By David Flynn
An action packed, science fiction tv series that was a big hit in the 1970s started as an adult programme, but became more popular with children as time went on.
After the movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was a hit in the late 60s, there was a hunger in the screen world for more science fiction stories. Producers hit on a best-selling novel, ‘Cyborg’, written by Martin Caidin, and in 1973, the fantasy story of Col. Steve Austin became a popular television movie, and subsequent series.
It was renamed ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ for television, and had as lead actor Lee Majors, who even at the point of his young life, had been an acting stalwart. Majors had been a star of tv westerns, ‘The Big Valley’ and ‘The Men from Shiloh’, and several movies.
The premise of the series was revealed at the beginning of each episode. The producer of the series, Harve Bennett, reads the first line “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive…..”
Actor Richard Anderson, who played Steve’s future boss, Oscar Goldman, then reads the famous lines, “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. Better. Stronger. Faster.”
Col. Steve Austin was testing a space shuttle when it crashed in the desert. He is rebuilt with bionics, ie new legs, right arm and a left eye. However after the surgery, Steve was stronger and could outrun and see further than anyone else. The surgery apparently cost almost $6 million. Steve went working for the OSI, a government body involved in solving crimes and catching criminals.
‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ was shown on the ABC network on Friday night. It was the run-in series for ‘The Odd Couple’ that night, and the Lee Majors series went to No. 11 in the ratings. This was despite it being on opposite a popular sitcom, ‘Good Times’, on NBC.
Obviously with such good ratings it was picked up for a second season, but it was moved to Sunday night – a not very popular night for television in those days. It was on opposite ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’ on NBC, and failed to make the Top 30.
However it was picked up for a third season, and this time it had little competition, which led the series back into high ratings – scoring No. 9 at the end of the season.
‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ was popular on this side of the world. There was merchandising tie-ins with the series, including lunchboxes, dolls and books all connected with the series available in local shops.
Lee Majors was married to actress Farrah Fawcett and, in 1976, she hit gold with her own tv series, ‘Charlie’s Angels’, which went to No. 5 in its opening year.
‘Angel’s’ got maximum publicity that season, with Farrah appearing on magazine covers all over the world. There was a fascination in the tabloid press with Farrah being married to the Six Million Dollar Man. The publicity didn’t do Lee’s series any harm, and it went to No. 7 in the ratings.
Also by 1976, ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ had a spin off series, ‘Bionic Woman’, which starred Lindsay Wagner. Lindsay had been introduced in the original series as Jaime Summers, the fiancé of Steve Austin. Jaime was involved in a sky-diving accident and also had bionic replacements, ie both legs, right arm and ear. Jaime’s bionic adventures were shown in the spin-off series, when amnesia made her forget she had ever been involved with Steve.
Richard Anderson as Oscar Goldman and other member of the OSI, who were cast members of ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ regularly made appearances on ‘Bionic Woman’. Anderson would appear weekly on both series which was very unusual, especially after ‘Bionic Woman’ moved to another network, NBC, for its third season.
Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner also made appearances in each others series, but that ended when ‘Bionic Woman’ moved networks. Farrah Fawcett also made appearances as a love interest of Steve’s in several ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ episodes.
After the fifth year, ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ was cancelled, as was ‘Bionic Woman’ a couple of weeks later. A few years later, Lee went on to star in another action series, ‘The Fall Guy’, which ran for five years.
Between 1987 and 1994, Majors, Wagner and Anderson starred in a short series of tv movies based on the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman. In the final movie, Steve and Jaime finally get married.
Actor Mark Wahlberg is currently filming an updated version of the Bionic story, with a working title of ‘The Six Billion Dollar Man’.