It was in 1982 when Nashville songwriters Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley wrote and recorded the demo for this. They had a hard time finding anyone to record the song, and it was a full year before Roger Whittaker became the first artist to take it on. Following Whittaker's version, several artists recorded the song, including Sheena Easton, Lee Greenwood, B.J. Thomas, Lou Rawls (who was the first to chart with the songs, hitting #65 US), Gladys Knight & The Pips and Gary Morris. Morris' version became a #4 country hit, which led to Silbar & Henley winning the Country Music Association (CMA) Award for Song of the Year. Gladys Knight & The Pips had a R&B hit with their version, which they retitled, "Hero." (thanks, Brian - Funchal Madeira, Portugal)
Larry Henley came up with the title and Jeff Silbar loved it, especially since he was learning to fly planes at the time. The title came out of a poem Henley had written. Instead of writing the chorus first (like Silbar and Henley usually did), they wrote it from start to finish. They were done writing it by the end of the day.
The demo that Silbar and Henley recorded had a medium tempo. Their music publisher had the idea of slowing it down and making it a ballad.
This was conceived as a love song from a man to a woman or vice versa, but it ended up with lyrics that were more universal, and could apply to many different types of relationships (friends, family, etc.). This is a major reason why the song was so successful.
The most famous version of this song was Midler's. She recorded it in 1988 for her movie Beaches. It was used in a dramatic scene at the end of the movie after the character played by Barbara Hershey died. After Midler's version became a hit, many other artists recorded the song, including Willie Nelson, John Tesh, Patti LaBelle, Perry Como and Judy Collins. It is one of the most performed songs of all time.
Gary Morris still performs this ballad live and usually precedes it by saying, "Bette is free to sing this however she wants but personally I think she butchered it." (thanks, David - Lubbock, TX)
The Gladys Knight & the Pips version, renamed "Hero", was on the soundtrack of the 1986 film The George McKenna Story. (thanks, Ron - Los Angeles, CA)
Midler revealed to The London Times February 14, 2009, that she initially disliked this song, but it later grew on her. She explained: "It's really grown on me. When I first heard it, I said, 'I'm not singing that song,' but the friend who gave it to me said, 'If you don't sing it I'll never speak to you again', so of course I had to sing the damned song. Whatever reservations I might have had I certainly don't have any more."
This won the Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1990.
Midler performed this song following the death montage at the Oscars in 2014. It was her first time singing at the Oscars.