Sci-Fi Nerd: Commentary, reflection, and accolades from a fan’s point of view on all things sci-fi and fantasy.
Alien visitation and a gift of their technology in the form of a super-power bestowing suit transforms a timid teacher’s life forever in this classic comedic take on the superhero genre.
Before the superhero tv craze of today, there was The Greatest American Hero. “Look at what’s happened to me” the opening lines to the theme song for this series titled “Believe It Or Not” pretty much sums up the predicament timid LA school teacher Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) finds himself in when he is the recipient of a super suit he gets from an alien visitation.
The suit bestows a plethora of powers including super strength, resistance to injury (including direct bullet hits to areas covered by the suit), invisibility, precognition, E.S.P., telekinesis, X-ray vision, super speed, pyrokinesis, and the ability to fly. The full limit of these powers remains a mystery because Ralph loses the instructions for the suit soon after he gets it. Also, he hates wearing the bright red outfit, cape included, which only works on him.
This simple premise was the idea this amusing superhero parody got built on, and not much else. The aliens who give him the suit also tell him to collaborate with FBI Special Agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp, in sharp contrast to previous dramatic roles) who is decidedly old school, and the series used the relationship of the often bickering odd couple as one of the show’s main features. Ralph’s girlfriend, attorney Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca), was often the voice of reason when she sometimes joined Ralph and Bill on their adventures. The show, based on this simple, silly concept, worked for a time. Superhero shows that are on now could benefit from some of the lessons this series has to offer, for example, giving the characters a way to evolve in their story arcs which this show failed to do, and not taking itself too seriously. One of the show’s strengths was the amusing manner in which it depicts the complications, and difficulties being a superhero might impose on the day-to-day life of the average person.
The show also featured some of Hinkley’s students which included Faye Grant as Rhonda Blake, Michael Paré as Tony Villicana, Jesse D. Goins as Cyler Johnson, and William Bogert as Les Carlisle.
The greatest American Hero was great fun at first but due to the one-trick-pony nature of the show working the angle of Ralph’s difficulties mastering the suit grew somewhat monotonous over time. The writers didn’t seem to have any ideas beyond that to develop. The series is firmly anchored in the early eighties that gave it birth, by the timestamp of its portrayal rich in the fashions, fads, life, and hairstyles of the time. An amusing footnote in the history of genre tv.
During 1986, the original principal cast reunited for a pilot movie for a new NBC series to be named The Greatest American Heroine, which did not result in a new series, and the pilot never got broadcast by NBC. Ultimately, the pilot was re-edited as an episode of the original series (complete with original opening credits and theme) and added to syndication sets of the original series, for which it is the final episode.