Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Retro Dudes: Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man!
In March 1973, I had a tough choice to make—as tough as it gets for a Geek. There were two science fiction shows on at the same time—and Anchorage Alaska only had 4 TV stations. No VCRs, no DVRs, kids, you made a choice to watch one show and miss seeing another one. The first choice was Genesis II, a show by Gene Roddenberry from Star Trek fame—I was a major Trekkie. But my sister, visiting from what we called The Lower 48 (where they saw TV shows 2 weeks ahead of tape-delayed Alaska) told me the other show, The Six Million Dollar Man, was very exciting and not to be missed! Luckily, I took her advice—The Six Million Dollar Man was incredibly thrilling and an instant hit at my school. All the kids started talking about it, even play fighting in the schoolyard with slow motion fists and making sound effects like the show.
Lee Majors seemed born to play that part and in the early episodes, he was even a bit freaked out at the prospect of having bionic limbs that made “better, stronger, faster” than anyone else. Steranko had primed the readers of MediaScene magazine with a summary of Martin Caidin’s Cyborg novel, which was the basis for the show. For the neophytes of Cyborg lore, Steve Austin was an astronaut who was almost killed in an aircraft crash. The OSI (Office of Scientific Intelligence) turns disaster into opportunity by rebuilding him with a bionic arm, bionic legs, and an eye with a telephoto lens. He could punch through steel doors and run fast—in slow motion—but somehow it just seemed super fast!
The Six Million Dollar Man returned in October and November 1973 in two made for TV movies. These specials gave him more of a James Bond feeling, dispatched on critical missions for the government. Ratings again were enormous, and Steve Austin settled into a weekly TV show on ABC, starting in January 1974. You could see Lee Majors face everywhere—on lunch boxes, games, books, and even the above magazine cover (by Neal Adams) for Charlton publications. Somewhere along this transition, Steve Austin became less bitter about being the government’s cyborg agent, and more of a good natured bionic teddy bear. Oscar Goldman, played by Richard Anderson, became less of a boss and more of a compadre. Some of the episodes were more hokey than others…I seem to recall an episode about BigFoot?
At this point in the 70s, Lee Majors seemed to be riding a Saturn V rocket straight to the top of Hollywood fame. He starred in one of the most popular shows on TV, gaining all kinds of fame and notoriety. He married Farrah Fawcett in July 1973, who I already knew from various TV shows such as Harry O (with the late great David Janssen), the Partridge Family, and I swear she must have been on an episode of Love, American Style. Farrah guest starred on the Six Million Dollar Man as Major Kelly Woods, the first female astronaut in space. That role may have been a stretch—but I am sure some girls were inspired! When Farrah’s TV show Charlie’s Angels debuted in 1976, for a brief time the Majors were the royalty of ABC TV. Their marriage only lasted 4 years—the couple separated in 1979. Farrah made the classic comment: "If he's the six-million-dollar man, I'm the ten-billion-dollar woman." Their separation and bitter divorce was tablet fodder gold for months. I recently read that Lee Majors took the opportunity to reconcile with Farrah briefly before he death in 2009.
If you were a real Lee Majors fan, it was possible to get a daily dose of him through the repeats of the 1965-1969 TV show, The Big Valley. I liked watching Westerns as a kid, they were great adventure tales, although I haven’t seen this show in 40 years. The Big Valley had great stars: Barbara Stanwyck, a young Linda Evans, Richard Long, and Peter Breck. Stanwyck had a forceful, charismatic personality unlike any other woman on TV. She was the head of the Barkley family, Victoria, who owned a huge ranch near Stockton, California. Lee Majors played Heath, the bastard son of Victoria’s deceased husband, who has to fight his way into the family’s business. Majors had a very famous signature line: "Boy howdy!" Can’t remember any of the plots, except for that one early episode where Linda Evans’ character tries to seduce him. Shows like Big Valley and Rawhide made me a fan of the Western genre, which is one that I am turning back to now, in the form of games like Red Dead Redemption.
The Six Million Dollar Man was cancelled due to low ratings in March 1978, along with the spinoff show, The Bionic Woman. But that was not the end of Lee Majors on TV! In 1981, The Fall Guy premiered, again on ABC TV, to solid ratings. Majors played Colt Seavers, a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter. It turns out that Hollywood stunts like jumping onto moving cars is a great skill to have when chasing criminals! The show was light-hearted TV fare, in the same vein as Knight Rider or the Dukes of Hazzard. Lee's easygoing personality held it together, but he also had two cute women in supporting roles, Heather Thomas and Markie Post. It lasted until 1986, which makes Lee Majors one of the few actors to have 3 hit television shows during his career.
After The Fall Guy ended, I kept waiting to see if Lee Majors would transition to movies. He has made a few since then, but I always thought he could have been featured a lot more prominently. Lee had a terrifically funny cameo in Bill Murray’s Scrooged (1988), where he was put into this Die Hard like scenario: "Seven o'clock. Psychos seize Santa's workshop, and only Lee Majors can stop them...The Night The Reindeer Died."
In 1987 & 1989, there were two Bionic Man/Woman reunion movies, where the second one, Bionic Showdown, introduced a young newcomer, Sandra Bullock as Kate Mason (aka the Bionic Babe). According to IMDB, Lee Majors has never stopped working, appearing in dozens of TV shows, including a few I missed: The Game (as Coach Ross) and Weeds (as the Minute Man leader). Even more interesting, one of Lee’s latest projects harkens back to his beginning: The Big Valley is being made as a movie, with Lee playing the father, Tom Barkley, to his illegitimate son Heath, the character he originated back in 1965. There is a Facebook page for the Big Valley movie, in case you are interested. Nuff Said!