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Greatest American Hero Soars On Nostalgia, But Will Its Comeback Crash?

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Classic early '80s slapstick superhero show The Greatest American Hero is careening back into action, with a new comic book, online animated shorts and a new movie in the pipeline. The news drew cheers from a packed audience at San Diego Comic-Con, but does the '70s show have something to say to today's youth, or is it just an attempt to collect the tall dollar from nostalgia-prone Gen-Xers?

The GAH panel at Comic-Con was ostensibly to announce a Greatest American Hero comic book miniseries. (To be published in early 2009 by original star William Katt's own Catastrophic Comics.) But additional revelations abounded: a web-based animated series of shorts are in the works, which will form a lost episode bridging Seasons One and Two of the show, and castmembers Connie Sellecca and Robert Culp responded positively to the idea of reprising their characters. Also, even though a GAH movie is already in development with director Steven Herek, the show's creator, Steven J. Cannell, has his own updated feature-length Greatest American Hero script completed. Cannell says he has financial backers lined up, and a three hour panel retrospective is scheduled for September 7, 2008 at the Screen Actor's Guild headquarters in Los Angeles.


Speaking for myself, however, the biggest revelation may have come from creator Cannell's videotaped statement, where he stated that, out of the dozens of shows he's created and worked on, The Greatest American Hero has been by far the most popular. "We put the show out on DVD recently," said Cannell, "And it proceeded to fly off the shelves." (Cannell, sadly, did not mention whether it flew off the shelves and directly into the windows and concession racks.)

You may well remember The Greatest American Hero fondly, especially if you've got the mad love for TV shows whose theme songs were initially a million times more popular than the show itself. To say nothing of shows starring Connie Sellecca. Cannell created the show when the setting on his adjustable scale of Delicious Cheese was sliding from Rockford Files toward The A Team. It focused on Ralph Hinkley, a hapless teacher who must struggle with superpowers after an alien gives him a supersuit and Ralph loses the instructions. Long before Hancock drunkenly smashed his way through buildings, Ralph - with the aid of tough as nails FBI guy Bill Maxwell (Culp) - tottered and bobbled across the blue-screen skies of Los Angeles, repeatedly smacking into concrete walls...and our hearts. Aww...

GAH is remembered with fondness by select members of my geek generation - who were desperate for anything remotely science fictionish in their popular media - and by Mike Post's bank account, as his theme song spent a staggering 18 weeks in the American Top 40 in 1981. Because of the former, the excitement was tangible at the Comic-Con panel, where the cast of the show - Katt, Sellecca, Culp, and stunt double Dennis "Danger" Madalone - reunited onstage for the first time in twenty-five years. Each member got his/her own montage, including an Elton John infused number showing seemingly every pratfall, collision, and car-stopping gag performed by Madalone which, in these post-CGI times, are even more striking now than they were then.


Each member of the panel had an attempt to explain the contuing appeal of the show with Robert Culp giving the most profound explanation. "This is a retelling in modern terms, of the Arthur/Merlin story," said Culp. "With my role filling in for Merlin. Merlin taught Arthur how to pull the sword from the stone, and then proceeded to boss him around constantly from that point on. The Greatest American Hero is an updating of that myth in a fun and exciting way."

While Culp's explanation is charmingly Joseph Campbellesque, I wonder if maybe a better explanation wasn't offered by stunt double Madalone, while talking about trying on the red tights: "When I tried on those red tights for the first time, suddenly I remembered being five years old and dressing up in my own red tights and jumping off my bunkbed when I was a kid. And, of course, I jumped and landed face-first against my clothes bureau." For all of us who dressed up as superheroes and jumped and fell from trees and fences when we were young, The Greatest American Hero really may have been not just a simple superhero panacea for the early '80s, but something every klutzy and bright-eyed dreamer could believe in...or not.


This post has been updated to correct author's recurring Orwellian doublethink with regards to decades. Thanks to io9 commenters for their non-lynchy corrections!