On September 7, 2008, Stephen J. Cannell, the writer-creator of The Greatest American Hero, openly announced that a movie based on the hit TV series was “in the works.” The announcement came at the Screen Actor’s Guild 25th Anniversary Reunion in Hollywood, CA.
If Cannell had any doubts about the movie project going through, it wasn’t evident at this time. He went so far as to promise “acting jobs, not just cameos” for original TGAH cast members Connie Sellecca, William Katt and Robert Culp. Sellecca and Katt were both in attendance at the time of Cannell’s announcement.
Cannell was not one to make empty promises. According to Cannell’s comments, which were reported by SciFiWire on Sept 9, 2008 and re-published by ComicBookMovie.com, the movie roles for the Sellecca, Katt and Culp were “absolutely guaranteed.” You can read the whole thing here.
What Caused the Greatest American Hero Movie Project to Stall?
Fast-forward to April 16, 2009. Despite having a completed script, a director, and a lead actor cast for the role of Ralph Hinkely, the big-screen version of The Greatest American Hero was over before it began. The reason? A lack of financial backing. Reportedly, Cannell’s vision of the movie was high-tech, with special effects and stunts that were a far cry from the cheesy, low-budget sequences in the TV series.
Eric Christian Olsen, who had a contract in hand for the red-suited role of Ralph Hinkley, reportedly explained, “They didn’t have financing in place. But yeah, I booked it – but because the budget was so huge they couldn’t get the money.” Olsen’s disappointment was shared by longtime Greatest American Hero fans who found him to be a good choice for the role.
Director Stephen Herek was already on deck for the project, bringing his action-adventure direction experience from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “The Mighty Ducks.” But in Hollywood, projects come and go in the blink of an eye.
What the Greatest American Hero Movie Could Have Been
According to Eric Christian Olsen, the script was “really funny” and contained “a lot of cool stunts.” He told MovieHole that the script was built around an ordinary guy who got in over his head; a premise that is true to the original TV program.
According to a fan who claims to have seen parts of the script, the movie’s ending had a heartwarming, optimistic note. At the climax of the story, Ralph Hinkley is outmatched by a powerful enemy, facing certain doom. Suddenly he’s rescued by the combined forces of the Greatest Russian Hero, the Greatest Chinese Hero and a few other nations with their own red-suited champions. Apparently, the alien “green guys” empowered a human in each nation with a super-powered suit in an effort to preserve the Earth.
If only the movie project itself had such a happy ending.
The Greatest American Hero Movie Facts According to William Katt
During a podcast interview on March 21, 2011, Katt explained that some ten years ago, he and original series co-stars Robert Culp and Connie Sellecca, were interested in a TV reunion and reboot of the show. Together they created a pilot for the concept. When bouncing the idea off of Stephen Cannell, Katt learned of Cannell’s big-screen movie project.
According to Katt, Cannell pitched the idea to Sony, and then later to Disney. Despite an “excellent” script by Paul Hernandez, an agreement couldn’t be reached for the project. Cannell took ownership of the project back, and reportedly it was last in the hands of 20th-Century Fox, where it has apparently stalled.
Did The Greatest American Hero Movie Die with Robert Culp and Stephen Cannell?
Actor Robert Culp, who played the role Federal Agent Bill Maxwell, passed away on March 24, 2010 at the age of 79.
Culp’s brilliant interpretation of Agent Maxwell added to both the action and comedic elements of the show. In The Greatest American Hero, Maxwell was an unusual superhero’s sidekick – a hard-bitten, old-school Fed who saw himself as the brains of the outfit. Ralph may have had the power suit, but the scenarios were usually Maxwell’s. He collected the credit – and sometimes the blame – for the exploits accomplished with Ralph and the red super-suit.
Culp would have welcomed the opportunity to reprise his role as Agent Maxell, even in a passing-of-the-torch role in the big-screen movie. Had the film project proceeded as scheduled, he could have had the chance.
As a highly-acclaimed writer and producer, it’s likely that Stephen J. Cannell would have eventually found the support he wanted for the movie. His website speaks of the movie project in present tense, describing it as “in development.” The date of this comment, while unspecific, appears to have been posted between 2009 and 2010.
Whether the “in development” status was posted before, or after, the project halt in April 2009 is unknown. There have been no further updates to the site.
Meanwhile, the distribution rights to The Greatest American Hero, along with several other Cannell productions, were sold to Mill Creek Entertainment in 2009. The announcement was made by Mill Creek Entertainment on October 14, 2009, several months after the reported stall of The Greatest American Hero movie.
Stephen J. Cannell died on September 30, 2010, at the age of 69, of complications from melanoma. His death came just a few months after the passing of Robert Culp.
Other works of Cannell did see big-screen adaptations; the A-Team in June of 2010, and 21 Jump Street in March of 2012.
The Greatest American Hero: the Fans and the Future
Despite the discouragement, fans of The Greatest American Hero have not given up hope that the big-screen movie will someday see theaters. Superheroes are an American cinema staple, and The Greatest American Hero is a unique concept that could be highly marketable for the movies. The idea of an everyday person who becomes endowed with tremendous power and responsibility – and bungles his way through it all – remains a fresh take on the genre.
William Katt remains popular with fans today and enjoys a strong Facebook following. He briefly worked on a comic book version of The Greatest American Hero, but lost the licensing to a business partner. Rather than pursue the exhaustive comic book project with little hope of return, with no business control to speak of, Katt let the comic book go and turned his focus elsewhere. Copies of the brief comic book series are sometimes found on ebay.
Katt still makes appearances at fan conventions and Comic-con. He also remains active in film, and played the villain in the recently-released thriller Sparks.
Will The Greatest American Hero movie ever fly? It could, but it will require a leap of faith by 20th-Century Fox.
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