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Sharing the wonderfulness of Robert Culp

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 foward, 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 politians, 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 Amazon.com.

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Posted in Television and The Greatest American Hero by Lisa on August 30th, 2011 at 8:34 pm.

5 comments

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5 Replies

  1. Hello, Lisa,

    Great review of this pilot. I think there are a couple of other things to note–we see Maxwell as gruff and tough, but with his partner being Black and the fondness between the two of them evident, we immediately learn that although he is anti-Russians, he is by no means a racist or bigot. That’s important to show. And, he does care deeply about his partners. We see him, of course, as the show progresses, caring just as deeply about Ralph and Pam. Almost immediately, also, we note the depth and complexity of Maxwell’s character, to the more staid and stable Ralph–Maxwell is tough, then terrified, then getting drunk, then manning up, and doing the job, gun in hand, and then shows his innate decency of praising Ralph at the end and being forgiving when his hand is broken. There is so much to his character! It draw me in immediately as well and of course Culp displayed all those traits in his usual masterful way. Thanks for another good analysis of “TGAH”.

  2. Thank you, Mona. There is indeed soooo much to his character. In many ways I’m just beginning to grasp it all, and the more I understand, the more fascinated I am. :)

  3. allthinky Sep 4th 2011

    Beautifully done! I agree that Culp’s characterization of Maxwell is astonishing, and the show had real promise. I was already a *huge* fan from of his from “I Spy”, and I remember being very … skeptical about a superhero show, and worried that it would be another pretty silly TV show that wasted RC’s talent. So, I was really happy that not only was the show watchable and funny (and very self-aware), Culp was (and is) a joy to watch.

    HOWEVER, I was just starting high school when the show first aired, and I remember wishing that his character wasn’t so *goofy*. Kelly Robinson was, and always will be, *my* Culp character, though I love “Hickey & Boggs”, and a lot of his early stuff too. You know, at that age, you want your heroes to be obviously cool and smooth and whatever, and I just couldn’t see the genius of a dog-biscuit eating, flag-waving uptight suit, at the time.

    Now, oy. I have a real aversion to lots of 80′s TV, and TGAH is so LOUD and badly edited and sometimes the poor production values add to the fun, and sometimes they just seem sloppy. Makes me admire Culp’s (and, really, most of the actors’) performances even more … but the show still suffers from a lot of terminal 80s-ness, and it makes me crazy that RC didn’t have a better vehicle.

    None of this contradicts what you’ve said — and the more I watch it now, the more I can appreciate Bob’s portrayal and all the comedy genius he brought to Bill Maxwell — always with the complication of real humanity and 3-D feeling. Just beautiful.

    Thanks!

  4. Hey, there is someone else out there who’s heart belongs to The Fed! :) Great review and caps of the GAH pilot. Your blog is a real tribute to Mr. C. – one of the most complex talents I’ve ever seen. Thanks for the great work and please keep going!


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