By David Weiner
“Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster.”
Hear that? That’s the sound of millions of grown-up kids still making that “bionic sound” when they do something super impressive — or super silly — in their everyday lives.
THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN television series was a genuine phenomenon on ABC in the mid ’70s, and for those who grew up in that era, the memories are incredibly potent, from Steve Austin’s battle with Bigfoot to the formidable Venus Death Probe, John Saxon’s Robot Impostor, The Seven Million Dollar Man, and of course Steve’s love interest, Jaime Sommers!
Thanks to Lee Majors’ easygoing delivery and rugged build, Steve Austin was an everyman hero that everyone could relate to. A superhero disguised in plain sight due to his hidden bionic legs, arm, and eye, he filled a void of imagination in the ’70s at a time when there were few successful Sci-Fi or fantasy shows on television. And the fantasy felt all the more real as the near-future technology seemed like it may well be right around the corner.
For those unfamiliar with the series, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN followed the adventures of Steve Austin, a former NASA astronaut who was critically injured in an experimental test flight. Resurrected and rebuilt with bionic technology that gave him the ability to run up to 60 m.p.h., jump incredible heights, see long distances, and lift and grab with super strength, he used his enhanced capabilities in the service of the OSI, a top-secret government organization, with the help of director of operations Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) and bionic fix-it doc Rudy Wells (Martin E. Brooks, as well as other actors Allan Oppenheimer and Martin Balsam).
A BIONIC PHENOMENON
Based on the 1972 Martin Caidin novel Cyborg, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN ran on ABC for five seasons from ’74 to ’78 after a trio of introductory TV-movie pilots in 1973, with a spinoff series — THE BIONIC WOMAN — and three TV movies following suit. Through it all, Majors says that he knew his show was a hit, but was somewhat oblivious to how much of a phenomenon it had truly become.
“I didn’t know how big the show was at the time, because you’re working so hard; you work, you go home, you come back, you go back. And then, after that, when I was off for any time, I was either doing a little film somewhere or I was at my hideout, my secret location fishing with no phone and no TV,” Majors explains to me. “Only in the last ten years, when I’ve really traveled around the world and stuff, have I begun to realize how big that show really was. How many kids you influenced that went on to get into the air force, or into the service, wanted to be astronauts — just an amazing influence on that generation. I never knew that.”
Majors continues, “What we were doing with the bionics, and then seeing the people in the scientific world really putting those bionic things to use, I look back and I think, ‘Gosh, I hope the show did help bring along that technology.’ Especially when you see our veterans, the boys that are coming back from service and war, that are injured and that can use these parts.”
BUILDING A NEW KIND OF HERO
Displaying a good balance of fantastic action with character development concerns, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN differentiated itself right away from the preponderance of cop, legal, and medical shows of television in the mid ’70s.
“At the time it was a pretty good, groundbreaking series,” says Majors, who was best known for his role on the ’60s Western TV show THE BIG VALLEY at the time. “It included a lot of the superpowers that the Comic-Con people like, with Superman and Batman and Robin and such. And, of course, that was one of the things that worried me. BATMAN was the most popular show [in syndication] during that time when I was offered this part, but I didn’t want to do a show that was considered to be campy, you know? I wanted it to be a little more serious show, about the human being himself rather than these new bionics that we were talking about. And so [the producers] agreed to play down the bionics, because I didn’t want it to be every other scene of me lifting a car, or doing something which seemed kind of silly at the time.”
Before SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN cemented its formula with Harve Bennett and Kenneth Johnson producing the show, it skewed more toward a cloak-and-dagger style of storytelling, courtesy of two TV-movie entries by executive producer Glen Larson. “We kind of went into the James Bond kind of genre thing, where it was a little more women and music and that sort of stuff, that I didn’t really think was keen,” says Majors. “By the time we did the third movie, we got back to what we were really looking for. I wanted to do a show that everyone in the family could sit down and watch, from the little kids all the way up.”
CHALLENGES OF THE SERIES
Majors jokes that the biggest challenge of making SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN was not only the physicality of the role — but the fashion statements. “It was a very tough show. Every day was a lot of physical running. You ever try to run through the woods with bell-bottom pants? Swaying in the breeze and catching on every little branch there was?” he says with a laugh. “We had a style guy who really wanted to make a point, and it was the ’70s look, you know? Bell bottoms. I couldn’t stand them! Trying to run, they were just flappin’ in the breeze, you know?”
The actor, age 77 at the time of our interview, admits that it may have been a mistake to take on so much running and jumping. “Over my career I probably did about at least 80 percent of my stunts, because I was young and thought I was invincible,” he explains. “I was a college athlete and I was as good as some of my stuntmen. And, of course, as long as they got paid, each time I had to do it over, they got paid again! Now I look back, at my age with some of the weaknesses I have in my bones, I think I should have used my stuntmen more. That’s one regret!”
Another element Majors struggled with was exposing the secrets of the show to impressionable children while filming. Maintaining the mystery was very important to him. “It was hard with kids thinking, ‘Here’s the Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin,’ and we’d be shooting somewhere out on the street and kids would gather, and I felt so silly sometimes — a magician never really wants to show his secrets, you know? I felt like such a dummy because here I am, lifting this car up with one arm, and then, of course, you see off camera, there’s two guys with a jack, jacking the car up. And then I could imagine the kids going, ‘Oh, man!’”
In the first year of the series, Steve Austin faced off against a variety of foes. But Majors started to feel like his character was missing something more emotional in his arc. “I told the writers and the producers, ‘Look, I think I need a love interest. We haven’t had a female on this show. I’m tired of looking at these hairy-legged guys every day.’ So we wrote the story about Jaime Sommers, who was my girlfriend and was a tennis player.”
Lindsay Wagner, who had appeared in THE PAPER CHASE and on such shows as MARCUS WELBY, M.D. and THE ROCKFORD FILES, had been on a contract at Universal and appeared to be the perfect candidate for the role.
“I thought it was great,” says Majors, adding, “I even wrote a song for the first episode and sang it.” The Jaime Sommers character was an immediate hit, and fans clamored for more. “Of course, after she was with us for a year or so — you know, if you like an ice cream cone, we’re going to give you a gallon of it, so let’s just spin her off and do another show,” says Majors.
“I think at one point they wanted to spin Max the dog off and do his own show! They came to me with that dog to put on my show and I said, ‘I’m not taking a bionic dog on my show. You go put him on THE BIONIC WOMAN.’ And they did! If you’ve got something that’s successful, they want to spin it off right away, and that’s the reason I never got much because they spent all the money spinning off these other shows they kept doing. Even if they weren’t even about SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, they would make other pilots on their profits.”
THE BIGFOOT EPISODE
Of the 100-plus episodes filmed over its five-season run, the one that Majors gets asked about the most is “The Secret of Bigfoot” two-parter. Capitalizing on the surge in popularity of the mythological Sasquatch creature after shaky footage of an alleged sighting exploded into worldwide debate regarding its authenticity, the episode posited that Bigfoot was actually a bionic protector created by an alien race.
“A lot of the kids love Bigfoot,” acknowledges Majors. “Even today, there are shows I’ve seen, you know, FINDING BIGFOOT, on some of these weird channels. The people still think there is a Bigfoot out there somewhere. … Of course, Andre the Giant, the wrestler, was Bigfoot, and he was a gentle giant. He was 7’4” or something like that, nearly 400 pounds or more, and he’d get in that suit and he’d be in it all day, and it was hot!”
The first confrontation between Steve Austin and Bigfoot is truly an epic event among fans of the series, and Majors remembers literally fearing for his life at one point during the choreographed brawl. “We had a fight scene that lasted almost all day out in the woods,” he recalls. “I remember he was to pick me up and throw me and then come and take a flying leap and land right on top of me. It being a sunny day, he did pick me up and threw me a ways, and then all of a sudden, I’m looking up and I see the sun go blank, like a cloud went over, and here he comes. I mean, he was comin’ down! And I thought I was going to get crushed. It was the most weird feeling. But he never touched me. Amazing. I couldn’t believe that he just didn’t touch me. And that’s how good a wrestler he was, a guy like that, that big.”
Detailing the softer side of his onscreen opponent, Majors remembers of his French costar, “He had a restaurant in France and he loved to cook. He had a gentle side to him, which was just super. He would sit in his chair while we were waiting for the next setup, and he’d have a six pack of beer. And he would grab one, drink it down in one gulp, crush the can, and grab another one. And to this day, I don’t think I ever saw him go to the bathroom that whole day, or go and get out of that suit. I don’t know what was in that suit!”
DIRECTING THE FOOTBALL EPISODE
Although he wasn’t a regular director on the show, Majors took on directing duties for another fan-favorite episode, “One of Our Running Backs Is Missing.” A college football player himself, he felt he was uniquely suited to capture the action of all the NFL guest stars cast for the episode. He explains, “I knew the guys — we had Dick Butkus and Larry Csonka and three or four of the Ram players at the time. It was just one of those shows I knew where I wanted to put the camera and be able to direct it.
We took one whole first day out in the middle of nowhere on this dirt field, which had rocks and everything else on it, surrounded by a few guards, and played this game. And it was just Csonka and me against about five or six other guys, and they were all pros. So it was a very hectic day, a hard day. There was a lot of hard hits there, and it was funny. But since it was a very hot day, to get them to perform or keep going with me, I had a little cooler on the sidelines filled with cold beer. They didn’t have many lines to say, so it was kind of all right if they snuck one every now and then.” He adds with a laugh, “But the hits got a little harder. … It was really great, and I became great friends with Csonka and a bunch of those guys for a lifetime.”
LIFE WITH FARRAH
Anyone who was sentient during the mid ’70s knows that, alongside THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, Farrah Fawcett’s popularity was a phenomenon in its own right. Majors and Fawcett were married from 1973 to 1982, and the Hollywood power couple could be seen jogging together on the cover of People magazine and being good sports on BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS.
What some people do not know is that Majors’ influence on Farrah’s early career moves had a lasting impact on the pop- culture landscape, from CHARLIE’S ANGELS to her iconic red bathing-suit poster. “When I met Farrah, she had not done anything, period, and I really helped her with her career,” reports Majors. “One week after she arrived in L.A. we started living together. I had just started OWEN MARSHALL: COUNSELOR AT LAW, so I put her in several of those as my recurring girlfriend to get her experience and stuff like that, to help her. And then, of course, SIX MILL, she did three or four. And she was also doing CHARLIE’S ANGELS. I knew Aaron Spelling very well, so that’s one of the reasons she was in that show.
And even when we did the pilot for THE FALL GUY, we just went through a divorce and she still came and did the pilot. So it was all good, you know? She was a good actress, and I think that had she gotten the right film parts, she would have done a lot better — even though I thought she did tremendous after she left CHARLIE’S ANGELS. Which is funny, because when you think of CHARLIE’S ANGELS a lot of people think of Farrah Fawcett. First of all, she only did one year and that was about it. And I was lucky enough to be able to pick out the poster that sold the most in the history of posters. I went through them all, and that was the one.”
As for their early-’80s split, Majors volunteers, “It’s just hard when you’re both in that business, and especially when you start doing your own series. You see each other less, and then you start doing films in between your series — I think I saw her two weeks in one year at one point. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, I don’t think. You can see where all the breakups in Hollywood have happened, with, you know, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. They thought they were the perfect couple. It’s just very tough in our business to do that. So I’ve been married now for 20 years to a beautiful girl named Faith. She could’ve been an actress, but she didn’t want to be. She’s been with me 24/7 for the 20 years, and she’s just been fantastic.”
END OF THE BIONIC RUN
After a solid run, both THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE BIONIC WOMAN were cancelled in 1978. “You never know why they cancel shows sometimes,” says Majors. “I think they cancelled it prematurely. Mainly because, if you follow the path, we did three more movies after that that were hugely rated.” The second of the three TV movies, 1989’s BIONIC SHOWDOWN, focused on a new bionic character, Kate Mason. “We wanted to try to do another spinoff series,” recalls Majors, “and we had this young actress, nobody knew who she was — and that was Sandra Bullock.”
Before returning to the bionic well with those three follow-up TV movies, Majors made a concerted effort to shake his bionic typecasting with a variety of different film and TV roles. The most enduring series was THE FALL GUY, in which he played Hollywood stuntman-turned-bounty hunter Colt Seavers from ’81-’86.
“The reason I did FALL GUY for Glen Larson afterwards was because I was going to try to get away from that SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN stigma, of being remembered as that,” admits Majors. “But even though I did five years of a hit show, and three or four more television series after that, SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN is still to this day what you’re remembered for. Which goes to prove it was a very powerful, powerful show.”
(This interview first appeared in Famous Monsters #288)
MILLION DOLLAR MERCHANDISING
THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN was a family show, and as a result the various toys and related merchandise sold briskly, from the 13” Steve Austin action figure (with bionic grip, bionic eye view through the back of his head, and multiple “adventure set” mission outfits and gear available) to his enemy Maskatron and the towering Bionic Bigfoot, plus puzzles, board games, snap-together models, comics, records, lunch boxes, and so much more.
“I do go to some signings now around the country, and people come up with all kinds of merchandising,” says Majors. “To me, it was just amusing. I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t know I would even sell, you know? But then lately, like this past year or two, I’ve done a couple of shows and everybody in line’s got one!”
THE BIONIC ACTION CLUB KIT
With Lee Majors way too busy with his bionic schedule to respond to fan mail, Kenner took up the slack with a brilliant marketing move: The Bionic Action Club Kit. For the price of just 50 cents “for postage and handling,” kids would receive the ultimate package in the mail, containing a cool SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN sticker; a Bionic Action Club certificate on which you could sign your name; a membership card that you could carry in your Velcro wallet at all times in case someone asked for your credentials; and the cherry on top: a full-color photograph of Lee Majors as Steve Austin, signed by Col. Steve Austin!
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