Series: The Greatest American Hero

Connie Selleca, William Katt, Robert Culp
"Believe it or not, I'm walkin on air
I never thought I could feel so free..."

Created by Stephen J. Cannell, the show first aired in 1981 on ABC and was both a comedy and a drama. Ralph Hinkleynote , played by William Katt, is a teacher to a class full of delinquents. He is a good, moral man, and because of this, aliens give him a special "Superman suit" that gives him special powers — but only works for him. Unfortunately, he almost immediately loses the instruction manual and must discover its powers by trial and error. He is paired up with FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp), whose determination to fully exploit Ralph's new abilities keeps them both busy.

The suit gives Hinkley the power of strength, flight, invisibility, flames, telekinesis, vision of events without being there, protection from bullets and fire ... in short, whatever powers are required by the plot. But he doesn't know everything it does at first, and only slowly discovers its abilities. Essentially, the entire series runs on How Do I Shot Web?.

Ralph must balance his new powers and responsibilities with his old ones, which not only include his students, but his girlfriend Pam (Connie Selleca) and his son Kevin. The basic concept of the show, combined with the quality of the performances was a Crowning Moment of Awesome for television in the early 80s, even if it appears cheesy and lame to today's jaded audience.

After building a reasonably good following for its first two seasons on Wednesday nights, the show became a victim of The Friday Night Death Slot when ABC paired it up with a new Cannell show The Quest, finally canceling it with four episodes unaired until syndication.

The show has two legacies:

  1. Its catchy Theme Tune, "Theme from The Greatest American Hero (Believe It Or Not)", which made it to Billboard's #2 slot in 1981, and stayed on the charts for two years. It was written (with Stephen Geyer) by Mike Post, who also did the themes for The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, and L.A. Law, and turned Joey Scarbury into a One-Hit Wonder.

  2. Though not the first show to come from Stephen J. Cannell Productions, it was the first to end with Cannell's distinctive Vanity Plate.

Recently, the show has been adapted into a comic series set in the current day. The characters are basically the same, but some things have been changed; Bill has a smartphone, for example (which he doesn't know how to use) and the FBI knows to some degree about Ralph and his supersuit with Max's hasty story that he's a test pilot of a prototype military weapon.

In October of 2014 it was announced that the show would be retooled for Fox by the creators of the 22 Jump Street movie into a modern day urban setting with a main character named Zach instead of Ralph.

A podcast taking a close look at every individual episode can be found here.

This show provides examples of:

  • Achilles' Heel
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: In "The Shock Will Kill You", Bill can't bring himself to believe at first that an extraterrestrial life form could be the problem, even though he has seen firsthand an alien spacecraft that gave Ralph the suit.
  • Artistic License – Gun Safety: Way averted. Bill Maxwell is determinedly careful with his guns, or at least as much as possible when the circumstances permit. He never points his weapon at anyone he isn't willing to shoot (and he does this even when the person in question is his bulletproof partner, Ralph), keeps it on safe until he absolutely has to take it off safe, and when picking up or putting down a weapon always clears the weapon first.
    • In one particular episode, Maxwell needs "backup" to intimidate and arrest the bad guys so he hands Pam Davidson an M-16 that we have just watched Bill unload, clear, and double-check before it ever left his hands. And when she accidentally points this weapon... which he knows is unloaded because he, himself, cleared it... at Ralph (who Bill knows is a bulletproof superhero), Bill pushes the barrel away and then shows her how to hold and carry it without pointing at anyone.
  • Badass Normal: Bill Maxwell, not even multiple broken bones slow him down.
  • Badass Teacher: Ralph, with or without the suit, will stop anyone from hurting his students.
  • Baseball Episode: "The 200 MPH Fastball."
  • Beware of Hitchhiking Ghosts: In the episode "Operation: Spoilsport," Ralph and Bill keep passing the reanimated corpse of a dead man in the desert.
  • Call Back: Several. The most prominent is probably Bill's ongoing love of dog biscuits acquired in an early episode. In a case of Trauma-Induced Amnesia, Pam and Bill convince Ralph that the super-suit is genuine by having him lift up a car, which is how he convinced Pam in the pilot.
  • Camera Obscurer: Pam in "Desperado".
  • Cape Snag: Subverted...Ralph's cape is just about the only thing that didn't give him problems when he used the suit. Well, it did flop over his head and block his vision on occasion, but that's a side effect of Ralph being able to use the suit to fly but not to make a controlled landing.
  • Catch Phrase: While the show itself didn't spark any catch phrases of its own, two episodes feature ones which would become common in future Stephen J. Cannell programs. "Just Another Three Ring Circus" has Maxwell saying a variation of Hannibal Smith's "I love it when a plan comes together", while "The Shock Will Kill You" features Ralph repeatedly repeating Rick Hunter's "Works for me."
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Kevin pretty much vanished after appearing in many first season episodes. He does rate a mention in a couple of second season episodes, but is not seen. Rhonda disappears with no explanation in season three.
  • Clothes Make the Superman: All of Ralph's powers come from the suit.
  • Continuity Nod: Bill mentions getting Ralph into Major League Baseball ("The 200 MPH Fastball") during "It's All Downhill From Here".
  • Cool Shades: Bill.
  • Cowboy Cop: Bill Maxwell, though he's technically a FBI agent.
  • Creative Closing Credits: The end credits for the third season episode "Dreams" are shown with a reprise of the original song of the same name which played earlier during the episode.
  • Deadpan Snarker: All three main characters have their moments.
  • Deconstructive Parody: Of superhero tropes, in that they don't quite apply in the real world, but that's how the suit works.
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength: Ralph breaks Bill's hand with a too-firm handshake.
  • Dog Food Diet: Bill's preferred diet is dog food biscuits and hamburgers. He apparently developed a taste for the former after they were all the companions had to eat in "The Hit Car," the second episode of the series.
  • Dressed in Layers: Ralph, though depending on what he's wearing getting his outer outfit off the suit can be a time-consuming process.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Bill is dead serious and played very straight by Robert Culp in the pilot, as opposed to the more easy-going, boss-ribbing, sometimes oblivious character he would later become. Ralph's hair is also huge in the pilot.
    • Bill's behavior could be his way of dealing with the fact that his partner was just killed.
  • Easy Come, Easy Go: In "Divorce Venusian Style," Ralph is given a second instruction book to replace the first one that he lost. By the end of the episode he has lost the second book, leaving him no better off than before.
  • '80s Hair: Hinkley is a superhero with a freakin' perm.
    • If the MAD satire is anything to go by, he may have been called out on it even at the time ("Did you see the way (Clark Kent) has his hair styled? You ought to try it! I mean... you look like Shirley Temple!").
  • Embarrassing but Empowering Outfit: The Suit, oh good heavens, the Suit.
  • Embarrassing Cover Up: Ralph comes up with all sorts of zany explanations for why he's wearing the suit when innocent bystanders happen on him, most of them embarrassing enough that people don't ask anything more.
    • One of the best is when he loses his invisibility in the middle of a restaurant and pretends to be an actor advertising a production of Shaw's 'Man and Superman'. It works.
  • Expy: This series is what you get when you combine Superman with Green Lantern and add more comedy.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Ralph never gets a complete handle on the suit, even losing a second instruction manual given to him by the mysterious aliens. Subverted in that he does get noticably better over time at flying and using certain powers like invisibility.
  • Faking Engine Trouble: In a number of episodes Bill would fake car trouble as a cover while Ralph goes into a situation inside the building.
  • FBI Agent: Bill.
  • Flying Brick: Just part of the powers he has. Although considering his landings, it's more "brick" than "flying."
  • Forgotten Phlebotinum: In one episode, Ralph discovers that the suit gives him the power of Telekinesis. He never uses this telekinetic ability again in later episodes.
    • Ralph does end up using telekinesis several times after learning about it from a previous suit holder, proving skilled enough to use it to crack a large tumbler-lock safe in one episode.
  • Free Range High School Students: Ralph is apparently free to take his class on spur of the moment field trips and search parties, free of any needed permission slips. Validated to an extent by the fact that the school has given up on them, and as Pam says, half of their parents practicly need to be introduced to their kids.
  • Freudian Trio - The Kirk: Ralph, The Spock: Bill, The McCoy: Pam.
  • Gold Fever: Bill is hit especially hard with this in "The Lost Diablo." Even the kids from Ralph's class dump the water from their canteens in order to put more gold ore in them.
  • Green Lantern Ring: The Suit.
  • Happily Married: Ralph and Pam, eventually.
  • Haunted House: The house in "The Beast in the Black."
  • How Do I Shot Web?
  • Human Popsicle: In one episode, we see what seems to be other pairs of people "sleeping" inside the alien's ship, apparently replacements for the main characters if they are deemed a failure.
  • Hypno Fool: In "The Hand-Painted Thai," Bill falls asleep every time someone utters the word "scenario", after consistently insisting that hypnotism is bunk and that it's impossible to hypnotize him thanks to his mental strength.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Ralph would balk at the slightest suggestion to use the suit for personal gain. Justified in an episode which depicts a former suit-wearer who used the suit to get rich and wound up becoming completely corrupted and losing the suit back to the aliens.
  • Inner City School: Where Hinkley works.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: In the episode "There's Just No Accounting..." Ralph, Pam and Bill are all harassed by an IRS agent who audits or threatens to audit them. It's hard to feel sorry for the IRS agent when the villain of the episode horsewhips him for also harassing said villain and his employees.
  • The Korean War: Bill Maxwell is a veteran of Korea. His old unit captain features in one episode as a cop gone bad.
  • Last of His Kind: The alien who gave Ralph his suit is hinted to be this, in the episode where he shows them his dead world (presumably destroyed by nuclear war.) He's trying to save humanity from the same fate.
    • If considered canon, averted in the Greatest American Heroine pilot which features three aliens.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: As noticed by the hosts of the GAH podcast for the episode "Fire Man", a guard copies down the license plate TV 6-911 in such away that the 6 looks like a G, the 9 an A, and the 11 an H. Later they also noted that twice the show has made jokes about Ralph's students looking older than they are.
  • Left Hanging: Whatever happened to those pictures of Ralph in the suit that the PI working for his ex-wife took?
  • Loyal Phlebotinum: Ralph's suit only works for Ralph.
  • MAD: "The Greatest American Zero."
  • Magical Negro: in the pilot episode, the alien intelligence that delivers the suit to Ralph and Bill comes to them in the form of John, Bill's former FBI partner killed in the opening scene.
  • More Hypnotizable Than He Thinks: Bill in "The Hand-Painted Thai."
  • NBC: When the creators made the pitch film for NBC for the hoped for reboot, the episode title screen said "The Greatest American Hero" with the letters i-n-e added one by one to the sound of the NBC chimes.
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Justified in that the suit had a lot of capabilities and Ralph did not know all of them. The show would also subvert this by having Ralph be unable to use his powers in quite the way he intended (e.g. pyrokinesis setting the wrong object on fire). See Failure Is the Only Option above.
  • New Super Power: In several episodes, he discovers new powers, some of which are never used again, such as mind control (which he developed after being exposed to plutonium) and the ability to shrink himself (his attempt at using the newly-acquired second instruction book).
  • Ninja Episode "Thirty Seconds Over Little Tokyo".
  • Noodle Incident: In "A Chicken In Every Plot", Tony is impressed that Ralph can hot wire a car. Ralph tells Tony to remind him to tell him someday about how he became a teacher.
  • Not Important to This Episode Camp: Kevin. He disappears completely by the third season.
  • Odd Couple
  • Oh Crap!: There is a mass Oh Crap moment in the pilot episode. Ralph has taken the kids on a trip, and they stop at a local diner for a bite to eat. Bill is eating there as well, and the kids' loud, brash behavior causes him to give them a disparaging look (he was also still dealing with the death of his partner). Tony notices and immediately confronts Bill. Tony manages to miss every single one of Bill's warning signals (turning on his stool to directly face Tony, unblinking eye contact, monotone voice, and hand under his jacket where a gun would logically be). Tony pulls a knife, only to find himself staring down the barrel of a .38 Special. At this moment, the diner goes deathly silent and each of the kids is so terrified that their faces look as if they're about to shatter. Tony in particular is wearing a look that clearly shows that for the first time in his life he realizes he in the real world now, schools out, and he's only one squeeze of a trigger away from dying. Ralph manages to defuse the situation, but even the look on his face shows that he's scared shitless. A brief, but very well done scene. It's even more powerful when you realize that, as a federal agent, Bill would have been perfectly justified in killing Tony the moment he pulled the knife on him.
  • The Plague: In the episode helpfully titled Plague.
  • Power Incontinence
  • Promotion to Opening Titles: Michael Paré and Faye Grant, as of season 2. Don Cervantes gets promoted for a single episode only.
  • Psychometry: Ralph can pick up some mental images left in objects by their previous owner. Examples include, upon finding a bomb, getting the location of a second one.
  • Real After All: An episode involving a legendary sea-monster.
  • Reset Button: You give up the suit, you make everyone forget (except you).
  • Real Life Designs The Suit: Cannell based the emblem on Ralph's suit on the handles of a pair of left-handed scissors he kept on his desk.
    • It's also very similar to the Mahjong tile 'Red' or 'Red Dragon' and the Chinese character for "center." The Cantonese-dubbed version was titled "Flying Red Center Hero."
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: William Katt and Connie Selleca were unavailable for a revived NBC series, leading to the retooling as The Greatest American Heroine, a concept the network passed up.
    • William Katt and Robert Culp didn't get along at all at first (The main issue being that Culp resented not getting top billing, and Katt resenting Culp for resenting that). Luckly for the first few episodes Bill and Ralph don't care for each other too much ether. Katt and Culp quickly put aside their problems about at the same time their characters did the same on the show.
    • In the pilot the distress on Katt's face as he looks at himself in the mirror in suit for the first time. He recalls thinking during that scene 'Here's William Katt, throwing away his career'. When telling Cannell that he looked "ridiculous" in the suit, Cannell told him that that was the point
  • Reluctant Hero: Well, at first.
    Look at what's happened to me
    I can't believe it myself
    Suddenly I'm on top of the world
    It should have been somebody else...
  • Running Gags: Bill is constantly injured and is constantly wrecking his cars, accidental or not.
  • Save Our Students: What Hinkley was doing before he got the suit.
  • Spinning Newspaper: Announcing Ralph to the world in the Greatest American Heroine pilot.
  • Status Quo Is God: Subverted when Ralph and Pam get married.
  • Super Hero
  • Superheroes Wear Capes
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Tony Villicana was a prominent character for the first two season, but only appeared in one third season episode. For the rest of the season, a character named Joey filled his role. Justified since Joey was not a new character but had been a part of Ralph's class since day one.
  • Telekinesis: In one episode, Ralph discovers that he can move objects with his mind — but only if he clears his mind first. To clear his mind, he tries imagining a great big sheet of plain white paper. He has to concentrate on this image of white paper more dilligently at some times than at others.
    • In "Here's Looking at You, Kid", Bill is trying to get Ralph to move things with his mind when Ralph turns invisible instead.
  • Thematic Theme Tune: Check it out.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: The instrumental version of the show's theme music often plays when Ralph takes flight or otherwise uses the suit to do something heroic.
  • Title Drop: As Ralph is exposed in the Greatest American Heroine pilot, the President greets him with "Thank you, Mr. Hinkley, you just proved what we've suspected for a while now...that this country truly has ... The Greatest American Hero".
  • Touched by Vorlons
  • Trademark Favorite Food: One of the show's running gags has Bill snacking on a box of Milk Bones.
  • Transformation Is a Free Action: Humorously averted. Depending on what Ralph is wearing, it can take some time for him to take it off so he can save the day.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: A collision with a train causes Ralph to selectively forget everything back to the time he acquired the suit. Bill and Pam have to convince him the suit is real and remind him how it works; made harder by the fact that Ralph now no longer trusts Bill, remembering only the run-in they had upon first meeting. Ironically, Ralph is better at flying as an amnesiac than with his memory. He recovers after a close call with yet another train.
  • Uncanceled: Well, almost. About three years after it had been canceled by ABC, NBC expressed interest in reviving the show. A twenty minute presentation film was created which set up the premise for the revamped series - Ralph was found out after the media happened to film one of his rescues. At first reluctant to 'go Hollywood' he quickly became very famous and well known. The aliens return and insist that he has been compromised and demand he give up the suit to someone else to work with Bill Maxwell. To Maxwell's horror, Ralph gives the suit to a woman, making way for the title change Greatest American Heroine. For a number of reasons NBC passed on it and the footage was edited with other footage to make one final episode for the syndication package and eventual DVDs.
  • Up, Up and Away!: The first time Ralph tries to fly, a young bystander helpfully explains that he has to take three steps and jump, then adapt this pose. It sort of works.
    • In one episode, Bill comes up with an idea — rudders! The idea is that Ralph would attach them to his boots for stability. They don't help one bit.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Ralph and Bill.
  • Wedding Day: Ralph and Pam finally get married in "The Newlywed Game." Naturally, the wedding doesn't exactly go as planned...
  • Weirdness Censor: Most of the people who see Ralph in the suit think he's nuts (which became a Running Gag), promoting a show, or make up various other rationalizations for his odd form of dress. Some of the bad guys that Ralph fights think he's a gymnast or martial arts expert. Police who arrest said bad guys assume they're delusional or lying when the bad guys start talking about a flying, super-strong man.
    • In the current comics, most people assume he's a lucha libre fan, or even an aspiring luchadore. Max's excuse to other cops is that Ralph is the test pilot of a top secret military weapon.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Hinkley when he starts teaching at the school.
  • Written-In Absence: Pam is absent from the early episodes of season two, apart from a few scenes where she's on the phone with Ralph. The explanation is that she's in another city "working on a big case". In reality, Connie Sellecca was pregnant and then on maternity leave at the time.
  • You Look Familiar: The actor who played Pam's Hardware store owner Dad in "Here's Looking at you Kid" shows up as a sports announcer in "It's All Downhill From Here" and "The Price Is Right".