Saturday, April 24, 2010

18 Years of TV: 'The Greatest American Hero'

Show: The Greatest American Hero
Original run: March 18, 1981 to February 3, 1983
Network: ABC
Premise: Extraterrestrials give high school teacher Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) a suit that grants him super powers and a mission to fight crime. The suit comes with an instruction manual, but Hinkley loses it minutes after receiving it. He reluctantly teams up with FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) to secretly foil plots of various criminals, which wreaks havoc on Ralph's love life with Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca).

This was just about my most favorite TV show as a kid. I loved the idea that a regular guy who suddenly got super powers wasn't automatically an expert. He couldn't fly very well and crashed more often than not. And since he lost the instruction manual, he discovered the suit's powers by accident.

This was when I started scrutinizing the listings in TV Guide, because over the show's three-season (sort of) run, it was bounced around the schedule, pre-empted, etc., before finally canning it without showing four episodes that had been produced, so I needed to keep track of when it was on.

The show had difficulties almost right out of the gate; two days before the second regular episode aired, John Hinckley, Jr., shot President Reagan in an assassination attempt. Not wanting a main character whose last name was just about the same as a guy who tried to kill the president, Ralph Hinkley became Ralph Hanley. But the change was so abrupt that they covered the Hinkleys at first with sound effects. They changed it back to Hinkley when the second season began.

Warner Bros., parent company of DC Comics, sued ABC and show creator Stephen J. Cannell over the show, saying that the character of Ralph was too similar to Superman. You can actually read about it here. Most interesting aside from not pursuing the greater similarity to Green Lantern (regular guy given something wearable that gives him amazing powers to fight evil), was the revelation that the first design for the costume, which was rejected by Cannell, was "a beige and yellow outfit with a white collar and 'fold-up wings.'" Of course, I suppose they could've gone after them for being too similar to Hawkman. In any event, the lawsuit was dismissed.

The show was a bit of a departure for Cannell, who had a long track record of crime dramas. But even though the main character was a guy flying around in a pair of red underwear (or as Bill called them, the "magic jammies"), Ralph--who never had a proper superhero name--tackled relatively mundane terrestrial-based crime. As Cannell said on one of the DVD commentaries, there was a constant struggle, because he wanted it to be more grounded in reality, and the network wanted more fantastic, superheroey stuff.

Among the problems Ralph faced were Armageddon ("Operation: Spoilsport"), a possibly dirty pro football player and former classmate, ("The Price is Right"), drug runners ("Captain Bellybuster and the Speed Factory"), and even a space monster ("The Shock Will Kill You").

When the show first came on, I was a clumsy kid who desperately wanted to be a superhero, so I idolized Ralph. I couldn't wait to see each episode. In fact, I even badgered my mom into sewing me a cape to wear while I watched. I even bought the 45 of the show's theme song, "Believe It Or Not," by Joey Scarbury.

When I watched the show in syndication, I took more notice of Connie Sellecca as Pam Davidson. Rawr.

And now when I watch the DVDs, I pay the most attention to Robert Culp's portrayal of hard-nosed Fed Bill Maxwell. His overuse of the word "scenario," and his penchant for eating dog biscuits from the box, and his badass attitude crack me up. I was saddened to hear of Robert Culp's recent passing; he was awesome in everything I've seen him in, but Bill Maxwell will always be my favorite.

While the show's ratings dwindled, people continue to love the idea. Heck, in 1986, they even made a pilot for NBC of a follow-up, "The Greatest American Heroine," in which Ralph is exposed and eventually gives in to the resulting fame and fortune. The aliens who originally gave him the suit don't want their hero to be a colossal douche, so they take it away from Ralph, saying that now that his identity is exposed, he can't be as effective. He is charged with finding a replacement.

He finds that replacement--a woman named Holley Hathaway (played by Mary Ellen Stuart), who wants to save the world. Bill was charged to teach her how to use the suit, with comedic hijinks ensuing. The pilot wasn't picked up, and the episode was re-edited as a regular episode and stuck at the end of the syndication package.

There has also been a comic adaptation, co-written by William Katt. Talks of a remake have been flying around seemingly since the show left the air, but so far, nothing has materialized. Nathan Fillion ("Firefly," "Castle," "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog") mentioned in an interview that he wants to play Ralph in a movie version, which would be pretty awesome. But who could play Bill Maxwell? The only actor I can think of who's close would be Bruce Campbell.

If you want all the TGAH information you can handle, check out the long-running site, It is made of awesome and win.

Feel free to share your memories of the show in the comments.
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  1. Anonymous9:13 PM

    This was one of my husband's favorite shows. We've streamed a few episodes lately. Robert Culp was one of his favorites, and he shared your appreciation of Connie Selleca. lol Hard to believe William Katt could have been Luke Skywalker.


  2. Shibster7:12 AM

    I was a senior in high school when this show aired and just HAD to watch every week. Once I told my friends I had to go home because "The Greatest American Hero" is on. They used that line as a long running jab at me. Great show.

  3. I loved this show when I was kid. It was one of the few shows that my dad and I both enjoyed. I actually have the theme song on my mp3 player.

  4. I just noticed yesterday that the SyFy Channel has a marathon of GAH scheduled for the 4th of July.