Believe it or not - "The Greatest American Hero" (1981-1983) lives up to its title!

Discussion in 'Misc. TV Series' started by Dread, Dec 23, 2012.

  1. Dread TMNT 1984-2009

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    I did a search of SHH before making this topic. The last topic about TGAH in the TV forum was back in 2006, and the last topic about the show period was in the Bat-forums pitting the star against Batman. Other topics related to a possible movie and are roughly 5 years old, so I felt justified in making a new one. But if any moderator wants to merge, feel free.

    At any rate, I sometimes get curious about TV shows (animated or not) which I was technically alive for but which I never watched when I was younger. One of them was the "DUNGEONS & DRAGONS" cartoon of the 80's, which I rediscovered a few years back and liked. After stumbling upon the very catchy theme song "BELIEVE IT OR NOT" by Joey Scarbury (composed by Mike Post and Steve Geyer) on YouTube, I found the series released as a box set by Mill Creek online for roughly $22, which is a good price for a 43 episode series. Like a lot of Mill Creek releases, it was something which was a re-release from a prior, spiffier box set from years earlier with fewer extras. But I didn't know that and for the series itself, it's a good way to grab it without being a pirate.

    Being as the show was canceled in 1983 when was I had turned a year old (and I'm 30), perhaps a summary is in order. The late 1970's into the early 1980's was actually an era where major networks had been experimenting with live action superhero TV shows with varying degrees of success. Naturally the most successful was "THE INCREDIBLE HULK" starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, which aired on CBS and NBC for 5 seasons from 1977-1982 and spawned a few TV movies up until 1990. The second hottest was "WONDER WOMAN" from 1977-1979 which starred Lynda Carter that aired on ABC and CBS for 3 seasons. But in between these two were CBS' "AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" show starring Nicholas Hammond from 1977-1979 as well as TV movies for "DOCTOR STRANGE" and "CAPTAIN AMERICA" during this time - heck, Cap even got two TV movies. Perhaps as a final nudge was the "HAPPY DAYS" spin off, "MORK & MINDY", the Robin Williams vehicle which featured an alien with a red spandex suit which was on ABC from 1978-1982. The theatrical success of "SUPERMAN" in 1976 and "SUPERMAN II" in 1980 (as well as the animated "SUPERFRIENDS") nudged ABC to ask Stephen J. Cannell to produce their own superhero TV series for prime time. Cannell had long been a TV writer and had created several shows, but this was his second he would produce with his own independent studio - and the first to use his iconic vanity prop at the end of the credits. Not knowing the superhero genre well, Cannell set out to create a series about a high school special education teacher Ralph Hinkley (William Katt, from "CARRIE") who through a twist of fate is visited by aliens alongside over the top FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp, of "I, SPY" and no end of TV roles) who give them a red costume which bestows super powers only for Ralph, but demand that Maxwell guides him. After promptly losing the instruction manual and getting along worse than oil and water, and complicating things with his attorney girlfriend Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca), all parties ultimately have to unite to come to grips with the situation and genuine threats to not only America, but the planet itself. The pilot aired in 1981 and was quickly made into a full series, "THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO".

    Cannell's original vision for the show was to portray the absurdity of a superhero set up in "the real world" and the real dilemmas which would come of such a thing. Each episode would play to a genuine human emotion or failing and he sought to keep the scope low, seeing it more as an adventure comedy and human "dramedy" than a superhero epic. Very soon after, however, the network wanted "a Saturday morning cartoon" and new writers would make the series more over the top as the seasons went on. Diminishing ratings killed the show in 1983 before all of the episodes of that third season had aired. There was an attempted spin off by NBC in 1986, "THE GREATEST AMERICAN HEROINE" (after stars Katt and Sellecca were unable to return for a full series due to prior engagements), which didn't take off and whose pilot was tacked onto the general TGAH show in syndication packages. Lawsuits by DC Comics over supposed infringements on Superman (even if the origin is closer to the then obscure Green Lantern) limited merchandise deals, and aside for one PAL release in Europe the show was never released on home video until Anchor Bay Ent. released their first DVD sets in 2005.

    Well, there's the summary; how's the series? Considering I got into it based on a random YouTube wandering and the recommendation of a friend, I have to say I was not disappointed in any way. Despite being from 1981-1983 and having a special effects budget to match (pre-green screen, in an era where attempting to duplicate the flying effects for "SUPERMAN" alone would have cost more than an episode itself), it is a charming and well written, well acted series. While one could argue the writing was the strongest in the first season, this isn't a show which peters out like "HEROES" did; I enjoyed the second two seasons just as much. The focus on real character quirks as well as the defined characters quickly make the show easy to like, and Katt, Culp, and Sellecca are on point here. Very quickly you like the characters enough that they sell the show, not the plot of the week - which is good as the plot of the week was of a scale which always changed. That also made the series fun. One week it could be mobsters or small scale hoods; the next it could be Commie agents, domestic terrorists, or even a space monster. While the show wasn't as serialized as a Joss Whedon production, the show does establish a continuity in which past events matter and are referenced. Naturally without the instruction manual to the suit, Ralph has to learn how to use the suit's powers through trial and error, with some powers getting easier to master than others. Flying in particular is always an adventure for him. Culp's Maxwell is an awesome over-the-top Reagan era fed, but much like J. Jonah Jameson or other characters really does have a human heart once the chips are down. Sellecca's Pam usually is the more reasonable woman in the middle and while there are episodes where she's in peril (although not as often as Maxwell), she often serves as a needed counterbalance to Maxwell's assertiveness and Ralph's often second guessing nature. The show's theme song also works as an instrumental, which work to give TGAH its own theme which is just as iconic as that of any other hero.

    While some people didn't like some of the larger scale plots of later seasons, I thought they mixed the show up. After all, the aliens gave Ralph and Bill the suit to save the world; it seems a little dishonest if they don't do just that at least once or twice. Plus, even some of the larger scope episodes always managed to say something about a particular character, or a human experience. Balancing self-referencing comedy one minute and drama the next isn't always easy, but this show manages to make it all work.

    There are some quibbles. Naturally, Pres. Reagan's would-be assassin having the last name of "Hinkley" caused the network to change Ralph's last name for most of Season 1. Ralph's class of special ed students are fairly regular characters and some of them are a little cliche - especially Tony Villicana, who is a greaser (which by the early 1980's was a little old school). Ralph's son and ex-wife are plot points in the first season but are gradually phased out and not mentioned by the second and third seasons. And even with all the time considerations in the world, some of the flying effects are laughably bad by today's standards. Yet despite these quibbles I wouldn't trade them because the overall show has such charm that they don't really diminish it, but add a little spice to it. Considering I first saw this show as a 30 year old man and have come to adore it, I can easily understand how people who saw it as kids or teenagers (or even adults) in the 80's built up a cult fanbase for it. The core of the series was always on the characters, the chemistry between the actors and the writing, and this core is what remained intact for me throughout the series. Robert Culp even wrote and directed the second and third season finales, showcasing his investment in the show. William Katt briefly tried to revive the series in comic book form and even retains a Facebook fanpage for the show. Sadly, both Culp and Cannell passed on in 2010.

    So, any thoughts? I've seen every episode from the pilot to "VANITY, SAYS THE PREACHER" and I wouldn't mind sharing some opinions. If you haven't seen the show and are a fan in any way of superheroes, "dramedies" or just solid 1980's TV shows full of imagination and strong writing, investing $22 on the box set (or seeing it on Netflix or whatever) is something I'd recommend.
     
    #1 Dread, Dec 23, 2012
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2013
  2. ShredderX Registered

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    I loved this show as a kid, and even bought a couple of issues of the comic. I really do hopeit makes a comeback.
     
  3. Dave McFly sexy bad ass

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    I too loved the show got the complete series set on DVD at a DVD/CD store at my mall for cheap has every episode on it :). The theme song is still one of my fave TV theme songs :).
     
  4. Dread TMNT 1984-2009

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    I have all the issues of the comic too. William Katt's CATASTROPHIC COMICS teamed with Arcana Studios to make a TGAH comic from 2008-2009, although unfortunately only 3 issues (of a planned 6) were released before apparently Catastrophic went under. They since lost the rights to the license, and with Stephen Cannell's death I imagine that will get complicated.

    The dilemma of a come-back is I fear that a modern reboot might try too hard to make certain elements "cool" - such as the suit - and that would lose a lot of the charm. And recasting the lead characters is no easy feat. But, hey, if we got a SMURFS movie...

    "Believe It Or Not" was actually a Top #2 hit for 1981's song charts. I liked how the instrumental version was used throughout the show, to give Ralph his own iconic theme.
     
  5. Dave McFly sexy bad ass

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  6. Dread TMNT 1984-2009

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    How could I? :cool:
     
    #6 Dread, Dec 25, 2012
    Last edited: Dec 25, 2012
  7. gkokujin Registered

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    I watched the pilot (i have a few episodes on DVD) and i was in SHOCK at how well the show held up. Not in special effects but in story. I would LOVE to see this done today without taking too much away from the original.
     
  8. Dread TMNT 1984-2009

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    Agreed. That was one of the first things I noticed as I began to watch the show. The writing is strong enough that it makes up for any niggles about the outdated special effects and it holds up remarkably well. I'd argue the most dated part about the show isn't the SFX but the Cold War era plots in many episodes where Commies were essentially shorthand for villains. But, you could say the same of many other TV shows and films which were made before 1991; the Bond franchise in particular stands out in that regard, and I'm a Bond fan.

    Naturally with a film adaptation getting close to production around 2008 or so, the idea of redoing the show comes up. William Katt was involved in an attempt to revamp the premise in comic book form in that time, and some of the choices he (and the other two writers, one of which is the CEO of Arcana Studios) made to alter things for the time were interesting. As a fan of the show it is difficult to imagine other actors playing the main three characters, although I suppose that's overcome by some great casting and more smart writing. My biggest concern is a modern attempt perhaps missing the point and making the suit look "cooler" to try to fit the times, which removes a subtle but vital detail for the show to work. Naturally, special effects would probably be done better if for no other reason than updated technology, but in a way that's just a detail. The key of the show was on nailing the premise as well as the proper writing, interaction, and acting of the three leads.

    And ironically, I would imagine a revamped version would today be accused of "ripping off Green Lantern", which was perhaps a fair criticism back in 1981, although nobody made it since Green Lantern at the time was obscure for mainstream people - at best "that guy with the ring on SUPERFRIENDS". DC Comics themselves harped about the powers being too similar to Superman and didn't even make that criticism themselves - likely because in 1981 it was Superman who was their most successful character adapted to another medium.

    Even with the special effects of the time and some of the dated cold war era plots, "THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO" was a bit ahead of its time so I can imagine if the heart of the original is maintained, it could still work. Of course, a lot of the magic remains in the chemistry between the lead actors, which isn't as easy to replicate.
     
  9. dynamic Registered

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    I watched it in its original run (yes, I'm old), and have the DVD of the first season (or maybe it's the first and second seasons). The plot holds up pretty well, and the Katt and Culp dynamic is done well. Connie Selleca is nice eye candy as well.
     
  10. gkokujin Registered

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    Yes I would agree with you. I know this is a tiny detail, but the "saddle shoe" design of the pants always stood out for me. I would probably accept however an update of the suit where its not a "cloth costume" and it attaches in some technological way. Then again, if they could make it work as just a "costume"...

    Not sure I follow. Do you mean as in aliens give a chosen human a powerful tool to fight evil?


    So movie or TV show? I know it originally ran on ABC, but ABC is NOT kind to scifi/sfx heavy shows. :csad:


    (RIP NOF and V)
     
  11. SoulManX The Inspector!

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    Adam Sandler who is a big 80's fan tried to do a big budget version...thank god it didn't.
     
  12. dynamic Registered

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    Lost was on ABC for six years.
     
  13. cabel Registered

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    I've been wanting to watch this series for a while.
     
  14. Dread TMNT 1984-2009

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    The dynamic between all three of them is what holds the show together; although naturally, Katt's Hinkly and Culp's Bill Maxwell are the foundation of the show. Sellecca's Pam Davidson serves a role as a grounding force of sanity between the two at times. It does hold up very well, which was what impressed me about the show and help make it endearing.

    While a big budget version should have some comedy, I do agree that Sandler's style probably wasn't for the best.

    Do it, dude!

    I liked that detail as well. When the "little green guy" is finally seen in the third season of the show, he's wearing a smaller white version of the suit so naturally it's part of their garb, naturally tailored for a human. The suit was shown as being bullet-proof and resistant to being cut or burned even without someone wearing it in one episode. Stephen J. Carroll noted the suit was intentionally designed to be over-the-top.

    Naturally I imagine an "updated" version would add some bells and whistles to the suit design, maybe make it sleeker or add some CGI to the attachment process. And while I can see how that might work, there's still some charm that's lost. The suit looking unassuming helped with the gag that everyone thought Ralph looked crazy when he wore it. And a lot of comedy was had, especially in the first season, of Ralph desperately trying to change in and out of it in a hurry. But, yes, some better quality fabric is fine. Some episodes the cape looked almost transparent.

    Yes. The origin is similar to Green Lantern in that way; an alien choosing worthy humans to bestow a cosmic weapon to in order to protect the planet. Naturally in 1981 the Green Lantern was more obscure, and DC Comics instead saw a rip off of Superman. While they lost the case, it prevented a lot of merchandise from the show from being made.

    A TV show was its original format so I imagine that is ideal. There was a continuity to the episodes and a loose serial format even if many elements and plot details came and went.

    A movie was more probable back in 2008, although it's a delicate balance to replicate in any revamp, I feel. Doesn't mean the original can't be appreciated, though.
     
  15. Calavera Registered

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    wasn't the main character share the same name as the man shot Reagan and for a few episodes they changed his last name?
     
  16. SoulManX The Inspector!

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    Yup!
     
  17. SoulManX The Inspector!

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    Who would you cast for a revamp of TGAH? And would you still call it The Greatest American Hero or World hero?
     
  18. Filmboy Registered

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    Really love the theme song "Believe it or not, I'm walking on air..."
     
    #18 Filmboy, Jan 4, 2013
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2013
  19. Dread TMNT 1984-2009

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    Yes. In response, for most of the first season the show avoided saying Ralph's last name. His students usually called him "Mr. H", and when he was promoted to vice principal (briefly) at the end of the first season, his door said "Ralph Hanley". After the first season, the political aftermath has died down and his last name of Hinkley was back in the lexicon. In the third season someone mispronounced Ralph's last name and asked if it was corrent, and Ralph replied, "It's close enough for politics" to lamp shade it.

    I honestly don't know. Every few years when William Katt is interviewed somewhere, he's asked about it and even he usually struggles to come up with an answer. It'd naturally have to be an actor who can manage both dramatic and comedy (physical and otherwise) without batting an eye.
     
  20. Calavera Registered

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    im sorry for that weird post. i was half asleep when i typed that
     
  21. dynamic Registered

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    I'd cast Cobie Smulders as Pam Davidson. Don't know about the Ralph role.
     
  22. gkokujin Registered

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    it would have to be someone who can manage awkward and funny yet serious.

    forgive me guys, but If Michael Cera was taller, i'd choose him for Ralph.
     
  23. LL2K2 Maid of Might

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    I had thought about Owen Wilson for the lead for a while, and his recent résumé seems to suggest he could do it. He did a lot of physical comedy in the "Shanghai Noon" films, and he did the dramatic stuff pretty well in "Behind Enemy Lines." However, those films came out 10 years ago.

    As for the role of Bill Maxwell, filling Robert Culp's (RIP) shoes is going to be a daunting task. My current top pick is Bruce Campbell, and it's not just for the geek factor. (OK, maybe a bit.) Check out Burn Notice if you haven't already.
     
  24. <(o_o)> Evangeline Is My Hero!

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    I would cast James Roday from Psych. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0734442/
     
  25. Dread TMNT 1984-2009

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    Good choice! Of course, after "THE AVENGERS" and "HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER", she's become a headline actress herself.

    Believe it or not, Michael Cera is taller than William Katt. At least according to IMDB, Katt is 5' 8.5'', while Cera is 5' 10''. He certainly has some wild hair at times. I have to admit I haven't seen most of the films he's been in, yet.

    Bruce Campbell is a GREAT choice! Considering he'll be 55 this year, he's within a decent age range to play Maxwell, since Maxwell was supposed to be a bit of an "old pro" sort of agent.

    Owen Wilson as Ralph Hinkley isn't such a bad idea. He'll be 45 now but that's still a bit of an age gap with Campbell to pull off their culture clash. To be honest I probably am more of a fan of Campbell as Maxwell. I can see him working in both a film or TV version, like Cobie Smulders. Whereas Wilson or to a degree Cera I see more as film actors. Granted, I would imagine if "TGAH" were to return, a feature film treatment is more probable than a new TV show.

    William Katt himself was interviewed at the 38th annual Saturn Awards this past summer and Owen Wilson was among his two choices. The other being Shia LaBeouf. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKjVd8d2BKk

    Interesting choice. Actually, everyone here's come up with better answers than I could have.

    To me the difficulty of casting Ralph Hinkley is that naturally the actor has to be able to pull off the physical comedy, but also the moments of seriousness which are required, such as when Ralph has to get serious in a "suit situation" at times or some of his determination as a teacher. Granted, comedy is actually harder than it appears so in a way it is easier to cast a comedic actor who can also be serious than a serious actor trying to be funny. But of course many talents are flexible. Ed O'Neill had never done comedy before being cast as the star of "MARRIED WITH CHILDREN" and now that's what he's best known for. Many people are actually surprised that Leslie Nielson had a long career as a dramatic actor before his second phase as comedy star.

    I'm not going to lie, Cobie Smoulders and Bruce Campbell are my favorite picks so far for a reboot. I can totally see Campbell nailing that delivery of "here's the scenario". A part of me is curious to see Michael Cera although if this was going to be a film reboot, than Owen Wilson would probably be a probable choice. It'd be cool if Katt had some role in the writing/producing since he's gotten into that, although I imagine he and Connie Sellecca would at least have a cameo.

    It beats Adam Sandler, though. Not that I dislike all of his movies or comedy, I don't. But I do think his career has hit a plateau, so to speak.

    For trademark and name recognition I imagine the title of the property would remain "THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO".

    In fairness while most of the plots in the show revolved around California, there were several notable exceptions where the action took place in other places (or involved Ralph saving an area outside America). Season 2 had a few of them. "OPERATION SPOILSPORT" involved stopping the launch of American nukes into Russia; while "PLAGUE" was based in California the release of the plague would have quickly endangered the world; two back to back episodes ("A CHICKEN IN EVERY PLOT" and "THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA") took place in the Caribbean. "THE IS THE ONE THE SUIT WAS MEANT FOR" was also set in a vacation location. "HEAVEN IS IN YOUR GENES" took place in Mexico. The series finale, "VANITY SAYS THE PREACHER" took place in a fictional Latin American country and involved regime change. "IT'S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE" took place during the winter Olympics which are not usually based in America, but off the top of my head I forget the location.

    Naturally, while Stephen J. Cannell imagined more down to earth, slice of life adventures, the network always sought more over the top, "threat of the week" style episodes so there was a bit of a back and forth in that regard. I actually liked that aspect because it made the show unpredictable. One week they could be stopping some two bit mobsters or baseball rigging, the next it's stopping WWIII or a space monster. Kept things fresh.
     
    #25 Dread, Jan 7, 2013
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2013

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