Saturday, December 14, 2013


My wife has given me some great birthday gifts over the years. But one of the very best—and one that I’ve been able to enjoy for a particularly extended period of time—is the Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection DVD box set, which I received shortly after it was released in 2010. 

To say that it is all-inclusive would be an understatement. This collection includes the three original TV movies that introduced and began to establish Colonel Steve Austin, astronaut, who, after a tragic accident (or was it?), would be remade into something better—stronger—faster; every episode of all five seasons of the weekly series, including the “crossover” episodes of The Bionic Woman; and all three reunion TV movies from the late 1980s/early 1990s that brought Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner back to their iconic roles of Austin and his female counterpart, Jaime Sommers. And there are hours of retrospective materials, including extensive interviews with Majors, Wagner, co-stars Richard Anderson (O.S.I. chief Oscar Goldman) and Martin E. Brooks (Dr. Rudy Wells), and executive producer Harve Bennett, along with wonderfully informative episode commentaries by uber-talented writer/producer Kenneth Johnson, who created the Bionic Woman and introduced Sasquatch to the series as a recurring antagonist.  

As a kid, several years before I latched on to Star Trek, I was a huge fan of both bionic series. After TSMDM and TBW went off the air, I watched the syndicated reruns, which were broadcast every evening around dinnertime on Channel 5 in New York City. As an adult, I’d catch an occasional episode of either series when they were running on the Sci Fi Channel. So I have a long history with the shows and their characters. Armed with the box set, I looked forward to revisiting that world—but I didn’t intend to do it alone.

As I did with Star Trek, from the Original Series to the Animated Series to the first six movies, and with the entire Star Wars movie saga, I decided to bring my daughter Maddie along for the ride. One Saturday night shortly after I received the box set, I cracked open the case containing the first disc, put the DVD into the player, sat Maddie down on the couch next to me, and dived into the original TV movie (which, in syndication, was retroactively titled “The Moon and the Desert”).

And from there, for the next year or so, we watched everything that followed. Maddie was seeing it all for the first time, of course. And it had been so long since I had seen most of the episodes that they were almost completely new to me, as well. So what did we think? Read on.


The biggest differences between the first TV movie and everything that came after it are the casting and the character portrayals. Lee Majors eases into the role of Steve Austin almost immediately, but Darren McGavin is playing his supervisor instead of Richard Anderson—and McGavin isn’t even playing Oscar Goldman. Instead, he’s Oliver Spencer, and he’s so cold, so business-like, that it’s impossible to imagine him and Steve ever forming the brotherly relationship that Austin would eventually develop with Oscar.

Darren McGavin's Oliver Spencer (left) could save Steve Austin's life—but not his own job.

Dr. Rudy Wells, the brilliant scientist responsible for Steve’s rebirth as the world’s first bionic man, is played by Martin Balsam instead of Martin E. Brooks (or Brooks’s immediate predecessor in the role, Alan Oppenheimer). Balsam is fine as Wells—committed and very likable. In fact, it seems that the Balsam incarnation of Rudy may be even closer to Steve than the later versions. 

Balsam left—but the mustache stayed.

And the lovely Barbara Anderson, as Nurse Jean Manners, is clearly set up as an ongoing love interest for Steve—but alas, after this first film, we’ll never see or hear about her again. 

She wears white even when she's not in uniform.

Overall, if you accept the time period in which this TV movie was produced and the limited production values, it’s a pretty good start. 

MADDIE: “I thought it was kind of long and sometimes boring. But it was a pretty good beginning because it showed Steve Austin go from hating his bionics to realizing how much they saved him and how he could use them. At first, he yelled at the nurse who was taking care of him and he didn’t want her to touch him. But he gets over it by the end.

“I didn’t like the first Rudy because he wasn’t as funny as the main one (Brooks) and the main one seemed much younger.”

The two follow-ups, “Wine, Women and War” and “The Solid Gold Kidnapping,” produced by Glen A. Larson (who would later go on to create Battlestar Galactica), represent an uncertainty about how to handle the concept on an ongoing basis. Richard Anderson comes aboard as Oscar—though he’s not nearly as likable as he’ll later become—and Oppenheimer takes over as a less prominent Dr. Wells. But these two films portray Steve Austin pretty much as a bionic James Bond, going so far as to put Majors into a tuxedo and have him romance numerous women. They do a decent enough job of keeping things rolling, but Maddie and I agree that the most memorable thing about them—and not in a good way—is the song played over the opening credits:

That’s Dusty Springfield singing, by the way. Yeah, I was shocked too.

MADDIE: “That was not a good opening! The later opening was much better because there was no one singing and I liked the music better.”


Shortly after the “The Solid Gold Kidnapping” aired, The Six Million Dollar Man returned as a weekly series. Harve Bennett, brought in by ABC to serve as the show’s executive producer, dispensed with the James Bond elements and emphasized Lee Majors’s down-to-earth, “aw shucks” personality, which was very much on display in the original TV movie. Bennett also conceived the iconic opening credits sequence—even voicing the “Steve Austin, a man barely alive” narration (I didn’t know that until I watched the interview with him included in the box set)—and he came up with the idea of using a slow-motion effect to show Austin using his bionics at super-speed. It’s important to note that years later, Bennett would save the Star Trek franchise by developing, producing, and co-writing the feature film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

As mentioned above, the series ran five seasons. Each one had its high points, its low points, and a lot of points in-between. Maddie and I agree that the fifth season is the weakest overall. By that point, Bennett was no longer involved and the people who took over—one of them being the notorious Fred Freiberger, who also oversaw the much-maligned final season of the original Star Trek—were less interested in exploring new territory, experimenting with the format, or even attempting to expand Steve Austin as a character, than they were in just cranking out routine episodes on time and on budget.

MADDIE: “The show had a good run. Some episodes were really good, some were really bad.”

For the most part, the series was grounded in the real world, with Steve Austin’s bionics being the only outlandish element that audiences had to accept in a given episode. Steve’s most frequent antagonists were corrupt U.S. government agents, organized crime figures, or, with the Cold War still in full swing at the time, spies from the Soviet Union. (Incidentally, Richard Anderson’s pronunciation of the word “Soviets” never failed to make me chuckle—it sounded like “sahviets.”) But every now and then, the show embraced its science-fiction aspects and featured Steve in more unusual situations. Those episodes tended to stand out, and they are some of the most fondly remembered installments. They’re certainly the ones that I remembered most over the years.

MADDIE: “I preferred the episodes where Steve was fighting enemy spies or criminals. The science-fiction episodes were okay too, but sometimes they were hard to follow.

“I think I liked the two-or-three-parters the most. They always seemed to have the best plots.  

“The only thing I didn’t like about Steve Austin was that he was constantly hooking up with the women he met. I think he should have been with fewer women, maybe just one or two per season.

“I liked Oscar—he was funny! I loved how he called everyone ‘pal’ or ‘babe.’ Sometimes he and Steve were best friends, and sometimes there was tension between them.

“Rudy Wells was a fun character. He always thought the scientific things that were really boring were really cool!”

Maddie and I are more or less in agreement about what constitutes the best and the worst of The Six Million Dollar Man. Here are our comments on each season:


The first season, which contained only 13 episodes, gets off to a good start with “Population: Zero,” about the entire population of a small town dying under mysterious circumstances. Steve’s investigation leads to a vengeful ex-government scientist demanding to be paid a fortune or he’ll kill another town. 

Interestingly, the second episode, “Survival of the Fittest,” in which Steve and Oscar survive a plane crash and are targeted by enemy agents on a deserted island, was recycled almost entirely two years later as a first-season installment of The Bionic Woman, entitled “Fly Jaime.”

MADDIE: “I enjoyed that episode the first time around, but when I saw it redone on The Bionic Woman, I was like, ‘I know everything that’s going to happen in this!’”

“The Rescue of Athena One” established the tradition of having a guest appearance each season by Lee Majors’s wife at the time, Farrah Fawcett-Majors (at least for the first four seasons).  

Farrah as astronaut Kelly Woods, paving the way for Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist.

MADDIE: “I thought the Farrah Fawcett episodes were ‘eh.’ I wanted to see Steve with Jaime.”

There are no real clunkers in the first season, but I’d say the true highlights are “Day of the Robot,” in which Steve battles a powerful android that looks exactly like his close friend (played by John Saxon), and “Burning Bright,” in which William Shatner plays another friend of Steve’s, a fellow astronaut, who returns to Earth from a space mission transformed after an encounter with a strange energy field. Shatner’s performance is, without a doubt, among his most over-the-top—he’s absolutely chewing the scenery, at times laughably so. But he’s never anything less than totally compelling, and Majors, who mostly plays Austin as cool-as-a-cucumber, provides a nice counterbalance.   

'Nuff said.

MADDIE: “I liked seeing William Shatner in that episode because we were just finishing up watching all of the Star Trek movies, so it was fun to see him again. He was very emotional and the way he talked made me laugh.”


This was the first full-length season—22 episodes, some of which rank among the very best of the series. There are a few real clunkers too. Let’s get those out of the way first. 

In “Lost Love,” Steve is reunited with an old girlfriend, Barbara Thatcher, whom he almost married seven years earlier. But Barbara is now mourning the death of her husband, a prominent scientist who worked for the U.S. government. Steve sees Barbara’s newly widowed status as an opportunity to rekindle their romance, and he and Barbara start seeing each other again. Trouble ensues when Barbara gets a phone call from Europe, and it’s her supposedly-dead husband on the line. This would have been a fairly mediocre episode no matter what, but it’s fatally wounded by guest star Linda Marsh as Barbara. With this episode, Barbara is positioned as the great love of Steve’s life. But there’s absolutely no spark between the two of them—they have about as much chemistry as Andy Garcia and Sofia Coppola had in The Godfather Part III. Marsh’s performance overall doesn’t help matters. She seems too mature and too elite for Steve, in looks, demeanor, the way she carries herself, the way she dresses, the way she talks. She seems more like his troubled aunt than a lover. To make matters worse, Marsh displays little-to-no personality in the role. She’s about as compelling as a brick, with her performance ranging from stiff and mannered to annoying and overwrought. 

Best left lost.

The show would introduce another woman from Steve’s past later in the season—with far more successful results.       

In “The Cross-Country Kidnap,” a young Donna Mills plays an equestrienne who hopes to make the U.S. Olympic team. But she’s also a world-class computer cryptography expert (!) who needs to be protected by Steve when she’s targeted for kidnapping by enemy operatives. This one made me groan.

And the less said about “Taneha,” the better. It’s really one of the worst episodes of the series. Steve Austin spends most of it hunting down a cougar that’s supposedly the last of its kind. Some people want to protect it. Others want to kill it. I just wanted it to be over. WEAK.  

This episode belongs in kitty litter.

MADDIE: “‘Taneha’ was SO STUPID. And then they did an episode of The Bionic Woman that was almost just like it!”  

For sheer audacity alone, I have to mention “The Pal-Mir Escort,” which is basically “Steve Austin Protects Golda Meir From Assassins.” Not a great episode, but certainly fun to watch. There are some really cute moments between Majors and guest star Anne Revere, who plays Golda—er, I mean, Prime Minister Salka Pal-Mir of the nation of Eretz—as a tough, wise, feisty old woman with a mischievous gleam in her eyes.    

With “The Deadly Replay,” the series introduces a major—and shocking—bit of retroactive continuity. Steve learns that the crash that nearly killed him and caused him to become bionic was no accident—it was an act of sabotage. Presumably the producers had second thoughts about this revelation, because it was never referred to again.      

MADDIE: “‘The Deadly Replay’ was AWESOME. It involved a mystery, and in the end, we find out why Steve crashed—that it wasn’t an accident. That adds more to the story and gives us a better understanding of what was really going on when Steve took that flight.”            

“Straight On ’Til Morning” is notable for being the first episode in which Steve encounters extraterrestrial beings. There would be a far more memorable encounter with aliens in Season Three.

“Stranger in Broken Fork” is an entertaining episode in which an amnesia-stricken Steve ends up defending a home for the mentally ill from townspeople who don’t want the facility in their community.

“Steve Austin, Fugitive,” the final episode of the season, is a personal favorite of mine. It’s compelling, funny, picks up on continuity established in the first season, and introduces Oscar’s secretary, the adorable Peggy Callahan (played by Jennifer Darling), who will become a recurring character on both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. In a nutshell, Steve is framed for a murder and is pursued by the authorities. The only person he can turn to for help is Callahan, whom he must entrust with the secret of his bionic body parts.

Jennifer Darling as Callahan (right): A most welcome addition to the series. 

MADDIE: “I like Callahan a lot! I loved seeing her talking on the phone to her mother, and we see that there are, like, 25 locks on the front door of her apartment! I like the way Callahan talks, she’s very small and very funny and she gets into these crazy situations but she always finds a way to help. I was glad to see her come back in later episodes.”

There’s also a bizarre-but-amusing scene featuring a clerk at an electronics shop, played by none other than Lee Majors wearing heavy makeup and false teeth.

An old Baba Booey?

But most significantly, the second season introduced two more bionic characters—both would return, but only one would capture America’s heart.      

In “The Seven Million Dollar Man,” Steve learns of the existence of Barney Miller (later changed to “Hiller” after the series Barney Miller launched on ABC), a second, more powerful bionic man secretly created by Rudy Wells. Barney, played by Monte Markham, is corrupted by his newfound strength and abilities, and Steve has to bring him down before he gets totally out of control. Markham’s performance is nearly as over-the-top as Shatner’s in “Burning Bright”—subtlety doesn’t seem to be one of his strong suits. But again, Majors is so solid that he provides a nice contrast.

"Let go of me—there's more scenery I want to chew!"

MADDIE: “I really liked that one. I liked the guy who played Barney—he reminded me of William Shatner! I liked how he hooked up with the nurse that Steve used to date. I didn’t like the way he thought he was better than Steve just because he cost a million dollars more, and he wasn’t nice like Steve. He would always talk out of the side of his mouth. But he was fun to watch because he would always try to do more than Steve and there was chemistry between him and Steve.” 

And then there’s “The Bionic Woman,” written by Kenneth Johnson. In this pivotal two-parter, Steve is reunited with his childhood friend Jaime Sommers, played of course by the lovely Lindsay Wagner. They fall in love, but a terrible skydiving accident nearly kills her. Steve convinces Oscar to make her bionic to save her life. Following her recovery, they plan to marry, but Jaime’s body starts to reject her new parts. Despite Rudy’s best efforts, Jaime dies on the operating table, leaving Steve heartbroken and alone.

Wagner is simply phenomenal as Jaime. She has great chemistry with Majors and Anderson. And her presence brought out a whole new side of Majors and his portrayal of Steve Austin. He’s more romantic, charming, and vulnerable than we’ve ever seen before. (The scene in which Steve desperately begs Oscar to make Jaime bionic is one of the most powerful bits of acting that Majors ever did in the series. He would not get many more opportunities to show this kind of range.)          

When audiences across America saw these two episodes, they fell in love with Jaime almost as much as Steve did, and they were appalled by her demise. They demanded that the tragic ending somehow be reversed—and at the start of Season Three, they got their wish. 

As I recall, I didn’t get to see “The Bionic Woman” until after I saw its sequel. In fact, “The Return of the Bionic Woman,” the two-parter that kicked off the third season on September 14, 1975, may well have been the first episode of The Six Million Dollar Man that I ever watched in its original broadcast. I would have been six years old at the time, just starting first grade. Fortunately, there was enough exposition and flashbacks to the previous Jaime story that I was able to follow along. 

Jaime quickly became one of my first crushes, joining Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie, Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, Jessica Lange as Dwan in the 1976 remake of King Kong, and Cheryl Ladd as Kris Munroe.    

MADDIE: “I loved Jaime. She and Steve were already friends so they already had chemistry and she was close to his parents because her parents had died when she was a kid. Steve was dumbstruck when he saw her again playing tennis. They carved their initials into a tree. It was very cute. Jaime seemed very easygoing and fun. I was really scared when she was in the telephone booth in the rain and she was screaming for Steve—I knew something bad was going to happen. I was really upset when she died and he kissed her on the forehead. It was really emotional.

“Lindsay Wagner had a great smile and she was very pretty. She and Lee Majors seemed like they were perfect for each other.  

“The only thing I didn’t like about ‘The Bionic Woman’ were the two songs, ‘Got to Get Loose’ and ‘Sweet Jaime.’ They were very silly. Lee Majors sang them, and he wasn’t that good. The episodes really didn’t need the songs, they could have just played background music. I would have liked that better.”  

Next time, we’ll pick up with Season Three and go through the rest of the series, wrapping up with the three reunion movies. See you then!

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2013.