Max Headroom is a fictional British artificial intelligence, known for his wit and stuttering, distorted, electronically sampled voice. It was introduced in early 1984. The character was created by George Stone,Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton in the mid-1980s, and portrayed by Matt Frewer as "The World's first computer-generated TV host" although the computer-generated appearance was achieved with prosthetic make up as the computer technology of the time was not sufficiently advanced to achieve the desired effect. Preparing the look for filming involved a four-and-a-half hour session in make-up which Matt Frewer described as "a very painful, torturous and disgusting enterprise".
The classic look for the character was a shiny dark suit—which was actually a fibreglass mould—often paired with Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. Only his head and shoulders were depicted, usually against a "computer-generated" backdrop of a slowly rotating wire-frame cube interior, which was also initially generated by analogue means - in this case traditional cel animation, though later actual computer graphics were employed for the backdrop. Another distinguishing trademark of Max was his chaotic speech patterns - his voice would seemingly randomly pitch up or down, or occasionally get stuck in a loop. These modulations also appeared when the character was performed live.
The character's personality was partly intended as a satire of insincere and egotistical television personalities - what Rocky Morton described as the "very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host," but also was "media-wise and gleefully disrespectful" which appealed to young viewers.
Matt Frewer was chosen for his ability to improvise, and his - according to producer Peter Wagg - "ideally exportable" Mid-Atlantic accent. The actor decided to model Max's personality after what he saw as the smarmy, self-important goofiness of The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Ted Baxter. In a 1986 interview, Frewer said: "I particularly wanted to get that phony bonhomie of Baxter... Max always assumes a decade long friendship on the first meeting. At first sight he'll ask about that blackhead on your nose."
The background story provided for the Max Headroom character in his original appearance comes from a dystopian near-future dominated by television and large corporations. The AI of Max Headroom was shown to have been created from the memories of crusading journalist Edison Carter, with the character's name came from the last thing Carter saw during a vehicular accident that put him into a coma: A bar with a sign warning of low clearance, marked "MAX. HEADROOM: 2.3 M" (i.e., a clearance of 2.3 metres (7 ft 7 in)).
Max Headroom originally appeared in the British-made cyberpunk TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into The Future which was broadcast in 1985. After its success, the titular character was spun-off into a veejay in the British music video programme, The Max Headroom Show, whose first episodes unusually featured no introductory title sequence or end credits. The spin-off show was an immediate cult hit, doubling Channel 4's viewing figures for its slot. A second season was ordered in 1986 which broadened the original concept to include celebrity interviews and a studio audience, and was renamed to The Max Talking Headroom Show.
A further spin-off from the original film was the dramatic television series, Max Headroom, which was British produced, but which was broadcast in the United States and ran for two seasons from 1987 to 1988. The first episode was presented in an extended edition to American audiences in 1986 on Cinemax.
The original movie was rebroadcast on More4 on 21 October 2007 as part of the 25th birthday celebrations of Channel 4.
Shout! Factory released Max Headroom: The Complete Series on DVD in the United States and Canada on August 10, 2010.
Max became a celebrity outside the television series. He was the spokesman for New Coke (after the return of Coke Classic), delivering the slogan "Catch the wave!" (in his trademark staccato, stuttering playback as "Ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-catch the wave!"). In the UK, Max appeared in television commercials for Radio Rentals. He also hosted an interview show on the Cinemax cable channel, called The Original Max Talking Headroom Show.
In 1987, Frewer appeared as Max Headroom in a segment for Sesame Street. He recites the alphabet with selected commentary on some of the letters.
An older-looking Max has been used in a campaign to inform UK households of the impending digital TV switchover. As he is looked after by a caretaker, he moans about being with the other "relics," and then talks about digital TV. He says that Channel 4 is now suddenly "20 years into the future," making a subtle reference to 20 Minutes into the Future. His sense of humor remains intact.
Art of Noise featured an overdubbed Max on the song "Paranoimia". Max was also featured on a single titled "Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You're a Lovely Guy)" released by Chrysalis Records.
Max Headroom also showed up at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
In 1986, Quicksilva released a Max Headroom game, which was sold in the UK for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. The game's plot was to protect Edison Carter from criminals armed with guns, whilst rescuing Max. The NewTek "Demo Reel One" featured a Max Headroom grab. Newtek was a company which developed Commodore Amiga solutions including a digital video sampler
Notwithstanding the publicity for the character, the real image of Max was not computer-generated. Computing technology in the mid-1980s was not sufficiently advanced for a full-motion, voice-synced human head to be practical for a television series. Max's image was actually that of actor Matt Frewer in latex and foam prosthetic makeup with a fiberglass suit created by Peter Litten and John Humphreys of Coast to Coast Productions in the UK. This was then superimposed over a moving geometric background. Even the background was not actual computer graphics at first; it was hand-drawn cel animation like the "computer-generated" animations in the TV series Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Later in the US version, they were actually generated by a Commodore Amiga computer.
The series pilot won the BAFTA award for graphics.
The rights to the Max Headroom character are currently held by All3Media.
On November 22, 1987, two Chicago television stations had their broadcast signals hijacked by an unknown person wearing a Max Headroom mask. The first incident took place for 25 seconds during the sportscast on the 9 O'Clock news on WGN-TV Channel 9 and two hours later around 11 o'clock on PBS affiliate WTTW Channel 11 for about 90 seconds during a broadcast of the Doctor Who episode "Horror of Fang Rock." The hacker mumbled nonsense during his interruptions, including the phrase "The Greatest World Newspaper nerds," a reference to WGN's call letters, standing for World's Greatest Newspaper. A homemade Max Headroom background rocked back and forth as he talked. The video ended with a pair of exposed buttocks being spanked with a flyswatter. The culprits were never identified.
In late 1987, following the cancellation of the American TV series, it was announced that a feature film titled Max Headroom for President would be produced. Frewer, quoted in a Marilyn Beck column in December 1987, indicated the plan was for the film, which at that point had no finalized script, to be shot in early 1988 in order to capitalize on the 1988 US Presidential Election. The film was never made, possibly due to the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike which erupted three months later.