NY Times

On DVD, Better ... Stronger ... Faster


Published: December 10, 2010

On many a dull day in the mid-1970s uncounted youths (yes, this one included) would run in slow motion, pretend to bend steel bars with their bare fists and, squinting toward the horizon, emit a noise that might be rendered in print as a soft, staccato beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh-beh.

They were, of course, emulating the ABC series “The Six Million Dollar Man.” For five seasons the show’s protagonist, Col. Steve Austin (played by Lee Majors), didn’t merely foil evildoers with his atomically powered bionic legs, right arm and left eye. He did so amid some of the world’s coolest sound effects while wearing a most colorful array of leisure suits.

For a few charmed years the nation went bionically bananas. Viewers who couldn’t get enough of the awesome Austin were rewarded in 1976 with “The Bionic Woman,” starring the similarly equipped Lindsay Wagner. Children, not content with re-enacting their favorite colonel’s feats (lifting cars out of ditches, jumping from a crouch onto third-floor landings), pestered their parents for everything from bionic action figures to lunch boxes.

In 1977 a Ladies’ Home Journal poll asked youngsters, “If you could be any famous person in the world today, who would it be?” Among boys Lee Majors topped the list. President Jimmy Carter came second.

“I didn’t realize how big the show really was,” Mr. Majors, 71, said during an interview last month in Manhattan, “until maybe the last 10 years, when I’ve taken the time to travel all over the world. I’m talking about little villages where they’d say, ‘We had one TV, and everyone came from all around to gather on this one evening to watch. ”

And yet for all its popularity, “The Six Million Dollar Man” faded quickly from the cultural radar. Three made-for-television reunion movies (the second with a young Sandra Bullock as a bionic girl) failed to reignite more than nostalgic curiosity. The show has not been rerun domestically since it was offered on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1995. For years a domestic DVD release proved impossible because of a legal tangle between Universal, which owned the series, and Miramax, which had acquired the rights to Martin Caidin’s novel “Cyborg,” on which the show was based.

But with the release last month of the Time-Life DVD boxed set “The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection” (available for a bionically priced $239.95), frustrated fans are now as energized and supercharged as Austin himself.

“My VHS tapes are getting a bionic replacement,” said Joseph Burns, 42, a video editor and multimedia developer in San Francisco. “ ‘I sing the body electric!’ ”

In an age when “The Matrix,” “Stargate” and similarly mind-bending excursions into the fantastic are taken for granted, it takes some head scratching to recall why the show was such a hit. One reason might be that more than a generation ago big- and small-screen science fiction was dominated by “Silent Running,” “Soylent Green,” “The Omega Man,” “Logan’s Run,” the “Planet of the Apes” franchise and similarly dystopian visions of the

“The Six Million Dollar Man,” by contrast, offered a rare Watergate-era hero: tough, swift, but, in the best ’70s tradition, vulnerable. Every week, against Oliver Nelson’s driving, percussion-laden score, Jack Cole’s gripping flashback title sequence reminded us that Austin was surgically implanted with superhuman abilities following a near-fatal test-flight crash. “Steve Austin ... astronaut ... a man barely alive,” intoned the executive producer, Harve Bennett. And then Richard Anderson, who played Oscar Goldman, Austin’s plaid-jacketed boss at the O.S.I. (Office of Scientific Intelligence), would offer calm yet determined reassurance: “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better ... stronger ... faster.”

Stronger? Sure. Faster? Well, he clocked in at 60 miles per hour. But better? That wasn’t so easily answered. Thanks to Mr. Majors’s deadpan delivery, it was never quite clear if Austin was more machine than man, or vice versa. His was an identity crisis so profound that neither “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.,” nor other self-help books of the day would have helped him.

“I’d say to myself, ‘How would I feel if I woke up and saw that this wasn’t my hand?’ ” said Kenny Johnson, a writer and producer for the series who created the character of Jaime Sommers, the Bionic Woman. “I’d feel grateful to have it, but I’d still feel like a freak.”

Then too this was the era of cryogenics, reincarnation, and similarly pseudoscientific excursions. “People got a lot of things from the show,” Mr. Anderson said. “And one of them was that we want to stay alive.”

The show itself stayed alive long enough for Colonel Austin to rescue innumerable victims from natural disasters, defeat terrorists, recapture stolen secret plans, protect classified weapons systems, prevent nuclear holocausts and even return to space. And then there were his battles with Bigfoot, played first by the wrestler André the Giant and then by Ted Cassidy (Lurch from “The Addams Family”) in no fewer than five episodes.

Such was the popular success of the show that it became a self-referential behemoth. At a certain point bionic mania verged on self-parody, especially in the fourth-season entry “The Bionic Boy.” It didn’t end there.

“They wanted to put this bionic dog, ‘Max,’ in, and I said no,” Mr. Majors said, referring to the producers. “I said, ‘Take that dog and put it in Lindsay’s show.’ ” Max made several appearances on “The Bionic Woman.”

Thus did “The Six Million Dollar Man” begin to lose its bearings. As originally envisioned by Mr. Caidin, Austin was a focused killer. But on television he largely contented himself with knocking out the bad guys with a bionic punch to their chops. He gradually exhibited less inner turmoil between his carbon- and silicon-based selves. There were aesthetic issues too. “In Season 4 he had a weird David Niven moustache,” said Paul K. Bisson, a Hollywood producer and the founder of the Bionic Fan Network. “And a weird comb-over. Then, in Season 5, he had a perm.”

Spoofing was inevitable. Less than three weeks before “The Moving Mountain,” the last regular episode, was broadcast on March 6, 1978, a Muppet segment of “Sesame Street” featured “The Six Dollar Man.” “The Six Million Dollar Man” has since become something of a cybernetic punch line. In the 2005 comedy “The 40 Year Old Virgin” Steve Carell declaimed, somewhat defensively, that his Oscar Goldman action figure was worth more than his Steve Austin counterpart.

Could “The Six Million Dollar Man” be remade today? The prospects are dubious. A big-screen version has reportedly been in development hell for years. Mr. Anderson, who produced the three reunion specials, recalled pitching a feature release to Sidney Sheinberg, the former head of MCA, then the parent company of Universal.

“We did nine scripts,” Mr. Anderson, 83, said, “and each one was worse than the other.”

In a sense the verdict on a bionic reboot has already been rendered. In 2007 a short-lived (and much darker) updating of “The Bionic Woman” made its debut to largely negative reviews.

So maybe in a larger sense “The Six Million Dollar Man” was truly a product of its time — right down to the leisure suits. Laughing, Mr. Majors recalled his fashion challenges.

“The hardest thing was trying to run in between the woods and keep those bell-bottoms from getting snagged on the brush,” he said. “I was jumping over stuff and I was thinking, ‘Uh oh, I’m going to get hung up, with these things flapping in the breeze.’ ”

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