How I helped “The Greatest American Hero” By Richard Coyle 

I was working as a professional propmaker in Hollywood during the 80s. I did work at two prop supplying/rental shops, the first named “Modern Props” and the second being “The Hand Prop Room.” 

A number of my props appeared in the TV Show, “The Greatest American Hero” rented from both of these shops.

 Most of them showed up in the second season. 

Initially I had made a few props over at “Modern Props” as possible Star Trek props. I had done these at pure spec (that is, generic concept props that might be requested if they actually present to be ordered, so we “Dreamed” up a few so they would be on the shelf, just in case..) work, such as a combat helmet and a medical scanner.

 Then I went to work at “The Hand Prop Room.”

 My boss in the prop fabrication shop was Mr. John Ramsey; he had worked on the first year on ”he Greatest American Hero” making the pilot/first season’s “Instruction Book” and the costume carrying case. This was such a success he was now being called upon to do an upgraded Instruction Book for the new season.

 And I was given the job. After all, I was their new science fiction and electronics prop maker.

 There were two books used within the show. The first one (John’s) was simple, as it was planned and scripted that is was to be lost right in the beginning.

 But now the new one was wanted to be more functional on-screen.

 For the New Working Book we brainstormed:

We were asked to light up the view screen, so I suggested using multi-screens by edge lighting each with each having its own alien writing and having multi switches and latching relays. 

As I had the original book to guide me I set to work copying it as much as possible. One major change was I had to line up the two rows of triangle pushbuttons (the first one had staggered spacing) this was needed for the switches and next we enlarged the view screen.

 The electronics were to have a micro switch under each pushbutton plate and to also have latching relays; that is a relay that once activated will stay on until you cut power. Thus the lights powered by this relay are turned on by a short push of the button would then stay on until we wanted them to go off.

 There was one button that would break the power flow to these relays for the cut off function.

 We did three screens and had the three buttons on the top row control them; each button would, when pushed, light up and hold the screen light on until turned off.

And each screen was laid out so that IF viewed straight on, they would interlace, this was planned as an “In-camera Effect”

 I copied all the insignia and then had to find a way to do an alien language. Now note, this was back in the 80’s; there were no PC computers yet, so I had to find an engraver to draw and cut these plates. We ended up doing our own symbols and having Hebrew done upside down and backwards.

This was one way to make an alien looking language in no time, harvesting the lettering used in present day languages and altering them creatively.

 Following two weeks of work, we sent it in, and it is rejected. They did not like the screws that held the faceplate on. I made and glued a new faceplate on. We also added some tape to help highlight the view screen, but it was removed before filming. A taste of things to come?

 When they aired the show I discovered that almost all my effort was wasted, as they did not understand how the screens worked AND that I could have gotten them made in English and that they could be replaced easily.

 In the show they did not use my wonderful lighting screens, they did not use my three alien lighted screens with the canceling button. They took the single blank page and put an alien language on it and then, when Ralph looked at it, it changed to English, all done with special effects.

 And then he “lost” it again: so there was little to no hope that it would be used in future shows and we might get a chance to use the lighted screens someday, and sadly the show ended before he ever did find the book.

So that is the saga of the Second Season Working Instruction Book!

 This how the prop worked: the top row of pushbuttons lighted one plate with alien writing on it as each button was pushed. And/or you could light one page with, say, any of top row buttons and then turn it off with the cancel button on the lower left row. So you could light one at a time or all three at a time.

 The other two lower row buttons were to turn on the tabs on the edge of the book and to turn them off again.

 And, here is more from my little end of the film world, including more pictures of other props and things that made their way into this show and the stories behind them. So here are the stories of my other props that actually ended up on this show:

 In the second season premiere:

Ralph gets shot, and Bill rushes out to meet the aliens in a Hot Dog vender’s truck, a converted VW Bus. With a Hot Dog out front and rear.

For this scene I was asked IF I could take a then state of the art Police Radar Unit and make it read 113 MPH on command. (After all you really could not get a VW Micro Bus up to 113 MPH…nor would anyone want to try…)

 I removed the cover and saw that it used a then standard TTL DIP style ICs and these were standard 7490s and 7447 LED drivers. I know that these were switched by taking certain pins low (or to ground) so I got out my IC book and took a couple of these chips out of my working stock, bent the pins up outside the sockets and hardwired them to the ground pin on each IC, the three Counter ICs were then hardwired to display 1 and 1 and 3.

I then unplugged the original three ICs and put them away for safe keeping and plugged in my modified ICs and, Voila, powered up and it read 113 MPH. All was done in about one hour.

When they came back and asked if I could do it, I said, “How’s this?” and turned it on for them.

 They were floored! 

Funny, (and some what frustrating) I had created a new instruction book from nothing, and many other props all taking hours and weeks to do, and THIS was going to become my reputation making moment, I was called “MR. Wizard” from that day on at The Hand Prop Room. (Guess making props was one thing, changing and making a real thing do what we wanted was another)

 So that Speed Radar that spots the Hot Dog VW bus going 113 was my handiwork.

 And once we get to the alien’s ship where Ralph was being mended we get to see another prop of mine, the hand held controller that the alien uses to control the healing chamber and release Ralph.

 Extra little bit about the controller, it was originally made for Dr. McCoy for Star Trek, as his new medical scanner, but it did not get used. Until here with a added on box covering the lower part.

 And it does show up again in “The Last Starfighter” as Centauri’s communicator.

 But back to Greatest American Hero:

 Next was the small pocket communicator Ralph and Bill uses; I added the green detail part, a green transistor heat sink.

 And then there is the Camera Helmet that Ralph is tricked into using to photograph our missile bases over the North Pole.


 This was from Modern Props and was meant as a future combat Helmet, one with built in radio, day and night vision camera and view screen with telescopic viewing, and range finding and with gold covered visor for laser and atomic blast flare shielding but no, it is just a camera helmet.

 Wait, it also got a bit on “Airwolf” as a thought controller helmet to a super jet fighter that almost defeats “Airwolf”.

And also from Modern Props was the Pulse Rifle used in the show with the Ninjas, great showing with a bunch of shots of it firing, and those lights in the gun barrel are my working bright incandescent lamps. 

One of the reasons I enjoyed a career in Hollywood, I could really make with the “winky blinkies.” Bright light effects and leds. 

That’s all, folks.

Richard Coyle


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