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Believe It or Not: ‘The Greatest American Hero’ Joins TV’s Parade of Remakes

Stephen J. Cannell’s “The Greatest American Hero” is suiting up for a revival at Fox, a network that didn’t exist during the show’s initial run on ABC in 1981-83. The quirky action-comedy is one of a spate of classic-TV remakes percolating at the major networks.

Rodney Rothman (“22 Jump Street”) is penning the script for the new “Hero” and will exec produce with Phil Lord and Chris Miller for 20th Century Fox TV. Tawnia McKiernan, a busy TV director who is the daughter of Cannell, will exec produce along with Seth Cohen, head of TV for Lord and Miller’s 20th TV-based banner.

“Hero” had a bumpy run starting as a midseason entry for ABC in March 1981.  But the show remains well-loved among TV buffs for its offbeat mix of comedy and fantasy. The original starred William Katt as a goofy high school teacher who has an alien encounter in the desert one night that leaves him in possession of a red jump suit that gives him superpowers including the ability to fly.

In short order, he loses the suit’s instruction manual and falls in with an FBI agent who persuades him to help fight crime despite his trouble in figuring out how to work the suit. Robert Culp nearly stole the show from Katt in the role of FBI agent Bill Maxwell in the original series — a character so out-there he would occasionally be seen eating dog biscuits straight from a Milkbone box, without generating any comment from other characters. Connie Sellecca, future co-star of ABC’s “Hotel,” played Katt’s sympathetic girlfriend.

“Hero” was known to have been one of the prolific Cannell’s favorite shows from his long run in TV. It marked the first series to get on the air after Cannell struck out as an independent producer following his long tenure at Universal Television, where he co-created the indelible “Rockford Files” and worked on many other shows. Fox took control of the Cannell Prods. library in 1997 with its purchase of New World Communications. (Cannell died in 2010.)

“Hero” yielded a hit record for singer Joey Scarbury with its theme song “Believe It or Not.” But as noted in “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present,” the series had the misfortune of giving Katt’s character, Ralph Hinkley, the same last name as John Hinckley, the man who shot President Reagan just two weeks after “Hero’s” premiere. The character’s name was hastily shortened to “Mr. H” in the classroom.

After its midseason debut, ABC gave “Hero” a full season in the Wednesday 8 p.m. slot in the 1981-82 season, but the following season it bounced around prior to being axed in early 1983.

Fox is certainly not alone in its interest in dipping into the vault for source material. CBS is taking a big swing at reviving a much-loved TV property, “The Odd Couple,” in the coming season with Thomas Lennon and Matthew Perry in the Felix and Oscar roles essayed in the 1970-75 series by Tony Randall and Jack Klugman.

On one hand, remakes are popular with media congloms in the same way that international formats are appealing — because the source material provides a template for development and a built-in recognition factor. On the other hand, the bar is sky high because comparisons to the original will be likely be tough by fans and critics alike. Even 40 years later, Randall and Klugman are a hard act to follow.

  • Among the other vintage-TV remakes buzzing around in development so far this year:
  • “Charmed” — CBS is trying a new spin on the WB Network fantasy soaper (which ran from 1998 to 2006) about three sisters with supernatural powers.
  • “Twilight Zone” — CBS is re-entering the dimension of sight and sound expertly crafted on its air from 1959-64 by the inimitable Rod Serling.
  • “Tales From the Darkside” — George Romero’s 1984 syndicated horror anthology series may live again on the CW
  • “Remington Steele” — NBC wants to rekindle the old spark with a show revolving around the daughter of the detective couple (played by Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist) at the center of the original series that ran from 1982-87.
  • “Full House” — Warner Bros. TV is looking at a reboot of the 1987-95 “TGIF” comedy that made stars of Bob Saget, John Stamos and the Olsen twins. No doubt this is inspired by Disney Channel’s recent success with its “Girl Meets World” sequel to ABC’s “Boy Meets World.”

The Paley Center for Media is hosting a reunion event for the NBC comedy “The Facts of Life” (1979-88) on Sept. 15. A development deal for the property, now controlled by Sony Pictures TV, cannot be far behind.

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