I just read yesterday that a reboot of this show is in the works. This was of my favorite TV shows as a wee lad. Running originally for 3 seasons, from 1981 to 1983, on ABC and then airing in reruns in syndication for years after that, the film starred William Katt as Ralph Hinkley (last name later changed to Hanley after a man named Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan) a Los Angeles High School teacher who one day out in the desert encounters an alien spaceship. The aliens give him a special suit which will give him super powers when he wears it (but it only works on him). The twist is that he is also given a special electric instruction manual which is supposed to teach him all about the suit’s powers and how to use them, but he immediately loses it after getting the suit, and therefor the show is about him trying to solve various crimes and avert catastrophes while learning exactly what his powers are and how to use them through trial and error.

Robert Culp co-stars as Bill Maxwell, a grumpy old FBI agent who was with Ralph when Ralph got the suit and the two become reluctant partners, even though they don’t originally get along very well, as Bill uses his FBI resources to pick cases for he and Ralph to solve. Connie Selleca plays Ralph’s fiance (later wife) Pam, an attorney. Other notable cast members are Michael Paré and Faye Grant as Tony and Rhonda, two of Ralph’s students (Ralph’s class often get inadvertently involved in Ralph and Bill’s cases).

In the first season, which lasted 9 episodes, the adventures that Ralph had were pretty down to earth, still grounded in the “real world”, despite the fantastical element of the super suit. The opening caper involved foiling an assassination plot against the President (airing just a couple of weeks before the real-life assassination attempt against Reagan), and further episodes involved things like trying to protect a Russian defector, and stopping an arsonist. The second season had full 22 episodes and mostly continued that trend of grounded stories, like going against a violent motorcycle gang and stopping a gambling ring behind major league baseball, but also started incorporating more worldwide threats, like stopping an attempt by foreign powers to begin a nuclear war and stopping terrorists from unleashing deadly gas, as well as more fantastical threats like ghosts, electrical beasts, and sea monsters. The third season was canceled after 13 episodes, during which Ralph and Pam got married, and Ralph’s adventures included a Magician seemingly returning from the grave to murder his rivals, and more international intrigue involving the CIA and the KGB.

It was a fun show. William Katt and Robert Culp had good chemistry, in an “Odd Couple” sort of way. And Pam was the ultimate “straight man” in the show, the only one who seemed to realize exactly how absurd everything that happened was. Sometimes, especially in the later episodes, they got a little too slapstick with Ralph’s powers, specifically his inability to fly straight or land properly, but it was a good show. Almost like a live-action Saturday morning cartoon.

3 years later, NBC filmed a pilot for a new series called The Greatest American Heroine, with  Katt, Culp, and Selleca returning to set it up. We learn that after the series ended Ralph saved the President’s life in public, revealing his powers to the world and becoming a celebrity. The aliens who gave him the suit return and say that Ralph is no longer effective in his mission, due to his newfound celebrity status, and therefor insist that he find a replacement for himself. To Bill’s chagrin, Ralph and Pam select a young extremely liberal Elementary school teacher named Holly (played by Mary Ellen Stuart) and she’s given a version of Ralph’s suit and then she and Bill begin working together. Unfortunately the pilot was not picked up as a series, and that was that.

GAH 04

The DVD also includes a behind the scenes feature interviewing many of the cast, including Katt, Culp, Selleca, and Pare. It’s also got some fascinating insights from Stephen J. Cannell (R.I.P.) who developed the show for producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, who approached him with the idea of creating a superhero show.

Cannell says that when he first met with them his immediate thought was that he was not interested because he never read comic-books and had no interest in superheroes. But he says he learned early on to never just say “No,” because you never know what you may be turning down. Instead, always say “Let me think about it,” which he did. Then he went back to his office and gathered some of his top writers so they could brainstorm ideas. None of them were into superheroes either. But they started each talking what they would do if they got superpowers, and that’s how it eventually clicked. What if a “regular person” got superpowers? And that began the development of the show. He talks about how they were determined to keep the series grounded in the “real world,” but that it was network pressure that forced them to start doing more “fantastical” stories. He also mentioned other details, which I loved hearing about. The creative process is so interesting.

I’m definitely interested in a reboot. In my dream cast I’d hire Damon Wayans Jr. in the lead (and no, I would not change the title to “The Greatest African-American Hero”), and I’d make it a comedic show. But I don’t mean like a traditional sitcom with a laugh-track, I mean closer to Modern Family, or the way Ally McBeal used to be.

The thing I hope most is that the show is given a decent special effects budget, so they can make the flying scenes look more realistic now, like they do in superhero movies. Here’s a controversial opinion: I might change the colors of the suit. We got The Flash about to debut, so two superheroes with red suits on TV might be confusing. Maybe silver and black would look better?

Well, whatever the new producers do, as long as they keep that classic theme song, I’m sure I’ll be happy.

The Greatest American Hero: The Complete Series


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