1 9 7 4 – 1 9 7 8 (USA)
“Steve Austin, Astronaut – A man barely alive . . . Gentlemen, we can rebuild him . . . we have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before, Stronger, Faster.”
In the 1970s, there was no finer specimen of beefcake than Lee Majors. He was the decade of disco’s proto-man. Tall, tan, built, rugged, Lee Majors was like the Marlboro man on speed.
The 1973 marriage to his sex-kitten female counterpart, Farrah Fawcett, was a legendary union matched only by the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di. Lee even had his own series of toys, and, yes, they were 12 inches tall.
But had it not been for Martin Caidin, Lee Majors may never have had the same impact. In 1972, Caidin – an expert in aeronautics and the development of cybernetic technology – wrote a science fiction novel called Cyborg about an astronaut pilot who, after a devastating crash, was re-built by scientists into a cybernetic organism; better known as a “Bionic” man (a combination of “biological” and “electronic”).
Caidin sold the film rights for Cyborg to Universal and one year later, Universal hired Majors to play Air Force Colonel Steve Austin in a ninety-minute ABC TV movie called The Six Million Dollar Man.
A legend was born.
ABC decided to expand the TV movie into a full hour-length Six Million Dollar Man television series, which premiered in 1974. In both pilot and series, Steve Austin was “a man barely alive”. An Air Force test pilot, Austin was flying an experimental aircraft (not dissimilar to NASA’s space shuttle) when something went horribly wrong.
As seen in the opening of every episode, Austin cracked up in a horrific collision with mother earth. Miraculously, he was not instantly killed, but he wasn’t in the best shape either.
Dr Rudy Wells “had the technology” to rebuild the dying astronaut with artificial nuclear-powered limbs, a super-telephoto eye and other bionic implants where the body was too badly damaged to salvage. All told, Steve Austin was now worth six million clams.
That meant something back in the 1970s when people with a million dollars were among the richest in the USA. In any case, six million didn’t come cheap, and it wasn’t charity either. The Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI) had shelled out the dough for Austin, who was now faster, stronger and better than ordinary men, and they wanted a return for their investment.
OSI subsequently manipulated a seriously unhappy Austin into becoming their secret field operative, sending him out on utterly dangerous missions. Initially, Austin was so unhappy with his new cybernetic self that he actually attempted suicide, but he was foiled by a nurse who helped him to see the positive side of his mechanical implants.
Once Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) became the director of OSI, the subterfuge and manipulation was abandoned as Steve Austin more or less accepted his role as a bionic man – albeit a tortured one.
The bionic man used his super strength and ultra-fast running ability to fight everything from terrorists to mad scientists to mythical monsters. The use of his artificial limbs was always accompanied by slow-motion photography and a cool repetitious space-age sound effect that has since come to represent inhuman strength.
The four-year run of The Six Million Dollar Man was not a stable one, and each season saw substantial changes in cast members and the style of the episodes. Lee Majors – with the exception of growing a moustache in one season – was the only reliable constant over the turbulent life of the series.
In the second season, Austin discovered he was not alone in the bionic world. There was a dangerous, out of control seven million dollar man (Monte Markham) roaming around somewhere. This lead to a clash of the titans which Steve naturally won (despite being a million dollars cheaper!).
The original character of Dr Rudy Wells was replaced by different actors twice. Vince Van Patten was added in 1976 as Andy Sheffield and, of course, the biggest change came in 1975 when Lindsay Wagner came aboard the bionic train as Steve’s childhood sweetheart, Jaime Sommers.
In her first episode, Sommers became Austin’s bionic other-half after a parachuting accident left her on the edge of death. The same team of bionic scientists that patched up Austin were able to give Sommers two new legs, a new arm and a super-sensitive ear. Unfortunately for Jaime, her body rejected the implants, causing her to experience overwhelming pain and periodic bouts of bionic madness.
Jaime convinced her cybernetic boyfriend to let her help in a mission. Though he feared for her safety, Austin allowed Jaime to become an operative for OSI. At the end of the two-part episode that introduced star Lindsay Wagner to the world, her character was killed by a blood clot in the brain, leaving Steve Austin in a state of shocked mourning.
Public reaction to the death of Jaime Sommers was so strong that ABC and Universal Pictures decided to bring the bionic woman back to life.
At the beginning of the third season, Dr Wells revealed to Austin that he was only led to believe that Sommers had died and that instead, she had been cryogenically frozen until he could figure out a way to revive her. And revive her he did. Jaime later had a manic pillow fight using her bionic limbs in a classic Six Million Dollar scene.
Jaime attained such popularity that the producers of The Six Million Dollar Man decided to give her a spin-off series, The Bionic Woman, which premiered in 1976.
The Six Million Dollar Man was one of those decade-defining television series that stealthily infected a nation of sci-fi hungry children, but as a show, it never quite found a permanent formula.
Clearly, the series had taken a dramatic creative turn when Steve Austin, international spy, was forced to do battle with Sasquatch in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.
The Six Million Dollar Man had been reduced to fighting a tree-hugging monkey that looked less like a scary monster than an escapee from a hippie commune with a pituitary disorder.
Bigfoot was certainly a big step away from foes such as the deadly robotic Maskatron. The Bigfoot episode did, however, contain several scenes with the spinning tunnel that was eventually used as a ride attraction at Universal Studios.
The kids dug Sasquatch, and ABC liked the hairy man so much that they brought him back for several more episodes, along with other bizarre additions like “The Bionic Boy” (Vince Van Patten) and Maxamillion, the “million-dollar dog”.
In 1978, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman were both cancelled, in spite of their continuing popularity. And that time, no one seemed to have the technology to rebuild them.
But in 1987, Universal made The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman as a TV movie. Two years later, they tried again with Bionic Showdown, which ended with a highlight moment of Steve Austin proposing to Jaime Sommers.
And finally, in 1994, six million dollar fans everywhere were given what they always wanted in Bionic Ever After, featuring the marriage of Steve and Jaime after some twenty years of courtship.
Dr Rudy Wells
Alan Oppenheimer (1)
Martin E. Brooks (2)
Vincent Van Patten