Meet the brilliant designer behind 'The Greatest American Hero' costume

By: Peter Greenwood     Posted: January 30, 2017, 4:58PM

Image: The Everett Collection

In the annals of television costume design, there are few who can claim to have set as many trends and inspired science fiction fans quite like Jean-Pierre Dorléac.

Dorléac was a giant in the field. His work includes classic costumes from the original late-'70s staples Battlestar: Galatica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, as well as the romantic time travel film Somewhere in Time, just to name a few.

The French-born designer's work dovetailed a vast knowledge of sartorial history with European sensibilities of style and function. In short, his work was elegant in ways never before seen — and perhaps since — in this genre. So what is the story behind the bright, red, simple supersuit he made for The Greatest American Hero? Was it a down week or did he snooze at the designers table? Not at all. It was another work of sheer, deliberate brilliance as only Jean-Pierre could do.

The iconic insignia on the chest is reported to be based on a pair of scissors found on producer Stephen J. Cannell's desk. Thanks to the symmetry of the logo, shots of our hero, Ralph (William Katt), could be flipped in optical effects to send him in different directions as needed. (However, at times they forgot his wrist watch, which spoiled the continuity as a result.)

The suit has an ancient Greek influence, as did many of the early 1930s and '40s comic book superheros. Perhaps the closest thing to Ralph's super suit can be found in DC Comic's Captain Marvel/Shazam design. However, original flourishes could be found in the details of Ralph's suit. Ralphs tunic top, with its white band around the wait, along with the wide belt adds a classical touch. The shorter black cape, trimmed in red, maked for a much more streamlined look — and fewer optical effects issues. The thing also wouldn't get tangled up as much. (How does Batman get away with such a long, flowing, tangling cape?) From a technical perspective, the suit's color was also designed to not clash with any of the key optical background colors, blue and green.

Of course, the candy-bright red was used to heighten the comedy of the show, as well. William Katt was really not acting when he doned the suit for the first time — he was certain it would be a career-ending role.

Katt was wrong. He is from great classic-TV acting stock, being the son of beautiful Perry Mason actress Barbara Hale (Della Street) and the no-less-dashing Bill Williams  of The Adventures of Kit Carson. Clearly Katt's DNA contained the formula for small screen talent, and his deft acting on Greatest American Hero shows this to be true in a super way.

So, the red suit was in the good hands on two fronts. Tune in to see it in action on Heroes and Icons, as The Greatest American Hero airs Saturdays at 10AM | 9C and 11AM | 10C as part of our Comic Book Heroes block.