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‘The Greatest American Hero’: A Look Back at the Cult Favorite ’80s Superhero Show

"Believe it or not," here are 10 fascinating facts about the show!

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The Greatest American Hero didn’t air for very long, but it made a major impact thanks to its combination of comedy, action and sci-fi and its unique take on the superhero genre. Long before Marvel and DC movies dominated theaters, the show offered a parodic play on America’s fascination with caped crusaders, including Superman, Batman and Spiderman. 

The ABC show ran for three seasons from 1981 to 1983 and followed the main character, Ralph (William Katt), a high school teacher who unexpectedly becomes a superhero after encountering extraterrestrials during a field trip.

The aliens give him a special suit that endows him with various superpowers, such as flight, super strength, X-ray vision and invisibility. However, Ralph loses the instruction manual for the suit, leading to a series of comedic mishaps as he struggles to master its powers.

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man with mic and boy
Robert Culp and William Katt in The Greatest American Hero (1981)moviestillsdb.com/Stephen J. Cannell Productions

The clumsy unlikely superhero then teams up with FBI agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp), who is his reluctant partner and mentor. Together, they tackle various crimes and threats, often facing challenges due to Ralph’s bumbling nature and lack of experience with his powers. Connie Sellecca also starred as Pam Davidson, Ralph’s attorney and love interest, who provides support and legal counsel.

The show’s charm lies in its blend of humor, action, and heartwarming moments, as well as its iconic and highly catchy theme song, “Believe It or Not,” which became a hit single on the music charts. 

Here’s a look back at 10 fascinating facts about The Greatest American Hero you might not have known. 

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1. DC Comics sued the producers of The Greatest American Hero for copyright infringement

dc comic superman
Viviane Moos/Getty

In 1983, Warner Bros. sued ABC on behalf of DC Comics, arguing that the show’s central character was too similar to its star superhero, Superman.

The courts disagreed and ruled in favor of the show producers. While the protagonist did have some similarities to Superman in that they both fly and wear tight suits, Superman is born with his powers, while Ralph’s comes from his special suit. 

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2. Ralph’s name was changed because of a presidential assassination attempt

President Ronald Reagan in 1980
President Ronald Reagan in 1980Harry Langdon/Getty

Katt starts out as a public school teacher named Ralph Hinkley. Shortly after the show’s premiere, a man named John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, which prompted the show’s producers to quickly change Ralph’s last name to Hanley, although it was eventually changed back. 

Coincidentally, Ralph thwarts an assassination attempt on the president in a foreboding pilot episode. 

3. William Katt attempted to be a pop star 

At the height of the show’s success in 1982, Katt released an album, Secret Smiles, under the name Billy Katt. Sadly, it didn’t catapult the superhero actor to superstar status, nor did it reach the level of success the show’s theme song had. It was considered a flop and quickly went out of print. 

4. There was supposed to be a spinoff

Shortly after the show ended, a pilot was shot for a sequel spinoff called The Greatest American Heroine. This time around, the protagonist was a female. The show starred Mary Ellen Stuart, and while networks were initially interested, the series was ultimately not picked up.

5. There were personality differences on the set of The Greatest American Hero

woman and two men laughing
Connie Sellecca, William Katt and Robert Culp in The Greatest American Hero (1981)moviestillsdb.com/Stephen J. Cannell Productions

William Katt and Robert Culp reportedly butted heads in the beginning, but used that animosity to fuel their characters’ contentious relationship. Eventually, the two starring actors resolved their differences and became good friends.

Former model Connie Sellecca — who appeared on the cover of Woman’s World several times in the 1980s — diffused the situation with a dose of humor, as it was said she enjoyed playing pranks on her costars while filming. 

6. There are four ‘lost’ episodes of The Greatest American Hero 

Due to its abrupt cancelation in 1983, ABC still had four episodes left in the can that hadn’t aired yet. They were billed as lost episodes when the show was sold in syndication and are available on DVD collections or on YouTube.  

7. There’s also a comic book based on the show 

man laying down posed
William Katt in The Greatest American Heromoviestillsdb.com/Stephen J. Cannell Productions

Superhero fans can enjoy the show in another format. In 2008, Katt created a comic book series based on the show produced by his company, Catastrophic Comics. The series picks up where the TV show left off with all-new adventures and original stories. 

8. The emblem on Ralph’s suit came from an unlikely source

emblem; the greatest american hero
The emblem from The Greatest American Heromoviestillsdb.com/Stephen J. Cannell Productions

While fans speculated on whether Ralph’s superhero suit symbol was a Chinese symbol or had some sort of deeper meaning, the design’s origin was surprisingly simple: In a special feature on the show’s DVD release, the creator revealed it was based on a pair of scissors he had on his desk. 

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9. A reboot was attempted in 2018

woman smiling
Hannah Simone moviestillsdb.com/MeriwetherProductions

In 2018, a reboot of The Greatest American Hero was attempted, this time featuring a 30-year-old woman, New Girl actress Hannah Simone. A pilot was shot but ABC didn’t pick it up.

10. Robert Culp wrote episodes of The Greatest American Hero

two men smiling; the greatest american hero
Robert Culp and William Katt in 2009Gary Gershoff/Getty

Robert Culp didn’t just act in The Greatest American Hero, he also wrote and directed two episodes of the show.

Looking back on his character, he said, “I was so fascinated with him, and the possibilities — once you do any forensics on him, as an actor, you can open up layer after layer, and he still remains, he has a core of reality, for me, as a human being. He’s a colossal jerk, and yet he has a great sense of humor, even if it’s self-serving as all hell, and these things all appeal to me because you can explore them almost forever.”

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