“We can rebuild him — we have the technology.”
A mixture of the bronze age comic book adventurer and the modern science fiction novel, The Six Million Dollar Man is an icon of the 70’s. A popular cultural phenomenon, comic books influenced other forms of entertainment of the 70’s in much the same way that the pulps informed early serials of the 30’s and 40’s. Superhuman abilities and extraordinary situations pervaded the comics of the time but in many ways were written in a more down-to-Earth manner that connected to the ‘regular guy.’ Likewise, science fiction adventure stories were very ambitious yet nearly dared filmmakers to realize their stories. In 1973, both mediums combined to introduce TV viewers to a new breed of hero, Steve Austin. A test pilot severely injured in a crash involving a lifting body craft (seen in the intro), Austin is rebuilt as a cyborg, a bionic man.
Based loosely on the novels of Martin Caidin, The Six Million Dollar Man is remembered by my generation for its slow-motion sequences of ‘cybernetic feats’ in which Austin would lift something terribly heavy, jump a great distance or run unimaginably fast. The gimmick was that while Austin moved quickly, he was shown to be movie far more slowly than normal while ‘normal people’ stood still as statues in his wake. It was a weird idea but also left an indelible mark on my generation.
The 1973 novel Cyborg upon which The Six Million Dollar Man was based is much more brutal than the TV program. In fact, it shares many attributes with tough guy fiction that was popularly sold in cut rate book stores. Saved by the a counter-intelligence arm of the US military, the Austin of the novels is a terribly reluctant secret agent who confesses to wanting to take his own life as he experience pangs of angst and agony at being recreated as a robotic freak of nature. But they don’t call him The Six Million Dollar Man for nothing and he owes every penny to the government. Operating as a secret agent and assassin, Caidin’s Austin uses his cybernetic strength to crush skulls and smash through enemies and obstacles alike.
With both of his legs and left arm lost in the crash in addition to an eye, much of Austin’s body was replaced with state of the art robotic parts, installed by the brilliant scientist Dr. Rudy Wells under the supervision of Austin’s friend and high ranking intelligence chief Oscar Goldman. His legs enable him to outrun any Olympic-class sprinter and jump over 25 miles straight up. His replaced arm is recreated as a powerful and deadly weapon, his eye outfitted with a camera for surveillance. He is no longer a human being, he is now an assemblage of advanced scientific weaponry.
Such a violent character had to be toned down for TV.
Actor Lee majors brought a suave sex-appeal and tenderness to the part that made the program a massive success. The special effects and action sequences in which Austin fought rival robots, impersonating androids and of course, Sasquatch (later revealed to be a robotic construction), were very appealing to viewers, but it was Majors himself that was the main draw.
While he had enjoyed popularity in the TV western drama The Big Valley, Majors was quickly recognized as a television sex symbol thanks to The Six Million Dollar Man. However, his strong yet silent leading man persona made him easily accessible to kids while housewives swooned over his hairy chest. I remember being stunned as a child at how much the man resembled his action figure. His stern face and stoic grin make him appear to be more of a mannequin than a person, which made his cyborg status all the more believable.
Though I don’t think the mustache he grew later on suited him. In fact it made the rather wholesome actor appear… creepy.
The Six Million Dollar Man started as a book, was developed into three TV movies and then a successful weekly TV program that lasted from 1974 until 1978. In that time it spawned a spin-off starring Lindsay Wagner as Jamie Summers, the Bionic Woman (I don’t remember a cost being associated with her implants). It has to be said that Jaime Sommers’s origin was not as exciting as Austin’s. Wagner’s Bionic Woman was a tennis pro who suffered nearly fatal injuries obtained in a parachuting accident after reconnecting with her one-time lover, Steve Austin. Bad luck, that.
Since it last aired on TV, The Six Million Dollar Man has come back three times as the inevitable revival film which, while modest successes, failed each time to gain sufficient momentum to spawn a new series (perhaps it’s just not possible without Wagner or Majors in the leading role?). In any case, The Six Million Dollar Man has become more popular than ever as it has taken on a near-totemic status thanks to its nostalgic nature and the current obsession in youth culture with the 70’s. If you’re going to site anything as being representational of the 70’s, Lee Majors in a red running suit is it.
Being a TV program of the 1970’s, the Six Million Dollar Man was adapted into several tie-ins, including read-along books on record, comic books and a line of action dolls. The brilliantly realized ‘bionic eye’ was a remarkable feat of the toy market at the time and showed just how advanced Kenner was in the toy manufacturing business.
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Alongside the Bionic Man Steve Austin, a large Sasquatch doll (complete with removable panels showing hidden robot parts), the android Maskatron and Oscar Goldman were released in addition to the space capsule playset that doubled as a lab.
Kenner Maskatron commercial
It sounds corny, but I wasted hours of my childhood with these dolls. I remember well the cold Christmas morning when I unwrapped Maskatron with his interchangeable faces and robot sucker arm (was he part Dalek???).
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To date, there have been several rumored big budget film adaptations starring everyone from Will Smith to Jim Carey. I have no doubt that eventually an ironic comedy starring Will Farrel will be greenlit and we will see the actor running in slow-motion. While I would rather my childhood memories remain golden, I can’t say that I wholly object to that, now that I think of it.
Legal problems that have prevented a modern re-imagining of The Six Million Dollar Man have also kept it from being released on the DVD market in the United States. Just last month, a formal statement was made that the entire program including new documentaries will be released as a massive 106 episode box set (street date November 2010). I hope that this will be embraced by Kenner (now part of Hasbrol) to re-release their action doll line as I think my son would love to gaze through the cybernetic eye of Colonel Steve Austin and see his own adventures.