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
, Robert Culp as FBI Agent Bill Maxwell
, and Connie Sellecca as lawyer Pam Davidson.
The series is a superhero drama-comedy. Ralph Hinkley is a schoolteacher for 'special students,' and is 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 Special FBI Agent Bill Maxwell (Culp). Maxwell claims that his car also was acting up. The car starts up and they drive on until they are stopped and locked into the car as bright lights above them down and almost blind them.
They are surprised to find that lights are coming from an alien spacecraft. The aliens tell 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 he opens it up to reveal that they have given him a special bright red suit which endows him with superhuman abilities. Maxwell runs off from fear but later contacts Hinkley and hilarity ensues.
The novelty of the show was based on Hinkley's inability to properly learn to use the suit, and even learn of its various capabilities, other than by trial and error, because he lost the instruction manual in the desert. A revolving gag involves Ralph clumsily trying to strip off his outer clothes to reveal the suit before his enemies can get away.
In practice, Hinkley'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 a 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, invisibility, precognition, telekinesis, super speed, X-ray vision, and psychometry. He also showed signs of being able to control minds.
Maxwell partners up with Hinkley on most adventures to help the schoolteacher use the suit (which he called the "red jammies") to fight crime. (The Bill Maxwell character is widely viewed as a broad send-up of Culp's role in the ground-breaking 1960s action/adventure series I Spy.)
Pam Davidson was an attorney who often joined Ralph and Bill on adventures. She was a corporate attorney who later became Ralph's wife.
Also co-starring on the show were Michael Paré and Faye Grant as two of Ralph's students.
The series was created by producer Stephen J. Cannell and the show is typical of his style of character-driven quirky drama where the plot is secondary to the relationships between the characters.
The theme song (and variants of the theme) are used frequently throughout the show. "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 (more information below).
In 1986, the original cast reunited for a pilot film for a new NBC series that was to have been called The Greatest American Heroine. The pilot reveals that several years after the final episode, Hinkley's secret identity was finally revealed to the public. This upsets the aliens who gave him the suit, and they charge Hinkley with finding a new hero to wear the costume and use its powers for fighting evil. Hinkley 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.
In 2004, it was announced that a motion picture based upon the television series was in the planning stages.
A North American DVD release of the first season occurred on February 15, 2005. Special features in the three-disc set include extensive interviews with the original cast members, and The Greatest American Heroine pilot episode. Season 2 was released on April 5, 2005 with interviews with Mike Post and Cannell. Season 3 was released on August 2, 2005.