LEE MAJORS: THE TRAGEDY THAT NEARLY WRECKED HIS CAREER
TV Radio Mirror by Richard Eastman – July 1975
An outsider might find it hard to understand why Lee Majors would seriously consider pulling out of a popular TV series like The Six Million Dollar Man. Especially since the show has been renewed for another season – no mean feat in an age when new TV entries are expected to clobber the competition first time at bat.
Those who know Lee are aware he must have had plenty of reason to actually admit he considered “packing it in” shortly before the Fall shows were taped. But only a few can imagine how torn he was by a traumatic experience that hit like a short circuit in the solar plexus of video’s first cybernetic man.
To make sense out of all this one has to know something about Majors himself. And since he has always been a bit of an introvert, moving within a small circle of friends, knowing him doesn’t come easy.
When Lee first went to Hollywood, his quiet way was mistaken for aloofness. And when he seemed brash – as well he might be after landing a role in The Big Valley really fast – no one realized it was all a front to hide an overwhelming shyness.
After all, who was he? Where did he come from? What had he done?
Lee was born in Wynadotte, a suburb of Detroit. His father died just weeks before Lee was born and his mother was later killed by a drunken driver. “I was three. I barely remember her,” he says now.
An aunt and uncle adopted the boy. (“I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude,” he says today.) At their home in East Kentucky, he grew up as Harvey Lee Yeary. Majors was a name he was to cop from a Tennessee football idol of his youth.
As a college football player, he had the usual dreams of a pro-career – until a back injury put an end to that. But the drama coach at Eastern State College in Richmond, Kentucky was quick to see possibilities to the handsome six-foot blond youth. Still, good notices for stage appearances at Pioneer Playhouse didn’t necessarily mean he was ready for the big time, after all, Danville, Kentucky is not Hollywood.
The fact that Rock Hudson had seen and befriended Lee back East sparked the newcomer’s decision to pick up stakes after college and move West with his wife and son. Until he could break into film business he worked as a recreation director for the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation at North Hollywood Park (where Alan Ladd was once a life-guard). Even after landing the role in The Big Valley, he stayed on the inactive list at the park for two years – “just in case.” But he needn’t have worried, for Valley eventually led to The Men From Shiloh , then to Owen Marshall, Counsellor at Law and finally The Six Million Dollar Man with time for a few movies in between.
But though this career did well, his personal happiness was to suffer some setbacks. His wife, the childhood sweetheart he’d married at 21, took their son and went back East. Eventually they were divorced, and though they’ve remained friendly, the failure of his first marriage left its mark on Lee.
Still, that marriage gave him Lee III , the son he adores. In fact, it was his memories of the boy – the joyous time they shared and the heartbreaking times they’d been apart – that made this most recent trauma all the more devastating. As a father, how could he help but equate the situation to himself, to how he felt about his own son in those tender years? How could he not picture his own son swathed in bandages, fighting for his life – with himself in the shoes of the other boy’s father?
It came about when he was touring Australia last Spring and heard of an incident that took place half a world away in London, where The Six Million Dollar Man is aired on ITV. A little four year old boy named Mark Welch had tried to imitate his favourite video hero in a leap from a balcony outside his house.
On screen, Lee made the feat look so easy. But the character he plays is that of a cyborg, half man and half machine and a hundred percent pure fiction. But to a four-year-old, who’d seen it with his own eyes, it was very real.
Luckily for little Mark, his thirty-five fall was broken by a parked car. Still, he suffered severe head injuries which, according to St Bartholomew’s Hospital will keep him hospitalised for many months.
Informed of the mishap while he was in Australia, Lee was so shaken he refused to leave the plane at the Brisbane Airport and cancelled arrangements to sign autographs for his young fans there. Apologising to the TV brass, he said: “Tell the kids I’m too upset to start smiling and signing my name. I feel sick and stunned, thinking about that little boy in London.”
A representative of Britain’s News of the World spoke with Lee before he flew to a remote island off the Australian coast.
“Get a message to that little boy,” Lee pleaded. “Tell him that I’m very upset and that I hope he soon gets better. If I get to London in the near future, I’ll try to look him up.” Then grimly, he added. “My first reaction was to pack in the series. I somehow feel responsible.”
According to the News of the World, Lee’s message was passed along to little Mark, who had an immediate answer for his hero. “Please don’t stop the program,” he said. “It’s just great.”
Mark’s father watched as his little son spoke, thankful that the boy has come through two major operations. “He’s doing well.” Mr. Welch said. And he showed no bitterness toward the actor when spoke to reporters.
“I don’t blame Lee Majors for one moment,” he said. “But I think the TV company should put some kind of warning to kids before the show starts.”
Mere words, even those used by the injured child’s father freeing Lee of any blame, couldn’t immediately salve the ache the actor felt deep inside. What if that had been my boy? he must have asked himself. He could imagine how Mr. Welch had felt: the heartache when the boy’s life was hanging in the balance; the joy when he responded to treatment and was spared.
Lee had a lot to think about, flying back to America. The new season was set, but Majors – at that point – was undecided as to whether or not he would continue as star of the series.
“I want time to think it over,” he confessed.
Those nearest and dearest to Lee understood. Farrah Fawcett, his current wife, soothed him. Close friends and associates simply waited it out. Time, as usual, proved itself a healer and Lee reported for work as called for on series schedule.
However, if sometimes between takes he’s even more pensive than usual and his eyes take on a faraway look, those who notice will know what’s happening. For Lee will never be able to forget that little boy in London, or the day when their lives so dramatically brushed against one another across the miles. And once again he’ll breathe a prayer of thanks that the near-tragedy had a happy ending