The Return of the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (on DVD anyway)

The Return of the SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN

One of the great abandoned treasures in pop culture has finally been unearthed.

After decades of legal battles, remake rumors and other obstacles, “The Six Million Dollar Man” is finally, FINALLY, out on DVD for a new generation to enjoy. It’s about time, says the Bionic Man himself.

“Yeah, there is some satisfaction,” Lee Majors said during a recent phone interview. “…Because I’d like to see some of the shows. I don’t remember a lot of ‘em [laughs]…”

Majors isn’t alone.

Almost like an urban legend, “The Six Million Dollar Man” has lived on in the fading memories of aging Fanboys who grew up watching Steve Austin’s slow-motion adventures and mimicking his moves. “When you can’t see something, you want to see it more. And that’s what’s happened here,” said Richard Anderson, who co-starred as Oscar Goldman, Austin’s boss at the Office of Scientific Intelligence.

Millions of kids cut their Geek teeth humming the classic theme and the program’s signature special effect, nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nu . There is an entire generation of fans who can still recite the narration that plays over the show’s Open, one of the best introductions in the history of the Idiot Box.

“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology…”

Despite its massive fan base, the show basically fell off the radar as the 21st century began. Unless you lived overseas, seeing episodes of “The Six Million Dollar Man” has been next to impossible the past 10-15 years.

Why? Because Steve Austin ran into a foe tougher than any mad scientist, killer robot, or Bigfoot: Corporate lawyers.

Because the show was based on Martin Caidin’s novel “Cyborg”, the intellectual property rights were more complicated than Rudy Wells’ bionic procedure. Steve Austin, the bionics and other aspects of “Six Mil” came from the original novel, which meant royalties had to be paid to Caidin’s estate.

That explains why Austin and Oscar Goldman were never mentioned in the recent “Bionic Woman” remake on NBC.

It probably also helps explain why the numerous planned Bionic Man theatrical adaptations never got very far in the development process (including one God-awful spec pitch that would have had Jim Carrey star in a comedy version). Anderson recalled reading at least nine different scripts for proposed films when Miramax had the theatrical rights to the project.

[David Lambert from TVShowsonDVD.com gives a much more detailed explanation on the rights imbroglio here.]

Majors himself was also involved in his own lawsuit with Universal, the show’s producer, over unpaid royalties. All that is resolved now, clearing the way for the series’ long-awaited DVD debut. Along with the 1960s “Batman” TV series, “Six Mil” was one of the last ‘White Whales’ of TV Land. It’s been at the top of the most requested DVD titles lists for years. Time-Life recognized this, and didn’t hold anything back when the DVD door finally opened for the Bionic Man.

“The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Series” from Time-Life is a 40-disc Sasquatch of a set. Available exclusively online, the box set contains all 100 of the series’ episodes, the 3 TV movie pilots, the reunion movies, and 15 hours of extras! Some may say it’s a bit…much, but in a sense it’s an appropriate presentation for a groundbreaking television show that took root in the bombastic, overkill 1970s.

Col. Steve Austin was a leisure suited take on James Bond – minus the license to kill and the tricked-out car. The show took on surprisingly mature topics in a family-friendly format. Terrorism, black-market nukes, even African warlords were part of Austin’s itinerary as a special agent for the OSI.

The special effects may be laughably dated now, seen without the context of its era. But don’t shortchange Steve Austin’s cultural impact. “The Six Million Dollar Man” was TV’s first true science fiction phenomenon.

[Before Trek fans start bombarding the message board, in the mid-70s, “Star Trek” existed primarily in reruns, a short-lived animated series, and fanzines. It wasn’t moving the needle with the mainstream like ‘Six Mil’ was.]

The show was a ratings hit and a merchandising superstar. Kids packed their Steve Austin action figures in their ‘Six Mil’ Thermos lunchboxes and took them to school (at least this writer did). They read the Charlton comic books, played the pinball machine and board games, and slept on Bionic bed sheets. Majors was also probably responsible for the sale of more red tracksuits than anyone in history.

Which is why it’s strange to hear him say he had no clue he was selling so much stuff.

“I never knew there was so much merchandise sold on that show. In fact, over the past 10 years, my wife has been browsing on eBay, and she’d come across something that was out there that I never knew existed,” Majors said. “And we’ve been buying stuff on eBay just to see what it is. It’s just amazing.”

One would think the 1970s were an unforgettable time for Majors. Not only was he starring in a hit show, he was also married to fellow small-screen superstar Farrah Fawcett in the decade’s biggest celebrity partnership (Fawcett guest-starred on a first-season episode of ‘Six Mil’).

But it’s hard to forget something you didn’t soak in the first time around. The man who starred in a hit series in three separate decades swears he had no clue how big he was.

“First of all, once you do a series, you just kind of hibernate for a while,” Majors said. “When I was working [on the show], I never saw it. I was too busy [making it].”

The actor was in nearly every scene of most episodes, so shooting days were long and tiring. “We were shooting in locations that were just so desolate. We were shooting at abandoned utility buildings, docks…whatever,” he recalls. “It was the hardest series…”

The former college football player also performed most of his own stunts. “When you’re doing the stunts, the time passes quicker,” he said.

Sometimes Majors would really push the envelope.

Anderson recalls one particular incident in Indian Wells, California during the filming of an episode that involved a scene with a helicopter.

“I had a late call [to shoot] and I get there and see a helicopter there, and a cable attached to it coming down,” Anderson said. “And there’s Majors. He looks at me and smiles, grabs the bar below the helicopter and he takes off!”

“When he came back down, he smiled at me and I said, ‘what in the world are you trying to do, knock us out of business?’ Anderson recalled with a smile.

Majors laughed when told of his co-star’s story. “Believe me, all that’s true. That’s what wore me out.”

So did all the running. Just because they used slo-mo to make it appear Steve Austin was running 60 miles per hour, it doesn’t mean Majors didn’t have to run as fast as he could. He’s paying now for all those full-speed sprints with a battered back and ailing knees.

“I got no cartilage in my left knee. But I’m still able to…I walk an hour every morning,” he said. “But it was great because it kept me in great shape.”

It’s only been very recently that Majors has begun to understand his place in the pop culture pantheon. And he’s embraced it. For the first time ever, he’s joined Anderson and on occasion, Lindsay Wagner, at conventions across the country.

“Its amazing the turnout [these conventions] get and some of these people are such…fans,” he said, noting that besides lunchboxes and action figures, some fans brought in some one-of-a-kind items.

“Some fans brought in the screens from the old pinball games for me to sign,” Majors said. “I had a guy bring in a…a guy and his wife carried down the middle of the street and brought it in. It was the hood of a ‘Fall Guy’ truck. He wanted me to sign it.”

Majors has kept busy with independent films and numerous TV guest spots. Being a TV icon has its advantages; He’s a popular guest-star on TV shows, most recently showing up on “Weeds” and “Human Target,” a show that is in many ways a spiritual descendant of “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

He’s even revisiting the role that made him a star. He’s appearing in the upcoming movie version of “The Big Valley,” playing the father of his old character, the illegitimate Barkley son Heath.

He’s also awaiting word on the fate of a pilot he shot for SYFY called “Me and Lee.” Majors plays an eccentric version of himself in the half-hour comedy who turns a down-on-his-luck 20-something into a Bionic man. The project was originally at Fox with Jamie Kennedy attached, but it’s being overhauled.

“It’s a hilarious pilot,” he said. “SYFY has the script and they’re making some changes so we’re waiting to hear when they want to shoot it. And it deals with the bionics.”

When asked why they think “The Six Million Dollar Man” connected so well with audiences, Majors and Anderson cite different reasons, none of which has to do with the sci-fi premise or the theme music, or even Bigfoot.

“Terrific name. You talk about names…Six million dollar man…it never went away,” said Anderson. “You see it in the papers all the time [used in headlines]…”

“The main reason I loved the show was we didn’t have much violence. We didn’t kill anybody, we didn’t have any blood,” Majors said, pointing out that families could sit down together and enjoy it at 8pm. “It was not a dark show.”

(Michael Avila is a writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter for more of his pop culture observations)

 

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