‘Greatest American Hero’ flies again? Believe it or not, yes

Nov. 14, 2008 | 9:52 p.m.

EXCLUSIVE: Stephen J. Cannell and William Katt talk about the past and the future of “Greatest American Hero,” including a planned flight into film. “We’ve got a script … it will happen,” Cannell said. He also touches on the “A-Team” and “21 Jump Street” movies.

'Greatest American Hero'

Stephen J. Cannell groaned when a pair of ABC executives first broached the idea of creating a superhero show.  “I never got superheroes. I had severe dyslexia as a kid so I didn’t really get into reading comics. And then when I became a writer I didn’t like them because they had everything. If the only thing that can get you is a piece of kryptonite then that’s not very interesting to me; I was always more interested in the flaws in character.”

Finding flaws in tough guys has been a signature success for Cannell, who created or co-created “The Rockford Files,” “Baretta,” “The A-Team,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “The Commish” and “21 Jump Street.” On that day in 1980, he wasn’t enthused about the notion of spending time with a man in tights, but he also didn’t say no. “I had learned never to say no in an office; I once said no to Brandon Tartikoff on a pitch of ‘MTV cops’ and that turned out to be ‘Miami Vice’…”

The “maybe” on that day soon became “Greatest American Hero,” a quirky and often heartfelt show about a schoolteacher who gets a mysterious costume of alien origin but loses the “instruction book” that tells him how to use its super-power gifts. Years before “Hancock” and “The Incredibles” toyed with the comedic possibilities of frustrated heroes trying to get by in a workaday world, Cannell’s “Hero” was flying a shaky course in the sky.

There’s a revival of sorts underway for the under-appreciated show: William Katt, the man who wore the red suit, has launched a comic book title that continues the adventures; there are new animated shorts being made for online (featuring the voices of original cast members); and, most notably, Cannell is in talks about a film remake that would introduce the brand to a new generation already accustomed to superhero spoofs after “Sky High,” “Superhero Movie,” “Zoom” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” A few months ago there was also a tribute to the 1981-1983 series hosted by the Screen Actor’s Guild Foundation, and at Comic-Con International this summer the original cast was stunned by the huge and vocal response to its reunion panel. 

Stephen J. CannellI recently visited Cannell’s office over on Hollywood Boulevard and we were joined by Katt for a conversation about a show that was ahead of its time and may soon be taking flight in pop culture again. “That show,” Cannell said, “was just one of my favorites. I’ve had a lot of success but this show was one of the high points. We had the right actors. The right writers. The right cinematographers. The right tone. It was never a struggle to make.”

As a young television fan at the time, it was one of my favorites, too, so it was a treat for me to hear some of their war stories about it.

Cannell had left Universal after eight years and started, in effect, his own freestanding mini-studio. He had a three-pilot deal with ABC and after the first series, “Tenspeed and Brownshoe” (starring Jeff Goldblum and Ben Vereen), fizzled he was looking for No. two. ABC executives Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner wanted something with capes and Cannell chewed on the idea until it occurred to him that the secret sauce of “The Rockford Files” might work again.

“With ‘Rockford,’ the idea was ‘How would I act if I were a private detective?’ I wouldn’t act like Sam Spade. I wouldn’t act like Joe Mannix. If someone pulled a gun on me I wouldn’t say, ‘I’m going to feed that to you.’ I’d give them my car and I’d give them my watch. There was a certain kind of logic that was missing from these guys and if I put that in, a certain survival instinct, would it be funny? We started this show with this idea: ‘What if I, Stephen Cannell, were out in the desert and a spinning ship came down and aliens gave me a suit that would let me fly? What would that do to my life? And what if it was a really stupid-looking suit? If had to prance around in this thing, what would my friends say? What happens if you shine the light of reality on this genre? It gets very funny.”

Cast of 'Greatest American Hero'Cannell said he would only do the show if it was the suit that had the powers, not the character. “When he takes it off he is the same as you or me. And the suit will become the instrument that will destroy his life. The first time you get caught in it, you can tell your wife or girlfriend that you’re on the way to a costume party. But the second time, well, you’re toast.”

Casting began and a script ended up reaching Katt, who was in New York doing stage work. He wasn’t looking to do a television series. “I was starring off-Broadway, doing a play with Dianne Wiest at the time, but the script had me laughing out loud.” Cannell flew east, caught a performance of the show and then he and the actor went to the Russian Tea Room. Cannell was confident he had found his new hero. “They need to have physical strength but also accessibility because they have to come into our living room. James Garner, Tom Selleck, Robert Conrad, actors like that. Bill had that in spades.”

Katt remembers: “My agent promised me that we’d do four shows and be off the air. Back then, there was a stigma about doing sci-fi and superhero stuff and I was apprehensive about putting on a costume. It wasn’t like now with Ed Norton and Christian Bale and Robert Downey Jr. There are actors with pedigree and there’s a cachet to do these films. That wasn’t the case then.”

It got worse: Katt came west and visited Cannell’s office at the Paramount lot and was told the suit was waiting for him in the restroom. Cannell had wanted it to be a truly ridiculous garment and designed it for maximum “career-wrecking” effect. “I wanted it to be the sort of suit that a teacher would lose his job if he got caught wearing it.” Katt remembers it was a stupendous and awful success. “I thought it was career-wrecking for me. It sagged in all the wrong places.”

Still, Katt became Ralph Hinkley, the special-ed schoolteacher (a career that resonated with Cannell due to his learning disability as a youngster) who gets the suit. Robert Culp (of “I Spy” fame) was brought in to play Bill Maxwell, the old-school FBI agent who becomes Hinkley’s odd-couple partner against crime, and Connie Selleca played his suffering girlfriend, attorney Pam Davidson. For the entire series, 44 episodes in all, Katt looked wildly uncomfortable in the suit. “It really did work,” Katt said. “I only appreciated it in the aftermath.”

What also worked was that Katt, the theater upstart, and Culp, who had been a television actor since the 1950s, did not get along well on the set and the friction only heightened the abrasive banter between their characters, who were opposites in politics, disposition and generational sensibility. “You couldn’t put us in the same room without a verbal confrontation about how we were going to approach a certain aspect or scene or something and neither of us was going to back down.”

Did the pair ever soften toward each other? “We did reach a sort of détente … although we were never buddies we did find a good working relationship on set.”


Katt says it wasn’t until recently that he could really appreciate “Hero” and its special niche in television and genre history. “At that time, I didn’t get what Stephen was trying to do. The further away from it I got the more perspective I got. I understand the show now. I watch the show now and I laugh out loud. I didn’t at the time”

Earlier this year, Katt joined a partnership to launch Catastrophic Comics and one of his first thoughts was to check with Cannell on the possibility of doing a series based on his old cape franchise. Cannell gave his blessing and Catastrophic teamed up with another outfit, Arcana Studios, to produce the book. This past summer, Katt went to Comic-Con International in San Diego to promote the comic and also sit together on a panel with Culp and Selleca to celebrate the show’s history and promote the animated online shorts. “Connie grabbed my arm and said, ‘What if no one shows up?’ I told her I had the same fear. But we walked into this huge conference room and it was just mobbed.” The spirit of revival continued with the SAG tribute.

“Thanks to this man right here,” Katt said, nodding toward Cannell, “we have something that still holds up and holds the attention of people. And there’s going to be more coming …”

“Yes,” Cannell said, “the feature film is moving forward. We have a script. We have a director. I’m in the middle of making the deal now for distribution. We have a bite now. It will happen. It’s a PG movie, not a PG-13. We want to have all kids be able to go see it. I want all the 7-year-olds to be able to go and their parents will remember the show and want to share it with them. It needs to be funny but with one foot on the ground in reality.”

Cannell said there will be familiar faces in the film. “Bill and the other original cast will make an appearance too,” he said. “I want them to be in and not just opening and closing a door. I feel a loyalty to them and adore them. Secondly, I think audiences like it. And it’s not good when it doesn’t happen. I know Robert Conrad, he’s a real good friend and they didn’t put him in ‘Wild, Wild West‘ and that wasn’t positive for anyone. I want to do the same thing with the ‘A-Team’ movie. John Singleton is directing the ‘A-Team’ and settling in on casting, we have been looking at Bruce Willis, Woody Harrelson and Ice Cube but I’d want the original guys to feel welcome. And we’re also doing ’21 Jump Street.‘ It’d be amazing to get Johnny [Depp] back in … I mean, if he’ll come! He’s not exactly looking for a job. But I think he might. Johnny always thought the show was a bubble-gum show and I don’t think he ever realized how good it was. He was always, ‘Get me out of here,’ but to his credit he was a pro, he was a good star. He always knew his words and he came to play. When he was getting movie offers he stayed and finished his commitment. A solid, solid citizen. He wasn’t happy doing the show but I think he looks back on it fondly.”

No project is closer to Cannell’s heart, though, than the “Hero” film project and he clearly thinks the superhero cinema age has made a revival a smart business choice. In addition to the old cast, he said fans of the series can expect to hear that old familiar song too, “Theme from Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)” by Joey Scarbury, which soared all the way to No. 2 on the U.S. pop singles chart. “That was huge,” Cannell said.

Hmmm. All this talk of a remake makes the mind wander. Who could handle the re-recording of the theme song? Maroon 5 seems like a natural. And, the big question, who would wear the costume this time around? Owen Wilson? How about Will Ferrell? Maybe Jason Segel from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”?

I had one last question for Cannell: Ralph won’t find that alien instruction book this time around, will he? “Oh no. Not that. Never. What fun would that be?”

— Geoff Boucher

“Greatest American Hero” photos from the Los Angeles Times archive and courtesy of ABC. Photo of Stephen J. Cannell by Percy C. Riddle/Los Angeles Times.


17 Responses to ‘Greatest American Hero’ flies again? Believe it or not, yes

  1. Deb says:

    I can't help but grin when I hear that theme song–and I sing along as loud as I can. There's no way you can feel low after that.

  2. Maria says:

    I loved the show, watched it religiously and missed it greatly. Can't wait for the movie.

  3. dolfyn says:

    Owen Wilson or Wil Ferrell??? No way! This role needs a more serious actor who can also do comedy, not a comedy actor. The whole point of Ralph Hinkley is that he's a regular guy who is put into ridiculous situations & has to cope with them. A comedic actor would be in on the joke too much & it wouldn't work. I really hope Cannell still has that same magic touch, & casts this right. "The Greatest American Hero" is one of my all-time favourite shows & I'd hate to have that tainted……. *cough* "The Greatest American Heroine" *cough*

  4. Marci says:

    I am totally wired about this. I can't wait for the comic book too. Awesome!

  5. Alli says:

    I used to whistle or hum the theme song when I was little, my folks didn't know what it was when I asked them how I knew it. I heard it on the radio on the oldies station and I was thrilled! My co-worker told me about the program, and I've been looking for the boxed set ever since.

  6. Brian Drake says:

    I loved the show when I was a kid. In fact, my aunt worked in the film industry at the time, and was able to get me an autographed picture of WIlliam Katt. Funny thing was, he or his people kept sending me pictures (the same one) with different messages every few months. After a while, I was like, what do I do with all these black-and-white headshots? But I enjoyed getting them and loved the show and hope that with the movie release we get the original series on DVD.

  7. Vince Rainwater says:

    This was my favorite show of my childhood!.Here's a premise..make an average guy the "hero", after all,he was the average guys hero wasn't he? My loyalty to this runs deep. For years, i thot i could fly…(sometimes i still do). Make this a true revival, not a train wreck with someone just looking for a one point punchline,or trying to get a new catchphrase to take hold. Keep this about what its truly supposed to be! Every day guys DO make the most difference! They're the backbone of our democracy. The stuff of our childhood heroes, what we wanted to grow up to be. Make this movie happen, for us average guys(now,all grown up)

  8. Rob says:

    If they remake this, I really hope they aim for integrity of character and don't ruin it, as most remakes tend to do.

  9. Jeff says:

    I am with all the other above comments. This was my favorite show of all times. I just bought the DVD series and can't wait to watch it over and over and over again. It truly is ordinary people that make the biggest difference in the world and that is one of the best things I got from the series.. in or out of the suit, Hinkley was always they same kind of guy, believing he could make a difference in the lives of others. I do hope they do a movie and in the process, don't mess up the character by spoofing it or making it into a comedy.. it can be funny by it's own storyline. Just think about it, if we all got a suit then lost the manual how comedic would it be for us to try an learn the ins and outs of using it. The only thing that I never understood is why wouldn't he retrace his steps and at least see if he could find the manual.. maybe if he could locate a portion because it had been run over and that would give him the starting point of how to really use the suit.

  10. Cherry Lyn says:

    I love love this show so much. Next to Wonder Woman, he is my favorite superhero. And I love love the song. I have two words for Ralph's character — Paul Rudd. (My ideal is Michael J. Fox, but I'm not sure if he's already too old for the role?)

  11. Cherry Lyn says:

    Actually, I've got a third actor in mind — Dwayne Johnson. He's not a comedian, but he's both serious and funny. Can you imagine that body in that suit that sags in all the wrong places? It's not only career-wrecking, it's image-wrecking. Can you imagine that heavy body trying to fly then sailing down? Get his character to be somebody who regularly hits the gym, and when he's in this situation, wow, that'll really be the day of this superhero :=) Steve Carrell would be good too, but there's something lacking in him for this character, I just can't place it right now.

  12. Bobbi Powers says:

    I was thinking what if a "bad guy" found the instruction book and the movie was about him trying to find out what it was for? Or knowing what it was for and trying to obtain the suit? Instead of it being Ralph who is wearing the suit now, it could be his son who is also trying to find out through today's technology how the suit works! The "bad guy" could also be using the tech stuff to try to find the suit. Ralph's son could find more powers in the suit than Ralph discovered – like GPS, search pattern, etc; Could be a cute movie – I think Owen Wilson would be perfect as Ralph's son!

  13. […] store clerk who joins in the bloody fun and there’s even a cop played by William Katt, a legacy figure if you delve into the history of looking uncomfortable in an ill-fitting red […]

  14. […] store clerk who joins in the bloody fun and there’s even a cop played by William Katt, a legacy figure if you delve into the history of looking uncomfortable in an ill-fitting red […]

  15. […] store clerk who joins in the bloody fun and there’s even a cop played by William Katt, a legacy figure if you delve into the history of looking uncomfortable in an ill-fitting red […]

  16. Jenny Penny says:

    Long Live. The 80s

  17. Jenny Penny says:

    God bless Stephen J Cannall Connie Selleca William Katt and Robert. Culp. Long Live The 80s

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