The Greatest American Hero “The Hit Car” (part 1 of 9)

SUMMARY: English teacher/superhero Ralph Hinkley and FBI agent Bill Maxwell travel to San Francisco to try to protect a federal witness. As usual, our boys are in way over their heads, and over the course of the episode, the bad guys manage to slice Bill up worse than Katherine Helmond in Brazil. Meanwhile, Ralph’s students stage Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which mainly involves the guys dressing up as she-male hookers.

‘80s nostalgia, like show business, morbid curiosity, and the city of Montreal is a hideous bitch goddess. Recently, for example, I indulged my fond memories of one of that decade’s quintessential TV shows, The Greatest American Hero, by purchasing the season 1 DVD set.

You know those commercials where beautiful fresh vegetables instantly time-lapse into disgusting mush because they weren’t kept in those special vegetable keeper bags that cost $30 a box, payable in three easy installments? That’s what happened to those fond memories when I watched the DVDs.

All the nostalgia I could muster—drifting back to those halcyon Wednesday nights sprawled out on our scratchy polyester sofa enjoying the sight of hapless superhero Ralph careening into the sides of buildings while Bill the FBI guy sputtered out hardboiled snark-bullets—could not prepare me for rediscovering just how brutally cheap, relentlessly stupid, and cheesily formulaic this show really was. Honestly, this show was so bad, its acronym has actually entered the English language as an expression of surprised dismay: GAH!

Fortunately, years of suffering in the Agony Booth have prepared me to enjoy and appreciate Greatest American Hero’s failures—and, for that matter, its secret successes—on a whole new level.

Caption contributed by Mark

Have you hugged your Hinkley today?

I intend to briefly recap all of the (abbreviated) first season eventually, though my head will probably be in a jar next to Leonard Nimoy’s by the time I actually manage to do it. I’m skipping over the pilot movie, which is just as dumb as the rest of the season, but also longer and duller.

What you need to know from the pilot is largely recapped in the opening credits anyway, but here’s the thumbnail: Curly-haired high school special-ed teacher Ralph Hinkley (William Katt) takes his kids out on a nighttime field trip to that well-known, fun, and educational destination known as the middle of the desert. When their bus breaks down, he goes for help, and runs into sarcastic FBI tough guy Bill Maxwell (the recently deceased Robert Culp, who for some reason consistently played Bill as if he were a cross between Clint Eastwood and Paul Lynde).

Ralph and Bill then have a close encounter with a big special effect masquerading as a flying saucer. The unseen aliens, speaking through one of Bill’s dead Fed colleagues (don’t ask), tell super-square dorkmeister Ralph that they’re giving him a suit that gives special abilities only to him (why this guy? Was, I dunno, Mr. Whipple not available?), and Bill will have to help him.

Caption contributed by Mark

”Hi, we’re lost. We’re looking for someone called Jason Nesmith?”

Both men are appalled, but they end up grudgingly working together to foil a plot by a rich industrialist to take over the country by having the U.S. vice president give speeches—really provocative speeches. Seriously, that’s the plot. This is made especially ludicrous given that the veep is played by old softie Richard Herd, whom you may recall as (the later) Admiral Paris, or possibly as Captain Sheridan from T.J. Hooker.

Bill and Ralph outwit the bad guys, even though Ralph loses the suit’s instruction book pretty much the second he gets his hands on it. Hilariously, the instruction book is this totally mundane spiral-bound tabbed handbook the size of a stack of 4×6 index cards. It looks like something put out by Mead for you to look up English-to-Metric conversions.

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So, onto this episode, “The Hit Car”. GAH didn’t do opening teasers—there’s nothing to tease, honestly—so each episode starts with the opening credits, the outstanding feature of which is the title song, ”Theme From Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)”.

Performed by Joey Scarbury, the eminently sing-alongable theme became a big, if ephemeral, hit (as an avid listener of American Top Forty at the time, I actually happen to know the extended three-minute version hit #2 for a week on the Billboard charts), and was a contributing factor to the success of the show, though not to the success of Joey Scarbury.

If you were alive and watching American television in the ‘80s, you probably know, or can guess, that “Believe It or Not” was written by Mike Post, since he wrote the theme song for every single TV series for the entire decade. He’s listed as composer for 115 [!] TV shows, of which the themes to The Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, Law & Order, Murder One, The A-Team, Magnum, P.I., CHiPs, Doogie Howser, M.D., The White Shadow, Quantum Leap, Riptide, and Remington Steele are only the ones permanently lodged in my cranium. (Most of what I remember from The White Shadow is the theme. That, and there was a guy named Salami. What I don’t remember is whether his catch phrase was “Eat me!”—but I know it should have been.)

I watched so much TV in the ‘80s that I feel like Mike Post is somehow a part of me. In fact, when I peed after getting up this morning, I swear a credit flashed on the back of the toilet seat that said “Music by Mike Post”.

Caption contributed by Mark

Mike Post. He’s colonized my soul—what about yours?

Most Mike Post themes are instrumentals and have a similar structure: hard-hitting main theme (usually brass-driven), then a more lyrical B section (usually strings- or guitar-driven), followed by a quick, triumphant reprise of the main theme. Think The A-Team, Rockford Files, or Magnum as examples.

The Greatest American Hero theme, co-written with Stephen Geyer, is unusual in that it’s got lyrics, and is structured like a pop song (in the full version, it goes verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, guitar solo, chorus, chorus). So think of it as the “Where My Heart Will Take Me” of the Mike Post oeuvre.

By today’s standards, the opening credits are long—”Believe It or Not” goes on for two whole verses and attendant choruses, as various shots from the pilot and first few episodes flash by. You could flip the TV on, hear those opening piano chords, and nip into the kitchen to whip up a coq au vin and a tray of martinis before the show actually starts. Okay, clearly I also watched too much Bewitched as a kid.

Here’s a quick rundown of the credits themselves: We start with shots of the spaceship rotating over Bill’s sedan. It’s a pretty cool spaceship, for a cheap TV show from 1981—although the main reason it’s cool is that its design is ripped off from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (neon rings, etc.).

Then Ralph is pulling the bright red super-suit out of the shiny, high-tech black box the aliens gave it to him in. (Samsonite luggage… of the future!) It’s hard to tell whether the “You gotta be kidding me!” look on his face belongs to Ralph or to William Katt, having since heard William Katt still complaining 23 years later on the DVD extras about how much he hated the suit, but I’m betting it’s the latter.

I just know he’s looking at these bright red tights thinking, “I coulda been Luke Skywalker. Now look at me. I wear red pajamas for a living. Just shoot me. Oh wait, you can’t shoot me, I’m a goddamned superhero.”

Caption contributed by Mark

”Man, and I thought the Qiana shirt was a sucky Christmas present.”

(Yeah, Luke Skywalker. The story goes that buds George Lucas and Brian De Palma held joint casting sessions for Star Wars and Carrie, because, you know, the themes are so similar. And the male lead finalists were Mark Hamill and William Katt. So Lucas took one and De Palma got the other. And if that makes you imagine William Katt flying through the corridors of the Death Star, his arms flailing wildly as he accidentally crashes through the hull, sucking a few dozen stormtroopers out into space, then I say… let’s animate that sucker and post it on YouTube while the idea’s still smokin’ hot! C’mon, we’ll be the next Robot Chicken!)

Mark "Scooter" Wilson

Mark is a history guy, a graphics guy, a guy for whom wryly cynical assessments of popular culture are the scallion cream cheese on the toasted everything bagel of life. He spends his time teaching modern history at Brooklyn College, pondering the ancient Romans at the CUNY Graduate Center, and conjuring maps and illustrations for ungrateful bankers at various Manhattan monoliths. Readers are welcome to guess at reasons why he’s nicknamed Scooter, with the proviso that all such submissions are guaranteed to be rather more interesting than the truth. Mark lives in the Midwood section of Brooklyn with a happy-go-lucky, flop-eared dog named Chiyo who is probably, at this very moment, waiting patiently for her walkies.

Multi-Part Article: The Greatest American Hero "The Hit Car"

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