Greatest American Hero, The

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents




The Greatest American Hero is an American science fiction TV series that 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 ("Hanley" for the latter part of the first season), Robert Culp as FBI Agent Bill Maxwell, and Connie Sellecca as lawyer Pam Davidson. The show chronicles Ralph's adventures after he is given a red suit by a group of aliens, which gives him superhuman abilities. The series was created by producer Stephen J. Cannell; Joel Colon helped design the costumes.

The series is a superhero drama-comedy. Ralph Hinkley Jr. is a teacher of special education students. Determined to get through to them, Ralph took them on a "geological survey" field trip to the desert. Coming back from the field trip later that night, the school bus breaks down. Ralph starts to walk back through the desert to get help and he encounters a swerving car driven by FBI Special Agent Bill Maxwell (Culp) that stops just in time to avoid 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 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 learn to use the suit properly, 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 addition the show spends quite a bit of time developing the friendship between Ralph and Bill Maxwell as well showcased in "Lilacs; Mr. Maxwell". This episode delves deeply into the personal feelings between the two, as Ralph is painfully forced to get Bill to realize his love interest is actually a KGB spy who was specifically recruited to romance Bill and find out the secrets of his successful investigations.

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 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 to areas covered by the suit), invisibility, precognition, telekinesis, x-ray vision, super speed, pyrokinesis, holographic vision, shrinking, psychometry, and sensitivity to the supernatural. He also showed signs of being able to control minds when he was exposed to high doses of plutonium radiation. (In the episode "Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell," Ralph is shown to control a dog through a holograph. This may have been an improvisational power of the suit, but was never tried again.) 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 Pare and Faye Grant as two of Ralph's students.

In the second season episode "Don't Mess Around with Jim", Ralph and Maxwell both learn that they are not the first duo to have been visited by the aliens. Jim "J.J." Beck had received the suit, and Marshall Dunn was his partner, much like Ralph and Maxwell operated. But Jim was overwhelmed with the power of the suit, he used it selfishly until it was taken away. It is unknown if there were others before Jim who were visited by the aliens.

In a later episode, the pair meet the alien, whose world was apparently destroyed (which hints as to why it wants to protect humanity) and calls Earth one of the few remaining "garden planets". 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 (the alien's last copy), 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.

Created by Stephen J. Cannell


William Katt

Robert Culp

Connie Sellecca

Michael Paré

Faye Grant

Theme music composer

Mike Post

Stephen Geyer

Opening theme "Theme from Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)"

Performed by Joey Scarbury

Country of origin United States

No. of seasons 3

No. of episodes 44


Running time 60 minutes


Original channel ABC

Original run March 18, 1981 (1981-03-18) – February 3, 1983

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