‘The Greatest American Hero’ swooped in to save America with laughs – and a catchy theme song (1981)

The Greatest American Hero - 1981-1983

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ABC’s “The Greatest American Hero” has ingredients to please children, parents

From an article by Lee Winfrey – Knight News Service – Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) March 18, 1981

“The Greatest American Hero” is far from the greatest American television show, but it is light-hearted and diverting, and it might work.

“Hero” will premiere at 8 tonight (Channels 2 and 12) for a nine-week run on ABC. If it is successful, it will return as a series next fall.

“Hero” stars William Katt as Ralph Hinkley, 28, a high school teacher. On the premiere, creatures from outer space give Hinkley a suit that gives him superhuman powers whenever he wears it. Things go wrong immediately when he loses the instruction book.

So, as Hinkley says, “I navigate like I’ve been hit with a can of Raid.” Hinkley can fly, but he sometimes veers out of control and hits walls. Later on in the series, he will start turning invisible on occasion, although he can’t totally control that, either.

Greatest American Hero - TV show US magazine cover

Producer Cannell witty, capable

Working with and sometimes against Hinkley is an FBI agent named Bill Maxwell, played by Robert Culp. Maxwell is stern and severe and he thinks the extraterrestrial beings gave the magic suit to the wrong man. He is constantly trying to bring the free-flying Hinkley under official control.

The female lead in the series is the beautiful Connie Sellecca. She plays a lawyer named Pam Davidson who is representing Hinkley in a child custody case against his ex-wife. She falls in love with Hinkley.

Wednesday night’s guest villain is one of the best: G.D. Spradlin. If you don’t know his name, you’ll probably recognize his face, since he is making a good living playing big business baddies. Here he is cast as Nelson Corey, a malevolent tycoon who is trying to take over the country with the aid of a hymn-singing cult called Gabriel’s Army.

The best hope for this series is its producer, Stephen J. Cannell, a capable and witty man whose work is always worth sampling.

He spent eight years at Universal Studios, where he created and produced “The Rockford Files” and several other series. In 1979, he left Universal, and set off on his own as an independent producer.

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Ensemble: ‘Long johns, cape’

Discussing ‘The Greatest American Hero,” Cannell told me on the telephone:

“ABC wanted an 8 o’clock series (suitable for children as well as adults). I don’t usually do 8 o’clock shows. They were interested in heroes with superpowers. I would only do that if I could have some fun with it.”

So Cannell puts Hinkley into the usual comic book hero’s costume and then has him complain about the styling. “Why did it have to be long-johns and a cape?” Hinkley gripes. “This suit belongs in the Smithsonian.”

I asked Cannell how he makes Hinkley fly through the air.

“We string him up on a cable,” the producer replied, “and pull the cable past the camera. He’s fitted with a harness. He prones out (stretches out prone) and we pull him along.

“He’s maybe 15 feet up, with no net. But the cables are strong. He’s a good sport, but it’s quite tiring.”

Greatest American Hero - Vintage TV Guide cover

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Will it fly in Nielsen ratings?

After they shoot Hinkley in a simulation of flight, the background of buildings is inserted behind him. The result looks quite nice, particularly in a segment when Hinkley, finally getting the hang of it, soars over Los Angeles.

How Hinkley will fly in the Nielsen ratings remains to be seen. But if you have enjoyed Captain Marvel in the comic books, Superman in his movies, or “The Incredible Hulk” on TV, “The Greatest American Hero” may be a superhuman spoof you’ll like.

“The Greatest American Hero” opening credits/theme song

The song that plays here was called “Theme from The Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not),” and was composed by Mike Post (who also wrote the themes for Law & Order, The A-Team, NYPD Blue, The Rockford Files, L.A. Law, Quantum Leap, Magnum, P.I., and Hill Street Blues), had lyrics by Stephen Geyer, and was sung by Joey Scarbury.

YouTube video

William Katt: He’s the superhero (1981)

By Jerry Buck – Tallahassee Democrat (Tallahassee, Florida) May 13, 1981

LOS ANGELES — William Katt looks as comfortable in his superhero costume as a cowboy in a tuxedo. As “The Greatest American Hero” he flies through the air with the grace of a gooney bird. The first time up he plowed into a billboard.

The ABC series, which spoofs the superhero genre, was the kind of success networks pray for, but rarely achieve.

Katt, the ingratiating hero of “First Love,” “Big Wednesday” and “Butch and Sundance: The Early Sundance Years,” plays a schoolteacher, reluctant possessor of a suit that gives him superhuman powers. He has lost the instructions and every time he wears the suit he becomes “a superhero character who specializes in goofing up.”

Greatest American Hero TV show

Christopher Reeve takes flight as Superman (1978)

Other stars are Connie Sellecca, who plays his girlfriend, and Robert Culp.

Over lunch in his trailer, Katt talked about his show. He has shed most of the costume. It is characteristic of the nature of the series that it’s filmed in a furniture warehouse in the middle of the San Fernando Valley.

“The mishaps with the suit are there, too, but we can’t always depend on it. You can only bump into a wall so many times. What we’re trying to do now is find a formula that works best for the show.

“Culp and I have a kind of ‘Odd Couple’ relationship. He’s ready to charge up the hill and I’m concerned with my class and everything else is secondary. But I’m caught up with the responsibility of the suit and having to deal with that.”

YouTube video

“The Greatest American Hero,” which airs at 8 tonight on Channels 7 and 27 (cable 4 and 7), came about when ABC asked writer-producer Steven J. Cannell to develop a series for that time slot. They also suggested it be about a superhero.

“I wasn’t high on the idea,” says Cannell, a writer on more familiar ground with sophisticated and adult concepts. “But then I thought it would be fun to do to a superhero what ‘The Rockford Files’ did to private eyes. I stepped all over the cliches about the hard-boiled private eye. So it occurred to me it might be fun to do the same thing with a superhero.”

Cannell and his co-executive producer, Juanita Bartlett, were the writing team behind “The Rockford Files.”Katt received the two-hour pilot script last fall. He liked the script, but wanted to think it over. “I had some trepidations about being a superhero character, being trapped in that kind of a mold,” he says. He went to New York to do a play, but Cannell was persistent.

The Greatest American Hero DVD series

Cannell flew to New York and met Katt backstage. Katt was impressed by the producer’s enthusiasm for the series. “It was at that point I decided to do the show,” he says. “He convinced me it would be real fun.”

Katt’s character was originally named Ralph Hinkley. That changed after when John W. Hinckley Jr. was charged with the attempted assassination of President Reagan. He
suddenly became just “Ralph” or “Mr. H.”

Next season he’ll get a new name, probably Ralph Hanley. (Ironically, in the pilot movie, it was Ralph Hinkley who rescued the president from an assassination attempt.)

The superhero wears a solid red suit with a black cape. He got it from a UFO. D.C. Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures thought it was too much like “Superman,” and sought an injunction. Cannell says, “We thought it was ridiculous, and so did the judge.”

Dynamite Greatest American Hero Superman

To say that Katt dislikes wearing the costume is an understatement. He had to be persuaded to put it back on to take photographs.

He says, “How do I feel? Hideous! That one word sums it all up. I feel hideous. Ralph and I feel the same way about the suit. We both hate putting it on. And they always choose the location where the most people are watching. So I slink around in my coat and only come out when I have to. It’s terribly embarrassing.”

Katt is the son of Bill Williams, who starred in several TV series and was host of several variety shows, and Barbara Hale, who was Della Street in “Perry Mason,” and still appears in commercials.

“If I have a mother in the show, my mother will play my mother,” he hopes. “She says she’d disinherit me if she doesn’t.”

Greatest American Hero - MAD magazine cover

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He did guest roles in episodic television for several years, and was in the first episode of “Police Woman.” He says, “I was doing theater, then I did ‘Carrie.’ There was no reason to go back and do television.”

It was in “Big Wednesday” that he got to combine his vocation and his avocation. He made the movie on a surfboard.

“Surfing gives me a feeling of tranquility,” he says. “It’s part of my heritage. I grew up on the beach. I love to get out before the sun’s up, just at dawn. I spent a lot of time in the twilight. That’s the best time. It’s cool, just a little hazy. 

“I can hardly wait for my son to grow up and start surfing with me. I do a lot of thinking while surfing.”

WATCH IT AGAIN: Get the series on DVD or stream it here!

Seinfeld clip: George Costanza’s answering machine song, sung to the ‘Greatest American Hero’ theme

Believe it or not, George isn’t at home.
Please leave a message at the beep.
I must be out, or I’d pick up the phone.
Where could I be?
Believe it or not, I’m not home.

YouTube video

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. At the time, pretty much everyone agreed that as a show, “The Greatest American Hero” was lame. But the song was everywhere! In the summer of 1981 you couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing it, probably several time. People would walk around singing it, because it was stuck in their heads…

    1. For people in my area (when I was 11 years old) in 1981, we didn’t think “The Greatest American Hero” tv show was “lame.” I do agree, though…, the theme song to the show was EVERYWHERE!!! Personally, I loved everything about the short lived series! The entire cast brought a lot of happiness and fond memories to my household.

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