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

TGAH: The Hit Car

Originally aired: March 25, 1981

In the early exploration of All Things Culp, I mined my way through YouTube. Back in 2008 there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff posted, a couple episodes of I Spy , one or two made for tv movies and various miscellaneous vids that I’ll cover in other posts. Amongst the miscellaneous stuff, however, was a vid that single handedly sold me on Bill Maxwell and The Greatest American Hero series. This vid is brilliant.

I was sold. I bought all three seasons in fairly short order.

I was especially sold on Culp’s Bill Maxwell, the calcified, old school Fed who freaked out and took off in the pilot after the visit with the “green guys” and the bequeathing of the suit to Ralph. He returned, however, out of a sense of duty and curious to see what the fuss was all about. By the end of the pilot, he was becoming quite comfortable with the idea of this supersuit and with this first regular season episode, he was ready to run the whole show, much to Ralph’s chagrin. Honestly, if the pilot for The Greatest American Hero didn’t sell you on watching this show, The Hit Car should have. This is by far my favorite episode.

So what’s the fuss all about? Read on…

Starlet Wilde has agreed to testify against Johnny “The Dancer” Diamante, the biggest “dope dealing slug” that FBI agent Bill Maxwell has been trying to nail for 15 years. After another Fed attempts to drive Starlet to LA from San Francisco and is shot in the process, Bill decides to go to San Francisco and bring her down himself – with help from Ralph and the suit.

Ralph, meanwhile, is trying to organize his class to do a Shakespeare play which will get them some credits for English Lit (which nobody seems to particularly care about). During the first meeting for the play, unfortunately, Bill shows up, tells Ralph they have a flight to San Francisco at 7 o’clock and it was go time.

Ralph, indignant, protests, saying he can’t just up and leave not without having to tend to some stuff first, like finding a babysitter for his son, Kevin. Bill solves that problem quick and asks for the next one. Pam tries to slip out but Bill doesn’t let her, telling her plainly, “You’re in this.” He then explains to both Ralph and Pam about his 15 years trying to nail Johnny Diamante and makes it clear. “We’re gonna get this guy, Ralph. Finally.”

Pam doesn’t care to be a “third string utility man” and Ralph’s not happy about Bill just barging in and taking things over. “Bill, you cannot going around changing people’s lives to suit yourself!” he says. “Sure I can,” Bill replies.

Despite neither of them liking the situation, there’s a grudging agreement to go along with Bill. Ralph asks Pam to take over the rehearsals for the play and Ralph and Bill head out…where Bill finds his hubcaps in the front seat of his car courtesy of Ralph’s students.

In San Francisco they arrive at the dumpy hotel room where Starlet is hiding. Starlet is pleasantly surprised to see Ralph – which annoys Bill.

Once inside her room, she tells Bill that she refuses to fly, citing some astro chart mumbo jumbo. There’s some lively discussion about driving versus flying, killers being on their tail and the stars predicting the future. Starlet also turns the charm on Ralph, which did I mention really annoys Bill? “Okay, boys and girls, over here please. Let’s put a dimmer on the goo goo eyes and try n’ hold a thought. We have killers after us in the immediate vicinity.”

Well Startlet doesn’t think there’s anybody outside the hotel room and she goes over and pulls back the curtain which suddenly shatters in gunfire. Bill pushes Starlet down to the floor and out of the line of fire and then hollers for Ralph to get out there and stop the gunmen.

Ralph sputters and mutters but does his thing, jumping through the bathroom window and flying across the way, only to crash into the penthouse across the street from the hotel. He manages to make his way out the suite, down the stairs and through the lobby all the while people are staring and snickering at him. He commandeers a trench coat on his way out.

Back at Starlet’s hotel room, Ralph knocks at the door. He gives Bill the bad news about not getting the hit guys and proceeds to confuse poor Ms. Starlet, who can’t figure out how Ralph ended up outside, when the last she knew, he was in the bathroom. Neither Ralph, nor Bill make any attempt to explain and Bill quickly changes the subject, they need to rethink their scenario as it’s obvious the hit guys are on to them.

Starlet still refuses to fly. In fact, so does Ralph.

Bill, sick of them both, gives in to having to drive back to LA.

During the drive, Starlet is impressed by Ralph’s intellect as he’s sitting there reading Shakespeare. Bill, in turn, is simply amazed by her lack thereof…

Having driven for a while, and hearing enough of Starlet prattle on confusing The Taming of the Shrew with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? Bill decides they’re going to stop at an FBI safe house in Salinas for the night. Only Starlet refuses, telling him they can’t stop until Santa Barbara – her astro chart and all. She can’t sleep except by the water.

Bill’s livid. Not wanting to hear the arguing, Ralph makes a suggestion to Bill that Pam’s boss has a beach house in Santa Barbara. If Pam can borrow it, they can stop there. Starlet thinks it sounds wonderful. Bill’s irritated as all hell by this point but they stop and phone Pam.

Somehow, Pam manages to get use of the beach house (would have been interesting to have scene showing her trying to explain this to her boss) and is there waiting for the trio when they arrive. Bill praises her on getting the beach house but laments that there’s no food. There’s then some added animosity from Pam toward Starlet. A great cap off to an already wonderful evening.

The next morning they prepare to head out. Bill, starving by this point, is making due with stale dog biscuits that would “float in a tub of spit forever.” There’s a nice scene here between Bill and Pam where he at least acknowledges that Starlet’s been putting the moves on Ralph and tells Pam that she’s more than welcome to set the show girl straight, with what we today call a good bitch slapping. It’s hard to tell tho’ if Pam appreciates the gesture since it was presented in such a Neanderthal way.

While this is going on, Ralph’s in the bathroom, putting on his red jammies. He sees a holograph in the mirror of the two hit men outside the beach house. At the same time, Starlet’s pounding on the door to use the facilities. She eventually busts in, makes a little pass at Ralph who deflects it and heads out to tell Bill what he’s seen.

Bill gathers the troops and lays out the plan rapid fire. He takes no grief from either Pam or Ralph and tells them to do what he says. Pam sees that Starlet is down and away from the windows while Ralph does his thing with the suit. Bill, meanwhile, goes right out the front door – John Wayne style. He catches the attention of the hit guys and exchanges fire with them, taking a wound to his hand. Ralph gets the drop on the two hit men and tosses one head over heels in Bill’s direction. While Bill places that one under arrest, Ralph chases after the second hit man who tries to make his escape in another vehicle. Ralph catches him and Bill follows up to pick up the guy. By this point there’s sirens in the air and the heat is on. Bill tells Ralph to disappear, won’t let him take the car and can’t let him take the van. Ralph indignant once again, issues a warning to Bill that his patience is running pretty thin with this “partnership.” He then takes to the air and tries to fly, only to go dive bombing right into the ocean. The two hit men are completely stupefied by what they’ve witnessed. Bill advises them to forget what they saw but after their arrest they babble on and end up in a mental ward somewhere.

They make it to the courthouse in LA, but not without a new hit squad trying to nail Starlet. Bill takes a shot to the leg this time but Starlet is spared and is ushered inside where the grand jury is waiting. Bill calls the entire mission a success….until he finds out later from the District Attorney that Starlet took the 5th and refused to testify.

At this point, Ralph figures out there was a different scenario going on the whole time and he explains it to Bill. They weren’t trying to kill Starlet, they were trying to kill Bill. Bill doesn’t buy it at first until he thinks about for a minute and it makes sense.

As they drive away from the courthouse, Bill and Ralph both lament about their day of which neither one has much sympathy for the other. Bill then makes an excuse about stopping for some cigars and he pulls up to a little Italian restaurant where, inside, Johnny Diamante is complaining about his day too. “The only thing that’s worked out in the last 24 hours is this tuxedo,” Johnny says to his henchman, Mike, “and if I didn’t look so good in this thing I’d smack you right in the mouth!” If Johnny thought his day was going bad it got worse, when Bill comes walking in with a cheerful rendition of “The Gang’s All Here” and walks (limps) up to Johnny’s booth, pulling a gun.

A tense moment passes before Bill takes hold of Johnny’s plate of spaghetti and dumps in right on Johnny’s lap. He not only just dumps it, he pushes the plate right into Johnny’s gut and then lets it slide down to the floor.

Bill doesn’t stop there. He then takes Johnny’s glass of wine and carefully pours that into his lap too all the while seeing out of the corner of his eye as Mike tries to move for a gun and Bill simply tells him to freeze.

In parting, Bill asks for Johnny to say hello to all the pretty people at the Grammy’s…

Knowing full well he’s angered Johnny, Bill returns to the car and asks Ralph to drive. Johnny and Mike follow in a truck that has the Hit Car in it. Once again, the conversation between Ralph and Bill is a bit one sided with Ralph prattling on about how they need to communicate better if this partnership is going to work. All Bill is concerned with is that Johnny is following them.

They arrive at the school, which Bill figures will work good for his scenario – the place is supposed to be empty. Only it’s not. Ralph has a dress rehearsal scheduled which sends Bill into code red mode and he tells everyone to get down just as Johnny opens fire through the doorway from the Hit Car.

The shootout underway, Bill faces down the Hit Car (and runs from it) while Ralph struggles with the change of outfits. Finally, Ralph gets his act together and flies in under the Hit Car. He tips the Hit Car on its side effectively trapping Johnny and Mike.

Upon seeing Ralph, Johnny realizes his hit guys weren’t kidding when they said a “supah guy” broke up the hit. Bill gives Johnny the same advice he gave the hit men: You didn’t see any of this. It didn’t happen. Johnny has no problem with that.

For all his bluster about Ralph’s students and sometimes Ralph, Bill shows up at the opening night of the kids play. He tells Ralph that he wasn’t there as any show of support, however. He just likes Shakespeare….

…and to listen to the baseball game on his transistor radio.

Great interactions between the characters (and conflict), great plot twist and nice use of a 1966 Dodge Charger (I’m a car nut). The scene where Bill dumps the pasta on Johnny’s lap is classic. In fact, I loved this episode so much I played around with the footage and created a couple of “trailers” for the ep (kinda like a movie trailer). Here’s one of them…

The Greatest American Hero – Season One is available at, either as a download or you can purchase the DVD set.  You can also download the Hit Car episode itself through Amazon for about the price of a cup of coffee!