Back in the 1980s, the world of superheroes took an odd turn with The Greatest American Hero.
For decades, on TV, extraordinary men and women were becoming extraordinary superheroes.
For instance, the 1950s had Adventures of Superman.
Batman, the TV series, was how kids got their superhero fix in the 1960s. The reruns were also very popular during the 1970s.
And in the 1970s, boy, did kids have a lot of superhero options. In the 1970s, you could...
- follow the adventures of scientist David Banner (Bill Bixby) in the prime time TV series, The Incredible Hulk
- or you could watch Diana Prince (Lynda Carter) spinning into her costume on the live-action TV series, Wonder Woman
- On Saturday mornings, there was the live-action Shazam! and the cartoon series Superfriends.
- There was the short-lived The Amazing Spider-Man live-action TV series in 1977.
- Also in 1977, we had sort of an aquatic superhero with Man from Atlantis, which starred Patrick Duffy of future Dallas fame and should have lasted far longer than 13 episodes.
Jump ahead to the 1990s, and superhero fans could watch Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and The Flash appeared on CW in 1990 for a season (and then The Flash came back in 2014). Today, Disney+ offers Marvel superhero shows every other week, it seems.
But during the 1980s? Kids got Ralph Hinkley, the mild-mannered teacher and main character in The Greatest American Hero.
But, you know, it was enough.
Granted, Ralph Hinkley was no Bruce Wayne. If Ralph had gotten into a fight with Batman and Robin or Wonder Woman, he would have been finished in no time flat. If he had fought Superman? Forget about it; Ralph would have been thrown up to the Moon, or if Superman was feeling less charitable, hurtled into the sun. And yet, I could argue that Ralph Hinkley, played so well by William Katt, really was the greatest American hero.
So I'll finally get to the premise of this blog post. If you’re looking to be a superhero, consider what follows your superhero manual. (Yes, that sounds crazy, but just roll with it… I wanted some excuse to write about The Greatest American Hero)
If you think about it, it isn't easy to become a superhero. Believe me, when I was a kid, that's the job I wanted. But there are no college courses that teach students the superhero trade. No trade schools, in fact, offer workshops on being a superhero. But maybe my blog post can fill a void.
So, here we go. Here are some tips on how to be a superhero, all gleaned by watching a bunch of reruns of The Greatest American Hero.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
Every superhero needs a costume.
As fans of The Greatest American Hero knows, in the pilot episode, extraterrestrials in a spaceship give a Los Angeles teacher, Ralph Hinkley, his very own superhero costume.
Unfortunately for Mr. Hinkley, he has no control over what his superhero costume looks like, and so he appears nowhere as cool as, say, Batman or the Flash. He also simply doesn’t have the bulging muscles that Superman has that would make any superhero outfit look great. As Ralph laments in one episode, “I could kill the guy that designed this suit. Why couldn't it have... narrow lapels and a cutaway jacket? Why'd it have to be long johns and a cape?”
Ridiculous or not, the costume did have some amazing superpowers, allowing Ralph to fly and have superhuman strength and do some other pretty impressive parlor tricks. Among other things, Ralph could turn invisible and use X-ray vision. He even sometimes had precognition.
And aside from the lack of superhero college courses and career fairs, this is why we don’t have actual superheroes flying about the planet. So far, nobody’s been able to invent a superhero costume that actually, you know, works.
Of course, Ralph Hinkley’s superhero costume rarely worked. The aliens gave Ralph an instruction book, which explained how to operate the suit properly, but unfortunately, he lost it. And so our mild-mannered high school teacher was constantly flying and then risking concussions by crash landing into buildings and the ground.
And it should be noted that if you do try to become a superhero, something that The TV Professor’s lawyers (if he had any) would surely not recommend, you’ll want to make sure you think about the logistics of where you’re going to change into your costume.
Ralph Hinkley often had the problem of where to hide his street clothes while he was flying after bad guys and crashing into buildings. After one of his early flights in the first episode of the series, Ralph lost a pair of his shoes and lamented about how difficult it was to hang onto his regular, every day clothes.
“Superman, he used to stash his clothes in the phone booth, and then he'd come back and he'd pick 'em up later. Try that today, get ripped off in 10 seconds. Boy, this is gonna cost me a fortune,” Ralph said.
You need another career to pay the bills.
Apparently, being a superhero doesn’t generate a lot of income. If you want to be a super villain, you can quickly see your net worth climb as you rob banks and try to take over the world, but superheroes are expected to do their jobs for free. So you’re going to need to make money in some way, so you can fund your superhero exploits.
Bruce Wayne was a billionaire, and so funding his superhero career wasn't a difficult task. Wonder Woman had to go in disguise as Diana Prince and work for the government in order to make sure she could pay rent and buy food. In the TV series The Incredible Hulk, David Banner (he was Bruce Banner in the comics and Marvel movies) had to take odd jobs to make ends meet as he ran from town to town, trying to stay away from tabloid reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). Superman and Spider-Man paid the bills by taking on personas (Clark Kent and Peter Parker) and getting jobs as a reporter and photographer, respectively, at newspapers.
Ralph Hinkley was no different. He was a teacher at Whitney High School in Palmdale, California, heading a remedial class full of jaded underachievers, and it’s clear that he thoroughly enjoyed his career, even if it wasn’t always rewarding. But even if he had hated teaching (and he didn’t), trading his career in for wearing a cape full-time wasn’t an option for him.
As Ralph laments early in the series: “I’m not quitting my job. How am I supposed to eat? Go down to the welfare office and stand in the superhero line?”
It helps to have a significant other.
Clark Kent had Lois Lane. Diana Prince was smitten with Steve Trevor. Bruce Wayne liked Vicki Vale, who as far as I know didn’t appear in the 1960s TV series, Batman, but she was a main presence in the comics and in the 1989 feature-film. And Ralph Hinkley? He had his divorce attorney turned girlfriend turned wife, Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca).
If anyone reading this is lucky enough to someday be bitten by a radioactive gerbil or be visited by aliens or whatever it takes these days to become a superhero, if you’re a single superhero, you should promptly get out on the online dating sites and find a significant other. You’re going to need somebody to bounce ideas off of, serve as a sidekick and vent to when times are tough.
Pam was indispensable to Ralph, keeping him sane, and she often helped Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp), the cranky FBI agent who often found himself in need of a superhero.
As Maxwell tells Pam Davidson in the second episode of the series, he saw her role this way: “From time to time we're gonna need a utility man. You know, third string backup. When that happens, we call you. Maybe you'll start out bring us coffee and burgers, but uh, you'll work your way up. Later on, I'll let you handle some easy field work. How's that?”
As an accomplished attorney, Pam made it clear she wasn’t going to run errands for Bill. She did, however, use her legal skills whenever she could to help get Ralph and Bill out of a jam. And while she was often frustrated by the predicaments Ralph was getting themselves into – they dealt with Soviet spies, the mob, a madman with nerve gas and on and on – she was at least a true partner in Ralph and Bill’s misadventures.
“Look at it this way, you're one step ahead of Lois Lane,” Ralph told her early on in the series. “She never found out who Clark Kent really was.”
Pam kept Ralph grounded, and they eventually married in the third season.
Being a superhero is rough on family life
While being a superhero didn’t hurt Ralph any with Pam, in the first several episodes, he was embroiled in a custody battle over his son, Kevin, with his first wife. But Kevin (Brandon Williams) isn’t seen much throughout the series. During the second season, he is mentioned, and in the third season, his name doesn’t even come up. There seems little doubt that Ralph Hinkley, who had a strong moral core, saw his son regularly and was probably a good dad – we just didn’t see that on the show – but it seems clear that he probably lost the custody battle or didn’t fight his wife, Alicia, becoming the primary caregiver. Because, you know, Ralph was pretty busy fighting crime.
You will probably need some good insurance.
It just seems like a good idea for any superhero. Life insurance and liability. Ralph was often flying at top speeds and crashing into the ground. He was lucky he wasn't killed. He also had a habit of crashing into walls and tearing doors off its hinges. You have to think some people over the years threatened to sue Ralph if he didn’t compensate them for damages.
So it may not be exciting advice, but if you're really thinking seriously about becoming a superhero, talk to your insurance agent first.
You need to have an overriding desire to help people.
Ralph had no desire to be a superhero (and the actor, William Katt, often said that while he loved acting on the show, he hated the costume). But because Ralph had a lot of integrity and was genuinely interested in helping people, he kept putting on his suit and going out and being a hero.
Actually, if you think about it, Ralph Hinkley was kind of a metaphor for society itself and was something of a stand-in for a lot of good people out there in the world. Think of all the teachers, the nurses, the caregivers for the elderly, cops, firefighters and a gazillion other professions – school janitors, truck drivers, florists, baristas – all who help the world hum along.
Well, a lot of good people probably often don't feel like suiting up and going out there and making a difference. But they do.
And so does Ralph Hinkley. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have his moments where he no longer wants to be a superhero. In the first episode of the third season, he takes off the suit and quits, telling Bill that he’s had it.
In this case, the final straw was a stakeout that they were on, where Ralph was holed up in a hotel room with Bill for three days waiting for two bad guys to emerge. Ralph leaves, and then the crooks show up. Bill calls for Ralph, who ends up flying after the bad guys and bringing them to his partner.
After arresting the men, Bill chastises Ralph, who is trying to tell him that he’s through with the superhero business.
Bill: You could have saved the tantrum, and listened to an old pro. Frankly, you've got a lot to learn.
Ralph: Would you listen to me, Bill? I'm sorry this all happened. You were right, and I was wrong, but it's not working for me, Bill. I can't go on like this, bickering with you all the time. It's making me old!
Bill: Well, you know. If you can't stand the heat--
Ralph (removing his costume and putting on his regular clothes): Would you let me finish, all right? See, you were right. The green guys made a mistake, they gave the suit to the wrong person. So, as of this moment, I'm retiring. This was the last one, Bill. I'm through, I'm finished. Here."
He shoves the suit into Bill's hands. And Ralph walks away.
Bill: Well, that's fine with me, kid. But, uh, this doesn't work on me. What am I supposed to do with it?
Ralph: Why don't you have it stuffed?
Well, as you might predict, a little later, Ralph – without the protection of the suit – is shot by some new bad guys and almost dies. Fortunately, the aliens return, and stuff happens, and by the end of the episode, Ralph is reenergized and excited about being a superhero again.
But doesn’t that happen to a lot of people in demanding careers? You want to throw in the towel, and you almost do, but then you push on?
If that describes you – if you’ve got a tough job but one that makes a difference in people's lives – and you keep doing it, even on your lousy days, then you don’t need a costume like Ralph Hinkley’s. You already are a superhero. Still, it’s probably best that we don't take this metaphor too far. I'd suggest you refrain from jumping off buildings and flying, or trying to take down bank robbers with guns.
Really, from a storytelling standpoint, making Ralph Hinkley a teacher was a shrewd, probably purposeful, move by series creator Stephen J. Cannell. As we all know, most teachers are superheroes, only without the capes.
The Greatest American Hero Stray Observations
- William Katt’s mother, Barbara Hale, was classic TV royalty. She played Della Street, the secretary on Perry Mason. Ms. Hale actually played Ralph’s mom in an episode during the second season. His dad, Bill Williams also had a successful acting career – and, in fact, co-starred in a 1950s TV series with Betty White, Date with the Angels. And how did William Katt get a different last name than his parents? Bill Williams was William Katt, before somebody in Hollywood convinced him to change his name.
- As fans will likely remember, some ugly real life events collided with The Greatest American Hero. The TV series, airing on ABC, debuted on March 18, 1981. On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr., shot President Ronald Reagan. Instead of trusting that the TV audience would recognize that Ralph Hinkley had nothing to do with John Hinkley, Jr., in the script, students called Mr. Hinkley, “Mr. H,” which was a smart, clever fix, but people always called Ralph Hanley, which was just… dumb. By the second season, they dropped that, and characters on the show started calling Ralph Hinkley, Ralph Hinkley.
- Remember how I said that Superman could have beaten up Ralph Hinkley in a fight, any day? Well, D.C. Comics, which owns the rights to Superman, would have enjoyed seeing them battle. Warner Bros. Inc., which owned D.C. Comics, actually sued the American Broadcasting Companies, Inc., claiming that The Greatest American Hero was a rip-off of Superman, and should be removed from the air. While I think Superman would have flattened Ralph in a fight, that wasn’t the case in their legal battle. Team Ralph won the lawsuit.
Where to watch The Greatest American Hero (at the time of this writing): The Greatest American Hero can be found on a number of streaming channels for free, including PlutoTV, Peacock TV and Crackle.com.
Articles similar to this The Greatest American Hero story: You might enjoy this look at The Fugitive, in which The TV Professor attempts to make the case that Richard Kimble, who was practically a superhero with his physician skills and escape artistry, is TV’s greatest role model. Or might enjoy this TV Professor look at Loki, a Disney+ series that is in the Marvel universe and full of superheroes, and supervillains.
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