Long before superheroes became a staple offering on television and the big screen, audiences tuned in to catch The Greatest American Hero in action. The superhero comedy-drama produced by Stephen J. Cannell ran for three seasons from 1981 to 1983.
Arguably the show did leverage of the success of the first Superman and its sequel in the late 70s and early 80s, but it was nevertheless a show that stood on its own. The Greatest American Hero revolves around a high school teacher, Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) who is bestowed a supersuit that grants him superhuman abilities.
However, when he loses the handbook that tells him what the suit can do, he is left to his own devices to uncover the suit’s powers throughout each episode. Helping him along the way are FBI Agent (Robert Culp) and lawyer/flame, Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca), who assist Hinkley in his adventures.
Part of the appeal of the series is Hinkley discovering the suit’s powers largely through trial and error. Fans will no doubt remember his haphazard flying, which often led into the character crashing into things.
Over the course of the three seasons, Hinkley discovers the powers of flight, super strength, invulnerability, X-ray vision and super speed, amongst others. Incidentally, the symbol on the suit looks suspiciously like the Chinese character for ‘centre’, often seen on Mahjong tiles. But we digress.
In addition to taking on bad guys and stopping crime each week, The Greatest American Hero also had the odd supernatural episode (‘The Beast in the Black’), in which the suit is rendered powerless against supernatural forces. There was also a sea monster episode (‘The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’), which sees the hero and his gang hunt for a mythical sea creature in the Bermuda Triangle.
Despite the hokey premise of some of the episodes, The Greatest American Hero did inevitably become a cult classic. It also spawned a successful theme song titled, ‘Believe It Or Not’, which rode the Billboard Hot 100 charts, peaking at No.2 and also the Record World Chart, where it reached the number one position.
After 45 episodes over the course of three seasons, ABC pulled the plug on the series in February 1983. Destined for reruns over the next few years, the creators did attempt a revival series in 1986, this time with the original cast passing the torch to a new female lead.
However, The Greatest American Heroine, did not manage to take to the air in a true literally sense, leaving this classic series to be relived on DVD for the time being.