THE LONELINESS OF THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN
By Alan Markfield / People Magazine / 1979
“Yes I am lonely,” Lee Majors was saying, “I’m lonely without Farrah. Not to have her with me. I may laugh and tease around a lot, but the truth is that it’s miserable without her. There are times when I think perhaps I created a monster, then, deep down, I know that’s not true.
Life without Farrah is just one of the changes in the life of Lee Majors. Newly 40, he’s got a new film career and a new, mellow personality.
As we sit in a dimly lit bar in Toronto , where Lee is filming The Chase, his latest $15 million caper, it’s clear that trying to adjust to life without Farrah is still going to be his biggest problem. “Farrah is a warm, beautiful woman whom I love very much,” he says softly. “But she wants her career and feels that she must go after that on her own.
“I will always love and respect her. It may be bad for my image to say this – but who cares: I’ve always been a one-woman man. I’m 40 years old and in all that time I’ve had four great loves, but none greater than Farrah.
“It sounds funny to say,” he says, “but we agreed to separate so that Farrah could go her own way. If you have ever loved something, you know that sometimes you just have to set it free – no matter how much it hurts.”
The separation has not been easy. He has had to contend with being labelled Mr. Fawcett as well reading in the press what his wife has been up to and with whom. “I have to read each day’s newspapers, “he says only half in jest, “just to find out exactly what my wife and I have been doing.”
From the beginning the Press had a field day: first, Lee and Farrah were the golden couple who could do no wrong. Then they became the couple who could do no right. They have had a pretty rocky road together. At the start, it all seemed so glamorous. Lee first discovered Farrah on the cover of a magazine and immediately found the name and telephone number of “that fantastic-looking woman.”
When they married in 1973, it was Lee who clearly was the star, having been on TV for 12 years in series like The Big Valley, Man from Shiloh, and, of course, The Six Million Dollar Man. Farrah was a model, mostly known for a sexy TV shaving-cream commercial, in which she spread foam on the face of football star Joe Namath, and then watching him shave, urged him in a sultry voice “to take it off… take it all off.”
But Lee wanted her to have a career of her own and he insisted in his Six Million Dollar contract with Universal that Farrah be allowed to use his publicist, Jay Bernstein. That was the birth of the “monster” Lee sometimes believes he’s created.
And when Farrah burst on to the scene in Charlie’s Angels, she became a phenomenon (she sold five million posters alone) and was on every cover of every publication anywhere people could read. The ‘monster’ grew and grew. Then she walked away from all that and her $5,000 a week television pay-packet in search of a film career.
It’s one of the curious things about Hollywood: at the start all “unknowns” would give anything just to find steady work. A TV series? Sounds great – a dream come true. But once in a series and working steadily, they always want to be movie stars. That somehow seems to have so much more glamour attached to it. Farrah desperately wanted to be a movie star and right from the start she could pick up $750,000 for one picture.
Lee himself was attacked for his contract hassles with Universal when he quit Six Million Dollar Man – only to be talked back with an unprecedented $3 million salary. Then came the rumours of trouble in the marriage – Farrah was romancing Jeff Bridges; Lee was involved with someone else, they said. Stories of a rift started surfacing, and then, of course, came their split.
Lee is now trying to prove to himself that there is life without Farrah but he still misses her desperately in so many ways, big and small. “With Farrah I had the same kind of pride any man has when he walks into a room with a beautiful woman and all the other men look at that woman and envy the guy,” he says.
It’s that kind of honesty that forces you to like Lee Majors. Oh, I know what they say – he’s moody, he’s tough, he can’t act, he’s wooden, he’s stiff, he blows up and gets into fist fights and he’s more comfortable scuffling with reporters than chatting with them. He’s a boozer, a carouser, a man whose main claim to fame was that he lived under the same roof as Farrah Fawcett. Now, even that piece of magic is no longer true.
There’s depth to the man Hollywood packaged as Col. Steve Austin, bionic man, and they packaged him as surely as they packaged his wife. They gave him a career, then refused to believe he was anything more than their creation. Now he’s much more confident and surprisingly funny with a wicked tongue-in-cheek sense of humour.
Majors is no Mr. Farrah Fawcett and it wasn’t the plastic Six Million Dollar Man that I met in a Toronto bar. He is about 6 ft tall, 190 lb, with sandy-blond hair and wholesome good looks. He looks the part of the footballer he once was.
I tell him his face is lined, still handsome, but the markings of “character” are now obvious.
“It’s not the miles I’ve travelled,” he answers deadpan, “it’s the stops in between.
“Anyway, once men get to my age they become more interesting. That’s because they know they’re nearer death. They know they don’t have much time left and so they hurry things along. Before 40 you’re too young; after, you’ve got the experience of life to fall back on.”
“Interviewing Lee Majors is not easy. Everybody stops by to say hello – directors, producers, other actors.
Ryan O’Neal, Lee’s good friend, stops at our corner table, pulls out a chair and sits down to observe, “Hi,” he says introducing himself, “I’m Tatum’s dad.”
They have been friends since Ryan’s days in Peyton Place and despite ill-founded rumours that Farrah and Ryan are having a fling they remain good friends. They’re fun to watch as they make their nightly rounds of the Toronto nightspots. The two of them have been blazing a different trail each night, a sort of bar-hopping comedy duo. But where Lee is getting character, Ryan is still the one with the baby face. Laughs Lee, “I’ll age him yet.” If not then it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.
Lee is in Toronto to work, but Ryan is there wearing his father’s hat – in town visiting Tatum who is filming Circle of Two with former bar-hopper Richard Burton.
Just for fun, Ryan dragged Lee down to the Circle set one day where they stepped forward as “extras”. They made brief appearances in a scene where Tatum and Burton are in a pornographic move theatre. For a few seconds their deadpan faces appear on the big screen, a lark for them, but a free bonus for film-makers.
This is a new Lee Majors, busily shedding some of the inhibitions of the past. He’s also trying to change direction.
“Of course, it’s been difficult to live down my television image as the Six Million Dollar Man, he candidly admits. “There are many things that I’d love to do, but producers just don’t come to me with those parts. All I’ve been offered are he-man type roles – the kind of part you’d expect to go to a younger, less expensive Steve McQueen. But I’d love the chance to get my teeth into a really good part.
He also desperately wants to do a comedy – please, won’t somebody let him? For now, all he will say is: “I’m still paying my dues so I take what’s available when I’m available. One of the worst things that I’ve done since leaving the series was a picture called The Norseman. With what I had to choose from, it was the only thing that had even an outside shot of success, and the money was right. But I knew I was in trouble when Cornel Wilde started yelling, “Row, row, row.”
On the occasions when something good has been offered, then Lee has not been free at the right time. He was offered Mac Davies’ meaty role, co-staring with Nick Nolte. But Lee, working on another project at the time, had to say no. As luck would have it, his project was a flop – Nolte’s picture a box-office smash.
Still, unlike his estranged wife, who is now considered box-office poison, Lee is a risk film-makers still want to take. He’s not earned less than $400,000 for any picture since leaving his one-time bionic alter ego behind.
But he’s still very sensitive to critics who say: he can’t act; he’s wooden, and one-dimensional.
“Sure,” he says, “that hurts. But consider some of the miserable pictures that I’ve been in. If I really think that I’ve done the best that I can possibly do in a role, then the criticism doesn’t hurt me.
“But I take my work seriously. I watch the results of each day’s shooting to see how I can improve. You have to study your craft.” He thinks Agency with Bob Mitchum and Valerie Perrine, recently completed in Montreal, is one of the best pictures he’s ever done.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” says Lee. “But I don’t think that I have anything to be ashamed or nervous about. The bad films that I’ve done I look at now as water under the bridge.
There have been many stories about how Lee Majors is a prima donna – how he can be so very difficult. “But I’m really not such a bad guy,” he says, pleading for understanding. “Most times, the Press just caught me at a bad moment.”
Amazingly, he’s shy and one of the reasons that he is such a loser at times is that people and fussing autograph collectors and gawkers, all made him feel ill-at-ease around the fanfare and trappings of stardom. And it is no wonder he finds it difficult sometimes when you look at his background. He grew up a world away in the small rural town of Middlesboro, Kentucky. He was raised as Lee Yeary by his father’s brother and his wife. Lee’s father was killed in a steel mill accident before Lee was born. His mother was killed by a runaway car as she stood on the sidewalk waiting at a traffic light. With a start like that, it’s no surprise he has developed into a tough survivor.
It’s Lee’s apparent awkwardness that’s often misinterpreted as stiffness. As one film executive says, “The trouble with Lee is that he only has two expressions; grim and not so grim.”
And that’s the image he’s trying to change. It’s all part of the new start he’s trying to make for himself. What it boils down to is hard work and then letting your work speak for itself.
“Look,” he says, “the crunch is the people. They either love you or turn you off and tune out. There’s not much in between. If I find people don’t want me, or don’t respond to me, well, I’ll just drink away the pain, but obviously I’m not hoping that’s going to be the case in future.
But it’s still Farrah the interviewers ask about and she’s still his preoccupation, too. In the past the old Lee Majors would have let his publicist field the questions. The new Lee finds it easier to chat about this previously off-limit subject.
The true story of their problems and their relationship (when it finally comes out) is, well, sort of nice. He isn’t a madman jealous of his wife’s fame, rather here is a husband who loves his wife and cares about her future. Lee understands her concerns and anguish, and remains convinced that eventually when she’s worked things out, she’ll come back to him.
At a recent Variety Club International Lunch in Toronto, he brought knowing laughter from the crowd by introducing himself: “Some of you may not know me. But I use to be the Majors at the end of Farrah Fawcett.”
Later, at a party, someone asked him why he was in town. “Well,” he said, “my wife (in spite of their separation Lee almost always refers to Farrah as ‘my wife’) is off in Egypt so I thought I’d come here and make a movie.”
There’s no bitterness, though the one-liners come fast and furious at those awkward moments when Lee seems almost embarrassed by his own sincerity: “I use to be the only one who could shower with Farrah – now anyone can, if they go buy her shampoo.” Or, “I’ll probably have to do a picture with Farrah some day. Yeah – maybe I will – just to bail out her career.”
On and on it goes. But when the humour eventually fades, some raw hurt remains.
“The main thing I did for Farrah was to protect her,” he tells me. “When I first met her she was just a little girl from Corpus Christi, Texas, and I made sure she had everything that I didn’t when I started out. All the mistakes I made and lessons I learned the hard way. I tried to give the benefit of those errors to Farrah.
“I was the one who took her off Charlie’s Angels. Five years of that schedule would kill you. As it was, she was blackballed from the industry for leaving. Quitting a hit series is just not something you do in Hollywood and I was the one who told Aaron Spelling (the show’s producer) that Farrah wouldn’t be back. He was stunned.
“If I was still watching over her I think I would have suggested different films to the ones she’s done. She made mistakes. But to be fair she has also taken what was available. She was offered Foul Play, which Goldie Hawn eventually did, but that fell through because the men with the money were no longer willing to take a chance on Farrah. That’s what they mean by ‘box-office poison.’
“I stopped advising Farrah Fawcett Majors more than a year ago, when we first started discussing her need to go her own way,” advises Lee. “I was always behind her and all the press stories that I was jealous of her career were just rubbish. I was proud of her and determined that she wouldn’t fall into the same traps I had.”
They are still very close. As we chat, Lee is paged to the phone and is gone some time, announcing with a huge smile when he returns that was Farrah calling him, long distance. Still, it is Lee who lives all alone in the sumptuous home he once shared with Farrah, complete with tennis court, pool and al the other trimmings.
“You know,” he says wistfully, “Farrah is every man’s fantasy mistress. She gives you the impression that if your imagination was able to send you a message, it would congratulate itself on having such impeccable taste.”
With a last mouthful of beer, Lee makes his apologies – it’s time to leave. Not the lateness of the hour but rather talking about Farrah and the gloom that brings ends our chat. And he and his buddy Ryan have the rounds to make- there’s a party to visit and then, there’s work in the morning.
But as he signs the bar bill and we start towards the exit, Lee turns to me with one last thought.
“You know,” he says, “some say I have a reputation as a ladies’ man. I don’t think so. I think I’m just a lucky son of a bitch
“But I’m a gambling man and I’m betting Farrah will be back.