13 Essential GREATEST AMERICAN HERO Episodes

A BIRTHDAY SALUTE: The late Robert Culp — aka FBI Special Agent Bill Maxwell — was born 93 years ago…


When The Greatest American Hero debuted on March 18, 1981, superhero-type shows were on the wane. The purge of such programs like Six Million Dollar Man, Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, Shazam, Isis and many short-lived television series was almost complete. The Incredible Hulk was coming to the end of its fourth season and while it would get a fifth, it would only consist of seven episodes.

But The Greatest American Hero took the concept and spun it on its ear, having the hero, Ralph (William Katt), being reluctant and, even worse, without any clue about what he was doing — because he lost the directions to the “super suit” he was given by a race of aliens. Add to it, a partner, Bill (Robert Culp), who is a dyed-in-the-wool red, white, and blue FBI agent who is always cooking up “scenarios” that will get him attention from the top brass; and a fiance, Pam (Connie Sellecca), who is trying to be supportive of Ralph’s desire to do what’s right while keeping her own sanity, and you have an exciting, yet funny adventure series.

The show ran for three seasons on ABC, shot a pilot sequel for NBC, and was briefly under consideration as a retooled series for Fox. The odd crest on Ralph’s suit has been seen on many t-shirts including one worn by Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. The theme song was a chart topping hit for Joey Scarbury who sang a number of songs in the series.

It’s not an easy thing to come up with a list of 13 “essential” episodes as so many hit the mark for high adventure and fun, but here is my take, in airing order:

1. Pilot. Special-ed teacher Ralph Hinkley is gifted a “super suit” by a race of aliens who want him to use it to help the world. His first assignment is to help FBI Agent Bill Maxwell find out what happened to his former partner, who was investigating a Neo-Nazi group with ties to the vice president.

2. The Hit Car. The first regular episode of the series as Ralph has to stop a mobster with a tricked-out car he uses for hits. Add to this a B plot of Ralph trying to get his students to perform Shakespeare and it gets crazy when the two storylines meet.

3. My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys. This is a trope of most hero stories — giving up on the mission when the power threatens the lives of others. But in this case, Ralph is given a pep talk by one-time TV Lone Ranger himself, John Hart.

4. Operation Spoilsport. Arguably the best episode of the series. The aliens return to warn Ralph that a failsafe system for retaliation against the enemy has failed and the world is now on high alert as World War III could happen. Sadly, watching this on the DVD release has the song, “Eve of Destruction” performed by Scarbury, missing due to music rights.

5. The Beast in Black. A departure from the more grounded stories as Ralph faces a creature from another dimension when he and the kids get an opportunity to clear out an old house of items they plan to sell.  Some fans don’t like it, but the effects are still scary to this day.

6. Plague. A right-wing military group plans to unleash a plague on the world.

7.  The Hand Painted Thai. Former POWs who were brainwashed during the Vietnam war are called into service to commit acts of sabotage with a trigger phrase.

8. The Shock Will Kill You. Ralph is magnetized when he saves the space shuttle from crashing. The problem is that the shuttle had an electrical alien stowaway that is now moving toward LA.

9. Dreams. The mobster from The Hit Car gets out of prison and is looking for revenge — and it couldn’t happen at a worse time as Ralph is trying to help out a number of his co-workers realize their dreams.

10. Captain Bellybuster and the Speed Factory. Chuck McCann plays the mascot of a fast-food chain who discovers it’s a front for drug dealing. Captain Bellybuster is mentioned in The A-Team, another Stephen Cannell production, giving the two shows a shared universe. Could you imagine Mister T and Ralph taking out the bad guys?

11. Lilacs, Mr. Maxwell. Robert Culp wrote and directed this story of how when Ralph helps Maxwell clear a bunch of old cases, he gains the attention of the bureau and the KGB.

12. Divorce Venusian Style. Ralph gives up the suit again after an argument with Bill, but then Ralph is shot and the aliens have to step in.

13. Vanity, Says the Preacher. Bill accepts an award from a Latin American country as Man of the Year where years before he helped them in setting up a democratic government. Ralph suspects something is wrong and the aliens step in to confirm it. The final episode of the series, the second written and directed by Culp.


— The Sweet Diversion of 1980’s HERO AT LARGE. Click here.

— When Disney Failed Superheroes: 1981’s CONDORMAN. Click here.

John S. Drew has been a doorman, restaurant manager, writer, teacher, podcaster and hostage negotiator at one point or another in his life. He has written prose in the Star Trek, Doctor Who and Spider-Man universes. He podcasts about pop culture, in particular television adventures of the ’60s and ’70s, including The Batcave Podcast, The Shazam/Isis Podcast, The OSI Files (about the Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman), The World’s Greatest Super Friends Podcast (with Dan Greenfield), and The Doctor’s Beard (about Doctor Who, with Jim Beard). You can find all these podcasts on any reputable or less than reputable podcast platform.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. Great list John! I loved this series as a kid. I was so bummed when it got canceled. I’ve watched it a few times as an adult, and I was happy to find the stories and acting still hold up. In fact, there’s a lot to the show that a 6 to 8 year old kid just wouldn’t pick up on. I need to do another rewatch.

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  2. Robert Culp’s character was the perfect complement to Ralph, and Culp was great in this role. Greatest American Hero did what Batman was unable to do: Portray a superhero with humor without resorting to camp.

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    • Yes, except that the Batman producers’ intent was camp all along. GAH was built with a different sensibility. That said, I myself got tired of Ralph’s too-broad flying shenanigans after about 5 episodes. Not that I didn’t love the show, though!

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  3. Classic show, and I rewatched a bunch of episodes a few years ago and was happy to see the core concept held up.

    I might have included “Don’t Mess Around with Jim” which introduced someone who had a pair of red jammies before Ralph.

    As a kid, I was always bummed that it was John Hart who kept showing up in the Lone Ranger tribute episodes on the Greatest American Hero and Happy Days when Clayton Moore played the role in over three times as many episodes of the classic Lone Ranger series. And I think it might only have been the Moore episodes that were in syndication back then.

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