The Greatest American Hero

Superheroes are on an uptick right now. Maybe not as exalted as they were right before Avengers Endgame, but they still get the likes, still bring the dollars in. This was not always the case. Being into superheroes in high school, in the 80’s, made me a nerd and not very popular. Not that I’ve ever been that popular. The most popular action shows in the 80’s were things like the A-Team, The Dukes of Hazard and Miami Vice. Even if one focuses on action shows with a bit of sci-fi thrown in, the heroes weren’t exactly super, just people with exceptional skill, such as The Master or MacGyver. In stark contrast to today, the television viewing audience of the 80’s just weren’t appreciative of the superhero set. But during that decade, I would tune in religiously to one of my favorite shows, The Greatest American Hero (tGAH).

I will also admit that I was a fan of The Incredible Hulk, but, let’s face it, with one of his comic book titles still currently running (The Immortal Hulk), not to mention at least six movies (yes, I’m counting his appearances in The Avengers movies, but excluding the animated movies he’s been in) to his credit, he’s a pretty well known character. Not so much, Ralph Hinkley. In tGAH, Hinkley (William Katt of House and Carrie) is a mild mannered high school teacher who is visited by aliens and given a super suit. Yeah, I get it, it sounds pretty hokey when I say it out aloud, but I loved it all the same. If you are familiar with superhero lore, they all must have some weakness, an Achilles heel. Superman has his Kryptonite, Hinkley has a suit he doesn’t know how to use. The suit may endow a near limitless power upon him, giving him flight, super strength and speed, X-ray vision, invisibility, etc., but he lost the instruction manual and, therefore, only discovers these powers through trial and error. No man is an island, as they say, so Ralph is aided in his battle for justice by Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp of I Spy and Everybody Loves Raymond), a CIA agent. Rounding out the cast is Pam Davidson (Connie Selleca of Hotel and Second Chances) as the obligatory (well, it was the 80’s) love interest.

Created by Stephen Cannell, writer of such fine television shows as The A-Team and 21 Jump Street, he envisioned a different kind of superhero. Someone happy in his mundane humanity who has immense power unexpectedly thrust upon him. Rather than a Superman who flies in to save the day, he wanted the show to be about a man who just happens to wear the suit, and focus on human problems, like corruption and racism. He wrote Hinkley and Maxwell as the Odd Couple: Hinkley, the super-powered, bleeding heart liberal and Maxwell, the gun-toting, slightly misogynistic conservative. Oh, fun fact, on March 30, 1981, John Hinkley shot President Ronald Reagan. After that, the show subtly changed the name of Ralph Hinkley to Ralph Hanley. Unfortunately, after the first season, there was a change in the upper echelons at ABC, and the new executives forced the show to be a more conventional superhero show, complete with Hinkley fighting the Loch Ness Monster in one of the episodes. The show ran for 3 seasons, between ‘81 and ‘83, and can still be found on Amazon Prime. There’s even a fan-based website about it.

I got the inspiration for this post when I remembered the show and thought it would be great for a reboot. It’s a great concept, but, as I researched for this post, I discovered that such a reboot has been tried multiple times. In 1986, the original cast returned and tried to launch The Greatest American Heroine, The plot involves the aliens who originally provided the suit telling Hinkely to find a successor. As the name would imply, he decides upon Holly Hathaway (Mary Ellen Stuart of One Life to Live and As the World Turns), an ”elementary school teacher who spends her off-hours looking for lost kittens, raising environmental awareness and serving as a foster mother”. I shit you not. Alas, the show was never meant to be. The pilot was never broadcast, but, instead, was re-edited as an episode of the original series. In 2014, it was announced that Fox was looking at rebooting the show, in 2017 entertainment news sources said that actress Hannah Simone  (of H+ and New Girl)had been cast as the lead in a reboot, but in 2018, ABC declined to pick up the series. William Katt even started a comic book company in 2008, Catastrophic Comics, and put out a Greatest American Hero comic book. Given that I can barely find any evidence online that they exist, I’m guessing that didn’t work out. The show does still have an active fan base, however, which discusses the possibility of a reboot, so who knows? It could happen.

This post wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning the theme song. I’ve said before that theme songs should not have words. It’s too easy for them to become ear worms and this one is no different. Believe It or Not, composed by Mike Post (music) and Stephen Geyer (lyrics) and sung by Joey Scarbury can still be heard on easy listening stations to this day. During the show’s run, I couldn’t escape the poppy little tune as, in addition to being at the start of every episode, it reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Record World Chart. For a bit of added trivia, Mike Post not only created the Theme music to Law & Order, he is responsible for their unmistakable “Dun Dun” sound.

I still say I’d like to see someone take a run at this show again, but, looking back, it was very much a product of its time. There was an innocence about it and it was pretty goofy, possessing a strong comedic element, often at the expense of the hero. The reluctant hero who trips over his own feet has been done to death now, but it still felt fresh back in the 80’s. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I believe it contains a number of jokes and scenes that may not be acceptable today (The character of Bill Maxwell often refers to Pam, among other women, as “skirts”). Even with that, though, the show was so damn wholesome. Maybe the reason it’s having such a hard time coming back is because it imagines a world where most people are inherently good, where any evil can be overcome by good old hard work and cooperation and all the endings are happy. And maybe that’s just too much of a suspension of disbelief for audiences these days.