Despite the earnestness of the theme song (which went to number one on the singles charts), The Greatest American Hero never took itself too seriously. William Katt starred as mild-mannered high-school teacher Ralph Hinkley, who, while on a desert field trip with his Whitney High students, was chosen by aliens to don a costume and fight bad guys (now that’s a field trip!). Witnessing this first encounter was FBI agent Bill Maxwell, who happened to be stranded in the same part of the desert.
The extra-terrestrials gave Hinkley a ridiculous-looking red suit, which gave him the powers of flight, x-ray vision and invisibility. But there was one problem: Hinkley immediately lost the instruction manual that came with the suit and had to learn all his newly acquired skills by trial and error. Many, many crash landings followed.
Agent Maxwell frequently employed the superhero in his own cases. When he wasn’t solving crimes, Hinkley continued to date his girlfriend (and eventual wife), attorney Pam Davidson, who was aware of Ralph’s double life. And a double life it was, indeed. When you’re only a so-so superhero, you have to keep your day job, and Ralph continued to teach a class of students that included hunky Tony Villicana, his girlfriend Rhonda Blake, Cyler Johnson and Rodriguez. Ralph’s ex-wife Alicia occasionally appeared on the show, as did their son Kevin.
In 1981, President Reagan was shot and, believe it or not, the incident had an effect on the series. Since Reagan’s would-be assassin was named Hinckley, ABC decided that Ralph’s students would simply refer to him as “Mr. H.” For the few episodes that had been filmed but not aired before the decision was made, “Hinkley” was overdubbed with “Hanley”. Reagan pulled through, and Ralph got his last name back in August of 1981.
Created by Stephaen J.Cannell (producer of The A-Team and 21 Jump Street), the series lasted for three years with the last five episodes shown in syndication. The final episode was intended to be a spin-off for a show called The Greatest American Heroine, with the suit being given to a woman, but it never got off the ground.
The Greatest American Hero was also given the distinct honor of being alluded to on Seinfeld. George re-wrote the words to the Mike Post/Stephen Geyer theme song, using “Believe it or not George isn’t at home” for his answering machine’s outgoing message. A superhero and a pop culture reference point… That’s one cool suit.
“Believe it or not,
I’m walking on air,
I never thought I could feel so free,
Flying away on a wing and a prayer,
Who could it be?
Believe it or not, it’s just me…”
USA / ABC / 1×120 minute episode 43×30 minute episodes / Broadcast 18 March 1981 – 3 February 1983
Creator: Stephen J. Cannell / Theme Music: Mike Post, Stephen Geyer / Sung by Joey Scarbury / Executive Producers: Stephen J. Cannell, Juanita Bartlett, Jo Swerkling Jr
William Katt as Ralph Hinkley
Robert Culp as Bill Maxwell
Connie Sellecca as Pam Davidson
Brandon Williams as Kevin Hinkley
Simone Griffeth as Alicia Hinkley
Faye Grant as Rhonda Harris
Michael Pare as Tony Villacona
Don Cervantes as Paco Rodriquez
Cheryl Francis as Susan
E.J. Peaker as Rose Harris
Dave Shelley as Manny
Robby Weaver as Ray Buck
Michael Ensign as School Principal Kane
William Frankfather as Palmer Bradshaw
William Bogert as Mr. Carlyle
June Lockhart as Alice Davidson
Norman Alden as Harry Davidson
Bob Minor as John Macke