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File:Greatest-american-hero 6268.jpg

 Believe it or not, I'm walkin on air

I never thought I could feel so free...

This show was first aired in 1981 on ABC, and was both a comedy and a drama. Ralph Hinkley (briefly "Hanley" in the wake of the assassination attempt on then-President Reagan) played by William Katt, is a teacher to a class full of delinquents. He is a good, moral man, and because of this, aliens give him a special "Superman suit" that gives him special powers -- but only works for him. Unfortunately, he almost immediately loses the instruction manual and must discover its powers by trial and error. He is paired up with FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp), whose determination to fully exploit Ralph's new abilities keeps them both busy.

The suit gives Hinkley the power of strength, flight, invisibility, flames, telekinesis, vision of events without being there, protection from bullets and fire ... in short, whatever powers are required by the plot. But he doesn't know everything it does at first, and only slowly discovers its abilities. Essentially, the entire series runs on How Do I Shot Web?

Ralph must balance his new powers and responsibilities with his old ones, which not only include his students, but his girlfriend Pam (Connie Selleca) and his son Kevin. The basic concept of the show, combined with the quality of the performances was a Crowning Moment of Awesome for television in the early 80s, even if it appears cheesy and lame to today's jaded audience.

The show is now better remembered for its catchy Theme Tune, "Theme from The Greatest American Hero (Believe It Or Not)" which made it to Billboard's #2 slot in 1981. It was written by Mike Post, who also did the themes for The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, and LA Law, and turned Joey Scarbury into a One-Hit Wonder.

Recently, the show has been adapted into a comic series set in the current day. The characters are basically the same, but some things have been changed; Bill has a smartphone, for example (which he doesn't know how to use) and the FBI knows to some degree about Ralph and his supersuit with Max's hasty story that he's a test pilot of a prototype military weapon.

Tropes used in The Greatest American Hero include:


  • Achilles Heel
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: In "The Shock could Kill You", Bill can't bring himself to believe at first that an extraterrestrial life form could be the problem, even though he has seen firsthand an alien spacecraft that gave Ralph the suit.
  • Badass Normal: Bill Maxwell, not even multiple broken bones slow him down.
  • Baseball Episode - "The 200 MPH Fastball"
  • Beware of Hitch-Hiking Ghosts: In the episode, Operation Spoilsport, Ralph and Bill keep passing the reanimated corpse of a dead man in the desert.
  • Breakaway Pop Hit: The theme song.
  • Brother Chuck: Kevin pretty much vanished after appearing in many first season episodes. He does rate a mention in a couple of second season episodes, but is not seen. Rhonda disappears with no explanation in season three.
  • Cape Snag: Subverted...Ralph's cape is just about the only thing that didn't give him problems when he used the suit.
  • Clothes Make the Superman: All of Ralph's powers come from the suit.
  • Deconstructive Parody: Of superhero tropes, in that they don't quite apply in the real world, but that's how the suit works.
  • Does Not Know His Own Strength: Ralph breaks Bill's hand with a too-firm handshake.
  • Dog Food Diet: Bill's preferred diet is dog food biscuits and hamburgers. He apparently developed a taste for the former after they were all the companions had to eat in "The Hit Car", the second episode of the series.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Bill is dead serious and played very straight by Robert Culp in the pilot, as opposed to the more easy-going, boss-ribbing, sometimes oblivious character he would later become. Ralph's hair is also huge in the pilot.
    • Bill's behavior could be his way of dealing with the fact that his partner was just killed.
  • Easy Come, Easy Go: In "Divorce Venusian Style" Ralph is given a second instruction book to replace the first one that he lost. By the end of the episode he has lost the second book, leaving him no better off than before.
  • Eighties Hair: Hinkley is a superhero with a freakin' perm.
  • Executive Meddling: The temporary change in Hinkley's name.
    • Plus the continued struggles between Cannell, who wanted a light comedy with real world problems as opposed to the network, who wanted Villain of the Week "Superhero" type plots.
  • Expy: This series is what you get when you combine Superman with Green Lantern and add more comedy.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Ralph never gets a complete handle on the suit, even losing a second instruction manual given to him by the mysterious aliens. Subverted in that he does get noticably better over time at flying and using certain powers like invisibility.
  • Flying Brick: Just part of the powers he has. Although considering his landings, it's more "brick" than "flying."
  • Forgotten Phlebotinum: In one episode, Ralph discovers that the suit gives him the power of Telekinesis. He never uses this telekinetic ability again in later episodes.
  • Gold Fever: Bill is hit especially hard with this in "The Lost Diablo". Even the kids from Ralph's class dump the water from their canteens in order to put more gold ore in them.
  • Green Lantern Ring: The Suit.
  • Happily Married: Ralph and Pam, eventually.
  • Haunted House: The house in "The Beast in the Black".
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: Didn't Bill Maxwell used to be Kelly Robinson? Must be a cover...
  • How Do I Shot Web?
  • Hypno Fool: In "The Hand-Painted Thai", Bill falls asleep every time someone utters the word "scenario", after consistently insisting that hypnotism is bunk and that it's impossible to hypnotize him thanks to his mental strength.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Ralph would balk at the slightest suggestion to use the suit for personal gain. Justified in an episode which depicts a former suit-wearer who used the suit to get rich and wound up becoming completely corrupted and losing the suit back to the aliens.
  • Inner-City School: Where Hinkley works.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: In the episode "There's Just no Accounting...", Ralph, Pam and Bill are all harassed by an IRS agent who audits or threatens to audit them. It's hard to feel sorry for the IRS agent when the villain of the episode horsewhips him for also harassing said villain and his employees.
  • The Korean War: Bill Maxwell is a veteran of Korea. His old unit captain features in one episode as a cop gone bad.
  • Left Hanging: Whatever happened to those pictures of Ralph in the suit that the PI working for his ex-wife took?
  • Loyal Phlebotinum: Ralph's suit only works for Ralph.
  • NBC: When the creators made the pitch film for NBC for the hoped for reboot, the episode title screen said "The Greatest American Hero" with the letters i-n-e added one by one to the sound of the NBC chimes.
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands: Justified in that the suit had a lot of capabilities and Ralph did not know all of them. The show would also subvert this by having Ralph be unable to use his powers in quite the way he intended (e.g. pyrokinesis setting the wrong object on fire). See Failure Is the Only Option above.
  • New Super Power: In several episodes, he discovers new powers, some of which are never used again, such as mind control and the ability to shrink himself.
  • Odd Couple
  • Power Incontinence
  • Promotion to Opening Titles: Michael Paré and Faye Grant, as of season 2. Don Cervantes gets promoted for a single episode only.
  • Real After All: An episode involving a legendary sea-monster.
  • Real Life Relative: In "Who's Woo in America", William Katt's real life mother, Barbara Hale, plays Ralph Hinkley's mother Paula.
    • Robert Culp's sons appear in "Vanity, Says the Preacher".
  • Real Life Designs The Suit: Cannell based the emblem on Ralph's suit on the handles of a pair of left-handed sissors he kept on his desk.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: William Katt and Connie Selleca were unavailable for a revived NBC series, leading to the retooling as The Greatest American Heroine, a concept the network passed up.
  • Save Our Students: What Hinkley was doing before he got the suit.
  • Screwed by the Network: Series creator and executive producer Stephen J. Cannell had envisioned Greatest American Hero as a show focusing on down-to-earth, real life problems, the powers would be in the suit, not the guy (though the suit would only work for him) and Ralph would try to solve ordinary-type issues. The ABC executives whom Cannell had pitched the show to, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, had actually agreed to go along with this. Unfortunately, however, after the show was picked up, Carsey and Werner left ABC to create their own production company, and the new network executives demanded that Cannell incorporate more fantastic plots, which ultimately alienated viewers.
  • Shout-Out: The scene in Seinfeld that has George's Funny Answering Machine is a shout out to the theme song.
    • Robot Chicken did a spoof of the show with the Late Robert Culp supplying Bill Maxwell's voice.
    • On The Big Bang Theory one of Sheldon's superhero t-shirts features a GAH insignia.
    • Homestar Runner dressed as Ralph Hinkley for one of the Halloween Toons.
    • On the episode of Family Guy with New Brian, Peter dressed as Ralph to imitate a Jackass stunt. Another episode in entitled "Believe It Or Not Joe's Walking on Air".
    • In the "Tippecanoe And Taylor Too" episode of Gilmore Girls, Lane's nand Hep Alien perform a distinctly rockier version - it's Jackson's favourite song, much to the band's disgust ("Seals and Crofts rock harder than this!")
    • The choir in the hospital sing this in a fourth season episode of Heroes; William Katt guested in the third season as well.
  • Status Quo Is God: Subverted when Ralph and Pam get married.
  • Superhero
  • Superheroes Wear Capes
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Tony Villicana was a prominent character for the first two season, but only appeared in one third season episode. For the rest of the season, a character named Joey filled his role. Justified since Joey was not a new character but had been a part of Ralph's class since day one.
  • Telekinesis: In one episode, Ralph discovers that he can move objects with his mind -- but only if he clears his mind first. To clear his mind, he tries imagining a great big sheet of plain white paper. He has to concentrate on this image of white paper more dilligently at some times than at others.
  • Thematic Theme Tune: Check it out.
  • Theme Tune Power Up: The instrumental version of the show's theme music often plays when Ralph takes flight or otherwise uses the suit to do something heroic.
  • Touched by Vorlons
  • Trademark Favorite Food: One of the show's running gags has Bill snacking on a box of Milk Bones.
  • Uncanceled: Well, almost. About three years after it had been canceled by ABC, NBC expressed interest in reviving the show. A twenty minute presentation film was created which set up the premise for the revamped series - Ralph was found out after the media happened to film one of his rescues. At first reluctant to 'go Hollywood' he quickly became very famous and well known. The aliens return and insist that he has been compromised and demand he give up the suit to someone else to work with Bill Maxwell. To Maxwell's horror, Ralph gives the suit to a woman, making way for the title change "Greatest American Heroine". For a number of reasons NBC passed on it and the footage was edited with other footage to make one final episode for the syndication package and eventual DVDs.
  • Up, Up, and Away: The first time Ralph tries to fly, a young bystander helpfully explains that he has to take three steps and jump, then adapt this pose. It sort of works.
  • Wedding Day: Ralph and Pam finally get married in "The Newlywed Game". Naturally, the wedding doesn't exactly go as planned...
  • Weirdness Censor: Most of the people who see Ralph in the suit think he's nuts (which became a Running Gag), promoting a show, or make up various other rationalizations for his odd form of dress. Some of the bad guys that Ralph fights think he's a gymnast or martial arts expert. Police who arrest said bad guys assume they're delusional or lying when the bad guys start talking about a flying, super-strong, man.
    • In the current comics, most people assume he's a lucha libre fan, or even an aspiring luchadore. Max's excuse to other cops is that Ralph is the test pilot of a top secret military weapon.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Hinkley when he starts teaching at the school.
  • Written by Cast Member/Directed by Cast Member: Robert Culp directed and wrote the episodes "Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell", and "Vanity, Saith the Preacher" (the latter was one of four episodes not shown in the network run, although it and the others did get shown in syndication).
  • Written in Absence: Connie Selleca is absent from the early episodes of season two, apart from a scene or two where she's on the phone with Ralph. The explanation is that her character is in another city "working on a big case".
    • She was pregnant.
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