July 16, 2014

Hero at Large (1980)
Starring John Ritter, Anne Archer, and Kevin McCarthy

Comments:  In the spring of 1980, John Ritter had a lot of fans.  In fact, you could make a pretty good argument that between the years 1979 and 1980 he was probably the single most popular actor on American TV.   I mean, go look it up for yourself, in 1979 his show, Three's Company, was the #2 ranked program of the entire year, ranking only behind 60 Minutes.  Three's Company was so popular at the time that it even drew more viewers than M.A.S.H., which was almost unheard of for a sitcom at the time.  So yes, between 1979 and 1980 John Ritter was pretty much at the top of his game.  He was loved by America.  He was the king of the sitcom.  He was the new master of slapstick and physical comedy.  And on top of all that, the guy was just so damn charming and likeable.  

Basically, John Ritter in 1980 was a guy who could do everything.  He was so good at so many things that it was almost impossible to say anything bad about him.

And really, at that point, what would be the next step except to turn this budding young TV star into a movie star?

John Ritter's first major movie

John Ritter starred in the movie Hero at Large in 1980.  And it turned into, well, a big pile of nothing.  I mean, have you ever heard of Hero at Large before?  Of course you haven't.  Hardly anyone has ever heard of Hero at Large.  Hell, most people in the mid 80's had barely even heard of Hero at Large, and the movie was only five or six years old at that point.

To make a long story short, John Ritter never really made it as a movie star.  

Oh, he wound up appearing in a couple of decent movies along the way.  Specifically, he pulled off a great performance in the movie Sling Blade along with Billy Bob Thornton in 1996.  But for the most part, John Ritter never really turned into a movie star.  And it's sad that it never really happened, because I am not sure I have ever known an actor who was more charming and more charismatic in their prime.  Seriously, go back and watch some reruns of Three's Company one of these days and watch how well that show holds up compared to some other shows from its time.  It is all because of him. Yeah, Suzanne Somers' breasts might have gotten equal billing with John Ritter at the time, sure, but when you watch the show thirty years later now, it is all Jack Tripper.  It is just totally the Jack Tripper show.

So anyway, Hero at Large comes out in 1980 and nobody cares.  And John Ritter becomes yet another victim of the prejudice that TV stars are just actors who are not good enough to be movie stars.  Which, believe me, was a very real thing back in the day.  It was hard god damn work for a TV star to break into movies back in the 70's and 80's, and John Ritter was neither the first nor the last nor the biggest who tried and failed.  

But hey, he tried.  

He made Hero at Large, which, although not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, is still a sweet little movie that has a really good heart.

And John Ritter was the perfect actor they could have picked for it.

Hero at Large is the story of a perfectly ordinary guy named Steve Nichols.  

Steve Nichols

Steve Nichols is an actor who lives in New York.  Although it is more fair to say that he is a struggling actor who lives in New York.  The guy has no money.  The guy has no career.  He basically just drifts along from one low paying acting job to another.  The biggest excitement of the majority of Steve Nichols' life comes from whether he will actually be able to pay his rent that month.

Steve Nichols' exciting life

Well, one day he gets hired for a unique little acting job.

A new movie about a comic book superhero (Captain Avenger) is coming out in theaters, and they need an actor to show up at the premiere and dress up as Captain Avenger for publicity purposes.  Basically they just want some guy to show up in costume as Captain Avenger, and interact with the fans and sign a bunch of autographs for a couple of hours.   

It's not the most glamorous acting job in the world, but hey, Steve is starving and he needs to pay his rent.

So he takes the gig.

For one night in his life, now he gets to pretend that he is someone important.

Steve signing autographs for the kids

Steve is just one of a hundred Captain Avengers who show up at theaters around the country and sign autographs for the kids that night.  

But his story is about to take a little different turn than the rest of them.  

Because on his way home from the gig, he decides to stop into a local grocery store to pick up some milk.

And while he is in the back of the store, two muggers come in and threaten to rob the place

Steve hears a commotion at the front of the store, and he peers around the corner to see two teenage punks pointing a gun at the owner.  They are threatening to kill the man if he doesn't empty his cash register.  And after they kill them, they are going to stab his wife.

Well, Steve sure can't stand for that.

Not in his neighborhood he can't.

So he jumps out while still in his costume

And he confronts them

The muggers take one look at Captain Avenger coming to fight them and they flee the store.    He catches them by surprise and he saves the day.

And the owners are so overjoyed at this nice young man who came to their defense and saved their lives (and who was so humble and who wouldn't take any reward for it afterwards) that the first thing they do the next morning is they go to the newspaper and they report it to the media.  

And just like that, all of a sudden the story of THE REAL CAPTAIN AVENGER WHO SAVES PEOPLES' LIVES is the single biggest news story in America.

Steve Nichols relishing his new role as New York's greatest anonymous crime fighter

Nobody knows it was Steve behind the mask that night, and for some reason this story about an anonymous superhero just sort of captivates the country.  Who is this anonymous crime fighter in New York City who walks around and does good and makes peoples' lives better?  Just who was that mystery man?  And why wouldn't he even accept a reward?

Well this is where the movie takes an interesting twist.

In most movies like this, it would have turned into a big Hollywood origin story at this point.  Steve would have gone out and he would have defeated a bunch of bad guys, and he would have become this huge badass hero with crimefighting abilities like Batman.  That is exactly where this movie would have gone in like 90% of other storylines like this.

However, Hero at Large is different than other movies.  And that is why I have always remembered it.

Steve goes out in costume a couple of nights later to fight crime, and to further inspire the city, and what happens to him is EXACTLY WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO SOMEBODY IN REAL LIFE WHO TRIED THIS.

He sees a bad guy with a gun.  He tells the guy to put the gun down.  And the bad guy basically says "Fuck you" and points the gun at Steve and shoots him.

And just like that, Steve Nichols' career as Captain Avenger the crime fighter is over.

After nearly being killed, Steve decides that this is the end of his career as a crime fighter

And really, that's it.  That's the whole storyline.  Steve is a nice guy who did one nice thing for the owners of a grocery store.  He gets a lot of press because of it because America is captivated by this idea of a random good guy out there walking around who will do good things for others and who doesn't want a reward.  And then Steve gets all caught up in the attention and he starts to think he is a real superhero.  So he goes out and he tries to do it again, and he takes a bullet because of it.

He is done with being a superhero.

The only problem is that the people of America just don't want him to be done.

Steve being persuaded to fight crime as Captain Avenger again

You see, people believed in Captain Avenger.  They really did believe that there was this hero out there who was walking around New York and who was willing to fight crime.  This story really did sort of capture the heart of the city.  

What happens is that a local politician figures out who was dressed up in that costume that night when he contacts the Captain Avenger casting agency.  He figures out it was Steve Nichols behind the mask in the grocery store.  And he knows that this story continuing would be good for the city.  So he and his aides go to Steve and they try to get him to do it again.  Hey, why don't you go out and you try to stop a couple more crimes?

No way, says Steve.  I did it once and I nearly got killed.  I don't want any part of this anymore, count me out.

But the politicians will not be deterred.

But the people believe in you, they say.  The people out there really love you.  People are excited to live in New York now because of you.  Don't you love your city and don't you want to help it out?

So this is where they cut a deal with him.  The politicians agree to stage a couple of fake crimes, and then Steve will show up in costume as Captain Avenger and he will "save the day."  This way, no one will get hurt, no one will get shot, and America can continue to follow the story and it will be win-win for everyone.  Sounds perfect for all of us, right?

Well it's not.  

Steve gets caught faking his Captain Avenger heroics pretty soon after that.  And just like that, the people who loved him all now immediately turn on him.  He becomes the most hated man in the city.  The minute he is exposed as being a fraud, he instantly becomes the most reviled man in all of New York.

And worst of all, they all turn on him in the middle of New York's Captain Avenger Appreciation Day.

Steve being booed and jeered in the middle of his thank you speech

Will Steve ever be able to salvage his honor in front of the city?

A young Kevin Bacon sure doesn't think so

Hero at Large isn't the most memorable movie in the world, and it certainly isn't the most flashy.  Heck, I don't think there is a single special effect in the entire film.  In fact, when you watch it, it really feels more like a TV movie, because it is so humble and unassuming.  It is hard to believe that a film this simple could have ever actually been shown in a movie theater.

It is just a simple little story of a guy who does something good in the world, and he likes the feeling that it gives him.  So he tries to do it again.  

And then it backfires when he realizes that being everyone's hero is actually pretty complicated.

Sometimes it is best just to remain a part of the crowd

Is Hero at Large one of the best movies of the 80's?  Of course not.  It is just a forgettable little low budget movie that came out in the summer of 1980.  And was quickly forgotten.

However, there is one thing that it has that nearly no other movie of its era ever had.

It has this guy

John Ritter was my favorite actor of the early 80's, and he remains one of my very favorite actors (TV or otherwise) to this day.  I mean, it is impossible to watch him on screen, in anything he ever did, and not think "wow that guy was probably just a really good guy."  He just was, you could always tell.  At his peak, I'm not sure there has ever been an actor with as much natural charisma and likeability as John Ritter had.   In fact, I was so sure that John Ritter was a really good guy in real life, that it didn't surprise me at all that when he died in 2003, there was just this huge outpouring of grief from nearly everyone in Hollywood.  For a lot of people, I think that reaction came as a surprise to them.  John Ritter died suddenly and a lot of people on the internet were like "So?  Big deal.  The guy from Three's Company died, so what's the big deal?"  Well for me it was a really big deal.  John Ritter was one of a kind.  No one has ever been more earnest than him.  And in no movie or TV show was that ever more apparent than his role as Steve Nichols, the nicest and most uncynical guy in the world who just wants to do good, in Hero at Large.

Simply put, if you want to see John Ritter at his peak, if you want to see how sincere and likeable he was, you need to see Hero at Large at least once in your life.  You need to see the one and only big early John Ritter movie.  

He may not have ever made it as a movie star, and there might not be a single moment of Three's Company slapstick in the entire movie, but you sit there for ninety minutes and you think, wow that John Ritter was probably just a really good guy.

P.S.  Here is a really good tribute to John Ritter that my friend and fellow pop culture nerd Sir Hatchporch wrote back in 2003.

P.P.S.  Of course, I can't possibly finish this writeup without mentioning his appearance in the movie Problem Child.  I'm not the biggest fan of Problem Child in the world, but I do have to point out how underrated John Ritter is in it as the straight man.  Playing, of course, "the nicest dad in the world."  You see, there is a pattern here in the roles he was best at.  Um, when he wasn't being folded up into a couch on Three's Company, of course.

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about Hero at Large:

Great Super Hero Movie - 23 June 2005
This role is one of Ritters' best performances in a highly acclaimed career. His portrayal of a really nice and well-meaning guy, who has to make a tough ethical decision to help him pay his bills, is thoughtful and funny at the same time without being over-the-top Jack Tripper funny. Ritter and the director give a great real-world look at super-heroes. How does he get to crime scenes? Can he dodge bullets? Where does a super hero get medical attention?

In a way it's sort of a misnomer to call him a super hero since he doesn't actually have any super powers, but his willingness to put himself in danger to help others is the core value that all super heroes must have. The fact that he goes out and tries to stop crimes anyway, without super powers, makes him even more courageous than a true comic book hero in a way.

Before movies like Unbreakable and Spiderman came along I called this movie the best super hero movie ever made. No special effects other than a few fires. No flying through the air. Just a real guy showing that courage and caring are what's really important. One of the best feel-good endings of any movie ever made.

Hero With Heart - 7 June 2008
There's a lot going on with "Hero At Large." Notably, this is a film that was, for the bulk of it, made on location in NYC, circa 1979. That fact alone would be enough to recommend it, because it gives you a glimpse into what the city was about at that time, how it looked, what was playing at local movie houses and on Broadway, and what was important to its residents.

But this film goes well beyond the basics of the setting. And that's due to a meaningful script by A.J. Carothers and a truly remarkable performance by John Ritter.

In some ways, Ritter's character here is in a similar situation to Dustin Hoffman's character in 1982's "Tootsie." He plays an out of work actor who is desperate to get a part in a play, or even a commercial just to make the rent. When he books the role of Captain Avenger, a comic book hero who is the star of a cheesy live action film, he's not the motion picture actor, he's the stooge signing 8 x 10s outside of the theater dressed in the character's costume, one of dozens of actors playing the part all over town! But on the way home from his gig, when his local grocer gets held up at knife-point, he uses that costume to thwart the street toughs and saves the day! His interest in his next door neighbor, J. (Anne Archer) helps to fuel his heroics, and he finds himself starting to take chances to help people and win her attention and affection, and to make a statement about what's really important.

A surprise is Bert Convy, who was known for his "nice guy" image, here goes against type as the sleazy PR manager, who was in charge of both the Captain Avenger film and the Mayoral Campaign of the incumbent, who sees a way of tying the two together, based on the genuine heroics of the actor, that regular guy trying to make people think about a bigger idea(l).

This is a New York movie, through and through, but it's the heart of the film that makes it special and that's due to John Ritter. His performance is always genuine, never hits a wrong note and is a tribute to the actor himself. It's those elements that take this film to soaring heights! Plus there are cameos by some of the city's longtime television reporters: Who knew that Penny Crone had brown hair at one time?

Hero At Large may not be the greatest superhero film ever, but it's better than many that are longer on special effects and much shorter on story.

A nice, gentle and entertaining movie. - 23 February 2013
This is a movie that was perfect for John Ritter. He plays Steve Nichols, a nice guy who becomes a fantasy super hero. Fantasy because, he has no super powers, he has no super weapons, he fights no super villains. He doesn't even own his super-suit. What isn't fantasy is the hero part. He does want to save people and do good. Nicoles desire to do good usurps his ability to earn a living or pay his rent, causing him problems in the long run. His deeds go viral in the media and he falls victim to others with political ambitions.

Don't expect car chases, exciting CGI, fast-paced banter, just enjoy a simple, entertaining movie.

Simple yet Powerful - 5 September 2001
I love this movie. John Ritter portrays a classic good guy. - He's a struggling actor who was wearing a Captain Avenger costume to promote its film along with over 20 other actors throughout New york City. After doing the promotion, He was still wearing the costume under his coat while a shopping at a corner grocery store when it gets robbed. He removes his coat and prevents the robbery. The media gets word of a person wearing a Captain Avenger costume stopping a crime and wonders if he will reappear. John Ritter's character feels good about what he did and decides he wants to more. He prevents another crime and gets injured. He also gets locked out of his apartment for not paying his rent, so woman across the hall to gives him a place to stay while he heals. Politics get involved before the suspenseful ending -- This is a feel good movie with romance and a great suspenseful ending.

A small film with a heroic message - 12 October 2006
You might want to compare this film with a film called Hero, staring Dustin Hoffman. Both films are about ordinary people who perform extraordinary actions, thereby becoming "heroes". In Hoffman's film the main character is a sleaze who's philosophy is do unto other before they get a chance to do unto you. Ritter, on the other hand is a nice guy who is seduced by the glory of being heroic. Hoffman spends most of the movie trying to avoid recognition for his heroic acts while Ritter becomes caught up in a scheme to capitalize on people's need for heroes. Both men's lives are held up as evidence that all of us have the capacity to be a hero under the right circumstances. Both films are inspiring with important things to say. Hero At Large however is a small film while Hero is a big budget film with major actors. I thoroughly enjoyed both but by comparison, Hero beats you over the head with its message. I can't help liking Hero At Large just a little better.


Hero at Large at the IMDB

Hero at Large at Wikipedia

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