Stephen J. Cannell has created a number of hard-boiled (and usually one-named) antiheroes during his career– from Hunter, Baretta and (Mr.) T to both Hardcastle and McCormick. But for a whole generation of folks now in their early- to mid-30s, Ralph Hinkley — mild-mannered high school teacher turned “The Greatest American Hero”– stands out among Cannell’s crime-cluttered oeuvre as an icon of a time when first-generation CGI special effects, corny comic banter and an immensely hummable soft rock theme song were all we needed to keep us glued to the small screen on a Wednesday night. Soon, MTV and the cable revolution would change everything.
Now, nearly a quarter-century since it first flew on to the air, “Hero” is back via a handsome DVD collection of the show’s 1981 first-season spring run (a two-hour pilot plus seven additional episodes). Not surprisingly, the idea of aliens turning regular-guy William Katt into a flying do-gooder just by giving him a pair of tights isn’t quite as transfixing for an adult brain that’s now seen Tobey Maguire and Keanu Reeves performing Cirque du Soleil acts in midair.
But while “Hero” doesn’t hold up as sci-fi or fantasy, the show’s many other charms remain intact.
As Katt explains during an extended interview (one of the set’s several bonus features), “Hero” was a show that “appealed to the 14-year-old inner guy” in viewers, the teenage boy who wondered “what if” at the idea of suddenly being blessed with superpowers. (Or, “what if” Connie Sellecca was their loving 1980s feminist girlfriend).
At its heart, “Hero” was a comedy: Katt’s Mr. Hinkley loses the instruction book for his superhero suit right from the start, resulting in dozens of pratfalls and comic misunderstandings throughout the show’s entire 45-episode run.
He’s also paired with a paranoid Cold Warrior/ FBI agent (Robert Culp) giving the show the same sort of Greatest Generation vs. Baby Boom conflict seen in countless sitcoms of the age, from “All in the Family” to “Three’s Company.”
While the season one “Hero” collection doesn’t include any commentary tracks, it has something better: Extended, interviews with Cannell and the show’s core cast. From these we learn that then-ABC drama chiefs Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey first approached Cannell with the idea for a superhero show; that Katt and Culp really did loathe each other (at least early on); and that the alien logo on the supersuit was inspired by a pair of scissors on Cannell’s desk.
“Hero” die-hards will also appreciate the inclusion of the pilot for “The Greatest American Heroine,” a spinoff skein shot a couple years after the original series ended. “Heroine” never took off, and with good reason: It’s a virtual carbon copy of the original’s pilot, save for a female lead and a really annoying child prodigy in the Robert Culp sidekick role.
A better bonus — one that would have had fans of the show, um, walking on air — might have been a featurette on the history of “Hero’s” theme, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard pop singles chart and remains a staple of many 1980s compilation CDs.