It only ran for two and a half seasons from 1981 to 1983, however America’s Greatest Hero—starring William Katt as a useless teacher who received a super-powered suit from aliens, then immediately lost the instructions – already left. an indelible mark on pop culture. You may already have the theme song in your head (“Believe it or not, I’m walking on air…”) after reading the title of this post.
Why is there? America’s Greatest Herostarring Robert Culp as the reluctant hero Ralph’s FBI liaison, Bill, and Connie Sellecca as Ralph’s girlfriend and lawyer, Pam—became an enduring favorite? The Greatest American Hero Ever, a recently released book by Patrick Jankiewicz, digs into the ABC sci-fi comedy with great enthusiasm, profiles the creative team involved, explores individual episodes as well as the wider impact of show, and features random trivia that may surprise even longtime fans of the series. It features an introduction to series protagonist Katt; io9 gets a shout out thanks to our 2018 roundup of the show’s “funniest” episodes— that we wrote down what we learned the reboot starring Hannah Simone not taken—so it’s no secret it’s us fans of Ralph’s mistakes. We hopped into a video chat with Jankiewicz to learn more.
“[Creator Stephen J.] Cannell had several hits [like The Rockford Files, The A-Team, and 21 Jump Street]but it is 1684480749 the most popular of all his movies,” said the author. “Even he didn’t know it—it was the best seller on DVD and Blu-ray. You have to hit five seasons to get into syndication, and this show isn’t even close. This is his only full-on genre show, the only sci-fi superhero type show he’s done, and he’s not used to all the clichés. The network asked him to do a superhero show, and once he did, he did [in his own style], like his other shows. It’s a show about personal responsibility, which I think is really funny. “
Jankiewicz, who also published “companion” books on The Incredible Hulk and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, found his next subject by accident, though it was clearly in his wheelhouse. “This is when covid hit. It was Saturday morning, I was drinking coffee with my brother, changing the channels, and we came across an episode of the series,” Jankiewicz recalled. “It’s from the first season, a great episode called ‘The Best Desk Scenario,’ which is based on a real killer of a real reporter, and it’s very well written. Cannell’s movies are big on character. [With The Greatest American Hero]they tried to do The Rockford Files with a superhero. This is a Marvel Comics version of the Rockford Files. The hero has a good heart, but no one knows it; everyone misjudged him. Rockford is a character—you like him, you like his life, you find him interesting. And he happened to be a detective. It’s the same thing here: Ralph just happens to be a superhero. But you like the character, you like his friends, and you like the situation. I forgot what a charming, funny show it is!”
It’s hard to pick a favorite episode America’s Greatest Hero‘s 45 total, but Jankiewicz thinks one in particular stands out. “I like the pilot. I think the pilot is really, really smart; you spend about 30 minutes getting to know Ralph as a character before the aliens and all. The show is personality-driven, and because you like the characters, you care about what happens to them,” said Jankiewicz. However, he also admitted that he wanted the grittier, more supernatural direction the series took in its later episodes. “I like it when the show embraces the genre; one week he fights a biker gang, one week ninja, a ghost, aliens. I think that’s the best part, where you never know who you’re going to run into week in, week out.
As Jankiewicz points out, Ralph was a unique character on TV—and across the spectrum of superhero-centric entertainment—in 1981. “One of the interesting ideas of the show is that he’s constantly thrown around. Despite wearing the suit, people were not grateful to him. People despise him. The whole show is a kind of praise for the common man. He was in this suit and it didn’t improve his life one bit. This makes it even worse! It’s great, but there is a cynical edge to the show,” said the author. “It broke the rules of the superhero genre before there were rules set. You have to remember when the show started, there were no live action superheroes going on. The Incredible Hulk it’s out. Buck Rogers is about to be cancelled. Superheroes went to the movies. The year the show debuted was when we got the first one Indiana Jones, and [in 1982 we got] the second Christopher Reeve Superman. So there are no real superhero rules. If you look the show by Greg Berlanti—bow, Supergirl, The Flash—It’s all about the team surrounding the hero. that [was never part of the] genre until it was established by Stephen J. Cannell. Pam and Bill are his team. They know everything Ralph knows. That’s a big difference from every superhero that’s come before.
As fans may recall, a reboot-replaced Ralph character with a tequila-loving Indian American girl named Meera—came very close to hitting the airwaves a few years ago, but ABC didn’t pick it up. “I will be honest. I tried and tried to look, and they didn’t even cough up a script for it. William Katt has never even seen it,” said Jankiewicz. But he did not lose hope America’s Greatest Hero will fly again in the future. “I have a feeling that Cannell’s daughter Tawnia [McKiernan, a veteran TV producer and director] make it into a movie. It will be big, especially in the Marvel formula, where people are ready for snarky, funny … the whole show is about no longer idealists. Ralph is the only idealist in the show. Bill and Pam are cynical and I mean, they’re going to help him, but they think it’s tilting at windmills. The whole show is an idealist surrounded by pessimists and they try to save the world. I think there is room for that. When [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller can’t keep it up, two of the most creative—you see what they do Jump Street. The studio had to get down on their knees and asked them to do it. They should have given these people carte blanche, but they didn’t. At the time they want the property returned to them, they just won the Oscar with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse … The terrible thing is, they are Obtained Cannell. If you look [the Jump Street movies]they celebrate all the cheesiness of a Cannell show, then they embrace it and play it and it’s just, it’s the easiest [decision].”
You will not end any discussion with America’s Greatest Hero that’s not to mention perhaps its biggest and most enduring superpower: its theme song, which once heard sticks in your brain for a terrifying amount of time. “My sister called me when I was writing the book—she was editing it for me—and she said, ‘Dammit, I’ll never forget that song.’ And then he said that he and his family were watching Free Men with Ryan Reynolds [which used the Greatest American Hero song], and he couldn’t stop humming the theme song all week,” laughed Jankiewicz. “But for me, that theme song is what makes the show come alive. That song will never, ever go away. It is used as a touchstone in the culture of other movies in the genre, not only Seinfeld. The theme song is in the top 10 higher than the Friends theme, which ran for 10 years. I mean, it blows my mind—it’s battling ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ for number one song of the year!”
America’s Greatest Hero is widely available for streaming (including Peacock, Prime Video’s Freevee, and the YouTube); you can choose a copy of The Greatest American Hero Companion HERE.
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