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Greatest American Hero, The

Entry updated 4 April 2017. Tagged: TV.

US tv series (1981-1983). Created by Stephen J Cannell. Stephen J Cannell Productions. ABC Television network. Produced by Alex Beaton, Babs Greyhosky, and others. Directors included Chuck Bowman, Bruce Kessler, Arnold Laven and Christian I Niby II. Scriptwriters included Rudolph Borchert, Cannell, Patrick Hasburgh and Frank Lupo. Cast includes Robert Culp, Jesse D Goins, Faye Grant, William Katt, Michael Paré and Connie Sellecca. 43 50-minute episodes. Colour.

The name given the series protagonist, special education teacher Ralph Hinkley/Hanley (Katt), was changed after the assassination attempt on President Reagan by John Hinckley Jr; the second episode of the series in fact dealt with his preventing such an attempt, and had aired roughly two weeks before the real-life event. This sf/Superhero/comedy series begins when Hanley and some students become stranded in the western American desert on a field trip. Walking for help, Hanley is almost run down by a car driven by Agent Bill Maxwell (Culp), an event contrived by Aliens who communicate soon afterwards.

Intending that he help prevent Earth's self-destruction (as had happened with their own planet at some remote point in the past), the aliens give Hanley a suit that provides him with a variety of Superpowers, including super-strength, flight, x-ray vision, Invisibility, invulnerability, several forms of Psi Powers, super-speed, the ability to shrink himself to near-microscopic size (see Miniaturization), and others. Given this armamentarium, Hanley should have been virtually unstoppable – but he has lost the instruction booklet provided. So he must learn to operate the suit (which was reportedly very uncomfortable for Katt) by trial and error, resulting in numerous comedic mishaps. Being progressive-minded, Hanley doesn't mesh that well much of the time with Maxwell, who is ultra right-wing, yet the two prove an effective team. Hanley's girlfriend, lawyer Pam Davidson (Sellecca), is often along to help out as well on many of his adventures. Most of these are of the more routine crime-fighting variety, but he does encounter some sf-related situations. He has to prevent a deadly virus from being released by rogue government agents, to rescue a damaged space shuttle which proves to contain a hostile Alien creature that's freed on Earth briefly, and to release Bill from possession by a spirit which apparently originates in another Dimension. DC Comics felt the character, who never had an "official" superhero name, was close enough to their Superman character that they filed a lawsuit against ABC over the matter; it was ultimately dismissed. The theme song "Believe it or Not" sung by Joey Scarbury became a major US hit single in the summer of 1981.

While not terribly successful in its original run, this series has been popular over the years. In 1986, an unaired pilot, "The Greatest American Heroine", was made in an effort to revive the series. This pilot had Hanley retired, and his identity publicly known a few years after the last episode. The aliens return and order him to find a successor to wear the suit. He follows these instructions. A re-edited version of this episode is now included with The Greatest American Hero for syndication, home video release, etc. Katt himself later wrote a three-issue Comic adaption of an updated version of the series pilot episode published by his own small company. [GSt]


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