Lee Majors Remembers His Bionic Days as 'The Six Million Dollar Man'

Lee Majors

By Ed Gross

Col. Steve Austin, astronaut, survived the catastrophic crash of a test vehicle, and even went up against Bigfoot without breaking a sweat. But now — at this moment in time — he actually looks nervous. And it’s not a nervousness born out of another mission that, given his bionically-enhanced arm, legs and eye, only he can pull off to save the world from destruction. These are the nerves of the actor who played him, Lee Majors, The Six Million Dollar Man himself, who is getting ready for his first appearance at a comic/media convention.

“I’ve never done one before,” he admits to me not long before appearing at the the Wizard World Big Apple Comic Con in New York back in October of 2010. “I just hope they all like me… I don’t want the crazies.”

He lets out a short laugh at that, but isn’t entirely convincing. He does, however, get a bit more enthusiastic when he realizes that these conventions have been big business for actors: “I know William Shatner’s been going to these things and making a fortune out of them. I went to this place that was printing up photos of me, and they were doing the same thing for, like, 40 Star Trek actors who were going to be at a different convention. Half of them I’ve never heard of, you know? I didn’t even know that there were that many actors and actresses that appeared on those shows. But people — the fans — come out to see them all the time. It’s just amazing.”

Lee Majors publicity shot from SMDM

As amazing is the longevity of Lee’s career. He first rose to fame as Heath Barkley on the western The Big Valley (1965-69), which was followed by a season on another western, The Virginian (1970-71) as Roy Tate; three seasons as lawyer Jess Brandon on Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law (1971-74), the previously mentioned Col. Steve Austin on The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-78), stuntman Colt Seavers on The Fall Guy (1981-86), Herman “Ski” Jablonski on Raven (1992-93), Coach Ross on The Game (2007-9), and, most recently, Brock Willliams on the comedic horror series Ash vs Evil Dead.

But of them all, the one that has most endeared him to fans — and has absolutely endured the longest — has been The Six Million Dollar Man. Based on the Martin Caidin novel Cyborg (and to be the subject of a film reboot starring Mark Wahlberg as The Six Billion Dollar Man), it began as a 1973 TV movie. In it, Lee plays Col. Austin, who, following that terrible accident of an experimental ship, is near death, but saved by a secret government agency that replaces an arm, an eye and his legs with bionic implants. As a result, he has incredible strength in that arm, telescopic and microscopic vision with his eye, and can can leap great distances and run up to 60 miles per hour with his legs. All of this, despite Austin’s protests to the contrary, sees him employed to carry out secret missions. The success of that film led to two others and, then, in 1974, a weekly series.

Lee in action as Col. Steve Austin

“At first I was really hesitant,” Lee admits, “because when they sent me the script it was called Cyborg, and it was about a guy who jumped tall buildings and all this. Not so many years earlier one of the hottest shows on television was Batman, and it was so campy, which made it fun, but I didn't want this to be a campy show. And they promised me that it wouldn't. We did the first pilot and it was very good; I really enjoyed that. And then we did a second movie, and [writer/producer] Glen Larson was involved. Then it turned a little bit toward James Bond, and I wasn't quite comfortable with that persona for Steve Austin.

"It was too cutesy," he elaborates. "I mean, they had a theme song with Dusty Springfield singing 'The Six Million Dollar Man', you know? It was all jazzed up. I'll give you an example of a scene. I'm in a tuxedo at a party in Monte Carlo, say. I go out on the balcony and with my bionic eye I zoom out to his beautiful yacht out there and see how many guards there are. I take my tuxedo off, turn it inside out, zip it up, and it's a wetsuit. I pull out this little thing about the size of a bullet, put it in my mouth, and that's supposed to make me breathe all the way out there underwater. So it was this whole gimmicky thing in the James Bond style, and I just wasn't comfortable with that."

Lee and Richard Anderson on SMDM

Despite his discomfort level with those TV movies, he's glad they did them, because it provided multiple opportunities to work the kinks out of the concept. Then, of course, after the airing of the final film, ABC decided to go weekly with it, and Lee pleaded with everyone involved to make the character "more human and honest and play down the bionics of doing a bionic thing every five minutes," he says. "Only use them when it's important. Also, no blood. We don't kill people. If you notice, every time I had a fight with somebody or a bunch of guys or whatever, as I was leaving you'd see them rolling over, so nobody was ever dead. I wanted the show to be for kids, too. A family show, and it turned out that way to a large degree."

Sometimes, the show ran a little darker than he liked and he did push to lighten things up, and he was desperate for Steve to get involved in a relationship. "The first two years," Lee explains, "were really kind of boring to me. We'd be shooting out of town in an industrial park in a warehouse, or somewhere in an electric plant, or out in the woods and I'd be fighting some other robot, or Bigfoot [it's true — and it was awesome] or bunches of bad people, and I just got tired of it. That's why after two years I said, 'Guys, look, I haven't had a love interest on this show, and I'm tired of looking at these hairy-legged guys running around here for two years, almost three.' And that when we brought in Lindsay Wagner to be the first love interest, and that went over well. People were really getting to the point where it was, like, 'When's this guy going to come out of the closet here?'"

Lee, Lindsay Wagner, Richard Anderson and Alan Oppenheimer

Lindsay was tennis pro Jaime Sommers, Steve Austin's former sweetheart. The two are reunited and fall in love again, but then Jaime is nearly killed in a parachuting accident. Steve pleads with his boss, and by then friend, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), to save Jamie by giving her bionic parts. Reluctantly he does so, and she survives. The bionic lovers are thrilled, but then her body rejects the bionics and she actually dies. Devastating moment for the audience and for Steve. Little do we know, however, is that Jaime lives; they've secretly managed to save her life so that she can have her own spin-off show, The Bionic Woman. Good news, right? Unfortunately, most of her memory has been lost and she has no memory of Steve, so they are starting all over again and it's a long road.

The Six Million Dollar Man was canceled after five seasons, which Lee actually found surprising. "After five years we were still going strong," he points out, "but the networks really started to dilute us. That's what networks do. They say, 'If you like ice cream, if you like that ice cream cone, we're gonna give you a double dipper. We'll give you two scoops.' And that's what they do. They give you The Bionic Woman, and then it's, like, 'Oh, you like that? Well, we're gonna give you a bionic dog.' They actually came to me and said they had a bionic dog and I said, 'That's not going in my show. You can give that to Lindsay for The Bionic Woman, but I'm not having that damn dog in my show.'"

Max the Bionic dog

He does have a point. That bionic dog, Max, did appear on the spin-off series, but on the main show we were introduced to actor Monte Markham as the seven million dollar man (both his arms were bionic), and Vincent Van Patten played the bionic boy. Neither got their own show (thankfully), but what did happen was that a variety show of the time, The Captain and Tennille, featured a recurring vignette called "The Bionic Watermelon" which was about — you guessed it — a watermelon with bionic implants that fought crime."

Flash forward to 1987, and the TV movie Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, in which we learn Jamie, who is reunited with Steve, got conked on the head and remembers everything the two of them meant to each other, but can't handle the emotions of it all. Meanwhile, Steve's son, who he had abandoned years ago (that ain't right, Steve!), is a pilot who is (yep) severely injured and, thanks to his dad's coming to Oscar again, is equipped with bionic parts. The idea was that this kid, played by Tom Schanley, could possibly get his own series. What we got instead, two years later, was Bionic Showdown, in which Jaime helps Kate Mason, formerly restricted to a wheelchair, deal with her new bionic implants.

Lee Majors and Bruce Campbell

Lee laughs, "See, they were still trying to do spinoffs. They had this wonderful young actress, just super nice, who I think got $2,500 for the two-hour movie, and it was Sandra Bullock. That's where she kind of got started, and they wanted her to be another bionic girl in another spin-off. Bionic kids, bionic this, bionic that. Maybe they'll do another reunion soon and it will be The Bionic Divorce, because in the last reunion movie we did [1994's Bionic Ever After?), we got married. So maybe a divorce is coming up. That could get some ratings."

As much as Lee enjoyed The Six Million Dollar Man, there was a certain relief when the show finally came to an end after those five seasons. "It was near 100 episodes," he offers, "and it was grueling. The hours were really, really long, and I lived on the lot. I had an apartment there. I got it there since I was under contract at Universal; back then they had aprtments and I stayed on the lot almost the entire week. I'd go home on weekends, because it was just too far to go — I lived in Malibu — and otherwise I'd be driving back at five or six in the morning after shooting until seven or eight at night. And I just didn't have a life for five years, and I was trying to maintain a marriage there with another popular girl."

That popular girl was the late Farrah Fawcett (then with the hyphenated last name of Majors), who had soared to phenomenal success as part of the original cast of Charlie's Angels. "I ended up seeing her two weeks in one year," says Lee wistfully. "She was off doing films and stuff, and doing her series, and I was doing mine. That's mainly the reason we got divorced; we never saw each other. We stayed great friends, but we just had our own careers going and didn't have time for each other."

As Lee explains it, and this ties back into what would be the first of a number of convention appearances, it took him a long time to recognize how important he and The Six Million Dollar Man were to people.

Lee and Farrah Fawcett-Majors.

"After The Fall Guy I took 10 years off and went to Florida," he explains. "I just had to take a break and while I was there I only did some small independent films. When I came back, I started doing a lot of independents and a lot of comedies, actually, like Weeds and Community. It was good and in a way it kind of felt like I was starting over again. But it was during those 10 years off that I realized how big this show was, because I was free to travel around the world to different places, and it was amazing how many people would come up to you — total strangers in totally different cultures — just to say hello. It was very touching and just amazing to me."

Personally, we're not surprised in the least.

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