Template:Primarysources Template:Fansite Template:Infobox television The Greatest American Hero is an American science fiction TV series that aired for three seasons from 1981 to 1983 on ABC. It premiered as a 2-hour movie pilot on March 18, 1981. It starred William Katt as teacher Ralph Hinkley ("Hanley" for the latter part of the first season), Robert Culp as FBI Agent Bill Maxwell, and Connie Sellecca as lawyer Pam Davidson. The show chronicles Ralph's adventures after he is given a red suit by a group of aliens, which gives him superhuman abilities. The series was created by producer Stephen J. Cannell; Joel Colon helped design the costumes.


The series is a superhero drama-comedy. Ralph Hinkley Jr. is a teacher of special education students. Determined to get through to them, Ralph took them on a "geological survey" field trip to the desert. Coming back from the field trip later that night, the school bus breaks down. Ralph starts to walk back through the desert to get help and he encounters a swerving car driven by FBI Special Agent Bill Maxwell (Culp) that stops just in time to avoid hitting Hinkley. Maxwell insists that he could not control the car. Then two bright purple lights appear in the sky and they both jump in the car and try to get away, but the car will not start and the doors lock by themselves trapping them inside.

They are surprised to find that the lights come from an alien spacecraft. The alien tells Ralph and Bill (by way of the car radio) that they are to work together to save the world and Ralph will be given the power to change it. They are given a black case. Later Ralph opens it and finds a red suit (with cape), which endows him with superhuman abilities. Bill runs off from fear, but later contacts Ralph, leading to an awkward partnership as the two try to use the powers of the suit (which Bill calls the "magic jammies") to fight crime.

The novelty of the show is based on Ralph's inability to learn to use the suit properly, and even learn the use of its various capabilities, other than by trial and error, because he lost the instruction manual in the desert. A recurring gag involves Ralph clumsily trying to strip off his outer clothes to activate the suit before the enemies can get away. In addition the show spends quite a bit of time developing the friendship between Ralph and Bill Maxwell as well showcased in "Lilacs; Mr. Maxwell". This episode delves deeply into the personal feelings between the two, as Ralph is painfully forced to get Bill to realize his love interest is actually a KGB spy who was specifically recruited to romance Bill and find out the secrets of his successful investigations.

In practice, Ralph's superhero is more akin to a Buster Keaton-style clown. For example, sequences where he flies through the air under his own power usually show him flailing his arms and legs, instead of adopting the Superman-like "arms extended, legs together" pose. In fact, his first flight results in the terrifying experience of hurtling out of control until he rams head first into a building wall. The basic powers (outside of flying) included super strength, resistance to injury (including direct bullet hits to areas covered by the suit), invisibility, precognition, telekinesis, x-ray vision, super speed, pyrokinesis, holographic vision, shrinking, psychometry, and sensitivity to the supernatural. He also showed signs of being able to control minds when he was exposed to high doses of plutonium radiation. (In the episode "Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell," Ralph is shown to control a dog through a holograph. This may have been an improvisational power of the suit, but was never tried again.) In one episode, he (or the suit) becomes strongly magnetized.

Pam Davidson is an attorney, who often joins Ralph and Bill on their adventures. She is an attorney who handled Ralph's divorce and later becomes his wife.

Also co-starring are Michael Pare and Faye Grant as two of Ralph's students.

In the second season episode "Don't Mess Around with Jim",[1] Ralph and Maxwell both learn that they are not the first duo to have been visited by the aliens. Jim "J.J." Beck had received the suit, and Marshall Dunn was his partner, much like Ralph and Maxwell operated. But Jim was overwhelmed with the power of the suit, he used it selfishly until it was taken away. It is unknown if there were others before Jim who were visited by the aliens.

In a later episode, the pair meet the alien, whose world was apparently destroyed (which hints as to why it wants to protect humanity) and calls Earth one of the few remaining "garden planets". It is also revealed that there are several other people in seeming "suspended animation" aboard its ship (Bill speculates that they are possible replacements for them). Ralph is given another instruction book (the alien's last copy), but he loses it as well, when he and the book shrink to a fraction of their normal sizes, and he isn't holding the book when he returns to his original height.

Character nameEdit

The main character's name was originally Ralph Hinkley, but after the assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. on March 30, 1981 (only 12 days after the pilot episode aired), the character's last name was changed to "Hanley" for the Season 1 episode "Reseda Rose". For the rest of the 1st season, he was either "Ralph" or "Mister H" (a style of nickname popularized by Fonzie's calling the Cunningham parents "Mr. and Mrs. C" on the contemporary series Happy Days). During the episode aired the night of the assassination attempt, the sound of a jet airplane was used to dub over the last name being spoken, and in subsequent episodes there was overdubbing of his students calling him "Mr. H" instead of "Mr. Hinkley." In the episode where Ralph is given a promotion and his own office space, we see the name "Ralph Hanley" on the door plaque. At the start of the 2nd season the name had changed back to Hinkley.

Typical plot linesEdit

There were two typical plots of Greatest American Hero. Stephen J. Cannell explained the differences on the Greatest American Hero season 1 DVD set. As originally agreed to between Cannell and then ABC executives Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, the powers would be in the suit, not the guy (though the suit would only work for him). Also, Ralph would try to solve ordinary-type issues, such as trying to stop a fix in Major League Baseball ("The Two Hundred Miles-Per-Hour Fastball") or an assassination attempt ("The Best Desk Scenario"). The show would center around what Cannell referred to as "character comedy" based on human flaws such as envy (in the aforementioned "The Best Desk Scenario") or hypochondria ("Plague"). What Cannell was trying to avoid were "save the world" type episodes, a la the original Adventures of Superman tv series.

The problem, according to Cannell on the DVD set, was that Carsey and Werner left ABC shortly after the show was sold. The network then wanted the show to be more like a kid's show than an adult's show. So they pushed the exact types of shows that Cannell did not want. This brought the second type of plot. This type of plot usually involved Ralph trying to stop some sort of calamity from happening, including nuclear war ("Operation Spoilsport") and even a Loch Ness Monster-type of creature ("The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea").

Ralph's uniform and hero personaEdit

The hero persona never receives a "superhero name," either, although Scarbury sings the Elton John song "Rocket Man" in the pilot. However, in the episode "The Shock Could Kill You," Ralph sarcastically refers to himself as "Captain Gonzo."

The powers of the red suit were somewhat broad, but still were "similar" enough to the abilities of Superman that Warner Bros., the owners of DC Comics, filed a lawsuit against ABC, which was ultimately dismissed[2] as the premise's core concept of a human receiving an alien costume/weapon to fight evil was closer to that of the Silver Age Green Lantern.

In the pilot episode, while Ralph ponders whether to accept the suit, he observes his son watching the "Superfriends" cartoon. Batman is heard to say, "We need one more Superfriend who can fly!" Whereupon Ralph stares back at the camera, seemingly disgusted by the corny writing of that show. In a later scene, having yet to convince Pam he really is a superhero, Ralph desperately cracks, "You're one step ahead of Lois Lane: she never did find out who Clark Kent really was. Yeah, I know. Bad joke."

In "Here's Looking at You, Kid", Ralph exits a crowded restaurant while in costume, pretending to promote a local theater production of George Bernard Shaw's "Man and Superman."

In "Saturday On Sunset Boulevard," Ralph needed a quick change. Spotting an actual phone booth, he grumbles, "No! Never!" But, pressed for time, he decides, "Aw, what the hell." Pam finds this painfully funny to watch.

The symbol on Ralph's uniform resembles the Chinese character "center" [中]. As the symbol is red in color, Hong Kong television station TVB called the Cantonese-dubbed version of the show [飛天紅中俠], translated to mean "Flying Red Center Hero".

On the DVD of Season 1, Stephen J. Cannell notes that the symbol was actually based on a pair of scissors that he had on his desk during the design of the uniform. However, in Jeff Rovin's book, The World Encyclopedia of Superheroes, the author claimed that it was actually an "open book and needle emblem." The issue was even further confused by the use of Elton John's song "Rocket Man" in the pilot episode, leading some fans to assume that the suit's logo actually did depict some kind of rocket.

The symbol's bilateral symmetry seemingly avoided the "backward S" problem encountered on the Adventures of Superman. On the low-budget 1950s series, film editors would on occasion "flop" stock footage of George Reeves in flight, causing the "S" shield to appear reversed. However, in many Greatest American Hero composite flying sequences, Ralph wore a watch- and the timepiece jumps from one wrist to the other, especially in extended flying sequences.

William Katt found the suit very uncomfortable and hated wearing it. Producers made various modifications to the suit to help him out, and accommodated him by scheduling shoots so he would not have to wear it all day.[3]

The symbol often appeared on the wrestling attire of ECW wrestler Super Nova, whose "gimmick" was that he was a superhero.

At the end of "The Cooper-Hofstadter Polarization", an episode of The Big Bang Theory, two Chinese computer nerds are shown, one of whom wears a shirt bearing the emblem from The Greatest American Hero's costume.

The Season 3 episode of Robot Chicken, "Yancy the Yo-Yo Boy" features a skit where a nerd receives the alien super suit. But unlike Ralph, the nerd doesn't find out any of the suit's powers, instead being knocked unconscious after attempted flight. Robert Culp reprises his role of Bill Maxwell and takes the unconscious nerd on several adventures (most notably using the nerd (and his invulnerable costume) as a shield to fend off bullets or as a bludgeon to beat up bad guys), ending with the aliens reclaiming the suit and leaving the barely conscious and naked nerd vulnerable to humiliation by two girls mocking his "third leg".

Theme songEdit

The theme song (and variants of the theme) are used frequently throughout. "Believe It or Not" was composed by Mike Post (music) and Stephen Geyer (lyrics) and sung by Joey Scarbury. The theme song became a popular hit during the show's run.

"Believe it or Not" debuted in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 on June 13, 1981, eventually peaking at #2 during the weeks of August 15 and August 22, and spending a total of 18 weeks in the Top 40. (This is a rare example of a title song being more popular than the show itself.)

Theme song in popular cultureEdit

The show's theme song was featured in the Seinfeld episode "The Susie", where George Costanza used it as his answering machine message, with George's own lyrics sung over the music ("Believe it or not George isn't at home, 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!").

It was also featured during a lighthearted montage in the 2005 comedy film The 40-Year-Old Virgin, starring Steve Carell.

The title of the Family Guy episode, "Believe It or Not, Joe's Walking on Air" also parodies the song. Family Guy episode "The Man With Two Brians" also features the song when Peter sings it while being pulled on roller blades on to a ramp while dressed as The Greatest American Hero.

In the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode The Pumaman, Crow T. Robot sings the theme song with the words "Believe it or not, this movie's still on, it should have ended two hours ago."

In the Heroes episode "Hysterical Blindness", the song is performed by a children's choir in a hospital recreation room as Peter and Emma watch the sound of the music manifest into physical colors, which is part of Emma's "special ability".

In the My Name Is Earl episode "Didn't Pay Taxes", Earl and Randy sing the theme song terribly while stuck in a water tower. The song is also featured in Everybody Hates Chris episode "Everybody Hates the Lottery" , in which Chris fantasises about winning the award of " The Biggest Ass-Whooping", the song playing as he walks up to win the award.

The theme song also featured prominently in Michael Moore's 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore used it to underscore the famous scene where President George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

In the Homestar Runner Halloween toon, "The House That Gave Sucky Treats", Homestar dresses as Ralph and sings a variation of the song, "Believe it or not. I'm walking around. I never thought I could trick or tre-e-eat!" [1]

In Season 5 of Gilmore Girls, in the episode "Tippecanoe and Taylor, Too", the song is used as Jackson's campaign song for Town Selectman. Lane and Zach's rock band, Hep Alien, is horrified when they find out they have to play the song live at the rally, but Sookie insists that it is his favorite song.

Internet critic 'The Cinema Snob' uses the chorus of 'Believe It or Not' for his episode openings, often contrasting the upbeat chorus with morbid or violent scenes from the film being reviewed.

In 2009, the theme song was parodied by The Fringemunks to recap Fringe episode 1.10, "Safe."[4]

The Greatest American HeroineEdit

In 1986, the original cast reunited for a pilot film for a new NBC series to be called The Greatest American Heroine. The pilot reveals that several years after the final episode, Ralph's secret identity was finally revealed to the public, resulting in his becoming a celebrity. This upsets the aliens who gave him the suit, and they charge him with finding a new hero to wear the costume and use its powers for fighting evil. He finds a young woman named Holly Hathaway (Mary Ellen Stuart) who spends her time looking for lost kittens and teaching young children, and most of the episode deals with her learning how to use the suit under Bill Maxwell's guidance.

The Greatest American Heroine did not result in a new series, and the pilot was never broadcast by NBC. Ultimately, the pilot was reedited as an episode of the original series (complete with original opening credits and theme), and added to syndication packages of the original series, where it airs as the final episode.

DVD releasesEdit

Anchor Bay Entertainment released the complete series on DVD in Region 1 for the first time in 2005. In addition, on October 3, 2006, they released a special 13-disc boxed set that contains all 43 episodes of the series as well as other bonus collectors items. NOTE: Both the individual DVD sets and the complete boxed set are missing original performances by Mike Post and Joey Scarbury whenever the song concerned originated by another artist. As of 2009, these releases have been discontinued and are out of print.

On October 14, 2009, it was announced that Mill Creek Entertainment had acquired the rights to several Stephen J. Cannell series including The Greatest American Hero.[5] They subsequently re-released the first season as well as a complete series box set on May 18, 2010.[6]

DVD Name Ep # Release Date
Season 1 9 May 18, 2010
Season 2 22 TBA
Season 3 13 TBA
Complete Series 44 May 18, 2010


In July 2008, it was announced that Katt was writing a comic book series based on the TV show for his publishing company, Catastrophic Comics, in conjunction with Arcania Studios. Katt also contributes to the show's Facebook page.[7]



References Edit

Greatest American Hero season 1 DVD set. 2005.

External linksEdit

fr:Ralph Super-héros it:Ralph supermaxieroe ja:アメリカン・ヒーロー pl:Największy amerykański bohater pt:Greatest American Hero sv:Titta han flyger

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