Question: Just wondering. Did William Katt star in anything before The Greatest American Hero
Answer: His big break in the pre-Hero years was as doomed prom king Tommy in 1976's Carrie, Kyle. His first true starring role was as the young Sundance Kid, playing opposite Tom Berenger's Butch Cassidy, in 1979's Butch and Sundance: The Early Days. I'm betting, however, that you missed that one since most people did.
Like it or not, Katt, the son of actors Bill Williams and Barbara Hale (Perry Mason) is best remembered for his work on the ABC series, which ran from March 1981 to February 1983. And to hear him talk at the time, he didn't like the idea of that and quite rightly feared it would happen.
"Well, here I am in my spandex," Katt said during a set visit by a TV Guide reporter in 1982. "Believe it or not, I used to be a serious actor."
The thing was, it's not like Katt ever pretended to love donning the costume found by his schoolteacher character, Ralph Hinkley (known as Hanley for a brief period after John Hinckley Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan). As show creator Stephen Cannell recalled, his distaste was apparent from the moment he first saw himself in it. "Bill came up here and put on the suit and stood in front of that mirror over there for a long time," he said. "Then he made a kind of gurgling sound. I asked what was the matter. He said, 'My god, I look like a fool.'" Cannell briefly feared his show was over before it ever started, but Katt's professional side took over: "Bill sat down and thought a bit and finally he told me, 'I can use this. I can make it work.'"
Luckily for the star, it's difficult to laugh at anyone who's laughing at himself. And from the beginning, the idea was to spoof the comic-book genre. "For starters, the superhero genre is malarkey," Cannell said. "Flying through the air, stopping bullets, lifting cars, nonsense. I wanted a nice-looking Everyman, not some guy with eight miles of jaw, and my Everyman, Ralph Hinkley, is saddled with this ridiculous suit. And to make it more fun, I took away the instructions for the suit."
That he did. And as a result, Ralph Hinkley's signature move was to flail through the air before smashing into the nearest obstacle. The only people happy about that, of course, were those who kept their paychecks coming in producing replacement outfits there were at least 10 on hand at any given time and Katt's stunt double, Dennis Madalone, who never wanted for work so long as Hinkley stunk at taking to the air. ("I am the only one on this show who doesn't hate the suit," Madalone said.)
As I said, though, it's not like Katt's griping was unfounded, since most people's memories of him do indeed wobble aloft in a dopey outfit. His colleagues certainly understood his feelings. "He's a serious young man, and as an actor he feels uneasy being known as a guy who flies around in a red suit and crashes into trees," said costar Robert Culp (I Spy), who played over-the-top FBI agent Bill Maxwell. Cannell, for his part, knew what it meant to be thrust into the limelight. "Put yourself in his place," he said. "He's 32, he's had an acting career where he's been successful but certainly not recognized. Now all of a sudden he's in a show where he gets a lot of recognition. He's a little leery of it; he's not the kind of a guy to run out and says, 'Hey, look at me, I'm a star!'"
Not at all. When pressed, he agreed his show was successful and the public liked him, but he couldn't rid himself of his reservations. As he put it: "I'm still more into human drama than this sort of thing."