Of all the remarkable things that The Flash has done, of which there’s been an awful lot, one of the coolest was casting the original small screen Flash, John Wesley Shipp, as Barry Allen’s father, Henry.
Shipp played Barry Allen for one season in 1990 and 1991, and while his show might not have been a commercial success at the time, it’s time to acknowledge its influence. While it may not have the generational appeal of Adam West’s Batman or Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, for a particular generation of comic book and super hero fans, 1990’s The Flash was a touchstone. It gave fans a glimpse of how much fun live action super heroes could be, even if mass audiences weren’t yet ready.
Which is a long way of saying that it’s appropriate that Shipp was cast as Barry’s father on The CW’s Flash, since his take on the character could arguably be seen as the father of today’s small screen heroes. And as any parent can tell you, it’s not always easy being a father. It certainly hasn’t been for the falsely incarcerated Henry Allen, who arrives at something of a turning point in tonight’s new episode, “Crazy For You.” But don’t take our word for it! We recently spoke with Shipp about tonight’s episode, along with what we can expect from his upcoming reunion with Mark Hamill’s Trickster and what qualities he shares with the man currently wearing the red and gold.
So, let’s start with the obvious question… Are you ever going to get out of prison? Or are we always going to be looking at you behind the glass?
Well, those are two different questions! One question is if I’m ever going to get out of prison, and I would say…probably. But am I going to be behind the glass all the time? I can tell you, unequivocally, no. We know that Joe now believes in Henry’s innocence, and [in tonight’s episode] Henry and Joe start having some interactions, which circumvent Barry and lead to Henry getting roughed up and landing in the infirmary. That means we see Henry relating both to Joe and to Barry without a glass partition, which is cool both physically and metaphorically because we also get into some father/son issues without that partition between us. Does the father recognize the son, and if he does, how will he let the son know that? That’s explored tonight in a way that I’m very excited to see.
How do you think it must feel for Henry Allen to see his son grow up and develop from afar? As a father, I can’t imagine doing that.
I can’t either. But Henry, from the moment he’s convicted is thrown into such a surreal environment that he’s got to be suffering from some kind of PTSD. He has a wife murdered, has a ten-year-old son who’s taken away, is convicted of doing it in his son’s presence… That’s a handful.
One thing is we tried to acknowledge the anger that Henry would have toward Joe after Joe tells him that he believes he’s innocent, while at the same time acknowledging that if Joe hadn’t been there, who knows what would have happened to Barry? Even though there was probably some resentment that Barry works for the police department like Joe instead of becoming a heart surgeon like Henry, there still has to be a degree of comfort in that he knows Joe’s a good man and that his son is in good hands. I think by the time our show starts, we see a man [in Henry] who has accepted that fourteen years later, this is how his life is going to be going forward. Henry might have participated in his son’s quest to find meta-humans that may have been responsible for the murder in order to give Barry an outward focus. But by the time the pilot comes, he’s ready to say, “It’s time to let it go.” And then Joe finds out and we learn everything that we know about Harrison Wells, and we’re down a whole different road.
I also have to respect the character that I’m playing. I really think that Henry, once he realizes that his life if not over is certainly curtailed, his focus is Barry. Barry’s well being is really the only thing that Henry has at the point that the pilot opens. Now, with Joe onboard, that presents an interesting situation for Barry, doesn’t it? Now Barry is no longer his father’s only window on the world. Watch how he deals with Joe and Henry going around him to work on something in tonight’s episode, and how he feels about Henry reaching out to somebody else other than him. These writers know what they are doing. I’m constantly in awe with how they’re balancing all the elements. It’s a very complex show.
It really is. I was thinking about how Barry has three father figures on the show. There’s Henry, Joe West and Harrison Wells, and now the Harrison Wells dynamic has changed and almost become a subversion of what it was. It just seems like it would be so difficult for Henry.
Well, there’s a lot of poignancy to it. At the very start, I didn’t know if they’d want to involve the old show or not. They could’ve gone one of two ways. They could’ve made a clean break and make it all new, or integrate elements from the old show. Before I knew I’d be involved, people were saying that I should play Jay Garrick, but then I found out about Geoff Johns’ recreation of the Allen family in which Papa Allen is convicted of killing Mama Allen in front of ten-year-old Barry, which of course, got me imagining what that would’ve been like 24 years ago when I was playing Barry. I thought, wow, if I’m asked to participate, that’s the role I would want, and shortly thereafter, that’s the role they offered me.
How would you describe your relationship with Grant Gustin? You two have shared a role. That’s pretty unique.
It’s interesting! There are a lot of connections there. Grant and I both are from Norfolk, Virginia. He was born on January 14th and I was born on January 22nd, and he was born the year that I was doing The Flash.
I also feel, and I felt this from the first moment I saw him on Arrow, that we work from the same premise. We try to get to the truth in the moment. It’s not just about razzle dazzle, it’s about heart. Certainly, we honor the special effects and the comic book element. But when it’s time, and you’re in that cubicle with the glass between you and the phones, and it’s time to talk heart-to-heart, Grant has the ability to do that. I believe that I have the ability to do that as well, and we complement each other in those moments.
As far as sharing the same role, I look at it as if he’s playing my Barry ten years younger. Grant’s 24 and I was 33 or 34 when I did it. That gives him some advantages in terms of the tripping over his own feet aspect that Barry has. He can play the humor more easily being that much younger. But the character of Henry Allen in this incarnation is such a good character that even if I hadn’t played Barry 24 years ago, I would still want it. It’s very rich, it’s layered and it’s conflicted, and I love playing those elements.
Looking ahead, are you excited for Mark Hamill’s return to the world of The Flash?
We just got through shooting that episode! We both talked about how unique and special it was to be able to revisit a project like this. Obviously, I’m playing a new character, but he’s the same character only older and more seasoned. Whatever poison is circulating in the Trickster’s system has had time to deepen and turn more acrid. Then they balance that with having Devon [Graye] play the younger, trickier version of the Trickster.
We were talking about how unique [the whole experience] was and how this is the second time he’s done it very recently. He never thought he would get to do Star Wars again, and he never thought that we’d be on a Flash set together again. Even though I’m in a different role, we’re still relating very much the same was as we did in “The Trial of the Trickster.” He has a reason to take me captive [in the upcoming episode], like he did when I was the Flash. They play with the similarities, although there are differences. It’s great fun. He’s a legend. At one point, Mark and Devon were doing a scene and the director looked at me and was like, “Mark Hamill! That’s Mark Hamill!”
It’s the Flash’s 75th Anniversary this year, and I was wondering, as someone who has played the Flash and is still very much involved with the character, why do you think he’s remained so popular?
When we were at San Diego Comic-Con before any of the shows had aired, I was asked about all the different comic book shows and movies. I said that they’re presenting a lot of different comic book treatments and it’ll be interesting to see which ones the modern audience will gravitate to. We’re the ride at the amusement park. We’re the more hopeful one. This is an era of The Walking Dead, where you need to have a hatchet in the head every five minutes for it to be considered entertaining. That’s not us at all. But then we premiered, and one of the reviews mentioned how refreshing it was to have a super hero where one of his powers is optimism, and I thought, “Wow, it’s going to be us. We’re going to stick.”
It seems like the audience is ready for sincerity and optimism again. That was all considered too naïve and unsophisticated for a while. It had to be gritty. We certainly have elements of grit, but at his heart, Barry Allen has always been a pretty good guy. He’s sort of the everyman that people can relate to. It’s certainly what I love about Grant Gustin’s characterization. He’s so likable.
The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CST) on The CW.