Given the fact that superhero stories have dominated our television and movie screens for almost two full decades, it can be easy to forget that there was an earlier wave of them decades ago.

This '70s-era micro-boom followed in the wake of the extraordinary, absurd and fantastically entertaining Batman TV series of the '60s, and included TV shows like Shazam (CBS), Wonder Woman (ABC/CBS), The Incredible Hulk (CBS) and the Christopher Reeve-led Superman, which was the first prestige superhero film ever made.

Unfortunately, one of the most lovable projects from that time is also one of the most often forgotten: The Greatest American Hero, which ran on ABC from March 18, 1981, until Feb. 3, 1983, and helped save the career of television super-writer Stephen J. Cannell.

Cannell got his start on the Universal series It Takes a Thief in 1968, and five years later was creating his shows, including The Rockford Files, Baretta and Baa Baa Black Sheep. In 1979, Cannell struck out on his own, leaving Universal to form Stephen J. Cannell Productions. His first attempt was a detective show for ABC that for some reason was called Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, which failed after a single season.

Cannell needed a hit or at least a show that proved he could make a go of it with his own company. And he got one, or just enough of one, with The Greatest American Hero.

Watch the Opening Credits of 'The Greatest American Hero'

The show starred William Katt, who had made his name in the '70s cinema classics Big Wednesday and Carrie. His high school teacher named Ralph Hinkley has landed the unenviable job of working with the school's most problematic students. In the pilot, Hinkley takes these students on a field trip in the desert, where they meet an obstreperous FBI agent named Bill Maxwell (Robert Culp) before their van breaks down.

When Hinkley decides to go for help, he runs into Maxwell again. The two are then approached by an alien spaceship, which delivers a red costume to Hinkley along with the message that he is to use it to create good in the world. The suit gives its wearer several superhero powers, and it comes with an instruction manual – which Hinkley immediately loses.

It was a quirky opening, half-dramatic social messaging and half-comedic superhero satire, and it presages virtually the entirety of this series. Throughout its three seasons, Hinkley teams up with the curmudgeonly Maxwell, some of his students, and occasionally even his divorce lawyer Pam Davidson (Connie Sellecca) and uses the powers of the suit to do heroic things – everything from chasing down arsonists to preventing World War III to helping citizens under threat of eviction from their homes. Yet it was usually in a bumbling way because he doesn't have any instructions for it.

The charm of the show exists in this quirkiness. In the best moments, The Greatest American Hero becomes not so much a superhero show as one that poses a series of comedic questions about the idea of superheroes. Hinkley, for example, never really learns to fly very well, and when the suit sends him into the air he tends to flail around, waving his arms and legs, until he crashes at his destination.

That feels exactly right, because what normal person would also immediately become cool if they were suddenly granted superpowers? It's funny because it points out all kinds of absurdities that ordinary, serious superhero fare tends to ignore.

Watch the Opening Credits of 'The Greatest American Hero'

Arguably, however, the show's greatest impact didn't come from what appeared on the screen, but from its title song. Written by prolific TV theme writer Mike Post with lyrics by Stephen Geyer, and sung by Joey Scarbury, "Theme from The Greatest American Hero (Believe it or Not)" is a yacht-rock anthem whose longevity has long outstripped that of the show. It spent 18 weeks in the Billboard Top 40, reaching No. 2 and hitting No. 1 internationally. It's a staple of '80s best-of compilations, and through the years appeared in everything from an Alvin and the Chipmunks album to Seinfeld, The Family Guy, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

The show itself has continued to be beloved by fans. Anchor Bay released The Greatest American Hero on DVD in the early '00s – but annoyingly replacing almost all of the original music other than the theme song with cheap knock-offs of '90s hit songs. There have long been rumors of a remake: Actress Hannah Simone at one point was featured in a pilot for a reboot, which ABC declined to pick up.

In the end, The Greatest American Hero was only a middling success when it originally aired, but its offbeat sensibility and extraordinary theme song have granted the show a place in television history.

Perhaps its most lasting impact was the way it helped propel Stephen J. Cannell's career forward into the '80s. Buoyed by having his first self-produced success under his belt, he would go on to create some of the decade's biggest shows, including Hardcastle and McCormick, Riptide, Hunter and, of course, The A-Team.

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