On September 7, 2008, Stephen J. Cannell, the writer-creator of The Greatest American Hero, openly announced that a movie based on the hit TV series was “in the works.” The announcement came at the Screen Actor’s Guild 25th Anniversary Reunion in Hollywood, CA.
If Cannell had any doubts about the movie project going through, it wasn’t evident at this time. He went so far as to promise “acting jobs, not just cameos” for original TGAH cast members Connie Sellecca, William Katt and Robert Culp. Sellecca and Katt were both in attendance at the time of Cannell’s announcement.
Cannell was not one to make empty promises. According to Cannell’s comments, which were reported by SciFiWire on Sept 9, 2008 and re-published by ComicBookMovie.com, the movie roles for the Sellecca, Katt and Culp were “absolutely guaranteed.” You can read the whole thing here.
What Caused the Greatest American Hero Movie Project to Stall?
Fast-forward to April 16, 2009. Despite having a completed script, a director, and a lead actor cast for the role of Ralph Hinkely, the big-screen version of The Greatest American Hero was over before it began. The reason? A lack of financial backing. Reportedly, Cannell’s vision of the movie was high-tech, with special effects and stunts that were a far cry from the cheesy, low-budget sequences in the TV series.
Eric Christian Olsen, who had a contract in hand for the red-suited role of Ralph Hinkley, reportedly explained, “They didn’t have financing in place. But yeah, I booked it – but because the budget was so huge they couldn’t get the money.” Olsen’s disappointment was shared by longtime Greatest American Hero fans who found him to be a good choice for the role.
Director Stephen Herek was already on deck for the project, bringing his action-adventure direction experience from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “The Mighty Ducks.” But in Hollywood, projects come and go in the blink of an eye.
What the Greatest American Hero Movie Could Have Been
According to Eric Christian Olsen, the script was “really funny” and contained “a lot of cool stunts.” He told MovieHole that the script TGAH movie scriptwas built around an ordinary guy who got in over his head; a premise that is true to the original TV program.
According to a fan who claims to have seen parts of the script, the movie’s ending had a heartwarming, optimistic note. At the climax of the story, Ralph Hinkley is outmatched by a powerful enemy, facing certain doom. Suddenly he’s rescued by the combined forces of the Greatest Russian Hero, the Greatest Chinese Hero and a few other nations with their own red-suited champions. Apparently, the alien “green guys” empowered a human in each nation with a super-powered suit in an effort to preserve the Earth.
If only the movie project itself had such a happy ending.
The Greatest American Hero Movie Facts According to William Katt
During a podcast interview on March 21, 2011, Katt explained that some ten years ago, he and original series co-stars Robert Culp and Connie Sellecca, were interested in a TV reunion and reboot of the show. Together they created a pilot for the concept. When bouncing the idea off of Stephen Cannell, Katt learned of Cannell’s big-screen movie project.
According to Katt, Cannell pitched the idea to Sony, and then later to Disney. Despite an “excellent” script by Paul Hernandez, an agreement couldn’t be reached for the project. Cannell took ownership of the project back, and reportedly it was last in the hands of 20th-Century Fox, where it has apparently stalled.
Did The Greatest American Hero Movie Die with Robert Culp and Stephen Cannell?
Bill Maxwell FBIActor Robert Culp, who played the role Federal Agent Bill Maxwell, passed away on March 24, 2010 at the age of 79.
Culp’s brilliant interpretation of Agent Maxwell added to both the action and comedic elements of the show. In The Greatest American Hero, Maxwell was an unusual superhero’s sidekick – a hard-bitten, old-school Fed who saw himself as the brains of the outfit. Ralph may have had the power suit, but the scenarios were usually Maxwell’s. He collected the credit – and sometimes the blame – for the exploits accomplished with Ralph and the red super-suit.
Culp would have welcomed the opportunity to reprise his role as Agent Maxell, even in a passing-of-the-torch role in the big-screen movie. Had the film project proceeded as scheduled, he could have had the chance.
As a highly-acclaimed writer and producer, it’s likely that Stephen J. Cannell would have eventually found the support he wanted for the movie. His website speaks of the movie project in present tense, describing it as “in development.” The date of this comment, while unspecific, appears to have been posted between 2009 and 2010.
Whether the “in development” status was posted before, or after, the project halt in April 2009 is unknown. There have been no further updates to the site.
Meanwhile, the distribution rights to The Greatest American Hero, along with several other Cannell productions, were sold to Mill Creek Entertainment in 2009. The announcement was made by Mill Creek Entertainment on October 14, 2009, several months after the reported stall of The Greatest American Hero movie.
Stephen J. Cannell died on September 30, 2010, at the age of 69, of complications from melanoma. His death came just a few months after the passing of Robert Culp.
Other works of Cannell did see big-screen adaptations; the A-Team in June of 2010, and 21 Jump Street in March of 2012.
Greatest American HeroThe Greatest American Hero: the Fans and the Future
Despite the discouragement, fans of The Greatest American Hero have not given up hope that the big-screen movie will someday see theaters. Superheroes are an American cinema staple, and The Greatest American Hero is a unique concept that could be highly marketable for the movies. The idea of an everyday person who becomes endowed with tremendous power and responsibility – and bungles his way through it all – remains a fresh take on the genre.
William Katt remains popular with fans today and enjoys a strong Facebook following. He briefly worked on a comic book version of The Greatest American Hero, but lost the licensing to a business partner. Rather than pursue the exhaustive comic book project with little hope of return, with no business control to speak of, Katt let the comic book go and turned his focus elsewhere. Copies of the brief comic book series are sometimes found on ebay.
Katt still makes appearances at fan conventions and Comic-con. He also remains active in film, and played the villain in the recently-released thriller Sparks.
Will The Greatest American Hero movie ever fly? It could, but it will require a leap of faith by 20th-Century Fox.
Turning comic books into movies isn't a new thing, but one comic creator went about it in a very backward way.
He started as a TV superhero and then wrote a comic book movie.
But for William Katt, going backward is something his fans would expect. After all, the clumsy caped crusader he played on The Greatest American Hero fought crime in an unconventional and even haphazard way.
Now, Katt has just finished filming an indie movie called Sparks that evolved from a comic he co-wrote with Christopher Folino. Based in a dark, noir world that resembles the 1940's, Sparks establishes a whole universe of heroes, villains and wise guys, played by beloved genre actors like Clint Howard, Clancy Brown and Jake Busey — along with a new genre actor named Chase Williamson.
"I've always been a comic book aficionado, so this was my kind of story," Katt told Newsarama about the idea behind Sparks. "After we wrote the comic a few years ago, we made the motion comic, but we really wanted to go ahead and make a movie out of it, but it didn't come together until the last half of last year. All of the sudden, it was like, hey, we've got the financing, let's go ahead and do it! So we changed the story a little for film, and now it's done."
"We had gained so much experience making toy commercials and [we] worked with such an amazing crew over the last two years that we invested in our people," Folino said, "and we were like, 'Let's do this.'" Katt as Mantanza
Katt was cast in the film as Mantanza, the steampunk-inspired villain of the movie. He and Folino also attracted Busey and Brown with the script. "And I've worked in three films with Clint Howard," Katt said. "He's a great friend of mine."
But the real challenge came when Katt and Folino started looking for an actor to play main character Ian Sparks. They landed on a new face in Hollywood, Chase Williamson, who got a lot of positive buzz at the recent Sundance Film Festival for his role next to Paul Giamatti in the comedy-horror flick John Dies At The End. Chase Williamson Riley Rose Critchlow & Chase Williamson
"I read the script [for Sparks] and I loved it immediately," Williamson told Newsarama of the role. "I think it's a really cool twist on the whole superhero genre"
The character of Sparks "grows up wanting to be a superhero after a tragedy, and he moves out to the big city to make it happen," Williamson said. "And then everything falls apart, and he turns his back on it. Then he finds himself being drawn back into it. Ashley Bell and Williamson
"I thought it was a really interesting and human approach to how someone might actually handle wanting to be a vigilante crimefighter, and not being able to fulfill those goals," he said. "And how it might affect you psychologically. And I thought it was really well observed and really interesting, and fun to explore."
In the film, Sparks ends up meeting the feisty superheroine Lady Heavenly, played by Ashley Bell. "In the Sparks world, there are superheroes who have powers and superheroes that don't, and villains and thugs that exist within the world," Bell explained. "My character is a crimefighter, and she has no powers, but she's a straight-up fighter. She's been a crusader in this city, maintaining control, until she meets her match with Sparks. And they team up. Clancy Brown
Bell is best known to horror fans as the star of The Last Exorcism — and its upcoming sequel — and she's a fan of Katt because of his roles in horror movies like Carrie and House. But it was the chance to play Lady Heavenly that attracted Bell to Sparks.
"It's a strong female role," she said. "When you find those, as an actress — to be able to find a strong character who is very sensual, but at the same time can kick serious ass — you just grab onto roles like that."
To get ready for the movie, Bell trained in Muay Thai fighting. Jake Busey
"Half of my appearances in the film are me fighting, and Lady Heavenly speaks through her fighting and action and ass-kicking, for lack of better word," Bell laughed. "I'm only 5'3" and my first time out, I kick four guys. I pulverize them. So I thought, what would be the most realistic? And Chris sent me to Muay Thai fighting for all of pre-production. It was so much fun."
Folino, who co-directed the movie with Todd Burrows, said the film was shot over two weeks with a top-notch crew and facilities. "It wasn't a small production," Folino said. "We have stunts, explosions, classic cars and great acting. And it looks amazing." Clint Howard
The filmmakers are done filming, and they're now editing the movie. But they haven't made a distribution deal yet. "We know we can get distribution with the cast alone," Folino said. "The aim is theatrical. We feel the movie is that special and strong. I know a great deal of indie films have illusions of grandeur however.
"We self-financed the movie, so we don't have to rush it and we can be very selective," Folino said. "It's an awesome feeling to walk into the edit bay and see Sparks being created on screen. From creating the comic book to the motion comic book, and now seeing it on film, it's where the characters and story belong."
EXCLUSIVE: Stephen J. Cannell and William Katt talk about the past and the future of “Greatest American Hero,” including a planned flight into film. “We’ve got a script … it will happen,” Cannell said. He also touches on the “A-Team” and “21 Jump Street” movies.
'Greatest American Hero'
Stephen J. Cannell groaned when a pair of ABC executives first broached the idea of creating a superhero show. “I never got superheroes. I had severe dyslexia as a kid so I didn’t really get into reading comics. And then when I became a writer I didn’t like them because they had everything. If the only thing that can get you is a piece of kryptonite then that’s not very interesting to me; I was always more interested in the flaws in character.”
Finding flaws in tough guys has been a signature success for Cannell, who created or co-created “The Rockford Files,” “Baretta,” “The A-Team,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” “The Commish” and “21 Jump Street.” On that day in 1980, he wasn’t enthused about the notion of spending time with a man in tights, but he also didn’t say no. “I had learned never to say no in an office; I once said no to Brandon Tartikoff on a pitch of ‘MTV cops’ and that turned out to be ‘Miami Vice’…”
The “maybe” on that day soon became “Greatest American Hero,” a quirky and often heartfelt show about a schoolteacher who gets a mysterious costume of alien origin but loses the “instruction book” that tells him how to use its super-power gifts. Years before “Hancock” and “The Incredibles” toyed with the comedic possibilities of frustrated heroes trying to get by in a workaday world, Cannell’s “Hero” was flying a shaky course in the sky.
There’s a revival of sorts underway for the under-appreciated show: William Katt, the man who wore the red suit, has launched a comic book title that continues the adventures; there are new animated shorts being made for online (featuring the voices of original cast members); and, most notably, Cannell is in talks about a film remake that would introduce the brand to a new generation already accustomed to superhero spoofs after “Sky High,” “Superhero Movie,” “Zoom” and “My Super Ex-Girlfriend.” A few months ago there was also a tribute to the 1981-1983 series hosted by the Screen Actor’s Guild Foundation, and at Comic-Con International this summer the original cast was stunned by the huge and vocal response to its reunion panel.
Stephen J. CannellI recently visited Cannell’s office over on Hollywood Boulevard and we were joined by Katt for a conversation about a show that was ahead of its time and may soon be taking flight in pop culture again. “That show,” Cannell said, “was just one of my favorites. I’ve had a lot of success but this show was one of the high points. We had the right actors. The right writers. The right cinematographers. The right tone. It was never a struggle to make.”
As a young television fan at the time, it was one of my favorites, too, so it was a treat for me to hear some of their war stories about it.
Cannell had left Universal after eight years and started, in effect, his own freestanding mini-studio. He had a three-pilot deal with ABC and after the first series, “Tenspeed and Brownshoe” (starring Jeff Goldblum and Ben Vereen), fizzled he was looking for No. two. ABC executives Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner wanted something with capes and Cannell chewed on the idea until it occurred to him that the secret sauce of “The Rockford Files” might work again.
“With ‘Rockford,’ the idea was ‘How would I act if I were a private detective?’ I wouldn’t act like Sam Spade. I wouldn’t act like Joe Mannix. If someone pulled a gun on me I wouldn’t say, ‘I’m going to feed that to you.’ I’d give them my car and I’d give them my watch. There was a certain kind of logic that was missing from these guys and if I put that in, a certain survival instinct, would it be funny? We started this show with this idea: ‘What if I, Stephen Cannell, were out in the desert and a spinning ship came down and aliens gave me a suit that would let me fly? What would that do to my life? And what if it was a really stupid-looking suit? If had to prance around in this thing, what would my friends say? What happens if you shine the light of reality on this genre? It gets very funny.”
Cast of 'Greatest American Hero'Cannell said he would only do the show if it was the suit that had the powers, not the character. “When he takes it off he is the same as you or me. And the suit will become the instrument that will destroy his life. The first time you get caught in it, you can tell your wife or girlfriend that you’re on the way to a costume party. But the second time, well, you’re toast.”
Casting began and a script ended up reaching Katt, who was in New York doing stage work. He wasn’t looking to do a television series. “I was starring off-Broadway, doing a play with Dianne Wiest at the time, but the script had me laughing out loud.” Cannell flew east, caught a performance of the show and then he and the actor went to the Russian Tea Room. Cannell was confident he had found his new hero. “They need to have physical strength but also accessibility because they have to come into our living room. James Garner, Tom Selleck, Robert Conrad, actors like that. Bill had that in spades.”
Katt remembers: “My agent promised me that we’d do four shows and be off the air. Back then, there was a stigma about doing sci-fi and superhero stuff and I was apprehensive about putting on a costume. It wasn’t like now with Ed Norton and Christian Bale and Robert Downey Jr. There are actors with pedigree and there’s a cachet to do these films. That wasn’t the case then.”
It got worse: Katt came west and visited Cannell’s office at the Paramount lot and was told the suit was waiting for him in the restroom. Cannell had wanted it to be a truly ridiculous garment and designed it for maximum “career-wrecking” effect. “I wanted it to be the sort of suit that a teacher would lose his job if he got caught wearing it.” Katt remembers it was a stupendous and awful success. “I thought it was career-wrecking for me. It sagged in all the wrong places.”
Still, Katt became Ralph Hinkley, the special-ed schoolteacher (a career that resonated with Cannell due to his learning disability as a youngster) who gets the suit. Robert Culp (of “I Spy” fame) was brought in to play Bill Maxwell, the old-school FBI agent who becomes Hinkley’s odd-couple partner against crime, and Connie Selleca played his suffering girlfriend, attorney Pam Davidson. For the entire series, 44 episodes in all, Katt looked wildly uncomfortable in the suit. “It really did work,” Katt said. “I only appreciated it in the aftermath.”
What also worked was that Katt, the theater upstart, and Culp, who had been a television actor since the 1950s, did not get along well on the set and the friction only heightened the abrasive banter between their characters, who were opposites in politics, disposition and generational sensibility. “You couldn’t put us in the same room without a verbal confrontation about how we were going to approach a certain aspect or scene or something and neither of us was going to back down.”
Did the pair ever soften toward each other? “We did reach a sort of détente … although we were never buddies we did find a good working relationship on set.”
Katt says it wasn’t until recently that he could really appreciate “Hero” and its special niche in television and genre history. “At that time, I didn’t get what Stephen was trying to do. The further away from it I got the more perspective I got. I understand the show now. I watch the show now and I laugh out loud. I didn’t at the time”
Earlier this year, Katt joined a partnership to launch Catastrophic Comics and one of his first thoughts was to check with Cannell on the possibility of doing a series based on his old cape franchise. Cannell gave his blessing and Catastrophic teamed up with another outfit, Arcana Studios, to produce the book. This past summer, Katt went to Comic-Con International in San Diego to promote the comic and also sit together on a panel with Culp and Selleca to celebrate the show’s history and promote the animated online shorts. “Connie grabbed my arm and said, ‘What if no one shows up?’ I told her I had the same fear. But we walked into this huge conference room and it was just mobbed.” The spirit of revival continued with the SAG tribute.
“Thanks to this man right here,” Katt said, nodding toward Cannell, “we have something that still holds up and holds the attention of people. And there’s going to be more coming …”
“Yes,” Cannell said, “the feature film is moving forward. We have a script. We have a director. I’m in the middle of making the deal now for distribution. We have a bite now. It will happen. It’s a PG movie, not a PG-13. We want to have all kids be able to go see it. I want all the 7-year-olds to be able to go and their parents will remember the show and want to share it with them. It needs to be funny but with one foot on the ground in reality.”
Cannell said there will be familiar faces in the film. “Bill and the other original cast will make an appearance too,” he said. “I want them to be in and not just opening and closing a door. I feel a loyalty to them and adore them. Secondly, I think audiences like it. And it’s not good when it doesn’t happen. I know Robert Conrad, he’s a real good friend and they didn’t put him in ‘Wild, Wild West‘ and that wasn’t positive for anyone. I want to do the same thing with the ‘A-Team’ movie. John Singleton is directing the ‘A-Team’ and settling in on casting, we have been looking at Bruce Willis, Woody Harrelson and Ice Cube but I’d want the original guys to feel welcome. And we’re also doing ’21 Jump Street.‘ It’d be amazing to get Johnny [Depp] back in … I mean, if he’ll come! He’s not exactly looking for a job. But I think he might. Johnny always thought the show was a bubble-gum show and I don’t think he ever realized how good it was. He was always, ‘Get me out of here,’ but to his credit he was a pro, he was a good star. He always knew his words and he came to play. When he was getting movie offers he stayed and finished his commitment. A solid, solid citizen. He wasn’t happy doing the show but I think he looks back on it fondly.”
No project is closer to Cannell’s heart, though, than the “Hero” film project and he clearly thinks the superhero cinema age has made a revival a smart business choice. In addition to the old cast, he said fans of the series can expect to hear that old familiar song too, “Theme from Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)” by Joey Scarbury, which soared all the way to No. 2 on the U.S. pop singles chart. “That was huge,” Cannell said.
Hmmm. All this talk of a remake makes the mind wander. Who could handle the re-recording of the theme song? Maroon 5 seems like a natural. And, the big question, who would wear the costume this time around? Owen Wilson? How about Will Ferrell? Maybe Jason Segel from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”?
I had one last question for Cannell: Ralph won’t find that alien instruction book this time around, will he? “Oh no. Not that. Never. What fun would that be?”
— Geoff Boucher
“Greatest American Hero” photos from the Los Angeles Times archive and courtesy of ABC. Photo of Stephen J. Cannell by Percy C. Riddle/Los Angeles Times.
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Managing Editor: Television @Variety_Cynthia
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.
The Greatest American Hero