“The Six Million Dollar Man” was one of the most memorable episodic TV action dramas of its day back in the early- to mid-1970s; but, strangely, it has rarely been seen since the long-running series was suddenly cancelled in 1978 after a successful run of five seasons and four TV movies. The show detailed the exploits of ex NASA test pilot turned secret agent, Steve Austin (Universal contract player Lee Majors), who worked for the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI) under the ever-watchful eye of his best friend, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) -- the Washington-based Governmental agent who sent him on his varied missions every week, involving everything from robotic replacements to Cold War telepathic spies and crime magnates, not to mention the odd towering, alien-created Bigfoot cyborg. Austin stood out as an ordinary guy made especially unique by science through having had his right arm, both his legs and his left eye replaced in pioneering work developed by Dr Rudy Wells (played by several actors across the run, but made iconic by Martin E. Brooks from series three onwards), after an near fatal plane crash left him nothing more than ‘a man barely alive’. At Wells’ secret Government funded Colorado research facility, Steve Austin was brought back from the brink, sporting new artificial limbs with ‘bionic’ components that gave him superhuman strength and enhanced 20:1 vision, to make him ‘better than he was before’.
Lee Majors quickly became a handsome 1970s sex symbol in polyester thanks to this show, which turned into a showcase for his trend-setting side-parting and his relaxed approach to the art of ‘raised eyebrow acting’, rivalling even the great Roger Moore for effortless charm. The actor was a true American hunk and as the show went on to become more and more popular, all those dynamic running poses with bell bottoms flapping, and the gigantic bionic leaps that so entranced impressionable viewing youngsters in 1970s playgrounds, were joined by an increasing awareness of Majors’ sex symbol status for young women -- with the actor often seen sporting unbuttoned shirts that exposed his copious chest hair at every opportunity from season four onwards; although the moustache he grew that year was always to be viewed as a big mistake by anyone with even a modicum of taste!
Majors’ impossibly model-beautiful wife of the time, Farrah-Fawcett Majors, appeared frequently as a guest star on the show in a manner that flagrantly courted the couple’s celebrity star status without shame before she became equally famous in her own right on “Charlie’s Angels”; and when the fresh-faced Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), the bionic woman, was introduced in a captivating two-part love story near the end of Season Two, bringing family atmosphere to the fore like never before, the series really caught the imagination: for this was suddenly an action show for all the family, one that also boasted a warm, folksy humanity in the midst of its otherwise way-out tales of Mabuse-like criminal masterminds with off-the-wall adventure plotting. The producers very cleverly were able to weave the series’ progressive can-do attitude regarding the potential achievements of technology and progress, into stories that also functioned as traditional homilies promoting an ethic of home-grown fortitude and fairness, and above all, humanity. To catch up with the show again after well over thirty years, thanks to this comprehensive boxed set ,which contains every single episode and TV movie ever made, including the reunion films of the 1980s and mid’90s and all the cross-over episodes of “The Bionic Woman”, soon proves to be something of a spur to some serious Proustian-style involuntary recall for those of us of a certain age, a flood of childhood experiences and feelings, tastes and sounds rushing back at the first sight of the cybernetically enhanced astronaut and all-round handsome hunk that was Steve Austin back then, in all his full-blown, slow motion, action posed prime, accompanied as always by Oliver Nelson’s brilliant swelling theme music sting and the unmistakable metallic-twang that constituted Austin’s famous ‘bionic’ audio sound effects.
The word bionic became entrenched in the modern vernacular as a result of this series and remains so today, and even despite the fact that watching back now what at the time always appeared to be a super-slick piece of high quality action drama, in hindsight often reveals a show that was clearly suffering from its impossibly tight six day shooting schedule and struggling to hold itself together coherently as a result with the help of Universal’s stock footage library and the studio’s standing sets, the show still works more often than not. Though it sometimes has to make do with relying on rudimentary, get-the-job-done, point-and-shoot camera work and rushed and awkward-sounding dialogue, nevertheless many of these episodes cause a tingle down the spine and produce a thrill of recognition to this day. The show still sports one of the great title sequences of all time, unbeaten for setting the scene and evoking the required atmosphere. Majors, Wagner and Anderson were perfectly cast to play enhanced versions of their own natural personas, developing a rapport that made every clumsy line and daft storyline resonate despite the silliness and cost-cutting fast production. These mono audio episodes vary in the quality of their surviving prints, generally getting better as the years pass, although all are perfectly acceptable. The episodes of “The Bionic Woman” included here for some reason look the most vibrant.
The collection comes utterly jam-packed with extras in the form of a multitude of featurettes which can be found on special supplementary discs dotted throughout the forty disc set. Each series has its own dedicated disc of extras, the centrepiece of which is an in-depth interview with one of the cast or crew, titled “OSI Debriefing”. The first one up is a one-hour-and-seventeen minute interview with executive producer Harve Bennett. Bennett tells how he was charged with turning the original premise, as featured in Richard Irving’s movie of the week (which had been adapted from a novel by Martin Caidin called Cyborg), into an initial series of thirteen episodes, with only six weeks’ notice from Universal; and he relates the pressures of shooting each of the episodes in just six days: a full one day less than was normal for most drama series at the time. He talks about how he went about portraying the character of Steve Austin differently from the way he had been envisioned in the previous two movies, playing more on Lee Majors’ ‘cowboy’ persona rather than the tuxedo-clad Bond figure he was being moulded into. And he lays emphasis on how the series focused on the character’s humanity in contrast to his superhuman capabilities. Bennett talks about the creation of the famous title sequence, the bionic sound effect created by Jim Troutman, and how Steven Bochco (who ghost wrote the pilot movie) played a key role in finding writers for the series -- many of whom created some of its most famous episodes. Bennett then talks at length about the campier elements of the show in later years, which started to appear as the way-out sci-fi themes began to play more of a part in the stories, particularly when concerning the frequent appearances of the ‘Bigfoot’ character. There’s also discussion of the spin-off series “The Bionic Woman” and the casting of Lindsay Wagner, plus the many crossover episodes, which were designed to carry over the audience from one show to the other. Bennett also talks about the relationship between Lee Majors and Farah Fawcett.
After Kenneth Johnson wrote the two-part episode “The Bionic Woman” for season two, Harve Bennett employed him as a producer-director on the following season, which included a Bionic Woman sequel which led to a spin-off series, and which he ended up producing at the same time as working on “The Six Million Dollar Man”. The extras disc for season three includes a 90 minute interview with Johnson which covers in great detail his entire career and includes a great many anecdotes concerning his development of and involvement with “The Incredible Hulk” TV series, as well as his work on the two bionic shows. This is a fascinating talk, covering just about every imaginable aspect of the show, made all the more compelling from the fact that Johnson has a good memory and a lively mind, and is able to talk non-stop without hesitation about a variety of related subjects, from his determination to inject some humour into the show (which he felt could sometimes come over as being a little over-earnest in its first season) to the sexism inherent in the Bionic Woman doll which was marketed, against his own wishes, with an emphasis on make-up and fashion. As well as recounting in much detail the making of his most famous stories, such as all the ones involving Jaime Sommers (a character he created from scratch) and the two-parter called “The Secret of Bigfoot”. Johnson talks about the particular type of realism-based escapist fantasy which marked out 1970s TV drama, and he even gives his own opinion on why the attempted re-boot of “The Bionic Woman” didn’t take off despite the continuing affection many people have for the original series. One really gets a great sense from this extensive interview of what it was like to produce episodic TV drama under high pressure conditions in the 1970s, and of the kinds of short cuts that so frequently were required just to get the show on the air in the time allowed. Amusingly, while commenting on the unusually close relationship between Oscar and Steve, Johnson reveals that he and writer James D. Parriott used to imagine that the two might be lovers and even (for their own amusement) often wrote scenes for them that ended with the two kissing!
Oscar Goldman, aka Richard Anderson, appears in a fifty-five minute interview in which he talks about the series in general, starting with how he first learned he’d got the role on the night before shooting began on the second TV movie. After staying up all night to get up to speed on the script, Anderson decided to wear shaded glasses for his first scene, to hide the inevitable bags under his eyes from the late night. Subsequently he developed a bit of business which became quite famous among fans, which was inspired by his hero Gary Cooper, in which he removed his glasses whenever he needed to underline a dramatic pause in the script. The veteran actor talks about the importance of the chemistry between himself and Lee Majors and how it gradually developed more and more the longer they worked together. Since his role in the series was mainly to provide set-up and exposition for whatever mission Steve Austin had been given on any particular week, it was important that the relationship between the two be believable. Anderson also talks about how the heroism evoked by the series had a great impact on audiences watching during difficult times in the 1970s. He mentions how different in tone “The Six Million Dollar Man” became from “The Bionic Woman”, with the former becoming more and more macho as it went along, while Lindsay Wagner’s influence militated more towards finding ways of avoiding overt violence to solve problems on her programme. He explains his famous tan as being a way of avoiding having to go into make-up, which he loathed; and he remembers the Oscar Goldman action figure, which came with its own toy office set! The soft-spoken actor is still an enthusiastic advocate for the programme, and he explains how it was he who got the reunion movies off the ground in the 1980s.
Martin E. Brooks takes part in a 63 minute interview about his three years on the show, recalling how he took over the role previously played by Martin Balsam and Alan Oppenheimer, of Dr Rudy Wells, after his long-time tennis partner Harve Bennett offered him the role as a ‘one shot’ job at the beginning of season three. In fact it turns out that both the actors who played the role before him were close friends of Brooks’. After starting out in the role by trying to grey his hair and make himself look more physically like Oppenheimer, Brooks eventually started playing the role ‘as himself’, after he was cast full time in the role. Brooks remembers the set as being full of good-natured male bonding based on practical jokes and humour, thanks largely to the influence of Lee Majors. He remembers Lee as being very athletically inclined and always eager to perform as many of the show’s stunts as he possibly could himself. Richard Anderson he remembers as someone who was obsessed about topping up his tan between takes, but he’s impressed about how Anderson developed the relatively thankless role of Oscar Goldman and made him into such an iconic part of the show. He talks about coordinating his role as Rudy Wells in both “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman”, and sometimes getting confused about which lines he was meant to be delivering, since he would sometimes be moving from set to set in the same day. He sees it as being a mistake to end the show after five seasons and is mystified as to why there were so few reruns once it was cancelled. Brooks looks back at some of the many guest stars who appeared, including a young Sandra Bullock, and recalls his favourite episodes of the show during his three year stint.
Finally, Lee Majors talks for 83 minutes on his career and his time on the show, recalling the changes made to the character between the TV films and the series to make it more child-friendly, especially since there was an emphasis on making Steve Austin more of an approachable, human character and on not having him constantly killing the baddies at the end of every story. He mentions working with Lindsay Wagner and Richard Anderson and particularly recalls the episodes involving Andre the Giant. He remembers the huge amount of running he had to do on the show (not always easy when wearing flared bell bottoms!) and his love of on-set practical jokes (which didn’t go down well with executive producer Harve Bennett), and recalls his insistence on doing as many of his own stunts as possible. His favourite episode is the football-themed one (which he also directed himself) and he mentions the dreadful song he wrote and sang for the Bionic Woman episode as well! The fight scene involving John Saxon in season 1 is a favourite memory, and we find out here that the moustache of season 4 was really a rebellious form of practical joke aimed at the executives who tried to enforce a certain look on him in order that episodes from different seasons might be mixed and still be screenable in any order. The executives in what Majors calls ‘the black tower’ only saw the moustache in dallies, by which time it was too late to do anything about it.
Much of the above extensive interview footage crops up again edited into other featurettes throughout the set, such as one that provides a fascinating look at the science of “Real Bionics” (11 minutes). Here, writers and producers on the show talk about how, at the time it was going out, they frequently received letters from real amputees, wanting to know where they could go to get bionic limbs fitted for them-selves. This could be particularly heartbreaking when the letters were from children; writer and producer Kenneth Johnson tells how he often had to try and gently break the news in his replies that no such bionic limbs existed in reality at that time. But in that curious way in which life so often imitates art, many of the technical experts who work in the field of bionics today (interesting that they actually do use that word as well!) were originally inspired to get into it by the series, and this featurette also demonstrates the cutting edge of the current technology being created for some of the veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- including the latest high-tech artificial leg that can match its gait with that of the person it’s attached to after being hooked up to a laptop that runs special software which helps the limb reprogram itself.
Meet The Cast featurettes: again, mostly composed of clips from the full-length interviews, these profile pieces for Lee Majors, Lindsay Wagner, Richard Anderson and Rudy Wells feature the actors, and various producers and directors discussing how each actor got the role originally, and what made them so special in the parts as they developed their characters across the seasons. Each one runs for between 10 and 15 minutes.
“An iconic Opening” (18 minutes) looks in detail at the thinking behind and the actual craft that went into the creation of the iconic title sequence. Jack Cole was an experienced director of title sequences for US TV drama in the 1970s and he and Harve Bennett talk about how they took footage from the original pilot movie and remoulded it to make the dramatic intro which became world famous. Looking at how they selected and combined images, the layering of sound and the way in which the title sequence created a particular visual quality and set up the texture and tone of the show for the episode that came after it, this is a really enlightening documentary on an important aspect of the creation of a TV series that is so often overlooked, even though it quite often ends up being the one thing fans remember the most vividly.
“Season VIPs: The Six Million Dollar Man Guest Stars” is, naturally enough, a light-hearted look at the careers of some of the actors who have appeared as guest stars, which examines the characters they played with the help of various fans and classic TV experts who feature as talking heads. Each season comes with its own featurette in which the guest stars for that particular collection of episodes are noted and their performances commented upon. These come dotted throughout the collection and run for around 10 minutes each.
“Bionic Breakdown” is really just a collection of clips from across the entire five series run, which demonstrate the capabilities and the uses to which Steve Austin puts his bionic limbs during the series’ five year history. The writers would quite often add new bionic features on a whim for that week’s specific episode it seems, so if you thought it was all about the exercising of terrific strength etc., think again: the eye can be anything from a heat wave detector one week to an infra-red sensor the next, as well as the 20:1 magnifier it’s mostly used for; and when he’s not using it to bend iron bars and snap locks, the arm also doubles as a radiation detector and even a power supply unit.
“Bionic Sound Effects” relates how the distinctive synthesised clanging noise, christened ‘the singing sword’, which became so associated with the use of Steve Austin’s bionic powers along with the slow motion effect, was gradually introduced into the series. In fact, all of the famous sound effects were not fully and consistently in place until well into season three of the series.
“The Six Million Dollar Man Fans: So Loyal, So Bionic!” is a light-hearted 13 minute featurette in which fans recount their memories of watching the show when growing up, and tell what it meant to them at the time. Also various directors and crew members, as well as Lindsay Wagner, talk about their impression of the fans and their dedication to the show.
“The Six Million Dollar Man’s Best Villains and Fights” is another light piece in which fans and production members list some of the most memorable episodes in terms of providing formidable foes for the bionic man to battle against. John Saxon’s robot Major Sloan, Monte Markham’s the Seven Million Dollar Man and the unstoppable death probe machine are some of the main contenders, along with various aliens, the Fembots and, of course, the ever-popular Bigfoot. This lasts for 17 minutes.
“TV Goes Bionic: The Origins of the Six Million Dollar Man” is a featurette in which fans, producers and actors talk about how the series got going initially as a TV movie based on a series of novels by lecturer, teacher and pilot-turned sci-fi novelist Martin Caidin, and how it took something of a wrong turn when ABC tried to mould the character of Steve Austin as a James Bond hero in the follow-up movies.
“The Bionic Age of TV: The Success of the Six Million Dollar Man” takes up the story again when Harve Bennett takes over control of the TV series for its first season and collaborates with Lee Majors to emphasis the humanity of the character. The show’s success was consolidated when Bennett brought in new writers such as James Perriott and Kenneth Johnson who then created Jaime Sommers, leading to a spin-off show and many cross-over episodes. The featurette goes on to track the main highlights of all five seasons, including the Bigfoot episodes and the introduction of the campy Fembots. Kenneth Johnson talks about how the production was constantly under the Universal cosh, with the emphasis always being on churning the episodes out on time and without overspending.
“Top Secret: OSI, NASA and Bionics” is a short featurette looking at how the show dealt with technology, secret services, and how NASA often gave the show the opportunity to film at some of their rocket facilities, such as Cape Canaveral.
“The Reunion Movies: Life after the Series” talks to the producers, writers and directors behind the three reunion TV movies shot for NBC and CBS in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The projects got rolling at the insistence of Richard Anderson and after initial reluctance by Majors and Wagner to get involved, the resultant films did at least bring the relationship between a now much chunkier and wrinklier Steve Austin, and a more mature Jaime Sommers, to its inevitable slushy and romantic conclusion.
“The Pop Culture Effect” looks at the elements which came together to make the show iconic in a TV landscape of medical dramas and cop shows: the memorable music, the use of slow motion, the bionic sound effects. In later years these helped provide the substance of a great many references and parodies in other films, from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “Family Guy”. (12 minutes)
“Bionic Action … Figures!!” An enjoyable 30 minute documentary about all those toys and action figures and the other merchandising such as lunch boxes and puzzles the show spawned. Everyone remembers the Steve Austin action figure with its detachable bionic arm, complete with roll-up skin so that you could see his bionic components; but the series also gave rise to a host of other figures and appliances: from Steve’s rocket/revival capsule to Oscar Goldman’s exploding briefcase; from Bigfoot to Maskatron, the ultimate robot foe -- this film looks at them all again with the help of the cast themselves (Lindsay Wagner ruefully recalls her excitement at getting to see her doll for the first time, only to realise that it looked more like Farrah-Fawcett Majors!) and dedicated fans of the show.
“The Stunts of the Bionic Age: Pushing the Envelope” is a 28 minute documentary in which Lee Majors and his stunt double Vince Deadrick recall perfecting the backwards jump and talk about the most dangerous stunts in the shows history, including one in which the stunt coordinator almost died and another in which Majors found himself teetering, suspended two-hundred feet from the ground on greasy cable car wires, because the stunt double was too ill to take his place. Rita Egleston also talks about doubling for Lindsay Wagner on “The Bionic Woman” and having to have her skirt weighed down at the hem in order to stop it ruining the backwards jumping effects by flairing upward!
The two-part episode “The Bionic Woman” is the first in the set to get a commentary, and it’s a typically well-prepared one from the episodes’ writer (and later producer of both “The Six Million Dollar Man and its spin-off “The Bionic Woman”) Kenneth Johnson, as he goes into lots of detail about the development of the original idea and the storyline, and also how Universal wanted a romantic episode with a death at the end to cash in on the success at the time of the movie “Love Story”. The episodes mark a distinct change in tone for the series, but such was the popularity of the character of Jaime Sommers and her rekindled romance with childhood sweetheart Steve Austin that the producers were soon working on a way to bring her back. Johnson makes clear the constraints these episodes were made under, and although his idea of a low budget would’ve seemed like spectacular luxury to many British TV producers at the time, the crew were still attempting to shoot an hour-long film in just six days when a movie would take six times that much time under normal circumstances. Johnson remarks on the perfunctory, flat TV lighting style and the unadventurous point-and-shoot directing aesthetic so common in TV at the time, and emphasises just how much of the popularity of the show came down to the chemistry and performances of the actors who often had to sell some pretty hastily written material through charisma alone.
Johnson also provides a commentary on season three’s pinnacle and probably one of the most memorable stories from the entire series, the two-part “The Secret of Bigfoot”. Once again, the producer/writer has done his homework and is able to provide extensive filmographies and biographical information about every guest player seen here, including of course the striking performer who played Bigfoot himself, Andre the Giant: a former wrester who spoke only French and who stood 7 foot six inches tall. We learn some unlikely facts about Andre’s life, including that he lived next door to Samuel Beckett as a child and that the great playwright used to drive him to school! Johnson reveals how the story was written to take advantage of the Universal tour’s ice tunnel ride, but is quick to point out the dated aspects of the production caused by the need to shoot quickly and also because each episode ran at least five minutes short, which forced him to pad them out with lots of stock footage from the Universal archives. He also reveals how the striking white contact lenses used by Andre as part of his Bigfoot makeup gave Johnson the idea to use the same makeup effect when he came to make “The Incredible Hulk” TV pilot movie. Johnson talks about the importance of finding writers who could work quickly and come up with usable ideas, and how the executive producer credit was often used as a means simply of keeping good writers on-board, since once you found someone who could supply what you needed to keep the show on the air, you did anything you could to hang onto them! Johnson is clearly frustrated by some of the limitations he had to work under and is quick to point out the kinds of flaws in episodes that make them ripe these days for Mystery Science Theatre treatment; but despite Kenneth Johnson being strongly associated with the more science fiction elements on the show, especially after his subsequent involvement with shows such as “The Incredible Hulk”, the original “V” and “Alien Nation”, it becomes clear that it is the human element which is indicative of many of his best episodes on the series, especially the ones involving Steve’s relationship with Jaime Sommers, and which makes them continue to endure in fans’ affections.
Director Cliff Bole is remembered for his work on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The X Files”, but he started as an assistant director on “The Bionic Woman”, and while working as such on an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man” entitled “The Blue Flash” found himself promoted after the original director quit the project over objections to the script, three days into a six day prep. In the commentary for the episode, Bole, like Kenneth Johnson, emphasises the pressures and time constraints involved in making the show back in the ‘70s, and points out how some warehouse scenes were varied by simply moving some boxes around and leaving the camera in the same spot to try and make it look like they were shooting in a different part of the set! He also talks about how the zoom lens had recently come into vogue and that everyone was using it way too much, something especially noticeable when you re-watch these episodes today. He talks about the professionalism of Lee Majors and also how he liked to play practical jokes on the crew. He was also good with children apparently -- a much needed skill in this episode, which featured child star Rodney Allen Rippy, then known in the US for some now-forgotten TV commercials, but who didn’t otherwise have much experience of acting and would tend to lose concentration under the hot lights.
On his commentary for the episode “Vulture of the Andes”, Bole reveals that to save money sometimes entire storylines were written around stock footage. In this case the production had fifteen minutes of documentary footage of gliders in the air, which they matched up with similar looking planes for the ground scenes. There was no second unit on the show; the whole thing had to be shot in six days. Bole compares the schedule to a later show like “The X-Files”, where he had fifteen days to finish an episode and a second unit as well! He also reveals that the reason Lee Majors disappears from the episode for about fifteen minutes of screen time, Steve’s place taken by another OSI agent while he recovers from a mishap with his bionic arm, was because Majors had to make a personal appearance elsewhere for the network in the middle of the shoot, a fairly common occurrence when the series was at the peak of its popularity. By this time, all Majors’ costumes were being designed so that his shirts were unbuttoned to mid-chest, since the actor was ‘popular with the ladies’ and by season four, his sex appeal was being spotlighted in a way it hadn’t been since the early TV movies which had tried to pitch the character as a kind of superhero James Bond. Bole looks back on the show with fond memories and recalls a level of camaraderie he’s not experienced again since on any other show, and he was surprised but gratified to learn that the series still retains a large fan base.
The set also features the padded out two-part versions of all three TV movies and, finally, each series comes with a photo gallery of production stills from the episodes making up that particular season. With all the TV movies (including the attempted pilot “The Bionic Boy”), spin-off episodes, reunion movies and five-years-worth of episodes the viewer will be detained for quite some time by this diverting trip down memory lane, and that’s before we even consider the hours and hours of documentary and featurette material also included across forty discs. Without doubt, this is worth saving up for if you’ve ever had any interest in classic action adventure TV. Highly recommended.