“The Greatest American Hero”
An interview with the great Stephen J. Cannell
(Written with special guest co-writer Jason Hofius)
On September 30, 2010, legendary Hollywood television writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell passed away at the age of 69. If you grew up in the seventies and eighties, you were surrounded by what are now widely considered TV classics that sprung from his prolific imagination including “The A-Team,” “The Rockford Files,” “21 Jump Street,” “Hunter” and dozens more. In 1981, Cannell created and produced “The Greatest American Hero,” a monumental network show that reimagined the way we saw superheroes. This specially edited excerpt is from “The Age of TV Heroes” book by Jason Hofius and myself. The interview with the late Mr. Cannell was conducted on January 30, 2006.
We dare you to talk to anyone about “The Greatest American Hero” without having someone sing back a few lines from its classic theme song, unofficially christened by everyone as “Believe It or Not!” [The full, official title is “Theme from ‘Greatest American Hero’ (Believe It or Not)”] No, this particular hero doesn’t have roots in the funnies, but the show was nonetheless a complete breath of fresh air that served as a deconstruction of the preconception the general public had about superheroes. Most audiences had never seen a superhero that was as fallible and imperfect as they were. This particular hero wasn’t just another well-proportioned, immortal, invulnerable, intelligent, and powerful costumed being, but rather a mere ordinary Joe.
This production offered viewers more than just comedy, fantasy, and adventure – it was all of that and extremely entertaining as well. Although it was on network television for a relatively short time, it was very influential and well remembered by a generation craving for new heroes.
In 1980, the team of Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner were the head of creative development for the ABC Network. During a meeting with Stephen J. Cannell to discuss new projects, they suggested that he create a superhero show. But there was one problem – he had never been attracted to the superhero genre or comic books. “In my career as a writer,” Cannell remembers, “I’d never done that. I wasn’t really drawn to it. I didn’t read a lot of Superman comic books when I was a little kid. I wasn’t drawn to superheroes, and the reason I wasn’t drawn to them was because, except for generally one flaw, like Kryptonite, they don’t have any flaws. If you look at my writing and the shows I’ve created over the years, from ‘Rockford’ to ‘The A-Team’ to almost all the shows, ‘The Commish’ – it’s the flaws about these characters that make them interesting to me as a writer. But I’ve learned that when somebody tells you they’d like you do to something, not to say, ‘No’ in the meeting, but to say, ‘Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.’ The reason for that is sometimes you could say no to something that actually, you’d really enjoy doing.” Once in his office, the legendary writer-producer and his staff huddled together, brainstorming ideas without much success. Then he had an epiphany: “I wonder what it would be like to be a superhero?”
With that novel notion came a cluster of ideas. Stephen recalled, “What would happen if I was a superhero, Stephen Cannell? With the insanity of a spaceship coming down and giving me a suit and everything! What would it do to my life? Here, I’ve got network TV shows on the air, I’m an up and coming guy around town. All of a sudden, I’ve got to put on this little spandex outfit with jockey shorts and a cape and I’ve got to run around. What the hell would that do? The first time I got caught out in public I could say I’m going to Bill’s costume party and my car broke down. But the second time, I’m in trouble, you know? What happens when my wife catches me in it twice? If I ever try to explain what it really is, is she going to have me committed?’ So that all of a sudden started to feel really funny to me.
“[So] I went back to Marcy and Tom and I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll do this if the powers can be in the suit and not in the guy. I don’t want the guy to be from a distant star. I want the powers to be in the suit. When he takes the suit off, he’s just you and me. I think that makes him vulnerable and I want him to have this very ordinary kind of life.'” Cannell recalled. “A schoolteacher was what I chose, teaching learning disabled children who are basically disciplinary problems. Now he gets this suit and everything is turned upside-down by it, and therein lays the comedy. As I was going along and putting the project together as a writer, I’m thinking, ‘Okay, he needs a partner, he needs another guy.’ Who should it be? Well, if he’s a high school teacher, he won’t know how to get a case. He has no access to crime or to criminal things, so I’m going to give him this kind of Reaganesque federal agent. He’s so conservative that he makes your teeth ache. Ralph [the hero], on the other hand, is this guy who, all he wants to do is save the whales, stuff like that. So there’s instantly an Odd Couple thing going on between the two of them. That’s what I did, and the result is ‘The Greatest American Hero.’ I intentionally had him lose the instruction books, where he wouldn’t have complete power over the suit. It was more of a comedy, I think, than it was a drama. As a matter of fact, it got nominated for best TV show the first two years it was on the air, and both times it was nominated for best comedy, even though it was an hour.”
Receiving the network’s immediate approval, the producer searched for a skilled actor who could instantly convey a friendly rapport with the public for his superhero lead. While looking for a leading man, Cannell came across a photo of actor William Katt in his viewfinder and immediately visualized his superhero coming to life.
With William Katt as the lead, they now had an actor with all-American good looks and, more importantly, the good-hearted persona needed to connect with audiences in the part of Ralph Hinkley. Robert Culp, one of Cannell’s favorite actors, was handpicked to play Bill Maxwell, the antsy and manipulative FBI agent who befriends Katt’s character. Completing the main cast was the lovely Connie Sellecca as Ralph’s devoted girlfriend Pam, who would often be the wiser buffer between Ralph’s idealistic ways and Maxwell’s volatile nature. In some ways, she was the voice of reason between the Odd Couple-like relationship of the two male leads.
The one thing that you couldn’t do with this show was lump it with the rest of the light and fluffy sitcom-type standards of that television era. In this superhero show, you had all hallmarks that one would come to expect from any Stephen Cannell show: colorful characterizations, strong plot-driven stories and a wicked sense of humor. Perhaps the niftiest element was the fact that you had a superhero more content being just an ordinary man in an absurd situation. A hero who didn’t want his powers and cursed the day he got them and who only used his gift because his integrity led him to use it for good deeds.
Cannell and his studio were able to secure nearly two million dollars to cover the license fee for the pilot. The ABC network’s biggest concern for the production was if the filmmakers were going to achieve satisfying flight sequences without the millions that the Superman film producers spent putting their hero in flight. As the producer pondered the dilemma at hand, Rod Holcomb, the pilot’s director, finally proposed, “Look, if the first time we fly him we knock their socks off, then every flight after that they’ll probably cut us some slack because they will have bought into it,” Stephen recalled. That decision would prove invaluable and cost effective as the production strove to make the initial filming of the hero’s flight top notch, and by cutting the footage wisely in editing, the filmmakers really didn’t allow the viewer’s eye to linger too much on the special effect. The network brass cheered when they saw the results of the flight sequences. It was at this point that Cannell became 100% confident that his show would be picked up.
Prior to the television premiere of the pilot on March 18, 1981, Warner Brothers, the parent company of DC Comics, filed a lawsuit against American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (The ABC network) and Stephen J. Cannell on the basis of copyright infringement and unfair competition between the characters of Superman and Ralph Hinkley. The lawyers for ABC and Cannell were victorious in the initial trial and subsequent appeal to prove their character’s uniqueness and differences and the remarkable verdict from this case would benefit all future superhero creations – on the big and small screen – by essentially demonstrating that all these heroes were a part of a growing genre and not all were cut from the same cloth.
“What happened was Warner Brothers had bought DC Comics and Warner Brothers was under the impression when they bought DC Comics, that they bought the entire superhero genre,” said Stephen Cannell in sizing up the opposition against his heroic creation. “They absolutely believed it and were so adamant about it that they filed a restraining order, before my pilot goes on the air, against me and against ABC in New York in the Federal Court there – an injunction to prohibit us from airing the show. I had to go back to New York and we had to put a case together and everything. It was fast-tracked because we had a premiere date and they were basically saying that we couldn’t air the show. It would have broken my company. I had a little private studio and I used all my own money to cash-flow it, and it was early; this was the second show that Cannell studios had produced, and it ended up being the third largest studio in Hollywood, but at the time we were very small.”
Cannell added, “So I’m in New York and I’m testifying in this thing and it was lunacy. I remember one of their experts from DC Comics or Warner Brothers were saying, ‘There was a thing in the pilot where a little kid tells him he’s got to take three steps and jump, and that’s the way superheroes can get airborne.’ So we’re in a big federal court in New York – and my attorneys were pretty bright, they led this guy right down the primrose lane – they said ‘What do you mean three steps?,’ and he goes ‘A three-step jump.’ So he goes ‘can you demonstrate it?’ And the guy goes, ‘Yeah,’ and he gets out of his chair and he does three steps and a little hop right in the courtroom, and he says, ‘That’s the way Superman always takes off. That’s the patented three-step jump which launches him.’ Then, of course, he aired the Superman movie where he lifts straight off, no three steps and a jump, and he says, ‘So what’s this?’ [laughs] But I mean, that’s the level of what we’re arguing about, you know? They were basically trying to keep anything that was not Superman from being created. But the First Amendment gives you the right… and our show if anything was a parody, and parodies are always protected under the First Amendment. Actually, if you talk to any lawyer that deals with copyright law, the ‘Greatest American Hero’ case is landmark law. It changed the way the law was perceived after that case.”
After the show premiered, the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. on March 30, 1981 was too close too home for the television executives. The network quickly decided that the protagonist’s last name sounded too much like the disgraced gunman. So during the first season, in several episodes, the character would be referred to as “Mr. H.,” “Hanley” or by his first name, Ralph, through overdubs. With the network’s consent, Cannell was able to restore the character’s last name back for the second season after offering to only sporadically use the “Hinkley” name.
The first year of episodes delivered all the heart, humor and action that its creator envisioned for audiences. The program naturally ingratiated itself with an enthusiastic generation of viewers. The only thing that really hurt the program was the exit of the show’s biggest supporters at ABC when Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner both left their network positions to start an independent production company. Starting with the second season, the network began to meddle through persistent notes and directions concerning how they envisioned the show. ABC also began to toy with the show’s time slot, constantly changing it, thus weakening the show by making it difficult for the program to build a regular audience.
Cannell recalled, “All of a sudden, the new network guys come in and they want to do space aliens from outer space, they want to do comets coming to the Earth and the hero goes up and explodes the comets Superman-style, and I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t what I agreed to do.’ Also, it’s not what I promised my actors we’d do when I hired them. I ended up fighting with the network for about a year and a half. Not to the benefit of the show, by the way, because the network got frustrated and thought I wasn’t being cooperative. There were a couple of times where I kind of went over the edge and gave them what they wanted, and both actors called me up and said, ‘This isn’t what we’re supposed to be doing,’ and they were absolutely right. I would have to say, ‘I’m just so tired of fighting, I kind of crumbled on this one, I won’t do it again.’ I remember one where the space shuttle comes down and it’s got a space alien on board. They were right to flag me on it, but I was just…after two years of ‘every script is not right, every script is wrong and the network hates everything,’ it starts to get really fatiguing.”
ABC dropped the show in 1983, but its popularity endured into syndication where it remained a constant on television sets for years to come. With its ever-growing circle of fans, Robert Culp brought the idea of resurrecting the show to Stephen Cannell, who in turn entertained the idea with Brandon Tartikoff, the head of NBC in the 1980s. Although Tartikoff would commission a pilot and reunite the original principal cast, he would never air it on television. The pilot was called “The Greatest American Heroine” and subsequent episodes would have followed the adventures of Ralph Hinkley’s female successor of the superpowered suit, played by actress Mary Ellen Stuart, and her mentor Bill Maxwell (Culp). Eventually, the pilot was re-edited and added to the syndicated rotation as the proper finale to The Greatest American Hero’s saga.
For William Katt, the role of Ralph Hinkley became a bit of a burden because casting agents could not see him beyond his superhero role. Nowadays, many popular actors play these roles without any repercussions, but Katt has had to rely on his persistency to ensure the endurance of his career to the present day. Not long after the “Heroine” pilot was filmed, Katt was offered another chance of donning the suit, but it didn’t come to fruition.
Today, the timeless show is remembered as a benchmark in the history of superhero television shows as it endures on television, DVD and in the hearts of fans. Perhaps no one has heard more the accolades of this series than the man who created it all those years ago. “People come to me all the time and say, ‘Growing up, I loved that show,’ or, ‘I loved this show, it meant so much to me,’ and it’s always nice to hear,” Cannell said. “But I can’t let that sustain me, because I wasn’t doing it for those reasons. I was doing it because I love doing it.”