Lee Majors and “The Six Million Dollar Man”

Props today for TV star Lee Majors (Harvey Lee Yeary, b. 1939). Orphaned as a baby in Detroit, raised by relatives in Kentucky, college football star Majors suffered injuries that forced him to look into another line of work. Thanks to his Elvis-like good looks, he hit the jackpot almost instantly as an actor. His first role was Joan Crawford’s studly murder victim in the opening scene of Straight Jacket (1964). From here he walked into total long term job security, a key role on the Barbara Stanwyck western soap The Big Valley (1965-69), followed by a regular role on the last season of The Virginian (1970-71), and a regular role on Owen Marshall, Counsellor at Law (1971-74). Along the way, there were other movies, like Will Penny (1967) with Charlton Heston; William Wyler’s last film The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), and the made-for TV Weekend of Terror (1970).

It was another made for TV movie The Six Million Dollar Man (1973) that put Majors majorly on the map, for it spawned two additional TV movie sequels, followed by the blockbuster series, which ran (with bionic speed) on ABC from 1974 through 1978.

Even though we were fully aware of its lame aspects even then, The Six Million Dollar Man was our favorite show at the time (or at least up there with Starsky and Hutch). Yet it was one of those rare shows about which it can be said that its most riveting moments occurred during its credit sequence…with Richard Anderson intoning “Steve Austin. A man barely alive. We can rebuild him” and its graphically recited premise of the test pilot’s in-flight accident, and his being given new electronic components (superhuman robotic legs, arm and eye) on an operating table.

R.I.P. Richard Anderson, 1926-2017

After the first 30 seconds the show was usually all downhill. Austin (Majors) would be given some assignment by his government boss (Anderson), which would be some boring spy thing we didn’t understand, and then, worst of all, all of the climactic action sequences would be presented in slow motion, ostensibly to suggest its opposite — speed — but the producers weren’t fooling anybody. It was the cheapest, lamest way to solve a technical special effects problem ever, and even as children we knew that. Every single episode came with a guaranteed tedious anti-climax and you really had to work HARD to make it exciting for yourself despite the show’s apparently deliberate efforts to give you a bad time.

Bionic Man to the Rescue…Slowly

Yet the PREMISE was so good, that we truly loved it, and played “Six Million Dollar Man” on the playground all the time. My parents tended to prefer not to get me branded toys, but my best friend had the Steve Austin action figure and that was an additional source of fun when we weren’t actually putting on track suits and pretending to be bionic ourselves, turning over logs or go-carts or whatever to rescue trapped victims, and such like imaginative action play. I mean, this premise is so good and solid it’s downright old-fashioned. Can’t you see it in comic books (actually it was adapted into that form) but also 30s movie serials and 40s radio?

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Fueling the fever for Majors-mania was the fact that he was married to the hottest female star in the country. He was the “Majors” in Farrah Fawcett-Majors. The success of both The Six Million Dollar Man and Charlie’s Angels caused a sort of feedback loop of cross-promotion while the moment lasted.

The peak for us on The Six Million Dollar Man was the Bigfoot storyline we wrote about here, though in retrospect that has to have been the shark-jumping moment. Bigfoot was like Steve Austin’s Scrappy Doo. In the wake of the success of Wonder Woman, the spin-off The Bionic Woman was conceived, which ran from 1976 through 1978 starring Lindsay Wagner. Later both characters returned for made for TV movies made between 1987 through 1994.

Majors did tons of other stuff during and after The Six Million Dollar Man. He produced, directed, starred in, and sang the theme song of the series The Fall Guy (1981-86). He starred in such fare as Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U2 Spy Plane Incident (1976), High Noon, Part II: The Return of Will Kane (1980), and Fire: Trapped on the 37th Floor (1991), and had recurring roles on Tour of Duty (1990), Raven (1992), Too Much Sun (2000), and Ash vs. Evil Dead (2016-18). He was funny and game in a 2010 episode of Community!