was in development. The title?

Max Headroom For President.

MATT FREWERACTOR[It] was basically going to ride the coattails of the presidential campaign and do it as sort of a reality thing. There was an actor who was president… why not a computer-generated man? Like a lot of these things, it never made it to first base.

One of the later Max Headroom Coke commercials

PETER WAGGPRODUCERAfter Coke finished and the ABC series finished and after HBO finished, there was still some heat. I remember still trying to sell a movie that we never managed to. I got interest, but I never was able to get it over the line, and then I just kind of moved on myself.

Two unaired episodes from the series premiered in 1988, although the final episode, "Baby Grobags," would never air on ABC. One year later, Back to the Future Part II signaled the show’s influence with a retro-future arcade that included Max-inspired versions of Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan, but aside from a few sporadic reruns on cable, the character largely went silent… until 2007.

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Marty visits the Cafe '80s in Back to the Future Part II

ROCKY MORTONCO-CREATOR / DIRECTORChannel 4 was switching over to 100 percent digital [broadcasts] so they wanted to warn their audience, and they thought that Max Headroom — someone who was created for Channel 4, originally — would be the perfect spokesman to do that.

MATT FREWERACTORThe idea being that he was older and grumpier-looking, and was looking back on the good old days of pre-digital. He had computer-generated liver spots, and was this mean old bastard, really. When I was getting the make-up on, I felt quite nervous. I was thinking, "God, this is strange," because it had literally been 20 years since I had put on the Max make-up. Then as soon as the cameras rolled, I immediately got right back into it, it was the weirdest thing.

ROCKY MORTONCO-CREATOR / DIRECTORWe shot it in sort of a classic English retirement seaside town. We used the same process to create the same look, with the prosthetics, and then shot him a certain way and then, you know, sort of did the tweaks in the video edit.

Part of Channel's 4 digital switchover campaign

Today’s cult shows live on thanks to the passion and dedication of their online fan bases. In many ways Max Headroom was the perfect candidate for that kind of following: quirky and weird, with an unlikely underdog spirit. But while Max lived in the future, his shows were confined by the pre-internet era.

JAMES GIFFORDCURATOR OF MAXHEADROOM.COMThere was never much of an organized fan community. It was very, very scattered until the internet picked up the pieces. There was alt.fan.max-headroom; it was reasonably populated and vibrant in the Usenet days.

MICHAEL CASSUTTWRITERThe property was tied up in litigation for, I don’t know, 20 years. That’s the reason those shows were not available from basically 1991 until the Shout Factory did that DVD [in 2010]. But every now and then somebody would talk to me or Steve about reviving it.

GEORGE STONECO-CREATOR / WRITERI recall there was a documentary, a survey of the ‘80s that went out obviously at the end of the ‘80s, in which Max Headroom was judged to be more important than Michael Jackson. Which was good. I think people got it; that was the thing. Max Headroom was coming out of the air, really. And we were in the fortunate position that we were able to synthesize it.

PETER WAGGPRODUCERIt was such a moment in time, and it was the combination of so much talent from so many different disciplines and media that just coalesced into the perfect whole. And it predicted so much.

Eminem pays tribute to Max in 2013 with his video for "Rap God"

BRIDGET POTTERORIGINAL PROGRAMMING VP, HBOIt was way ahead of its time. [Peter] was very lucky to have come in this door when he did with this project. Because I don’t know what else or where else anything that odd would have taken root. Today, there’d be a million places for Max Headroom.

STEVE ROBERTSWRITERWe had a laugh because we [envisioned] 20 channels — nobody could believe that there were 20 channels. I mean, it was the highest number we could think of. Now we’ve got 500, and nothing but crap on most of them.

MICHAEL CASSUTTWRITERMax is a character you can’t beat. He’s the clever innocent who keeps looking; he’s only a few hours old and so he has all this information, but he doesn’t have any knowledge. That character is always fun and timeless.

MATT FREWERACTORYou kind of go, "Well, it is a good time for a comeback," because the whole "20 minutes into the future" business… we’ve arrived. We’re here now. And there was a certain kind of naive charm about making all this analog stuff look digital, but the amount of work that went into it … nowadays any 10-year-old could throw it together on his laptop.

And also the retro ’80s thing. Bring back the Linda Evans shoulder pads and the Duran Duran make-up, I’m all for that. You can’t have enough hairspray and eye glitter.

Design by Adam Baumgartner

Development by Aidan Feay

Editorial assistance by Chaim Gartenberg

Edited by Emily Yoshida, Michael Zelenko