Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cult Classic: The Greatest American Hero (1981)

School teachers are regarded as real-life heroes, trying to help their students reach their full potential.

Stephen J. Cannell came up with the idea of making a teacher a different kind of hero, with the results falling along the lines of camp comedy in most cases.

The Greatest American Hero premiered in the winter of 1981 with a 2-hour TV-movie, then went right to a regular series, anchoring ABC's Wednesday night lineup for three seasons. Sure, it was pure, escapist fun, good while it lasted, but it didn't last too long, and perhaps maybe it was for the best.

Second generation actor William Katt (son of Perry Mason co-star Barbara Hale) top-lined as special education teacher Ralph Hinkley, who was given his "union suit", as they say in the comics, by an alien in a random encounter in the desert, at which point he was also introduced to his FBI contact/partner, Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp, ex-I Spy). The super-suit comes with an instruction manual, which Ralph loses. Uh-oh. Expect much chaos.

As Maxwell, Culp comes across more as a fast-talking hustler in order to coax Ralph into his missions. On the other hand, his divorce lawyer-turned-girlfriend (Connie Sellecca) provides some inspiration. Culp also wrote & directed one episode.

After the series ended, NBC decided to give it a whirl, rebooting it with a female lead, but then turned right around and rejected the pilot, which was later shoe-horned into the syndication package. It's also available as a stand-alone DVD you could probably find in a bargain basket at Walmart or Target. Interestingly, ABC executives Marcy Carsey & Tom Werner left the network after the series launched to form their own production company. In more recent times, Katt was able to gain the rights to adapt the series into-----a comic book. A miniseries was published, written by Katt. Go figure.

By way of Hulu, here's the episode, "The 200 MPH Fastball", in which Ralph goes undercover as a baseball pitcher in the heat of a pennant race.

The theme song, sung by Joey Scarbury, hit #2 on the Hot 100 in August 1981, which was certainly higher than the show's Nielsen ratings, that's for sure.

Rating: B.


magicdog said...

I remember this show fondly!

I didn't know about Katt's pedigree until much later, but of course everyone knew who Robert Culp was! Boy I miss him!

This was actually an interesting show with a great premise - getting a superpowered costume (from aliens no less!) but not knowing how to use it and fumbling along as you go! I did hate how in one ep, the aliens returned to counsel Ralph on something and gave him an instruction book - which was promptly lost! It was time to have let him explore what he could really do!

It was also funny how this show also introduced us to Michael Pare! IIRC, TPTB wee marketing him like the second coming of John Travolta. I know he's had a fulfilling career in B movies/DTVs but it seems they wanted to put him in more A level material.

I never saw the one in which the suit is given to another, though I have heard about it. Personally, no big loss.

hobbyfan said...

Yeah, I've mulled over getting the DVD of that one pilot that never flew, but.....naaah.