Greatest American

The Greatest American Hero

The Greatest American Hero is an American television series which aired for three seasons from 1981 to 1983 on ABC. It premiered as a two hour movie pilot on March 18, 1981. It starred William Katt as teacher Ralph Hinkley (or Hanley), Robert Culp as FBI Agent Bill Maxwell, and Connie Sellecca as lawyer Pam Davidson. The series has a fanbase around the world, making it a cult classic.


The series is a superhero drama-comedy. Ralph Hinkley is a schoolteacher for "special students", determined to get through to them. Coming back from a field trip late one night, the school bus breaks down, forcing Ralph to walk back through the desert to get help. He encounters a swerving car driven by FBI Special Agent Bill Maxwell (Culp) that stops just in time to avoiding 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 silly-looking 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 properly learn to use the suit, 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 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 him 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), invisibility, precognition, telekinesis, remote viewing, super speed, and psychometry. He also showed signs of being able to control minds when he was exposed to high doses of plutonium radiation. 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 Paré and Faye Grant as two of Ralph's students.

In a later episode, the pair meet the alien, whose world was apparently destroyed (which hints as to why it wants to protect humanity). 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, 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.

The series was created by producer Stephen J. Cannell and Joel Colon helped to design the costumes. The show is typical of his style of character-driven quirky drama where the plot is secondary to the relationships among the characters.

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.

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 (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 releases

Anchor Bay Entertainment has released the complete series on DVD for Region 1. In addition, on October 3, 2006, they released a special 13-disc boxset that contains all 43 episodes of the series as well as other bonus collectors items.
DVD Name Ep # Release Date Additional Information
Season 1 9 February 15, 2005

  • The unaired pilot for The Greatest American Heroine spin-off series
  • Interviews with: Stephen J. Cannell, William Katt, Connie Selleca, Robert Culp, Michael Pare

Season 2 22 April 5, 2005

  • Brand-new interviews with Stephen J. Cannell and Mike Post
  • Photo gallery
  • DVD-ROM: Screenplay for "Two Hundred Miles an Hour Fastball," written by Stephen J. Cannell
  • Japanese-language track on "Two Hundred Mile an Hour Fastball"

Season 3 13 August 2, 2005
Complete Series 44 October 3, 2006

Typical plot lines

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 kids show than an adults 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").


  • The hero persona never receives a "superhero name," either, although Scarbury sings the Elton John song "Rocket Man" in the pilot.
  • In the first episode, the pair are spoken to by Bill's (dead) ex partner, a black agent. This is a tip of the hat to Culp's role in I Spy, where he partnered with Bill Cosby
  • The episode "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" was shot in St. Croix U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 amended to "Hanley" for the Season 1 episode "Reseda Rose". For the rest of the 1st season, he was either "Ralph" or "Mister H". 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 (tiny) 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.
  • The television show is often noted for its popular theme song "Believe it or Not", sung by Joey Scarbury and written by Stephen Geyer and Mike Post. "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.
    • The show's theme song was featured prominently in the Seinfeld episode "The Susie" where George Costanza used it as his answering machine message, with his own lyrics sung over the music ("Believe it or not George isn't at home, please 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.
    • 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 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!"
    • 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.
  • 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 "Sky Flying Red Centre Hero" [飛天紅中俠].
  • 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.
  • The symbol often appeared on the wrestling attire of ECW wrestler Super Nova whose "gimmick" was that he was a Super-Hero
  • At the end of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, The Cooper-Hofstadter Polarization, depicts two Chinese computer nerds, one of whom wears the shirt 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".


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. A series of animated webisodes are planned with Katt, Culp and Selleca supplying the voices of their characters from the TV show. A live-action feature film is also in the works and is expected to begin production in 2009.



Greatest American Hero season 1 DVD set. 2005.

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