WHAT TOOK THEIR BIONIC HEARTS SO LONG TO REACT?
After years away from Tv, the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman return this week to discover love-and set the stage for a spinoff.
By Jack Hicks (Reprinted from the May 16, 1987 Tv Guide)
“The Return of the Six-Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman” is scheduled to air on NBC, Sunday, May 17, from 9 to 11pm(ET).
A beefy Lee Majors relaxes in his canvas chair, chatting with a visitor.
“Steve Austin’s bionic systems need a tuneup,” Majors says as he stretches, aching from six all-out 100 yard sprints made for the camera yesterday. He smiles and leans back, watching his son, 25-year old Lee Majors II, work in a scene nearby.
We are on the grassy grounds of Brentwood’s VA hospital, one location for the shooting of this bionic reunion. Close by, co-star Lindsay Wagner retires to her mobile home, there to nurse her second son, Alex (age 7 months).
Radiant at 36, Wagner is-like her accomplice, Majors-open and at ease. And why not? Both are making big bucks, working with loved ones nearby, and at peace with themselves in their romantic reunion.
As you know, cyborg Steve Austin and former tennis pro Jaime Sommers parted in 1975, when she pancaked sky-diving and lapsed into a coma. Six Mill, as Majors calls him, grieved, then wielded his bionic legs, right arm, and left eye in renewed zeal for the US Office of Scientific Information, against international skulduggery. Jaime-similarly rigged except that her ear, not her eye, was bionic-survived, did a guest shot and then surfaced in her own series, “The Bionic Woman” (1976-1978), also taking secret assignments for the OSI.
The two were initially teamed by OSI head Oscar Goldman( Richard Anderson). The 35-year TV veteran, one of few to have simultaneously starred in two hit series (both bionic shows), took the concept for the reunion to NBC and Universal less than a year ago.
The network and production company would have passed on the $4.2-million project, but for Anderson’s central notion. He proposed using the two-hour telefilm adventure as a pilot for a spinoff series, a vehicle for introducing a new Six Mill, with All the Right Stuff for 1987. Michael Austin, Steve’s son and the star of the proposed spinoff, would be equipped with a new gimmick, a precision laser eye. To sweeten the deal for Majors, son Lee II read for the role, but was cast instead as
Jim Castillian, Oscar Goldman’s brash assistant, and acquits himself well.
One week before shooting started, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Tom Schanley, 26, who had previously been in the network’s failed series,”The Yellow Rose,” got the Michael Austin part.
The rest of the show locked quickly into place. The result is your basic bionic fare, with a few new twists. The script is surprisingly human, with a nice tone of reconciliation (of father and son, lovers, old friends grown apart) and some dandy special effects. Jaime throws Steve through a plate glass window, and later Austin wrist-pops a speeding car through a few barrel rolls. A spirited bar fight uses 35 stunt extras( cost: $8000), and a gut-rumbling truck explosion eats up a bunch of naphthalene and black powder and about five grand more.
Contrary to his reputation as “difficult” with the press, Lee Majors proves affable today, returning several times from rehearsal to pick upthe conversation.
“Yeah,” he grins almost shyly. “The press and i haven’t had a great romance. I came out here a Kentucky boy who couldn’t knot a tie. I started when (other journalists) were sitting in your chair. I was young, and I told one of ’em how my father’d been killed when my mother was eight months pregnant, and how she died a few years later. I was adopted, but nobody knew that in the little town where i grew up.
“Anyway,” he tenses slightly, “I asked them not to use the stuff until I said so, and they agreed. Then it all blew up in headlines. That one hurt me, my (adoptive) parents, and people in Middlesboro felt deceived.>From that time on, I didn’t much trust the press. And i haven’t seen much to make me change my mind.
“To be frank, I’ve done five series over 20 years, and people will watch me, whether i give interviews or not. I’ve liked maybe two or three stories on me during my whole career.”
Asked if the fact that he agrees to this interview (he’s granted only two during the 19-day shoot) indicate he’s mellowed, he nods, “I think so. I’m certainly less demanding on the set. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m still disciplined-learned that from Barbara Stanwyck on the “Big Valley.” Be on time, know your words, hit your mark.
“Now I get less heated if a cameraman blows a shot or an actor a take. And i accept this work more as a job-a very good job, but a job. And I know I’ll continue to work.”It used to be, I thought each show was my last. Even during Six Mill, I thought, ‘Better make it real good-it might be your last one.’ Now…
Beyond the money, friendship with Richard Anderson, a burgeoning relationship with NBC (he’s also doing his own pilot, “Harris Down Under,” with the network, a sort of “Bonanza ’87” shot in Australia), and working with Lindsay Wagner again, Majors points to another major reasonfor doing this reunion.”There were some emotional scenes unlike anything I’d done in Six Mill. It’s about being brought back together with my son after we’ve been estranged. I feel that personally. I never knew my blood father, and I never really got to raise my son. He grew up back in Kentucky, and while he was in California all summer, that wasn’t day-to-day. I feel I missed something.”
Lindsay Wagner’s bionic scenes are in the can, and this afternoon she works with Tom Schanley, serving as Michael Austin’s psychological and physical trauma counselor. Right now, she sits with son Alex, pausing for an occasional sip of fruit juice.
Alex lunches eagerly and nosily. “He’s a very lucky baby,” friend Fred Segal, an exclusive LA clothier, says at her side. “Lindsay isan exceptional woman.”
“Fun and profit,” Wagner laughs in describing her reasons for doing this project. “Two of the human species’ deepest needs.” She also cites Richard Anderson’s friendship and working with Lee Majors again, but it is clear though unspoken that this is not a major vehicle for her. As much as anything, after her network battles over ABC’s “Jessie” (1984), a police-psychiatrist series aborted after seven-episodes, her presence may be a political gesture, a show of good faith to the mainstream Tv industry.
While Majors had spent most of the previous year at his Lake Mead retreat, Wagner stayed under the lights, starring in several Tv-films. Her roles included a child-abuse investigator and an adoptive parent who loses her child to the natural mother, an indication of the sort of issues she feels are valuable to the viewing public.
“I’m more centered now, stronger in my convictions,” she says softly, firmly. “I went through pain during and after “The Bionic Woman.” Honestly, the show ceased to be fun. One-person action-adventures are killers. And it often turned out to be a woman, playing a man, like Wonder Woman or Supergirl.” “From the start, I saw Jaime Sommers as a metaphor for human potential, a chance to show what we could all evolve toward, but the network wanted Steve Austin with cleavage. We really went at it, and out of 58 episodes, I can look at a handful-the biofeed show, or the the one on out-of-body experience-and feel good.”
Since healing herself of ulcers at age 20, Wagner has spent much of her time in self-education and work in the human potential movement. If personality, serenity, and physical vigor are valid results, she is a great living commercial for the cause. “Right now, I’m very involved in gaining peace on earth. Certainly between the US and Russsia, starting with nuclear disarmament.”
The woman is serious and committed Fred Segal attests. “I was working with the Great Peace March across the country last fall, and I called Lindsay up. ‘I want to meet you and talk you into emceeing the conclusion of the march in Washington, DC.’ She listened and said,’I’ll do it.’ She showed up with 2-month-old Alex strapped across her front and did a beautiful job.”
The next chilly morning, shooting moves to an abandoned glass factory, and the pacific mood becomes anxious and tentative. Two stunt extras have already been injured( though not seriously) in bionic leaps, and Schanley is in the spotlight, 30 feet above the ground on a slippery steam pipe, where he’s doing a “crawl through” for a later scene. It’s clearly dangerous, but he has the playful “cando” attitude of the new king of the hill. He makes very sure, however, that his Rebokes hold tight to the pipe.
The film’s producers watch as much as they can stand, and the special effects man rubs his knuckles, hard. Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner watch from below, shifting uneasily, but mainly relieved they are not up there with him.
“Jump up,” Schanley invites with a wave. “Come on, we’re all bionic its only 30 feet.” Smiling, they shake their heads no in ragged unison. That is not the sort of reunion they have in mind