“The Greatest American Hero” Still Walking On Air

The Greatest American Hero – 25th Anniversary Retrospective
Screen Actors Guild, Mezzanine
September 07, 2008

A spirited evening about tales of TV shows past, the 25th Anniversary Retrospective of The Greatest American Hero was an entertaining evening. Hosted by former Entertainment Tonight anchor-turned-musician John Tesh, both cast and crew shared stories of their times working on the short-lived series that ran on ABC for three seasons beginning in 1981.

Created by Stephen J. Cannell, who is the creator of 42 TV series including The A-Team, Hardcastle and McCormick, and The Rockford Files, The Greatest American Hero came about as a request. The execs at ABC, known as Carsey/Werner, asked Cannell to create a show about a superhero. What he created was a series about a normal guy named Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) who becomes powerful when he puts on his superhero costume. The costume: a pair of red long johns and a cape, with a logo on the chest (we’ll get to what the logo means later).

Robert Culp was cast next due to the strong admiration Cannell had for him as an actor. Culp’s credits prior to GAH included I Spy, Get Smart, Gunsmoke, and dozens of other series. The actor brought his own unique spin to the role that excited Cannell due to the quirkiness Culp brought to his character of Bill Maxwell.

At this point, the series was considered a buddy comedy. That was until Connie Sellecca lit up the screen with her portrayal of Pam Davidson. It was at this point that the show became more of a romantic comedy. Oh, and she’s married to John Tesh, who is a big fan of the series. That’s why he hosted the event.

And now, for the remainder of the article, trivia!

– William Katt portrayed Carrie’s date in the horror movie Carrie (1976)

The Greatest American Hero is the fastest selling TV series on DVD created by Stephen J. Cannell.

– The symbol of Ralph Hinkley superhero costume was the upright handle of Stephen J. Cannell’s scissors from his desk.

– The series was sued by DC Comics and Warner Bros. over alleged copyright infringement. They claimed that they owned the rights to all superheroes, and that GAH was in violation.

– The lawsuit helped to define what copyright infringement is and is not. (GAH won the suit)

– Series was on when John Hinkley attempted to assassinate President Reagan. The network wanted them to cut out Ralph Hinkley’s last name to avoid association problems. One episode he’s referred to as Ralph Hanley.

– The executive team of Carsey/Werner left ABC after GAH got the greenlight. The new execs wanted the show to be more dramatic and serious. This led to many battles between Cannell and the suits at ABC.

– Series got dropped from its Wednesday time slot and was moved to Fridays at 8pm opposite Dallas.

– Despite the move, audiences found the show and its rating went up.

– Even with only 43 episodes, the series had a huge following in syndication.

– After hearing the completed theme song titled “Walking On Air,” Cannell predicted it would be a hit. The song played at a small radio station in Longview, Texas, and only 13 records of the song were sent to the Longview Mall. All 13 sold out the first day the song aired on the radio.

– “Walking On Air” was #2 on the Billboard Chart for all of 1981.

– Mike Post who composed the theme song, also scored and wrote the themes to most all of Cannell’s other series.

A comic book of the series is due out soon from Catastrophic Comics and Arcana Studios. And, like most other superheroes, a movie is in the works.

It was a fun event, but the audio and video problems detracted from the flow of the evening.

The Greatest American Hero, Seasons 1-3 (that’s all there are) are available now on DVD.

Just for fun, here’s a clip from Seinfeld with George’s answering machine message with a spin on “Walking On Air.”

George Costanza\’s Answering Machine

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7 thoughts on ““The Greatest American Hero” Still Walking On Air”

  1. Great job overall on the story, but there are some minor errors in the trivia:

    – Series was on when John Hinkley attempted to assassinate President Reagan. The network wanted them to cut out Ralph Hinkley’s last name to avoid association problems. One episode he’s referred to as Ralph Hanley.

    >> He’s actually refered to Hanley in at least two episodes: “Reseda Rose” and “Best Desk Scenario” – the latter of which is at least on the Assistant Principal nameplate.

    – The executive team of Carsey/Werner left ABC after GAH got the greenlight. The new execs wanted the show to be more dramatic and serious. This led to many battles between Cannell and the suits at ABC.

    >> If I understand it right, this is actually opposite – the new execs wanted them chasing monsters – or less dramatic and serious. That’s why Katt, Culp, SJC and others fought with ABC.

    – After hearing the completed theme song titled “Walking On Air,” Cannell predicted it would be a hit. The song played at a small radio station in Longview, Texas, and only 13 records of the song were sent to the Longview Mall. All 13 sold out the first day the song aired on the radio.

    >> While I didn’t know about the records being sold out, the song’s official title is “Believe it or Not” (The Theme to “The Greatest American Hero.”)

  2. Thanks for your notes on my trivia. I was going off of what was said by the cast and crew during the event. I guess after 25 years things can get a bit hazy.

    I had no intention of fooling anyone with my posting as Marci seems to believe. I took what Stephen J. Cannell and the others on the panel said as fact since they were part of the series.

    I will admit that I am not a “Greatest American Hero” trivia buff. I apologize for any problems this post may have caused among die-hard GAH fans.

  3. 😆 Great pick for director – Stephen Herek. He will know how to make it funny and yet entertaining.

    Do not forget Ralph had a son! He would be about 28- 30 years old in 2008. Perfect for potential American Hero. Would he son have a son?

    I heard the script was already written by S. Cannall!

  4. Does anyone know where one could still find the “Greatest American Hero” promotional music record that came out in the 80’s??
    Or, at least know some of the singers on it???
    Thanks!!

  5. believe the greatest american hero song was done by the same guy that did the famous song “Sailing” — Christopher Cross.

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