On September 19, 1987, “Once a Hero,” an ABC Saturday night superhero series, debuted to promising reviews and puny ratings.
The premise: Comic-book icon Captain Justice (Jeff Lester) finds himself fading away, so he crosses the Forbidden Zone into the real world – where he has no superpowers – to make readers remember him.
He adopts his comic-book alter ego, mild-mannered archeologist Brad Steele, and soon finds himself battling real-life bad guys with help from his Sam Spade-style sidekick, Gumshoe (Robert Forster).
The duo are woefully out of place in the 1980s: Steele drinks milk, encourages kids to be good students and regularly dons Captain Justice’s crimson tights; the fedora-and-trench-coat-clad Gumshoe calls women “sweetheart” or “toots.”
Other characters included Abner Bevis (Milo O’Shea), the burned-out cartoonist who created Captain Justice three decades earlier; nosy newspaper reporter Emma Greely (Caitlin O’Shea); and Woody (Josh Blake), her 12-year-old son, whose friends thought the captain was “gay” because he didn’t fight crime with an Uzi and had never bedded girlfriend Rachel Kirk.
Critics gave the show’s 90-minute pilot mixed reviews.
“What should have been larkish and spry begins to plod and creak after about the first half hour, and never comes back to life. Yet there are aspects of it worth rooting for,” wrote the Washington Post’s Tom Shales.
In the Los Angeles Times, Howard Rosenberg declared the show was “delightful nonsense and winking good fun.”
Viewers weren’t persuaded: The “Once a Hero” premiere ranked 59th out of 60 prime-time broadcasts in the weekly ratings; its second and third hour-long episodes each finished dead last.
Not helping matters: Some ABC stations didn’t even bother broadcasting “Once a Hero,” airing the syndicated “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in its place.
Forster campaigned to save “Once a Hero,” calling critics to generate publicity (“We can’t let it go without a fight,” he told the Associated Press), but ABC dropped it after the third episode.
A fourth installment, guest starring Adam West as an actor struggling to keep his Captain Justice TV show alive, never aired.
“Once a Hero” creator Dusty Kay told the AP the series was inspired by baseball, not comics:
“Mickey Mantle has been a hero from his late teens to his 30s. He led this fantasy life, then it was over and he had to come down to Earth and live like the rest of us. It says a lot about the nature of heroism.”
Also on TV
On September 19, 1987, ABC also aired “Desperate,” an unsold action pilot; CBS broadcast the 1984 science-fiction flick “The Last Starfighter” and newsmagazine “West 57th;” Fox repeated the two-hour “Werewolf” pilot; and NBC showed reruns of “The Facts of Life” and “227,” the season premiere of “The Golden Girls,” the debut of the Bruce Weitz-Nancy Walker sitcom “Mama’s Boy” and the “62nd Miss America Pageant.”
During the week of September 13, 1987, the number ones were Scott Turrow’s “Presumed Innocent” (novel), Los Lobos’ “La Bamba” (song) and “Stakeout” (movie). In Washington, President Reagan announced a major nuclear-missile ban.
Captions: “Once a Hero” cast members Robert Forster and Jeff Lester in a photograph from TV Guide’s September 12, 1987, fall preview issue (top, photo by Mario Casilli); ABC’s advertisement for the series premiere from the magazine’s September 19, 1987, edition (bottom).