Greatest American Hero

The Greatest American Hero ran on ABC from 1981 to 1983. The show was created by Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files, The A-Team, Hardcastle & McCormick) and came at a time when superheroes weren’t being called upon much (despite the release of the Superman movie in 1978). Cannell had been asked to create a show for a superhero which he didn’t particularly want to do. Instead, his concept  – an ordinary guy receives a suit that gives him extraordinary powers and has to deal with the changes and challenges this brings – was his own unique spin on the superhero genre.

Robert Culp is FBI Agent Bill Maxwell who, along with William Katt’s Ralph Hinkely, is chosen by the “green guys” to use the suit to save humanity. It’s not an easy task, as Bill and Ralph have different ideas of how to use the suit, but they manage to work together with help from Ralph’s attorney girlfriend Pam Davidson (Connie Selleca).

Bill Maxwell FBIAlthough the pilot episode fared well and the show garnered enough of an audience in it’s short first season to justify a second, the show nonetheless struggled and the lawsuit filed by Warner Brothers didn’t help things any. (Honestly, TGAH too similar to Superman? C’mon…). ABC eventually shuffled the show around on the schedule and the kiss of death in the third season came when it was put up against NBC’s “Knight Rider.” Game over. The last four episodes despite being filmed and completed, never originally aired on ABC.

Despite the shortlived success during its original run, The Greatest American Hero has enjoyed something of a cult status in recent years. Bill Maxwell is probably one of Culp’s most recognizable roles from television (if not equal to Kelly Robinson, a pretty damn close second). For myself, Bill Maxwell doesn’t just hold a special place in my heart, he outright stole it.

Season One

The Greatest American Hero (1) *Pilot*
The Hit Car
Here’s Looking at You Kid
Saturday on Sunset Boulevard
Reseda Rose
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
Fire Man
The Best Desk Scenario

Season Two

The Two-Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Fastball
Operation Spoil Sport
Don’t Mess Around With Jim
Hog Wild
Classical Gas
The Beast in Black
The Lost Diablo
A Train of Thought
Now You See It…
The Hand-Painted Thai
Just Another Three Ring Circus
The Shock Will Kill You
A Chicken In Every Plot
The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
It’s All Downhill From Here
There’s Just No Accounting…
The Good Samaritan
Captain Bellybuster and the Speed Factory
Who Woo in America
Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell (written and directed by Robert Culp)

Season Three

Divorce Venusian Style
The Price is Right
This is the One the Suit Was Meant For
The Resurrection of Carlini
The Newlywed Game
Heaven is in Your Genes
Live at Eleven
Space Ranger
Thirty Seconds Over Little Tokyo
Wizards and Warlocks
It’s Only Rock and Roll
Vanity, Says the Preacher (written and directed by Robert Culp)

What Ever Happened to The Greatest American Hero Movie? – In 2008, Stephen Cannell announced there would be a TGAH movie. Where do things stand now? A 2013 update.

The Greatest American Hero pilot script (Adobe PDF format) – Available for free from Stephen Cannell’s website, the final draft script for the pilot episode of The Greatest American Hero. Includes great scene descriptions!

15 Replies to “Greatest American Hero”

  1. Culp as Bill Maxwell was one of the most fascinating, complicated characters on TV, ever. Tough and neurotic, abrasive and vulnerable, in your face and needy, Bill Maxwelll was one of the good guys. Maxwell grew and changed in the show, even with its unfortunately short duration as the writers focused on him and his past more than Ralph, who didn’t change as the episodes progressed. And without Bill, Ralph would not have “saved the world” any of the times he did. Bill Maxwell is one of my all-time favorite characters TV ever produced.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Mona. You sum him up very well. Between what the writers put in (despite some conflicting backstory) and what Culp brought to the role, Maxwell had much more depth to him. Plus, he embodied perfectly something that is advised to any aspiring writer when it comes to developing characters: Contradiction. He could say one thing, and then do the opposite. And yet, he was also consistent. He had a code he went by and, like you said, he was one of the good guys.


  3. My view of those contradictions in his personality are based on three things–Maxwell’s innate personality, whom he grew up with, and the era of his developing years. I think Maxwell is definitely soft-hearted and kind, caring, vulnerable, who thrives on friendship and appreciate a strong father figure. Apparently his mother was a drunk and Maxwell had to grow up with his grandparents (this is a recurrent theme of Culp’s, based on his spending a lot of time with his own remarkable grandfather). He learned a lot from his grandad, and then was in a time when there was wars and men were expected to willingly join them. So, he went to Korea, saw much death and was wounded twice himself, excelled as a soldier (earned the highest rank of Master Sargeant) and came back to the States. Probably goaded by Capt. Winslow, he passed over being a cop and to better fight the Russkies, joined the FBI. In all these situations, his grandad, the war and being a soldier, being in the FBI protecting America, Maxwell was trained to be a tough man, outwardly strong, rough in bearing, straight-shooter, but I honestly think Maxwell was still the nice guy inside, who easily loved people (Harlan, Ralph, The Counselor), needed heroes (Winslow), was a caring, loyal “son” (to Harlan); thus, we see the contradictions. Maxwell will spew the outer coating of Tough Manhood (save a child in the woods??? save a horse???), and then will agree or be coerced into it, and find it hits home deeply to his real self.

    That is an amazingly UNIQUE character on TV and it’s very likely that only Robert Culp had the actor capacity to so bring Maxwell to realistic life.

  4. “…it’s very likely that only Robert Culp had the actor capacity to so bring Maxwell to realistic life.”

    No argument here! LOL

  5. Bill Maxwell is one of my all-time favorite characters, played masterfully (as he did pretty much everything) by Robert Culp.

    R.I.P. One of the best ever.

  6. This is a letter I wrote to Robert Culp shortly before his passing. After finding this site I thought it fitting to post it here.

    Dear Mr. Culp,
    Hello! My name is Eric Delgado, and I hope this letter finds you in good health and spirits. The reason I write to you is to thank you for making an impact on my life as well as millions of others through your characterizations in television and film. I could go into great detail about many of them, but what I really want to do is make my case for the man that I feel is the greatest character in television history, Bill Maxwell. I do not say this lightly, in fact it is after much thought on the subject that I make this claim and have been for about 4 years now, after careful examination. I thought you just might be interested in knowing why.
    Bill Maxwell is incredibly unique. He is a man who has seen and lived a very difficult life, one filled with violence, pain, suffering, and death from a very young age. This has toughened him beyond belief, as he proves time and again, yet anyone who knows the man also sees how truly sensitive he is, how alone he is.
    He went to a little known school called KOREA, 72nd armored division, where he played the accordion, and learned to kill. He constantly refers to this time in his life, and it is seen represented in the oddest of places, for example in patches on an old football jacket which amuses us, and saddens us as well. Bill cannot let go of this period, because he WANTS it to validate him to the world around him. It does not, as he is surrounded by those who do not seem to care, or wish to remember.
    Bill went on to join the FBI as a young man, and relentlessly pursued the bad guys for the rest of his life. He did this it seems as if it were simply the thing to do, not so much as a calling, but just because it needed doing, and he was as good as anyone for the job. He gained a reputation for steadfastness and overall consistency, if not leadershipand success.
    The little green guys could have chosen anyone, from millions of potential candidates. They chose Bill Maxwell, a 50-ish year old mid-level field agent of the FBI. Outwardly there is no particularly good reason to charge him with being the man who will guide Ralph Hinckley in a mission to safeguard humanity. But they choose him anyway, and its all about what’s on the inside.

    Bill has a heart as strong as an ox and it beats solely for baggin’ the bad guys, big and small. If a pill or drug existed to allow him to chase them 24 hours a day he would take it, forsaking everything else that life is granted for.
    And he’d love it.
    Bill knows fear as well as anyone, and its evident to those who are looking. But he shows none of it, snarling and wise-cracking his way through every obstacle that comes his way. As he teams up with Ralph, he finds himself outmanned and outgunned on a daily basis. Ralph is protected by the suit, the baddies have the numbers, but Bill is a mere mortal, on the wrong side of 50, often on his own as Ralph approaches from the sky. He knows that in order to keep Ralph’s secret he must go it alone, and face death squarely.
    And he never complains.
    Happiness is a warm pistol, his favorite t-shirt proclaims. They forget the “A”, he reminds us, which would have made it “pistola”. It’s what he wants to believe, wants US to believe. But when the day is done, Ralph goes home to the counselor, and Bill goes home alone. He’ll wait there for the next chance to chase again. He lives in utter squalor, and it appears as though his money is never spent. Perhaps he’s saving it to one day will to Ralph, as he has no children or family that we know of.
    Occasionally he considers dating, but nixes it as he remembers who Bill Maxwell is. A bad guy gettin’ machine.
    Through Ralph Bill thrives like never before, as Ralph gives him camaraderie, someone to mentor. Bill relishes every minute of every scenario.
    And he never seeks the credit. Yes he talks a great game, but inside he knows it means nothing, his true reward is being in on the next bust.
    The good Lord blessed him with an amazing wit, a way of seeing and putting things so unique its possibly unheard of. “We’re gonna put a hole in this guy’s bucket and drain all his worms out.”, and “if you’re lookin for trouble pal, you’ve just reached the west coast distributor.”
    “Yamma yamma, scoobidy-doo, and gobbledy GOOK!”
    Bill couldn’t be more grateful to the green guys for what they’ve given him, which is a chance to hunt, forever. But what they’ve also given him is a family, and Bill couldn’t be more confused as to what to do with that.
    Because he never had one, certainly not one of his own, one to take care of.
    Worst of all, one that he could lose.
    He constantly shows us how fearful he is in this regard, how fragile it all is, shielding all of this with humor and grit.
    But he’ll never give up on them.
    And he’ll never fly.
    He’ll never deflect bullets.
    He’ll never turn invisible.
    He’ll never possess super human strength.
    He’ll always be one mistake away.
    And he’ll never trade any of it, ever.
    Thank you Mr. Culp, for giving that to us. I can’t do it justice.
    But thank you.

  7. Eric, that is a fabulous letter, thank you so much for posting it here. Maxwell holds more than just a special place in my heart – he outright stole it, and it’s apparent Maxwell (and Culp himself) left a touch of something with each of us, something that isn’t likely to fade any time soon – if ever.

  8. I *just* finished watching the first season of The Greatest American Hero on Hulu, and moment after moment, Bill Maxwell makes me smile. What I see on screen, more than I have seen in anything else I have watched so far, is our Man Culp really and truly loving his work. What a joy it is to watch this again (I did watch when I was six) and really appreciate it now.

  9. I am an eleven year old kid and I love RC (Bill Maxwell). He is the cutest guy on Earth. My mom introduced me to: The Greatest American Hero. I love it so much. We got it on the thanksgiving break and we are on the last disc of season 2. Thanks, bye.

  10. Hi Lisa. I’m Lisa, Isabelle’s mom. Thank you SO MUCH for answering my daughter’s message. She was very excited when she saw your response.
    I was 11 when GAH premiered, the same age my daughter is now. Back then, Bill Maxwell was my favorite character, too (like mother like daughter).
    I enjoy sharing the nostalgia of watching the show with my daughter.
    Over the years I have watched so many other Robert Culp characters, but Bill will ALWAYS be my favorite!

    1. Hi Lisa! You’re welcome, I love talking to other Culp fans (especially Maxwell ones :)). I think it’s great that your daughter is enjoying the show and especially Maxwell. I’m also glad you all found the site here.

      I’m just a few years younger than you and although I didn’t catch TGAH back in the day when I discovered Culp a few years back ol’ Maxwell stole my heart. 🙂

  11. We have restarted the series today, and we will be watching the 2nd episode of the first season today, too(none have been skipped).

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