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The Greatest American Hero .jpg

The Greatest American Hero is an ABC network comedy\drama series created by Stephen J. Cannell.

The show aired from March 18, 1981 to February 3, 1983, lasting for three seasons & 45 episodes (leaving 5 of them unaired).

It was produced by Stephen J. Cannell Productions.


The series chronicled the adventures of substitute teacher Ralph Hanley after a group of aliens gives him a red and black suit that grants him superhuman abilities.

Unfortunately for Ralph (who dislikes wearing the suit, he immediately loses its instruction booklet) and has to learn how to use its powers by trial and error, often with comical results.


  • William Katt as Ralph Hinkley/Hanley
  • Robert Culp as Bill Maxwell
  • Connie Sellecca as Pam Davidson
  • Faye Grant as Rhonda Blake
  • Michael Paré as Tony Villicana
  • Jesse D. Goins as Cyler Johnson
  • William Bogert as Les Carlisle


On the season one DVD set of "The Greatest American Hero", Stephen J. Cannell explained that he had planned the show as a series emphasizing real-life problems, whereas when a change of management occurred in ABC, they requested more heroic, save-the-day-type episodes.

As agreed originally between Cannell and then ABC executives Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, the powers would be in the suit, not the man (though the suit would only work for him) and Ralph would try to solve ordinary-type problems, such as trying to stop corruption in Major League Baseball ("The Two Hundred Miles-Per-Hour Fastball") or an assassination attempt ("The Best Desk Scenario").

The series initially emphasized what Cannell referred to as "character comedy" based on human flaws such as envy (in the aforementioned "The Best Desk Scenario") or hypochondria ("Plague"). The series differed from previous superhero shows because of the emphasis on (especially Ralph) "rising above" superhero antics and instead exploring what it was like to live in that environment.

Cannell was trying to avoid save-the-day-type episodes, as per the original Adventures of Superman television series, but according to Cannell on the DVD set, when Carsey and Werner left ABC (soon after the show was purchased by the network) the new network executives wanted the show to be more like a children's show than an adults' show, so they pushed for the types of shows that Cannell did not want, shows that involved Ralph trying to stop some sort of calamity from happening, including nuclear war ("Operation Spoilsport") and even a Loch Ness Monster-type of creature ("The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea").

For the season two finale, a serious and appropriate for the time (considering the Cold War) episode was produced; "Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell", written and directed by Robert Culp. The episode story concerns a KGB mole-agent (played by guest actor Dixie Carter) placed into the FBI with the sole purpose of discovering the methods used by agent Bill Maxwell in catching spies and other assorted villains. Cannell gave Culp free rein to produce the episode.

Ralph's surname

The main character's name was originally Ralph Hinkley, but after the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr., on March 30, 1981, the character's last name was hurriedly changed to "Hanley" in two episodes.

In the episode, "Saturday on Sunset Boulevard" (which aired within days of the incident) this was accomplished by overdubbing dialogue (i.e. "Hinkley" to "Hanley") whenever the character's last name was spoken aloud.

For the rest of the first season, the character was generally referred to as either "Ralph" or "Mister H", although in "The Best Desk Scenario" where Ralph is given a promotion and his own office space, we see the name "Ralph Hanley" on the door plaque. By the season 2 premiere, "The Two-Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Fast Ball", the show's producers returned the character's surname to the original Hinkley.