Paul Simpson / Dreamwatch 64, December 1999
There aren’t many actors whose name, when you mention them in passing on your mobile, causes your taxi driver to turn round and start talking about a twenty five year old TV series in glowing terms. Lee Majors, currently in Britain filming a new six part comedy series for the BBC, is one.
Meeting Lee feels as if I’ve been caught up in one of Oscar Goldman’s 0SI plots: go to a hotel behind Oxford Street, and look for my contact near the fireplace. In fact, there aren’t any seats available near the fireplace when I arrive ten minutes early, but Lee Majors himself is already there, perched inconspicuously near the exit, sunglasses, walkman earphones on, keenly observing the room. If anything, he looks younger than the last time he appeared as Colonel Steve Austin, the world’s first bionic man, in the third Bionic Reunion movie, BIONIC EVER AFTER? in 1994, and it’s clear from a few minutes chatting with him that, despite having reached sixty and suffering from a few physical ailments brought on by the strenuous acting career he has had, he is still full of energy and raring to go.
This isn’t Lee’s first trip to Britain by any means – he accompanied his then wife Farrah Fawcett-Majors when she filmed SATURN 3 in the late Seventies, and has many friends this side of the Atlantic, both from showbusiness and from his many connections in the world of sport. But it’s the first time he has worked on an English comedy – something he’s dreamed about for some time.
Before we get around to discussing TOO MUCH SUN, we travel back to Arizona, where the original SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN pilot was shot in 1973. Based on a novel by Martin Caidin, it told how test pilot Steve Austin crash-landed his space shuttle prototype, and was rebuilt by a secret government agency. After coming to terms with his ‘rebirth’ with superhuman powers, Austin became an often-unwilling secret agent. “They were very true to the book,” Lee recalls. “All I can remember about that is going down to the desert in Yuma, Arizona and running across those sand dunes. I didn’t know the United States had sand dunes that looked like the Sahara Desert, but they do and they’re huge! They had me run over there, and up here, and I’m running like crazy, ir’s hot and I’m thinking, ‘What am I in for here?’ I had to do take after take.
“Then I have to get out of a cell, and I do a drop kick. I did that drop kick and the guy didn’t take the pins out of the door. It was a steel door, and I went wham! and fell slumped to the floor. It went all up my spine. I felt like I was going to kill that special effects guy! I ran at that door and hit it hard! The crew got a good laugh. But things like that were happening all the time. We had two guys, who were on there for a few shows; they were like Laurel and Hardy. Nothing went right. I’d be meant to be ten feet away from an explosion. I’d cross over that explosion, and they’d blow it up right up my butt. I could feel the heat. There was a lot of stuff like that. Bars that were meant to bend didn’t. I’m just killing myself trying! It was a very physical show.
“Each episode was shot over at least six days. That was kind of boring for me. We were always in like a warehouse or in a utility plant, some place that wasn’t very pretty. It wasn’t like shooting in Hawaii! I was always breaking in and out of things. Generally, if I was outside, I was running down a pasture or down a runway, running as hard as I can run, and they were showing it in slow motion.
“I can’t remember in the original movie how they did the speed. I think what happened was they speeded it up and it looked too funny. It was like the Keystone Kop movies. They may have cut it, because they were embarrassed to show that running. Then they slowed it down, and it became dramatic. You could see the power in the run. And you really had to run full speed to get your face contorting.
“We did the pilot with a man named Richard Irving direecing. He was an executive at Universal. Both of the two TV movies after the original were done by Glen Larson. Glen is known for having more flippant kind of stuff He wrote it more of James Bond, with all the gimmicks – I’d pull out something and put it in my mouth and breathe, and swim all the way underwater to a ship. It was too gimmicky. I must say I wasn’t in favour of it; it was entertaining, yes, but it was a little too corny for me, and trying to be something it wasn’t.
“When we went to the hour series, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it, and I didn’t want it to be campy, like BATMAN. So I said we had to make this character as human as possible, let him have some feelings, keep it on that track, because if he’s not human, how can human people in the audience connect with him? So he had to be a guy who was in an accident and making a go of it, so people had somebody to root for, and look up to and respect. He never killed anybody. Most of the time there was an explosion or somebody got knocked down, when I was leaving they would get up. We made it good clean fun for all the family and I’m happy Sci-Fi’s picked it up over here – they run it twice a day – and that’s great for me. I don’t get paid for it, but
and I’m glad the kids have something to watch.
“I think it also started a whole new genre. I think it was after that it got into Christopher Reeve and Arnold Schwarzenegger and the cyborg movies – stuff like that. We started all that.”
Lee admits that there were times that he felt silly playing Steve. “I’d be out in the middle of a crowd, and I’d go over to pick up the car, then they’d see the guys the other side jacking the hell out of it. When we were revealing our secrets, yeah, I felt a little stupid. The kids were watching, and you’ve got to disappoint them, and I felt so bad they had to see that. Like a magician uncovering a trick it was deflating to the ego.”
Austin didn’t remain the sole recipient of Bionics for long: there was the Seven Million Dollar Man (a racing driver who couldn’t handle the responsibility), the Bionic Woman (Lindsay Wagner, who spun off to her own series), the Bionic Boy and even Max, the Bionic Dog! “I know, I know!” Lee laughs. “I have to say I was responsible for the Bionic Woman. I’d gone for two years with no relationship so I suggested a long-term girlfriend back home. I wrote the song in that episode and I sang it. It might not have been any good but at least it was personal.”
Did he feel trapped by Steve Austin? “I never thought it would be that big at the time, and of course when I finished it, it still was running. I thought it would run itself out, but it never did! The problem was with work for a period of time. Then Glen came up with THE FALL GUY and we went off to Hawaii and wrote that pilot. It was fun; it was something I could put a lot of humour into. We had a great looking girl, Heather Thomas, and the kid, Doug Barr, was wonderful. That took a little heat off. We did it for five years: I think it was a good show. They wanted to go another year but I needed a break, so I turned it down. After that, I did a funny series in Hawaii which revitalised me a little bit, called THE RAVEN. I put on a huge padded ski vest, and a Hawaiian shirt over it, put gauze in my mouth, grew a beard and looked grizzly, and talked in a deep voice. I didn’t have to shave, I went to work, on the beach in Hawaii, and I got paid for it!
“I don’t regret anything so far, because here I am doing something I never thought I’d do: an English comedy. I always wanted to do a play in England and possibly a comedy, because I wanted to get out of the Steve Austin thing, and do a little more acting. I tried to project a lot of comedy into THE FALL GUY, but I’ve never had one that was full out go for it. THE RAVEN started me in that vein, and I found I really liked that.
“TOO MUCH SUN is the craziest comedy you’re going to see,” Lee laughs. “The whole thing takes place in Beverley Hills, and they’re shooting it in London! I own a mansion I’m an old cowboy star in his sixties, over the hill but still trying to work, and I have these two blokes staying in my guest house, two English guys, one’s trying to be a writer and one’s trying to be an actor. They’re constantly futtering at each other and trying to get into the business. They’re just hilarious. One’s name is Alex Jennings and the other is Mark Andy from THE FULL MONTY. I have a blonde bimbo dumb wife, Julie Ann Davis. We did the read throughs on these six scripts, and we didn’t stop laughing. I’m this old ageing cowboy, and the topper is; he’s in the closet. This is a fun thing for Steve Austin, right?! That’s why I wanted to do it: it’s the total opposite of everything I’ve ever done in my life. We’ll have some fun with it – and I’m sure the press will have some fun with it too. When I left the United States, I was playing golf with my friends. They knew I was going to England and they asked if I was going to play the King, and I said, ‘No, I think I’m going to play the queen…”‘
Why does he think THE SIX MILLNIO DOLLAR MAN and THE FALL GUY were so successful? “They both could be watched by the entire family; children could identify with Steve Austin. The parents didn’t mind them watching because it wasn’t real violence, nobody got killed. The same with THE FALL GUY. Any time you stopped the bad guys it was in a humorous way, more or less. They were both good clean fun. Colt was funny, and I think certain people liked to watch Heather Thomas, the young ones liked Doug Barr, and the old ones, well, there was Lee again after so many years! I think you grow up with an audience, and I think they remain true to you no matter what you do.”
TOO MUCH SUN begins on BBC1 in the New Year