Mar 21, 2016

Greatest American Hero

None of the science fiction comedies that filled the airwaves in the 1970s and 1980s (Automan, My Secret Identity, The Powers of Matthew StarMisfits of Sciencewere entirely heterosexist; the bumbling hero is usually "allergic to girls" or "shy around girls."  But The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983) went even farther, portraying not only a lack of heterosexual interest but intense homoerotic buddy bonding.

It starred curly-haired blond William Katt, who had previously displayed ample buddy-bonding (and a pleasantly muscular physique) in Big Wednesday (1979) and the Broadway musical Pippin (1981).

He played mild-mannered teacher Ralph Hinkley.  The show premiered on March 18, 1981, and on March 30th, a man named John Hinkley tried to assassinate President Reagan. Skittish producers fudged on his name for the rest of the season, and finally gave up and changed it to Hunkley.

While driving in the desert, Ralph and FBI Agent Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp of I Spy) encounter a UFO.  Its occupants assign them the task of fighting evil, and give Ralph a special flying suit.  Unfortunately, he loses the instruction book.

Plots veered between the realistic and the ridiculous.  The kids in Ralph's class get a piece of the action, as does attorney Pam Davidson (Connie Selleca), who eventually marries Ralph.  But in spite of the "fade out kiss," Ralph's main emotional connection is with Bill.  And since Bill doesn't have any superpowers, he gets captured by the bad guys quite often, prompting a daring rescue and a "my hero!" moment.

Since Ralph was always putting his uniform on and taking it off, there were many shirtless scenes, revealing a physique quite a bit more muscular than one would expect for any mild-mannered schoolteacher.  Katt appeared fully nude in Playgirl magazine in 1982.

In its second season, Greatest American Hero was put in a Friday night time slot -- when teenagers were usually out -- and opposite the mega-hit Dallas -- so ratings declined, and it was cancelled.

Robert Culp was not dismayed -- he had already been on tv for many years.  William Katt went on to star in the buddy-bonding horror movie House (1986), plus several  Perry Mason movies (his mother, Barbara Hale, played the attorney's secretary in the original series).  He's still working constantly, with eight projects in 2010 alone.

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