The Greatest American Hero (Pilot)

Originally aired:  March 18, 1981

Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) is a young high school teacher who has been assigned to a remedial class made up of a group of misfits, Los Angeles’s answer to the Sweat Hogs. Ralph’s positive he can make a difference with the kids, but his first day proves that won’t be easy. In addition to that, Ralph has a personal issue to deal with – his ex-wife has filed for custody of their young son, Kevin.

When Ralph decides to take his students on a field trip, his life becomes even more complicated. In a diner somewhere near Palmdale, one of his students – Tony – mouths off to a patron who apparently looked at him cross-eyed. This particular patron, despite being “dressed like Archie Bunker going to church,” packs a .38 pistol and has no qualms about pulling the gun on Tony when Tony pulls a knife.

“If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve just come upon the West Coast distributor…”

Thus, we’re introduced for the first time to Bill Maxwell. He doesn’t think much of Ralph’s apology, rebuffs any further attempt by Ralph to smooth things over and they part ways, not knowing that their fates were soon to become intertwined.

Later, the bus Ralph and his students are using appears to breakdown. Ralph tells the kids to stay put while he goes back to a gas station about a mile away. On the road, Ralph is nearly run over by Maxwell, who’s trying to keep control of his car. After the car stops, Ralph yanks open the door, pulls Bill off the steering wheel and then takes the .38 and chucks it. He berates Bill and asks “what institution” let him out. Bill calmly holds up his Federal badge and replies, “this one.”

Ralph’s attitude changes pretty quick, although he’s still somewhat indignant. Bill, pretty much as he did at the diner, ignores him and sets out to figure out what’s wrong with his car. He crawls underneath his car to check on the steering components when suddenly his flashlight and his car lights drain down to nothing. When he gets back up and into the car to see what’s going on, he and Ralph both notice the approaching lights in the sky.

As the lights get closer and they realize something really weird is going on, they both duck into the car. Bill tries to start it but no go and then the door locks lock on their own – and won’t unlock.

Now they’re trying to bust out of the car, unlock the doors, smash a window, something! The ship descends down and Ralph and Bill can only watch in fear and awe. The radio flips on and President FDR’s long ago assurance that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” is the alien’s way of saying not to be afraid. They then communicate their message, using broken up pieces of broadcasts: Ralph and Bill have been chosen to work together and to use a suit with “unearthly powers.”

Another voice that comes over the radio is that of Bill’s partner, John Mackie, who we saw at the very beginning of the story being chased and caught by some bad guys. His fate is confirmed when he’s beamed down with the suit and puts it in the trunk of Bill’s car.

Remember that gruff patron back at the diner? When Mackie comes back to the window and Bill sees the blood stains on Mackie’s suit, he quietly goes to pieces.

Mackie returns to the ship and the spacecraft lifts away from earth, leaving Bill and Ralph to process what they’ve just experienced.

Bill opens his trunk, lets Ralph remove the box with the suit in it and then takes off like a scalded cat, leaving Ralph behind on the dark desert highway. As Ralph makes his way back to the bus, he’s completely unaware that the instruction book that comes with the suit has fallen out of the box.

The next morning Ralph is late getting to school, having indulged some curiosity and trying the suit on. When he gets to school, he’s told that a “friend” of his is in the boy’s bathroom, throwing up and is ordered to get the drunk out of there before assembly is over.

The “drunk,” turns out, is Maxwell. “The Lawrence of Palmdale,” Ralph calls him. “The desert chicken.” Bill at least admits that the experience the previous night scared the bejeezus out of him but he found his way to Whitney High School to find Ralph to more or less confirm that what happened, really happened.

Yeah, it did. And yes, they’re supposed to work together. Bill’s not exactly thrilled, and he tells Ralph so, nothing personal. He also says that it should be him running the operation. Ralph though doesn’t really want to deal with any of this at the moment and tells Bill he has to leave. Bill’s not ready to leave just yet, he’s got questions about the suit and asks about the instruction book. When he finds out the book is gone, he’s really not impressed with Ralph.

Ralph isn’t too impressed with the idea of Bill calling all the shots either and goes toe to toe to tell him that. They would talk about it more later and Ralph leaves. Bill can only hope that Ralph doesn’t lose the suit too.

At this point if anybody had doubts that these two can work together, well, you’d be rightly concerned.

For Ralph, things take an outrageous turn when he’s trying to get to the courthouse for a hearing on his custody case. He gets stuck in a traffic jam and the payphone he tries to use to call his attorney, Pam Davidson (Connie Selleca) to say he’d be late, is out of order. The suit is in the back of his station wagon…

He debates it, then gives in to try it. He figures he can fly to the courthouse and make the hearing. Problem is, he realizes he can’t fly very well, he ends up losing his clothes and is spotted by the cops as he tries to take flight. He’s also spotted by a private investigator who snaps a few pictures of Ralph after Ralph crashes into a billboard.

The whole fracas lands Ralph in the psych ward of the hospital and when Pam shows up, she’s not sure what to make of the situation. She figures Ralph has really cracked and this isn’t going to go well for the custody case. It gets worse when he starts seeing images of Bill on the wall…

Pam’s convinced he’s gone sideways. Ralph, seeing that Bill is in trouble, busts out of the hospital with Pam running after him. They jump in her car and take off. During the drive, Ralph explains what happened with getting the suit and all. Pam doesn’t know what to believe at this point but isn’t beyond being convinced that Ralph’s lost his mind.

They arrive at the home of Nelson Corey, millionaire industrialist, where Bill is being held captive. Ralph has Pam wait with the car and he makes his way onto the grounds of the estate.

Bill, meanwhile, is being held by members of “Gabriel’s Army” basically a group of thugs thinly disguised as a religious group. One of them talks to Bill about salvation and all, while wielding a cattle prod. Bill shows no outward fear during this but when Ralph comes busting through the wall, Bill’s more than relieved. “I’ve never been so scared in my life!” he tells Ralph.

After Ralph gets himself and Bill out of the compound (by flying over the wall, with Bill over Ralph’s shoulders, and suffering a messy landing), Bill is introduced to Pam who, by this point, is more indignant than anything about this “suit” thing.

Still not fully convinced about the suit and becoming fed up with the boys, Pam orders Ralph to pull over. They get out of the car, except Bill, and Pam basically tells Ralph that she’s not buying any of it. The suit, the spaceship, none of it. So, to demonstrate the power of the suit, Ralph walks back to Pam’s car and lifts it up, Bill and all.

Pam faints. Convinced now, once she’s brought back around she asks the all-important question. “What do we do?”

Each of them have a different idea of what to do. Bill’s ready to take on the Russians. Pam and Ralph are more concerned with their own immediate lives. Bill does forget about the Russians long enough to focus on the immediate task at hand, which is finding out what was going on with this Gabriel’s Army, how Nelson Corey ties into all of it and who killed Bill’s partner, John Mackie.

Back at Ralph’s house they brainstorm for a bit realizing they’ve seen a lot more of the Vice President in the media lately and Bill chimes in with tidbit about Nelson Corey and his political backing. They then hear a news alert on the radio and when they turn on the television they find Los Angeles has erupted in riots. The Vice President is already in LA and the President is on his way.

Ralph asks Rhonda to watch Kevin for him while he, Bill and Pam head out to find out what’s going on. They check with the local commander of the area National Guard, only to discover that he’s in the thick of the plot. He brings Ralph, Pam and Bill to Nelson Corey’s estate where they’re locked in a room.

They don’t stay for long however, since Ralph’s wearing the suit. They dupe their guards and escape. With the President’s helicopter on the way, Bill gives Ralph the simple order: You gotta stop that chopper from landing.

Ralph succeeds and gets the President’s helicopter to turn back. Bill, with some back up by Pam, nabs Nelson Corey. Mr. Corey’s plans to eliminate the President and put the Vice President in power is stopped.

After all this, Maxwell asks for Ralph and Pam to meet him out in the dessert. There, he insists on being “in charge” of their operation from this point on but he praises Ralph for a job well done. He also decides that they’ll continue to work on local stuff and not go after the Russians. Ralph’s wearing the suit underneath his clothes and when he shakes Bill’s hand in appreciation for the genuine respect that Bill pays him, Ralph unintentionally breaks Bill’s hand.

Before Bill can walk back to his car, the green guys return. Over Pam’s car radio they deliver their message: They were satisfied with the results and they suggest that Ralph use the invisibility power of the suit.

Which Ralph would…if he hadn’t lost the instruction book.

And so it begins! A special ed teacher and a gruff, by the book FBI agent brought together by aliens and given a suit to save the world. When I water it down like that, it almost sounds like the show never should have worked. But it did. The pilot was well written and the cast work.

What The Greatest American Hero had against it though was everything else. Two days before the pilot aired, Warner Brothers and DC Comics filed suit against the show claiming it was too similar to Superman. (Seriously?) A federal judge ruled to allow the show to air while the litigation went forward and a year later the lawsuit was thrown out completely. (The damage, unfortunately, was pretty well done by that point but that’s another topic.)

Reviews of the pilot were mixed. Judy Flander of the Washington Star called the show “depressing” and “pathetic.” “An insult to adults,” she added.  The Daily Times of Portsmouth, Ohio said the show “tires quickly.” At the other end of the spectrum, one review called the show “promising” and Peter J. Boyer  (at the time a television critic for the Associated Press, now a writer for the likes of The New Yorker and Newsweek) was more gracious about the show, calling it “good, inspired fun.” Mr. Boyer specifically noted Culp’s portrayal of Maxwell, saying, “This is great Culp here, played straight without tongue bulging conspicuously in cheek, the best Culp since ‘I Spy.'”

Indeed, it is great Culp. It’s without a doubt, my favorite Culp. As I mentioned in my overview of The Hit Car episode, I was sold on Bill Maxwell in fairly short order and although I’ve enjoyed many other Culp performances, I always come back to Maxwell.

Despite some of the reviews of the show and the on going legal issues, The Greatest American Hero became a hit for ABC in it’s short first season. Things would not be easy from that point forward, however.

Guest stars in the pilot included…

G.D. Spradlin as Nelson Corey, who also appeared in the I Spy episode “Tonia” with Robert Culp. Mr. Spradlin began acting in his 40s and made a career out of playing politicians, military officers, Presidents and law enforcement officers in films and television. He passed away recently on July 24, 2011 at the age of 90.

Richard Herd, a familiar face on television since the early 1970s, as Vice President Adam Taft. Herd also played Watergate burgler James McCord in the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, and was Captain Sheridan in the William Shatner series TJ Hooker.

Bob Minor as John Mackie. Minor, a one time body builder champion, has been a successful actor and stuntman/stunt coordinator in films and television since the early 70’s. He was the stunt coordinator for six years on Magnum, P.I. and has doubled for the likes of Bernie Mac, Jim Brown and Sidney Poitier. In addition to the acting credit for this episode, he also is credited for stunts.

The Greatest American Hero first season DVD  and is available at

Sky Riders

Originally released, 1976

**Contains spoilers**

Back when Culp material on YouTube was still pretty thin (2008/2009), I was pleasantly surprised to find this movie. Although the plot stretches things just a tad, it’s a good entertaining 90 minutes spent. Plus, I was knee deep in Maxwell Mania by the time I found this and I couldn’t help but see some brief flashes of Maxwell characteristics in Jonas Bracken. Very brief, mind you. The loose necktie and Culp’s particular vocalization in this thing are close to Maxwell (without the brassy language) and the fact that Bracken, for all his money and refined lifestyle, had no qualms about picking up a rifle and jumping into the fray with this thing. Maxwell woulda been proud.

Culp plays Jonas Bracken, an American multi-millionaire international businessman living in Greece, whose family is kidnapped by terrorists moments after he leaves the house for the day. Members of Bracken’s house staff are killed in the process and the kidnappers take off with his wife, Ellen (Susannah Yorke) and two children.

The police notify Bracken and immediately begin investigating, the lead cop being Inspector Nikolidis (Charles Aznavour). The kidnappers have left a two way radio at the house to communicate further instructions to Bracken. Bracken can only wait.

Meanwhile, Jim McAbe (James Coburn) is a black market smuggler of some sort who hears the news when he makes a delivery. Bracken’s son, turns out, is actually McAbe’s but McAbe hasn’t seen the child since he was a baby. He’s nonchalant about the news to the shady sea captain he’s dealing with but once he flies back to land, he goes to see Bracken.

Obviously, he’s quite concerned about what has happened. If there’s any animosity between these two men, given one’s the current husband and the other is the ex, it doesn’t show. Jonas asks McAbe to stick around.

The terrorists have Ellen record a message to Jonas, explaining who they are and what their demands are. She tells Jonas that she and the children are okay and then lays out their demand: Five million dollars in 48 hours, otherwise the family will be executed. Jonas immediately goes to work trying to liquidate every holding and asset he’s got to come up with the $5 million.

When the terrorists contact Jonas again, with another recorded message from Ellen, they know he hasn’t raised all the money yet, but they take what he has gotten so far as a sign of good faith. She tells him that they will be contacting him again at a specific time with the two-way radio. When they do, they have a long laundry list of what they want him to spend the money on. Hundreds of guns and weapons with millions of rounds of ammunition. (Culp’s facial reactions are priceless during this scene – shock, disgust, anger – he runs the gamut).

While the list is being rattled off, the police are trying to zero in on the radio signal. They do and trace it to a truck parked in what looks to be some kind of construction area on a hilltop. The police surround the truck and one of the officers, Dimitiri (the nephew of the Inspector Nikolidis) approaches the truck. He opens the doors and has just enough time to see the tape player equipment – and the bomb.

The explosion kills Dimitri and kills and wounds several other officers.

After this, Jonas gets a package in the mail. A note “to encourage you” and a roll of film negatives. He’s about to turn the note and the negatives over to the police when McAbe tells him not to. Instead they develop the film themselves and find a photo of Ellen and the children who appear okay. They also note what looks to be a painting of some kind behind them in the photo.

Jonas makes a couple of extra copies for McAbe who plans to get Ellen and the children back. McAbe shows the photo to an art historian/dealer that he knows. The dealer pinpoints what the painting is and knows where it is at: A long abandoned monastery that sits high on the mountains, with one road in and no other way to get there. McAbe checks it out and while doing his re-con of the place he figures there’s another way in. To fly.

Of course, he can’t get a plane in there, they’d hear him coming. But if he could get in quietly, like a bird, he’d have a chance. He enlists the help from some hang gliders to teach him how to fly one. Eventually he asks for their help in the whole caper.

Jonas, meanwhile, gets another radio call from the kidnappers who want to know how he is doing getting what they want. They remind him of the photos they sent him, which the police didn’t know about until now. Inspector Nikolidis, overhearing this transmission, asks to see the photos and then tells Jonas that he’s under arrest (for withholding evidence is my guess).

Meantime, the hang gliders decide to help McAbe.

At the police station, the police have traced the location of the terrorists hideout based on the photos. The Inspector plans to go after them the next day. Jonas would rather any police operation wait until he gets his family back by way of the exchange that they want (or by McAbe who, Jonas figures, is going to attempt to get them back). All the same though, Jonas fears if the terrorists get any idea of a rescue attempt to be made, his family will be killed.

The police have also been checking up on McAbe and learn that he has checked out of his hotel and met up with some other Americans. As a result of this news, the Inspector decides they will go after the family immediately.

Jonas again asks for the police to wait, but Inspector Nikolidis says no.

It’s a five hour drive to this monastery. McAbe and his troop of hang gliders are already there and they wait until nightfall to make their landing. The police, meantime, are on their way.

Under the cover of night, McAbe and his crew make it into the monastery and find Ellen and the children. They almost make it out clean but one of the terrorists spots them out a window (easily enough since it’s now morning). The monastery erupts into chaos and shooting with McAbe and everyone trying to get out and the police and Jonas, moving in.

And Jonas, by the way, is right smack in the middle of this thing. After spending the whole movie sitting and worrying, he was spoiling for action at this point. And may I say I’m GLAD they had Jonas smack in the middle of this thing and not sitting in a police car, with the occasional shot of him…sitting and worrying as he hears gunfire off in the distance. Man…

Meanwhile, the gilder pilots, Ellen and the children all get back to the gliders with McAbe staying behind to provide cover as everyone takes off. As they make their getaway, however, they end up in full view from the monastery. The terrorists fire shots, wounding a couple of the flyers but Ellen and the children are unscathed. Jonas and the police shoot at the terrorists to prevent them from shooting any more at the gliders.

The terrorists have one more card to play, a helicopter, and they use it to try to take down the gliders. They also try to take down McAbe but he merely grabs hold of one of the landing skids and hangs on for the ride. The gilder pilots suffer some wounds but manage to clear out with Ellen and the kids. McAbe shoots the rotor/transmission of the chopper forcing it to land.

The terrorists are defeated and Jonas is reunited with his family again.

After all Coburn’s character went through and the great stuff from Culp here during the shootout, I found the wrap up to all this is a huge and total let down. I’m not sure Ellen actually says “thank you” to McAbe in their short exchange before she goes running back to Jonas. McAbe is handed a bottle of booze by the Greek police and carried off on a stretcher to be patched up.

I didn’t notice the first time I saw this, but noticed it when I capped it that Culp puts a little Hoby Gilman in Jonas Bracken as he’s got a six shooter strapped to his hip and tied down. How many multi-millionaire international businessmen do you know own a six shooter, let alone look comfortable enough wearing it? He never pulls the weapon at any point during the shootout, instead using a rifle but he obviously came prepared for this fight.

Despite the fact that Culp does nothing more than look worried throughout this whole flick, he looks soooo good doing it.

But I’ll say again I was glad his character got right into the fray of the rescue.

At the time this movie was released, Sky Riders didn’t cause too much of a stir. It was filmed entirely on location in Greece, but most critics passed over it, one going so far as to call it “a long jump off a short mountain.” Another critic noted that “Culp and Susannah York’s talents were largely wasted here.” If the movie was noted for anything at the time it was for the hang gliding sequences, which are very well done. (Hang gliding was a fairly new sport in 1976, having only been around for a few short years).  Bill von Maurer of the Miami News called the film “perfectly mindless, perfectly harmless adventure movie,” and lamented that if “there had been more hang gliding sequences and less of the kidnapping, ‘Sky Riders’ could have been a lot better movie.”

Quite possibly that was the intent of the screen writer, Hall Sprague. Mr. Sprague, who passed away in May of 2010 at the age of 79 (just two months after Robert Culp passed), was a sociologist and noted musician, playwright and screenwriter in the San Diego area who wrote several screen plays. Sky Riders was the only one that made it to the screen but according to Hall’s son Hall wasn’t happy with the final result, not liking the James Bond-ish spin that it ended up with. Mr. Sprague is credited with the story for the movie (others are credited with the screenplay) and is also listed as an associate producer of the film.

The cast included, of course, star James Coburn (The Great Escape, Our Man Flint), and Susannah York (They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Superman). Additional cast notes include international singing star Charles Aznavour as Inspector Nikolidis, iconic French model (and one time girlfriend of the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones) Zouzou as the female terrorist that watches over Ellen and the children and John Beck as the lead glider pilot, Ben, who would later play Mark Graison on Dallas in the 1980s.

Also of note is Ernie F. Orsatti, as one of the glider pilots, Joe, (and as a stunt coordinator). Those familiar with The Greatest American Hero will recognize him as one of the hit men from the episode “The Hit Car.” Although Ernie has several acting credits to his name he is better known for his long career in Hollywood as a stuntman and stunt coordinator, having worked on such films as The Poseidon Adventure (he’s the one that does the fall into the glass ceiling as the ship is turning over), three of the Death Wish movies, Hoosiers, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and dozens of television shows including LA Law, The Practice, Charmed, The Closer and more recently, Big Love.

James Coburn’s chopper ride and a clip of a hang gilder landing in a herd of sheep were used in the opening title sequence to the 1980s tv series “The Fall Guy.”

Sky Riders was previously available from and was one of their top selling DVDs.  My caps are based on that copy of the film. The movie was given an official release through Shout Factory! in 2011 (paired with another Coburn film “The Last Hard Men”) and can be seen in it’s original wide screen format.