Lee Majors revisits ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ and his most classic of roles
Lee Majors has lived in Los Angeles for many moons, but itís this time of the year when he really misses his old Kentucky home. ďYou get the seasons and all,Ē he says. ďIt makes it feel like Christmas when Christmas comes. Here, itís just sunny and palm trees, and it doesnít feel like the holidays.Ē He did receive one particularly hefty early Christmas present recently, that being the awesome 40-disc The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection DVD box set. Available online at TimeLife.com, the set is a must-have for disco-era kids who grew up playing with their friends as astronaut-turned-secret agent Steve Austin and the adults who still to this day make that cool bionic noise whenever running in slow motion. Itís packed with í70s-era goodness, from commentaries to new interviews with Majors and The Bionic Woman star Lindsay Wagner to all six movies and every episode of the five-season series. But Majors isn’t resting on his cybernetic laurels. ďIím still working so wherever theyíre filming, thatís where Iím going,Ē says the actor, who also made his mark in the 1960s series The Big Valley and with kids of my generation as stuntman Colt Seaver in the 1980s show The Fall Guy. I talked with him recently about The Six Million Dollar Man and his more than 40 years in show business, so read below for our extended conversation.
Photos courtesy of Time Life
When you go back and look at old episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, whatís the first thing that pops in your mind?
When I was doing the show, first of all, you work so many long hours and I had just come off of three other series and went right into this. And when I finished that, I went right into Fall Guy. I wasnít quite aware of how really big the show was. I knew it was in like the top 10 or something, but you just keep working and the producers keep putting the whip on you. I did Fall Guy to try to get away from it, to take some shine off so you donít get typecast in a certain box. But there comes the box again. [Laughs] Anyway, Fall Guy didnít quite work as well as I thought it might, even though we did five years of that. I just remember [Six Million Dollar Man] as a lot of hard work, but now in the last probably 10 years, Iíve been able to do some other traveling around the world and stuff. Iíve found you go to in the middle of nowhere in the Phillipines, and they say, “Oh yeah, we used to all come down to the village on Friday nights!” It was the only TV they had to watch. Iím sure they watched other shows, but they all say that was one of their favorite shows.
And you were in your acting prime back then, too.
When I did one of my first shows ever when I got into acting, I remember the director said to me, “Lee, youíll never make it in show business unless you learn to keep your left eyebrow down.” Well, little did he know, if you look at The Six Million Dollar Man, I think that was his trademark: The left eyebrow was generally up. [Laughs] I donít know why, it was just a habit. But I did take him in earnest for a while and I was doing The Big Valley, and the director would come over after the scene we had just finished: ďThatís real good, you were concentrating, you were there, I could see you were thinking.Ē And I was thinking in my head, “Yeah, I was thinking really hard to keep my left eyebrow down. That was my motivation in the scene!” [Laughs]
What struck me rewatching Six Million Dollar Man episodes now was all the running you did.
Tell me about it. My knees are killing me today.
How much did your athletic background help when it came to all the physicality needed?
It paid off tremendously. In The Big Valley, my first series, I had to learn a lot. I could ride a horse, but I went in and got into the calf roping and I probably did 90 percent of my own stunts. They were fun to do and it made the day go quicker. Five years of that show doing that stuff kept me in pretty good shape, plus we had a flag football league that the producers didnít know anything about. Luckily, I didnít get hurt. They didnít want you doing stuff, yet I was still doing all these stunts for them. They didnít care about that.
The kids from the í70s had Six Million Dollar Man, but us children of the í80s had The Fall Guy.
That was my favorite show because it gave me a chance to do a little more with the character, be a little funnier and we had a great cast. I was a co-producer on that and I was able to cast a lot of friends and great, great people in parts. I got a crew where if you didnít want to have fun and do your work also at the same time, then you were gone. We had quite a team there who made it fun. Like, ďMonday Night Football at 6 oíclock, guys. Weíre outta here at 6 so letís get the work done.Ē Weíd still have our fun and practical jokes, but we had a well-oiled machine.
There are some humorous moments with you as Steve Austin, though. Obviously it was funnier because heís so earnest.
You know, you try to put a little humor in here and there, but it just wasnít written that way. You had to do it personally as the character would allow it. Thatís why Fall Guy was so much better. I could add a lot of ad libs and stuff, which was cool. It was a pretty serious show and the humor just wasnít written there. You had to put it in when you could. But it was a great family show. It was something that you could sit down with your 5-year-old and on up in the ages there and watch with. If you remember, most of the time before that, there were just so many Westerns, and this was a little ahead of its time also as far as the technology goes. As you can see today, since theyíre doing so much with he technology. There are troops coming home and getting heart replacements and going right back into the field. Itís amazing.
The theme song from The Six Million Dollar Man series is still very recognizable for people. What I didnít realize was the original TV movies after the pilot featured a soulful, girl-group song. Which did you prefer?
The original pilot was OK. The second one, the writers went more to a James Bond kind of character, and they had this glitzy theme sung by Dusty Springfield that was kind of jazzy. I didnít feel that thatís the way we should go. When we went to the series, I wanted to play the character down and have him be more of an antihero and have more relationships and be more of a likable character. Thatís what those shows were. We didnít kill anybody, there was no blood on our shows. I didnít carry a gun, didnít shoot anybody, and most of the time if you had fights with people, theyíd be getting up as you were leaving the scene. Nobody was left for dead. And of course, there were two years we went where I didnít have a romantic love interest. Iím saying to the producers, ďLook, Iím getting tired of looking at these hairy-legged guys walking around the set. Get some girls in this thing!Ē It could also be a girlsí show, too. Thatís how the Lindsay Wagner thing came up with the Bionic Woman story. As silly as I was at the time, I even wrote a long song for Jaime. I think they used it in that episode. I havenít gone back to view it because Iíd be embarrassed. [Laughs]
The Bionic Woman spun off and became a hit, too.
Studios are funny. You can see with all the tentpole franchise movies they make, but it was the same back then. Like in the Ď60s, if you like Westerns, weíll give you 17 Westerns. And if you like The Six Million Dollar Man, weíre gonna give you The Bionic Woman. They tried to do The Bionic Boy, another Bionic Woman, and then they came to me and said, ďWe have this Bionic Dog named MaxÖĒ I said, ďWell, let me tell you. You take Max over to the Bionic Woman show because Iím not having the Bionic Dog on my show.Ē [Laughs] They wanted to do a bionic thing every five minutes. Of course, we did one in í89 in Toronto and she was going to be the next Bionic Woman in one of those reunion movies. She worked for 2,500 bucks for guest-starring, and it was Sandra Bullock. God help her, Iím glad that show didnít go and spin her off because sheís done quite well and she deserves it. She was a fine little actress.
They did try to reboot The Bionic Woman a few years ago rather unsuccessfully.
See, thatís where they went wrong. If you look at the original Bionic Woman and that one, in the original one Jaime was kind of soft and had feelings and relationships. Then you cut to this last one and it was so dark. Blow up this and blow up that, and she walked around like she wanted to kick butt every minute. It was too violent. Of course, thatís what happened with our youth of today, more or less. Theyíre being influenced by so many video games that have all the violence in them. Now all they have to see is explosions and things getting blown up and people getting killed. Itís not the way I was brought up, but I guess every generation is its own. I grew up watching Westerns with Roy Rogers, and my heroes always wore the white hat and it was different.
If they were to reboot your show, I guess it would have to be The Six Billion Dollar Man at this point. You know, for inflation.
Somebody told me what it was the other day. It wasnít nearly that much. Itís still in the millions. [Laughs]
Itís also neat that youíre doing the voice for General Hawk on the new G.I. Joe Renegades cartoon.
I only did three or four shows. Itís fun to keep your hand in some of the young stuff. A couple of years ago, I did Ben 10 and I played the grandfather. They sent me on a little tour to London and the Philippines, and you should see all these kids who watch this cartoon thing. They had these premieres of this two-hour movie in the theaters and all these kids were out there. I had the little boy and the girl who are in the movie, but gosh, now Iím Grandpa Max, which is good.
Youíve also appeared on Human Target and Community. Do you like where your careerís at now?
I like being able to go and do three or four weeks and do a weird character and such. Thatís why I like doing these independent films where you can go and do characters. If youíve done seven or eight series, youíve got to realize thatís only seven or eight characters. Most of the time, they were the good guy and you had to stay in that character for five years. Now, you can go and play a bad guy or an older fella, but itís more interesting for me.
Because weíve seen you so much as the hero, is it weird for you to play a bad guy?
I donít take the roles that are really, really bad, or the blood-and-guts kind of stuff. Heís bad but itís not scary or bad bad. Thereís a difference. [Laughs] I just finished reading this script that Syfy has that weíre kind of rebooting. Itís called Me and Lee, and itís bionic in nature. Itís good for Syfy and theyíve never done comedy, but it still has some of the sci-fi stuff in it. Itís hilarious. I play myself. Itís about a kid whoís down and out because he lost his dental practice when he almost severed someoneís tongue and heís had a bad back. Heís had two operations, he doesnít have any money left, heís losing his girlfriend because he canít have sex because of his back. I stalk him out in an elevator and convince him to come to my house and rebuild him. Heís really scared of me, but I eventually do get him to come home. Itís a mansion in Beverly Hills, but itís dilapidated and gone downhill a little bit. I take him into the cellar and I have this beautiful bionic lab and this surgeon/chef. We put new arms and legs on him, put all my money into this. We refit him, but we put eyeball cams in so we can see what he sees. Itís really hilarious.
Can you recall a particularly crazy day when doing Six Million Dollar Man, or one where you were just like, ďI canít believe Iím doing thisĒ?
There are a couple of days I can remember, [like in the Bigfoot episode] working with Andre the Giant in the woods and itís 110 and itís a bright sunny day and heís in that outfit and weíre doing this fight scene. We have a break and I see him over in his chair sitting there, and heís slugging down a six-pack in one shot without stopping, crushing the cans and throwing them away. They say, ďOK, weíre ready to do the next shot,Ē and he comes over and heís supposed to pick me up and throw me about 10 feet. Anyway, he picked me up and threw me about 20 feet, and I said, ďOh God, now heís going to jump and land on me.Ē Iím looking up and all of a sudden the sun disappears and I can feel him coming down, and Iím thinking, ďIím going to get crushed.Ē He didnít touch me, he was a professional wrestler, but 7-4 and 400 pounds and you put him in that outfit, thatís scary. And you know what, I never saw him go to the bathroom all day long with all those beers he was drinking.
Got another one?
There was another one, and I wonder why I did it. In Palm Springs with the tram, there was a scene where the cars were stuck between towers and there were some kids in there. I had climbed up a tower and got out on the wires to get to them. My stuntman was wonderful, but he had some problems with heights, as some people do, and he brought in another guy who was supposed to do it. He walked around all day, and after lunch somehow he got sick and wasnít able to do it so I ended up having to do it. Iím up on those wires, and about 10 feet from the car, I really froze. The cameraís stationed on top of the car where Iím headed, and I just didnít know whether to go back or forward. Then I looked down 250 feet, and I see the stunt guys are taking pictures. That [ticked] me off enough that I made it! I didnít even smoke and I asked the guy for his cigarette. I went back there recently with my wife Faith and went up there just to see it and reminisce a little. Iím looking down and I said, ďWhoa, boy, was I stupid or what? No way should I do that.Ē Youíre a little invincible when youíre young.