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‘Greatest American Hero’ flies again? Believe it or not, yes

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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.

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.

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I 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.”

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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