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Gone Green Ranger Gone
As “Back in Black,” the fifth episode of Power Rangers Dino Thunder, approaches the same crescendo that most every other episode of the long-running action series does, it’s revealed that Tommy Oliver — or “Dr. O,” as his students at Reefside High School call him — has come into possession of a black Dino Gem, the source that links this season’s heroes to the Morphin Grid.
Elsa, a recurring villain who bears a striking resemblance to Reefside’s principal, asks once the Dino Gem transforms into a morpher following a spiel from Dr. O:
“Aren’t you a little old for this, Tommy?”
The race-car-driver-turned-paleontologist responded:
“I may be old, but I can still pull it off.”
He then proceeded to do what Jason David Frank most often did when he donned spandex: kick a lot of ass.
Frank, who brought Tommy Oliver to life for three decades, died over the weekend. He was 49.
No single actor is as synonymous with Power Rangers as Frank. He’s the only actor in the brand’s history to receive a “starring” distinction in the opening credits (Dino Thunder). He appeared in 236 episodes of the TV show across nine different seasons, all three feature films and in numerous official and unofficial digital shorts. He embraced the convention circuit with an appreciation and intensity unmatched by few in the business. If you could identify just a single Power Ranger, there’s a better chance than not that it was the eight-time black belt from Texas.
He was not one of the original five who set the world ablaze when Mighty Morphin Power Rangers premiered in 1993. The show was 16 episodes old when Tommy Oliver debuted in “Green With Evil,” a five-part arc that saw his character develop from an object of evil possession to the first “sixth ranger.” He was so popular with children that, though he was briefly written out of the show due to limited footage from the series Power Rangers adapted, he returned as the Green Ranger for a couple dozen more episodes before losing his powers again. That exit was even shorter; he returned as the White Ranger — sourced from an entirely different Super Sentai show than the original MMPR suits — just five episodes later, and remained a fixture on the show for the next 146, eventually trading his white threads for red.
By the time Frank returned for 2004’s Dino Thunder, Power Rangers was far from the cultural phenomenon it’d been in the 90’s. It was as much an afterthought to audiences as it was to Disney, which acquired the brand as part of its purchase of a cable channel in 2001. As much as Frank’s return as the series’ mentor excited diehard fans who’d stuck with the show since its heyday, it renewed interest from those who’d moved on. “Oh, Tommy’s back? I gotta see what he’s up to.”
Dino Thunder’s Tommy Oliver is my favorite iteration of my favorite superhero. He still cracks wise, but is noticeably wiser a few years removed from when he was last protecting the planet. He’s a high school teacher who demonstrably cares about his students; the kid who was forced into large-scale herodom willingly became a small-scale one. He cut the long hair that encouraged me to grow mine out in high school, but sports as fine a soul patch as you’ll ever see (mine was much less fitting).
Dr. O spends a good chunk of the season frozen in amber and then, once freed, invisible. Off-screen, this was because Frank asked for time off during filming to return to the U.S. (the season filmed in New Zealand). On-screen, it helps the show maintain focus on the season’s primary trio of heroes – Conner, Ethan and Kira – and not the legendary hero who gives them homework.
The amber/invisibility ordeal is resolved in “Fighting Spirit,” the season’s 27th episode (of 40). Tommy ends up hospitalized and, while comatose, encounters three of his former “selves” — the Red Zeo Ranger, White MMPR Ranger and Green MMPR Ranger, in that order — and duels them all, unmorphed. These fights are among the finest in a show wrought with terrific choreography, and act as an extended metaphor; Tommy’s literally fighting for his life. He, of course, wins, and emerges in time to make quick waste of the episode’s monster of the day. It’s Power Rangers at its finest, and JDF at his best — “old age” be damned.
“I may be old,” says Tommy Oliver, who canonically couldn’t have been older than 26, “but I can still pull it off.”
That moment has always been one of my favorites in Power Rangers. It’s always made me swell with an innate pride – in myself, in the brand, in my heroes. I’ve watched it hundreds of times, but today was the first time through tears.
I met Frank a couple of times, and like so many of the countless fans who did so since 1993, came away from those experiences happier than when I went in. But, my most memorable interaction was over the phone earlier this year.
Frank was a fixture at the Lexington Comic and Toy Convention. He anchored the inaugural show, and continued to draw incredible crowds every time he returned to town. This March was the show’s 10th anniversary, and he again was a marquee talent. I interviewed him on behalf of the Lexington Herald-Leader, mostly to reflect on the convention’s growth from 2012 to now, and his forthcoming movie, Legend of the White Dragon.
I asked for 10 minutes and received more than an hour while he was watching his grandson and nursing a sore back. Frank talked about a lot of things during our call — current Power Rangers brand-owner Hasbro, his former castmates, his family — and he promised his time for some additional conversation down the road. Below you’ll find an edited version of our conversation; he asked then for some of it to be off the record, and I’m going to continue honoring that request. It goes in a lot of directions, and is more stream of consciousness than structured, but I think it’s worth sharing with the public in light of this tragic circumstance.
It’s crossed my mind more than once, the thought of outliving my favorite superhero, and how it would feel. In those thoughts, I was never 32. I don’t know how it would have felt at 42, 52 or 62, but it hurts like hell today.
Rest in peace, JDF. Thank you for being the hero we needed.