When A Teacher Became The Greatest American Hero


Source: (IMDb).

In 1981, America got a new superhero: the Greatest American Hero. Unlike so many other superheroes, his powers were not within him, but rather part of the suit he wore. Nor did he have a superhero name, but simply went by Ralph Hinkley or Mr. H. to some of his students. However, he did refer to himself as “Captain Crash” and “Captain Gonzo” in a rather self-deprecating way.

It Poked Fun At The Superhero Genre

The show, which was on from 1981 to 1983, was a mix of comedy and action, and it poked fun at the superhero genre. The creator, Stephen J. Cannell, had originally planned for the series to emphasize realistic problems, and what he called “character comedy” which was centered around real human flaws. However, new management at ABC wanted more heroic storylines to make the show more like a children’s show. It still remained different from other superhero series as it not only poked fun at the genre but also explored how the ordinary man could live like a superhero.

Source: (IMDb).

The Emblem

The emblem had a rather ordinary origin as well. While the costume designer was working on the design for the suit, the designer asked Cannell what he wanted the emblem on the chest of the suit to look like. Cannell had no idea, so the designer picked up a pair of scissors from Cannell’s desk and held them upside down, saying “That’s your emblem.”

Katt Didn't Really Want To Act On Television

The man who was cast as the hero, William Katt, got his start in acting in summer stock. He took a role in Carrie (1976) which allowed him to start making a name for himself. In 1977, he played the title role in Pippin and was offered the role of Ralph Hinkley, even without an audition. He didn’t have much interest in acting on television, but he read the script and, because it was funny, he decided to take the role. 

Source: (Pinterest).

How He Got His Powers

In the two-hour pilot episode, which premiered on ABC on March 18, 1981, Ralph Hinkley, an idealistic high school teacher who thinks he can make a change in his students’ lives, decides to take a group of remedial education students on a field trip. While on the trip, he encounters FBI Special Agent Bill Maxwell, played by Robert Culp. The pair are visited by aliens who give Hinkley the aforementioned suit which gives him with superhuman powers; they also give him an instruction manual. He is told that he should use the powers the suit will give him to fight crime and injustice in the world and Maxwell is to work with him. He is not altogether comfortable in the suit; just like the character he played, William Katt was uncomfortable in the suit and, even after they made modifications to it, they adjusted the filming schedule so that he didn’t have to wear the costume for too long. After the first episode, his name changed to Hanley in reaction to John Hinkley Jr.’s assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life on March 30, 1981. In the second season, they changed it back to Hinkley.

He First Learns He Can Fly

On his trip to court for his divorce hearing, because he is running late, he stops at a gas station bathroom and changes into the suit. He then starts to discover his superpowers, beginning with the ability to fly. However, it’s not as easy as you might imagine, and a child has to give suggestions for how to get off the ground. He ends up crashing into a wall and is taken to a hospital, where he discovers that he has the ability to see what is going on elsewhere. Because he lost the instruction manual to the suit, he has to figure everything out on his own. 

Source: (IMDb).

He Never Learned How To Land

In one episode, he demonstrated his super-strength when he faced off against Andre the Giant. In that same episode, he demonstrates his invulnerability, a power that comes in handy when he is hit by a train or by a bullet. He discovers he has the power of invisibility by accident as he is trying to develop the ability to move objects with his mind. He also learns that he can resist fire, blow out large fires, communicate telepathically with animals, and can control a dog with a hologram. He also discovers that he can shrink, he has the ability to detect the supernatural, and he has precognition. The one power that he never does seem to develop is the ability to land properly, so he has some pretty undignified landings, although he remains uninjured.

The Theme Song Was A Hit But The Show Was Not

Greatest American Hero did not have great ratings throughout its run, unlike the theme song, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The show’s ratings continued to decline, and so the final episode aired on February 3, 1983. In it, the world became aware of Ralph Hinkley’s identity, and the aliens told him to choose a replacement. He chose a female.