Back when I was a kid in the Stone Age, we had three TV networks, a few UHF stations, and pretty much nothing else. VCRs were not yet commonplace (they existed, but were super-expensive), and there weren’t yet DVRs or DVDs, let alone streaming. For video gaming, you had Pong and Atari. That was it. In this bleak home entertainment landscape, the choices were few. A minor upside was that TV-watching in those days was more of a communal thing. The following day at school, you and your classmates probably watched the same shows, and that created a sense of shared experience. One such show that most of my friends and I all gabbed about was a sci-fi/espionage series called “The Six Million Dollar Man,” produced by Harve Bennett (Star Trek III: 35 years of “The Search For Spock”), starring Lee Majors (“The Big Valley” “The Fall Guy”) as Colonel Steve Austin, an “astronaut, a man barely alive…” who survived a horrific crash landing of an early space shuttle prototype only to wake up cybernetically enhanced with a bionic right arm, two bionic legs and a bionic left eye.
These atomic-powered additions to Steve Austin’s body allowed him to see into the distance like a telescope, lift heavy objects with his powerful right arm, leap into the air like Superman, and run at a top speed around 65 mph–all the while, completely ignoring laws of leverage, maximum locomotive speeds for bipeds, and other such scientific quibbles. This show was an atomic-age cross between James Bond and Superman, with the superpowered space traveler-turned-spy performing weekly secret missions too dangerous or too difficult for an average human. Many stories routinely featured Steve protecting important government convoys/shipments (an overused plot), or acting as bodyguard to a visiting dignitary/VIP (another one). But occasionally the series would take a hard left turn at pure sci-fi adventure, and offer stories of destructive Russian space probes, robotic Sasquatches, lunar mining expeditions, humanoid aliens hiding out on Earth, and even fembots. Yes, the fembots…that Austin Powers sight gag was actually based on several episodes of this series and its spinoff, “The Bionic Woman”, which was executive-produced by future “The Incredible Hulk” producer, Kenneth Johnson.
In this era of very limited choices, and with a less demanding, less scrutinizing television audience of the 1970s, “The Six Million Dollar Man” was pure, unapologetic escapist fare. If the audience could buy that a man running in slow-motion was supposed to be running super-fast? They would buy anything. And we did. Hell, we not only bought it, we liked it.
Martin Caidin’s “Cyborg.”
Based on the 1972 pulp sci-fi novel “Cyborg” by Martin Caidin, the book told the story of astronaut Steve Austin, laying out the character’s origin story more or less as it would appear a year later in the first 1973 pilot TV-movie; NASA test pilot Austin awakens to learn that he’s lost an eye, his right arm and both legs following a horrific crash, and is given the choice to partake in an experimental program that would make him the titular “cyborg”; a man with atomic-powered machine components designed to augment his strength, endurance and vision, allowing him to perform uniquely superhuman feats.
Note: One minor difference in abilities between the book’s Steve Austin and the series’ version; the book’s Austin had a bionic eye that acted more like a camera, not an optical telescope.
Caidin’s novel focused more on the psychological anguish of a man struggling to accept his newfound semi-mechanical state; something the first pilot movie would focus on a year later as well. There was the eventual action-adventure component to the novel, but that came closer to the end, after Austin discovers there’s a price to his new bionic state–he’s indebted to the Oscar Goldman and the OSO (Office of Strategic Operations), reluctantly agreeing to become their new super-agent in return. Eventually, Steve eventually accepts this new life, still struggling to come to terms with his existence as a one-of-a-kind life form. The book would spawn several sequels by Caidin and other authors, as well as novelizations of select episodes of the TV series. Caidin, who passed away in 1997, acted as an unofficial advisor to the TV series as well, according to some sources.
The Pilot TV-Movies (1973).
The series began with three 1973 pilot TV movies, as a means of testing the ratings waters for a weekly series (and to justify the expense). The three pilot TV-movies (each retitled and reedited for later syndication) tested the boundaries of the concept and tweaked the format, oscillating from heavy dramatics in the first pilot movie to something a lot more camp by the second, eventually settling on something closer to the regular series by the third. Following the 1972 source novel rather closely, the first pilot movie (later retitled and reedited as “The Moon and the Desert” for syndication) shows us a very different Steve Austin shortly before taking that fateful test flight, arriving late to the airfield with a very relaxed, devil-may-care attitude–he’s not yet the honorable, duty-bound character we’d come to know in the TV series.
After the crash, Steve is offered bionic prosthetics by his genius friend, Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam). Meanwhile, the head of the “OSO” (Office of Strategic Operations) is a limping, cantankerous bastard named Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”), who makes a Faustian bargain with Steve–six million dollars in government-paid bionic parts in return for his being the OSO’s newest bio-mechanical super weapon. After falling in love with his hospital nurse (Barbara Anderson), a rehabilitated Steve eventually gains enough proficiency with his new body to accept Spencer’s officer. Sent on a false mission to the Saudi Arabian desert to rescue an already dead Israeli national, an angry Steve returns and confronts Spencer, who tells him that the bogus mission was only a test run. A still-seething Steve eventually realizes the scope of debt he owes to the OSO, and agrees to be Spencer’s field agent. The overall tone of this first pilot movie is melancholy, humorless, and closer to Caidin’s original novel. “The Moon and the Desert”, at least in its first hour, has a lot more in common with a 1970s TV medical drama than the super-spy/sci-fi series that followed.
Note: The OSO would, of course, later, be changed to the OSI–The Office of Scientific Intelligence, which has a more mysterious, NASA/CIA-like ring to it. An Office of Scientific Investigations would also allow the series to purse a number of sci-fi flavored episodes instead of just espionage tales. Oliver Spencer would also be changed back to the book’s Oscar Goldman, and recast with actor Richard Anderson for the next two movies and subsequent TV series.
Dramatically shifting gears with the second pilot TV-movie, “Wine, Women and War” features a colorful title song belted out by pop superstar Dusty Springfield (“Son of a Preacher Man,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”). Her pop vocals sound like the title song of TV’s “Wonder Woman.” In place of the original’s melancholy is an almost Austin Powers’ style of parody as Steve swims beneath the ocean like a human torpedo, after failing to find secret documents in the safe of an arms dealer, and barely escaping with his life–an escape in which his lady love is killed (offering the only moments of melancholy in the story). Later, on a vacation in the Bahamas, he coincidentally encounters a Russian colleague of his (“The Man From UNCLE” costar David McCallum) and another Russian spy (Britt Ekland, of “The Wicker Man”), both of whom team up with Steve to foil the arms dealer’s plot and avenge the murder of Steve’s girlfriend. Steve soon realizes his Bahaman ‘vacation’ was set up by his Machiavellian boss, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson). The over-the-top shenanigans of “Wine, Women and War” pushes the somber first pilot’s concept too far in the opposite direction. Neither of the first two pilots feels in sync with the subsequent series.
The third and final TV-movie pilot before the January 1974 series debut was “The Solid Gold Kidnapping,” which costarred Elizabeth Ashley as a scientist who downloads the contents of a dead spy’s mind into her own brain in an effort to track terrorists who’ve kidnapped an important US representative, and are demanding a huge shipment of gold, with which they hope to fund future operations. Despite some bungling (including the ransom disappearing out from under the guard of OSI operatives), Steve and his scientist ally are successful in locating the kidnapped representative and saving the day. Of the three pilot TV-movies, “The Solid Gold Kidnapping” feels closest to a typical (if not exceptional) episode of the TV series that followed. All the familiar elements are in place, and Lee Majors is also able to find the right balance for his character with this script, which plays to his down-home folksiness, wry wit, and understated valor. An average story, designed as a trial run for the TV show. This is more or less what pilots did in those days; offering proofs-of-concept, not magnum opuses.
Note: Actor Terry Carter, who plays an undercover OSI agent in “The Solid Gold Kidnapping,” would go on to play Colonel Tigh in “Six Million Dollar Man” co-producer Glen Larson’s lavish space opera series “Battlestar Galactica” five years later.
The three pilots took time to rethink and reshapes some aspects of “The Six Million Dollar Man” for its eventual TV series debut in January of 1974 as a mid-season replacement. The most effective change would be the renaming and recasting of the second lead, from ‘Oliver Spencer’ (Darren McGavin) to the book’s original character name of ‘Oscar Goldman,’ now played by Richard Anderson, who played a more compassionate boss to Steve Austin than the deceitful and downright nasty Oliver Spencer. Spencer’s name might’ve been changed from Oscar Goldman since having a miserly boss with a typically Jewish-sounding name like Goldman might be perceived as anti-Semitic (especially if played by a non-Jewish actor, like McGavin).
Throughout the run of the series, even Richard Anderson’s more benign Oscar Goldman would still pull a few fast ones on his “pal” Steve Austin, often keeping critical information from him (such as the existence of a second bionic man, or the survival of Steve’s presumed-dead bionic girlfriend, Jaime Sommers). However, Oscar would do so with a heavy heart and deep regrets. Anderson would play Oscar from the second pilot in 1973 through the final reunion TV-movie, “Bionic Ever After?” in 1994.
Note: In fairness, Darren McGavin (“Oliver Spencer”) was a marvelous actor, and I was a huge fan of his from the “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” TV movies and series as well as his role as the father in “A Christmas Story” (1983). The fault with his cantankerous Oliver Spencer lay with the script, not with the actor who played him.
Another supporting character who’d go through several actors was the scientist who created bionics, Dr. Rudy Wells. In the first pilot, Wells was played by Oscar-winner Martin Balsam (quite a coup for a TV-movie), but would be replaced by Alan Oppenheimer (a perfect name for an actor playing a doctor of atomic-powered medicine) in the second pilot and subsequent TV series up until the end of the second season. Another Martin, actor Martin E. Brooks, would play Wells from the third season to the end of the series, including the reunion TV-movies. Each of the three actors brought subtle differences to make the character of Dr. Rudy Wells their own, yet maintained enough consistency in the characterization for the audience not to become too lost. They each kept the character’s mustache, too…
Note: In a bizarre bit of continuity, Alan Oppenheimer’s Wells would return in flashbacks for scenes that were perhaps deemed too expensive to reshoot in season 3’s “The Bionic Criminal.”
That Opening Title Sequence.
Steve Austin: “I’ve got a blowout, damper three!”
Flightcom: “Get your pitch to zero.”
Austin: “Pitch is out. I can’t hold altitude.”
Flightcom: “Correction, alpha hold is off. Trim selectors- emergency!”
Austin (panicked) “Flight Com, I can’t hold it! She’s breaking up! She’s breaking…”
That bit of frantic cockpit chatter would begin the opening title sequence of “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The opener, crafted to perfection by graphic artist/editor Jack Cole (who would later do the titles for “The Bionic Woman”), features what has to be the most classic sci-fi TV opener since “Star Trek” and Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone”.
A narration read by both producer Harve Bennett and series’ star Richard Anderson then begins over the images of Steve undergoing his bionic transformation:
Harve Bennett: “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive.”
Richard Anderson (as Oscar Goldman): “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.”
The opener features then-cutting edge technical readouts overlapping pulse-pounding scenes of Steve Austin’s crash, surgery, and eventual rehabilitation, to composer Oliver Nelson’s musical stylings. Even today, 48 years after the TV series’ debut, that opening montage is an iconic piece of television.
Note: The stock footage of Steve’s crash was actual footage from a real-life 1967 crash of a NASA Northrop M2-F2 lifting body aircraft. The real-life pilot, Bruce Peterson, also survived the horrific crash, though he did lose his right eye–sadly, no bionic replacement.
A few favorites from Season 1.
The first season saw the series still struggling to find its groove, with episodes ranging from routine spy capers to occasional dips into the fantastic. The casting of the show was, with few exceptions, fairly white-bread, with little-to-no diverse representation save for the occasional female scientist or Black guest star. Fictional foreign countries were often led by white American actors in turbans and brown-face makeup with geographically indeterminate accents. But this was 1974, and TV was a lot less progressive in those days. Overlooking the obvious shortcomings of its era, I’d like to list some of my favorite episodes from each season.
“Day of the Robot” features guest star John Saxon as Major Fred Sloane, an old tennis pal of Steve’s who gets replaced with a fully robotic doppelgänger in order to steal government secrets from the OSI. Steve figures it out when the two embark on a road trip together, and “Fred” begins acting strangely as the robot struggles to cope with unexpected situations. Saxon’s genuinely unsettling performance as the robot is very effective. Guest star Henry Jones’ eccentric robot-maker “Dr. Dolenz” would return in Season 2’s simply-titled “Return of the Robot Maker.” Dr. Dolenz’s work would lay the foundation for the future “fembots,” which would bedevil both Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers in “The Bionic Woman.” “Day of the Robot” was also the first use of the series’ trademark ‘bionic sounds’, but they were used only for the Sloan robot, not Steve Austin. The familiar, reverberating ‘nin-nin-nin-nin…’ sound would not come into regular use for the show’s bionic feats until nearly the end of its second year. All in all, “Day of the Robot” lays a lot of the series’ groundwork in one memorable story. John Saxon would later return as an alien in Season 4’s two parter, “The Return of Bigfoot.”
Note: Syndicated versions later added the bionic sounds back into earlier episodes for continuity.
In the first of two guest appearances as different characters, the late Farrah Fawcett (then-wife of Lee Majors) would play US astronaut Kelly Wood in “The Rescue of Athena One.” Kelly is going to be the first American woman in space (apologies to the late Dr. Sally Ride), and she struggles to overcome the sexism and skepticism of her instructor Steve Austin, as the two are then drafted for an emergency rescue mission aboard the real-life space station Skylab (which famously de-orbited in 1979). While Fawcett isn’t entirely believable as a NASA astronaut, this otherwise groundbreaking episode was written by former Star Trek story editor Dorothy Fontana (1939-2019), and is notable for showing a woman as equal to Steve Austin, whose newfound bionics are unexpectedly impaired when the veteran astronaut finds himself back in space–a bug which would be fixed for future space episodes. Fontana wrote one more episode of the show, “Straight On Till Morning,” which was the series’ first bona fide space aliens story.
Note: Fawcett would later return for three more guest appearances; as a nosy reporter in “The Peeping Blonde” (Jeezus, that title…), as ‘Trish’ in “The Golden Pharaoh” and as Kelly Wood again in “Nightmare in the Sky.”
In “Burning Bright”, Steve Austin would meet fellow spaceman William Shatner as traumatized astronaut Josh Lang, who’s mutated into a super-genius following exposure to somewhat vague cosmic forces. Steve’s dilemma with Josh is superficially similar to what Shatner’s Captain Kirk faced in Star Trek’s second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” when an Enterprise crewman is mutated into a dangerously omnipotent being. However, in Lang’s case, the side-effects of his mutation are a bit more obtuse, such as solving complex computer codes in his mind, Jedi-mind tricking guards, and learning to communicate with dolphins. Josh is also haunted by a repressed childhood memory of his failure to save a friend from a deadly fall from an electrical tower. Steve struggles and ultimately fails to help his mentally unstable buddy cope with his ‘beautiful mind’ that is rapidly burning itself out. The typically understated Lee Majors is hammed off the screen at every turn by Shatner, and the results are absolutely hysterical. “Burning Bright” certainly isn’t good, per se, but it is entertaining as a camp classic.
Note: William Shatner, would of course, famously take a brief, real-life ride into space in October of 2021 aboard a Blue Origins rocket funded/built by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Fortunately, Shatner didn’t transform into a half-crazed, dolphin-talking mutant…yet.
A few favorites from Season 2.
Season 2 was when the series began to find its stride, introducing a few other recurring characters, including a very memorable two-parter which would introduce Lindsay Wagner into the pop-culture zeitgeist as Jaime Sommers–the childhood crush of Steve Austin who hails from his hometown of Ojai, California and becomes “The Bionic Woman.”
When you have a character who’s fought robots, military-grade hardware, wild animals, and a host of other threats, who might be an ultimate adversary for “The Six Million Dollar Man”? Enter actor Monte Markham as “The Seven Million Dollar Man.” Once again, Oscar and Rudy pull a fast one on poor Steve by lying to him about the existence of a second bionic man, who only came onto Steve’s radar by the actions of a careless nurse. Enter former race car driver Barney Miller, who, like Steve, was in a terrible crash and (for some reason) became a civilian candidate for bionics. He and Steve later meet in a bar where they have the greatest arm-wrestling match ever (or, at least until David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” in 1986). Turns out, Barney had all four limbs replaced, making him an arguable improvement over the prototype. However, like Steve in the first pilot, Barney is having a difficult time adjusting psychologically to his power.
Given how well Steve eventually adjusted, Oscar decides to pair the two of them up on a mission to recover stolen plutonium in a 600 lb. case. Easy-peasy for a pair of bionic men, right? The mission is successful, but Barney gets a bit power-crazed, and really goes to town on a pair of suspects (“It’s wild, Steve–WILD!” he exclaims). When Barney decides to write his own ticket with the OSI, Oscar draws a line. The wildly manic, alternately resentful Barney then takes Rudy hostage and tries to break into the vault where the secrets of bionics are securely stored. The episode ends with Steve talking Barney down and promising that he’ll “come out the other side.” Barney’s powers are tuned down; an “irreversible” process, we are told, but don’t worry–the character returns (powers intact) in the sequel episode “The Bionic Criminal.”
Note: For legal reasons, the character’s last name was changed to “Hiller” for the sequel episode, since ABC’s police sitcom “Barney Miller” (starring Hal Holbrook) had become very popular since “The Seven Million Dollar Man” aired.
Dorothy Fontana’s second and last script for the show, “Straight On Till Morning,” lays bare the writer’s sci-fi roots (“Star Trek,” “Logan’s Run,” “Buck Rogers”). Steve Austin befriends a friendly alien family whose malfunctioning spaceship has left them stranded on Earth. Forced to steal suitable Earth garb from a clothesline (hey, it worked in Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever”), one of the aliens accidentally causes the death of a local through his radioactive touch. Each of the aliens have differing psionic abilities, but their various tricks don’t work for long in keeping the authorities at bay. Soon, Steve has his hands full keeping the alien family safe from a mob of locals (and police) after they harm a sheriff’s deputy in self-defense.
Realizing that human touch is fatal to them as well, most of the bronze-skinned aliens die off, save for one–a woman named Minonee (Meg Foster, from “They Live”). As the alien corpses disappear (Yoda-style), Steve secretly whisks Minonee off to a nearby launch complex where a moon probe is scheduled to blast off that same day. Disobeying Oscar’s direct order to keep Minonee under indefinite scientific observation, Steve clears out enough space in the moon probe’s nosecone to launch Minonee back to her mothership in lunar orbit. Before departing, Minonee and Steve press hands (his bionic hand being safe from her deadly touch) and say their goodbyes. The rocket is launched, and Minonee is safely reunited with her people. Historic first contact between humanity and an alien race from the stars is made. But now? Back to your regularly scheduled bionic caper, convoy and escort stories…
Note: The late Dorothy Fontana’s story marked the series’ first run-in with extraterrestrials, but it was hardly the last; stay tuned for the alien creators of the robotic Bigfoot and the alien inhabitants of ‘The Lost Island’…
The most important character introduced during the course of the series was the character of Jaime Sommers, memorably played by talented actress Lindsay Wagner, in “The Bionic Woman, Parts 1 & 2.” The two parter introduced Sommers as Steve’s childhood sweetheart from his hometown of Ojai, California. In part one, the childhood sweethearts rekindle their romance, and everything is going swimmingly, until they go skydiving together. Jaime’s parachute fails and she is badly injured… prompting a heartsick Steve to beg Rudy Wells to make Jaime bionic as well. Reluctantly, this is done–without her consent. Jaime awakens to learn that her legs, right arm and left eardrum have all been bionically replaced.
Feeling like a freak, and unable to control her newfound strength, Jamie is taken under Steve’s wing as she acclimates to her newfound state. Realizing her new value, as well as the need to make her feel useful again, Jaime and Steve are assigned by the OSI to break up a counterfeiting ring. During the mission, there are issues with Jaime’s strength control, and other bionic adjustment challenges. Before long, her malfunctioning strength and devastating migraines from her super-hearing drive Jaime into raw agony, and eventual death. Steve is devastated. Jaime was the love of his life. Actor Lee Majors sings a tender, in-character tribute to “Jaime” before the end credits.
Note: Lindsay Wagner is simply perfect as Jaime Sommers, and imbues the role with a relatable humanity that reflects how many of us might feel if we woke up in her situation. Far from the unflappable test pilot, Jaime is, by trade, a school teacher, making her the closest to an everyperson the show could get. Too good a character to kill off, both popular fan response and Richard Anderson’s personal advocacy on Wagner’s behalf brought the character back from TV death for more episodes, as well as her arguably superior three-season spinoff, “The Bionic Woman,” produced by Kenneth Johnson (“The Incredible Hulk,” “V”).
A few favorites from Season 3.
Season 3 was when the series began to take some pride in its own established mythology, with the return of characters such as renamed bionic man Barney Hiller (nee: Miller) and, of course, the aforementioned Lindsay Wagner as Jaime Sommers, who was set to star in her own spinoff. Third season is also where we first meet one of the most popular creations of the series; the extraterrestrial robot Sasquatch (played by André René Roussimoff; aka Andre the Giant), which cashed in on then-popular Bigfoot mythology, returning for several more episodes throughout the series. Actor Martin E. Brooks also stepped into the role of Dr. Rudy Wells from departing actor Alan Oppenheimer, who found himself committed to another series at the time.
“The Return of the Bionic Woman” Parts 1 & 2 once again has Steve Austin being played for a fool by Oscar and Rudy Wells, who try to convince him that the woman he saw in the OSI hospital complex was not the ‘late’ Jaime Sommers. Using his super-leverage to get the truth from his lying, mealy-mouthed colleagues, Steve learns that at the moment of her death, Jaime was placed in the same sort of ‘electro-sleep’ coma that was used on him following his own crash several years earlier. She was rehabilitated by brilliant young OSI physician Dr. Michael Marchetti (Richard Lenz), with whom the now-amnesiac Jaime has also fallen in love, much to Steve’s heartbreak. Willing to accept Jaime back into his life, even if only as a friend, Steve makes contact with her, even taking her back home to Ojai. Eventually the two of them team up for a mission together, despite her memory impairment (yeah–that has bad idea written all over it). While enjoying their time together, Jaime begins getting her violent headaches again, accompanied by flashes of past memories. Fearing that resurfacing memories of their love together are what’s triggering Jaime’s pain, Steve gallantly agrees to bow out of Jaime’s life–leaving her to enjoy her new spinoff series, of course.
Note: In the 1994 TV-movie reunion sequel “Bionic Ever After?” the two cyborgs eventually settle down and get married. More on that later…
“The Secret of Bigfoot” Parts 1 & 2 would introduce an alien-made robotic Sasquatch (Andre the Giant) into the series’ mythology. Steve Austin goes to the California wilderness to investigate the disappearance of two geologist friends, who went missing while placing earthquake sensors in the woods. A Native American guide named Tom Raintree (Don White) believes that large footprints nearby indicate the involvement of a Sasquatch (aka Bigfoot). Later on, Steve has an up close and personal encounter with the creature, wherein he learns that Bigfoot is a robot. Steve is then taken to a research colony of advanced extraterrestrials, led by scientists Shalon (Stephanie Powers) and Apploy (Sven Darden), who live deep inside of a nearby mountain.
Note: This two-part episode, one of the most popular of the entire series, was written by Kenneth Johnson, whom I’ve met at the 2006 San Diego Comic Con, and is a very bright and imaginative writer, producer and director. I’ve often said Johnson is TV’s more even-tempered answer to James Cameron. Johnson has since created shows with more prestige value, such as the critically acclaimed “Incredible Hulk,” “V” and the brilliant, sadly short-lived TV series, “Alien Nation,” based on the same-named 1988 movie.
Turns out that these very humanoid ETs control Bigfoot, and use him to keep curious trespassers away from their research installation on Earth. Unfortunately, a series of devastating earthquakes in the region has prompted the OSI’s Oscar Goldman and his team are preparing to use a subterranean nuclear weapon to trigger an earthquake in order to prevent a much greater one near a populated area. With Steve once again acting as mediator between Earth people and the extraterrestrials, he manages to broker peace with Bigfoot’s creators and prevent devastation in the golden state. The aliens benignly erase Steve’s memories of their existence to protect their installation.
Note: The entranceway to the aliens’ mountainside research complex was a revolving, faux-ice tunnel surrounding a stationary walkway. This was a familiar sight to anyone who’s ever been on the Universal Studios Tour in Universal City, California, during the 1970s and early 1980s. In fact, I remember seeing it myself in 1980 at age 13. It really messes with your equilibrium, too. I’m not sure exactly when they took the revolving tunnel off of the tour, but it’s been decades, at least. During the episode, you can see simple fabric draped over the tunnel’s walkway to cover the tram tracks; I’m guessing that’s the point where the episode’s budget officially ran out…?
A few favorites from Season 4.
Known primarily as the season where Steve got a mustache (only to shave it the following year), Season 4 was arguably a point when “The Bionic Woman” began to upstage Steve Austin’s antics in audience popularity. Nevertheless, “The Six Million Dollar Man” continued crafting some wonderfully daft adventures, including more Bigfoot (now played by “The Addams Family” actor Ted Cassidy), the creation of both ‘fembots’ (later satirized in the “Austin Powers” movies) and the sturdy, Russian-made Venus rover, “Death Probe.”
The first crossover episode between “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman” begins with “The Return of Bigfoot” Part 1 featured as an episode of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” while Part 2 would be presented as an episode of “The Bionic Woman.” Part 1 has the police and the OSI investigating series of burglaries that could only be committed by a being with bionic strength. Turns out that the robot Bigfoot is responsible, and Steve–whose memory of the aliens is soon jogged by Gillian (Sandy Duncan), another alien who warns Steve that a splinter faction of her people, led by the warlike Nedlick (John Saxon) is threatening the fragile peace between humanity and the colonists. Part 2 sees Steve sidelined with a bout of radiation poisoning, with Jaime Sommers forced to tackle a hostile Bigfoot and save Steve’s life with an alien miracle drug. Part 1 focuses on Steve, while Part 2 focuses on Jaime. I see what you did there, ABC…
Note: Crossovers between popular parent shows and their spinoffs were relatively new in those days, and TV networks did so as often as they could to attract a maximum audience. “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman” were both presented by the ABC TV network (though “The Bionic Woman” would be picked up by NBC in its third and final season). This crossover phenomenon has since evolved into greater ‘shared universes’ of streaming series and feature films, such as the myriad offerings from Disney’s Star Wars and Marvel franchises.
Another popular crossover between the two series was “Kill Oscar,” Parts 1, 2 & 3. This time the story would begin on “The Bionic Woman,” with a middle act airing on “The Six Million Dollar Man,” before concluding once again on “The Bionic Woman.” This was a clever, if transparent attempt to gin up enthusiasm for both shows while simultaneously testing audience loyalty to either of them via TV ratings. The main unifying thread between both shows was the character of Oscar Goldman, so having him kidnapped made for a perfect means of getting both Steve and Jaime involved. Also kidnapped was Oscar’s slightly-neurotic but lovable secretary, Peggy Callahan (Jennifer Darling), who was already an established character on “The Six Million Dollar Man” before becoming even more involved in “The Bionic Woman.”
The story sees former OSI scientist, Dr. Franklin (the legendary John Houseman) using his army of female robots (“fembots”) to lure unsuspecting men and women into trusting them before attacking with full robotic strength. Both Steve and Jaime learn firsthand that these fembots are much stronger than they appear. Franklin plans on perfecting a weather control machine with funds from a vaguely Russian-ish financier named Baron Constantine (Jack Colvin). Ultimately, Franklin’s plans and his diabolical fembots are thwarted in the climax, but not before some downright scary moments of Jaime un-masking a few of the eerie automata (including a fembot-duplicate of trustworthy Callahan), exposing open faceplates of wires, sensors and circuits. All in all, a decent crossover event suffering mainly from over-length and somewhat sloppy plotting.
Note: Lindsay Wagner and John Houseman were costars in the 1973 feature film “The Paper Chase.”
“Death Probe,” Parts 1 & 2 would also create a popular threat which would be revisited the following season. “Death Probe” sees a sturdy, tank-like Russian Venus rover (built to withstand the extreme heat and crushing atmospheric pressure of Venus) accidentally land in the rural United States, where it’s suite of rock demolishing tools wreak havoc in its path. The formidable robot was built for benign scientific purposes by Russian scientist Irina Leonova (Jane Merrow), who doesn’t know how to stop it. With the probe rapidly approaching a populated city, Steve and the OSI join forces with Russian Major Popov (recently deceased character actor Nehemiah Persoff) in trying to neutralize it. Steve barely stays one step ahead of the Russian rover, using nearly every trick in his bionic arsenal to stop it, but to no avail. The probe is ultimately destroyed using magnets to raise it via helicopter into a lesser atmospheric pressure at higher altitude, which tricks it into self-destructing. However, another version of the unstoppable machine would make an appearance in “The Return of Death Probe” the following season, where it is rebuilt by terrorists (using stolen Russian schematics) who plan on using it for political and economic gains.
Note: The episode was written by future Hollywood action screenwriter Steven E. De Souza, who would go on to write “Die Hard” (1988), “The Running Man” (1987) and “Commando” (1985).
Season 5: Jumping the “Sharks”…?
Season 5 was when the show was beginning to show its age, with increasingly derivative and outlandish stories, including the return of Death Probe, Bigfoot, and a few other tired old tricks. Despite the series’ fatigue, the show was kept afloat largely by the presence of the stalwart Lee Majors and Richard Anderson, as well as some colorful guest performers as well.
The two part season opener, unimaginatively titled “Sharks” Parts 1 & 2, was clearly designed to cash in on the popularity of “JAWS”. Despite the fact that the story is about pirates stealing a decommissioned US nuclear submarine recently sold to the OSI, the title would mislead a viewer into believing it’s all about sharks, which are somewhat tangential to the main story. Given the danger of undersea pirates acquiring a nuclear weapon, the US Navy wants to blow them to hell, which would kill both the kidnapped Steve and his maker, Dr. Wells. Oscar devises a plan to stop the pirates using magnetic mines. Saving the life of the older pirate leader Morgan Grayland (Stephen Elliott), following a near-fatal heart attack, Steve wins the respect of both Morgan and his fiercely devoted young daughter Cynthia (Pamela Hensley). The grateful duo join Steve in stopping their remaining nuclear-age buccaneers from carrying out their deadly plan. A so-so outing buoyed by slightly higher-than-average production value and an exotic underwater setting.
Note: Pamela Hensley would achieve her greatest fame as recurring Draconian princess Ardala, in associate producer Glen Larson’s future series “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”
In “Dark Side of the Moon,” Parts 1 & 2, Colonel Steve Austin suits up and returns to space to mine for a fictional element called “dilanthium” (no, not dilithium, Star Trek fans…). Inexplicably flying from Earth to an asteroid (apparently an asteroid with gravity and atmosphere) and back to the moon in a matter of hours, Steve is forced by crazed OSI scientist Dr. Charles Leith (Jack Colvin) to mine for dilanthium on the moon, with Leith holding a crew member hostage to ensure Steve’s cooperation. Dr. Leith is convinced by ego alone that dilanthium somehow exists in large quantities on the moon, instead of the asteroid they were just on–which already yielded dilanthium in their previous survey mission. Inexplicably, the dilanthium mining operation on the moon is also causing a lunar orbital shift, which adversely affects global weather as well (!?!). Ultimately, Steve turns the tables on the nutty professor and even manages to fix the moon’s orbit at no extra charge (don’t even ask…).
Note: The sequence on the asteroid uses repurposed sets (and an orange Martian sky cyclorama) left over from the 1978 movie, “Capricorn One,” which featured a faked NASA mission to Mars. It’s never explained how NASA’s tiny Lunar Excursion Model now has a vast, TARDIS-like interior, with ample room for detention cells and other unnecessary amenities for a lunar survey mission. I won’t even get into the utterly preposterous orbital physics of this episode, which are somewhere in the neighborhood of “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” with their plausibility…
The special feature-length “Lost Island” is one of the more bizarre entries of the series (and this is following “Dark Side of the Moon,” mind you). On a mysteriously cloaked South Pacific island, another colony of benign, caucasian humanoid aliens have taken up residence following the crash of their spaceship generations ago. A lone shipwrecked human named Jensen (Robert Symonds), stranded on the island as a young man, is now a father of a hybrid alien-human daughter named “Da Nay” (Robin Mattson). The waters around the island are being investigated by the OSI as a possible crash site from a radioactive satellite which has fallen from Earth orbit.
The satellite’s radiation leak causes near-instantaneous mutation of the island’s otherwise benign aliens, turning them into grunting, hairy-faced savages with bad dental prosthetics. The mutated aliens, led by Torg (Jared Martin) also develop a bad case of toxic masculinity, insisting that they become the island’s new leaders by virtue of their being utter douchebags. De Nay promises her endangered human father that she will take a raft to nearby Hawaii and seek help. During her escape from the island, she encounters Steve Austin, who penetrates the island’s cloaking forcefield (shades of Wonder Woman‘s Themyscira) and rescues her before Torg’s mutants kill them both. Long story short, Steve romances the young woman in Hawaii while waiting for a lab to release an antidote for the radiation, which Steve gets back to the island just in time to reverse the mutations and save De Nay and her once-again peaceful alien tribe. Yes, it’s as bat$#!t-crazy as it sounds, I assure you.
Note: The production team clearly got maximum use out of its Hawaiian location shoot; using it both for the ‘lost island’ as well as the actual Honolulu.
“Dead Ringer” delves into psychic phenomena in an episode that feels more like a lost episode of Gary Collins’ old 1970s supernatural series “The Sixth Sense” (1972). In this story, Steve had a near-death experience following a car accident. Afterward, he begins to see a shimmering ghostly vision of himself surrounding by a blue neon glow. For some wildly out-of-character reason, the typically pragmatic Oscar recommends that Steve see a parapsychologist named Margaret Winslow (Linda Dano) who preposterously leads him to think that he’s seeing his discorporated soul from his spaceship crash five years ago, which is somehow trying to reunite with his body, or some such nonsense. The ‘ghost’ turns out to be the work of Russian agents with an advanced laser holograph projector who are using it to trick Steve for whatever reason. “Dead Ringer” is both lazy and ridiculous, even for an undemanding series like “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
The creatively exhausted series’ final season was being run by legendarily mediocre show-runner Fred Freiberger, who also oversaw the final, creatively bankrupt seasons of both “Star Trek: TOS” and “Space: 1999.” Freiberger’s reputation as a show-killer was a bit of an exaggeration perhaps, but it was also based on more than mere coincidence. At any rate, the once-popular “Six Million Dollar Man” was officially down for the count. Steve Austin was back in electro-sleep. However, it turns out that the series’ cancellation was more like an extended break…
TV-Movie Reunion Sequels.
The first of three TV-movie reunion sequels to both “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Woman” would debut in 1987, beginning with the generically-titled “The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman.“
In this first reunion movie, Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers are estranged lovers reunited to stop a paramilitary group called “the Fortress” from acquiring bionics to further their goals of far-right political conquest. Years earlier, Jaime had fallen in love with another OSI agent named Chris Williams during the third season of “The Bionic Woman.” Now it’s revealed that Chris was killed during a mission where Jaime also suffered a massive concussion. The concussion unlocked all of her previously repressed feelings for Steve Austin, and now she struggles to cope. Steve also has an estranged (and soon to be bionic) son named Michael who’s following in his dad’s footsteps with an Air Force career. This first reunion special is more bionic soap opera than action-adventure, but it least the band was back together, including Richard Anderson as Oscar, and Martin E. Brooks as Dr. Rudy Wells. Even two-time “Six Million Dollar Man” guest star Gary Lockwood (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) returns as John Praiser, the new OSI Chief of Staff.
The second TV reunion sequel was called “Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman” (1989) and tried to introduce a few new generation of characters into the mix, including a young Sandra Bullock as track star Kate Mason. Kate is working with Dr. Rudy Wells, who’s augmenting her existing limbs with bone strengtheners, muscle stimulators and a microprocessor within her, coordinating all of her augmentations. In a lighter subplot, the story also sees Steve trying desperately to propose to Jaime, while being comically thwarted at every turn by saboteurs and other circumstances. Meanwhile, Oscar’s son Jim Goldman (Jeff Yaeger) feigns paralysis as bait to lure enemy agents into a recruitment attempt, with Jim pretending to be bitter about not being chosen as a candidate for bionic surgery. The action climax sees Kate going undercover at the Toronto-based World Unity Games, where her blurring bionic-speed (no more slo-motion) helps her to stop enemy agents and save the day. The comical finale sees Steve about to propose to Jaime, but once again facing an interruption—as Jaime proposes to him.
Note: It seems obvious that Sandra Bullock was being groomed to star in an updated bionic spinoff series, but instead, she would go on to superstardom, beginning with roles in crowd-pleasing action movies like “Demolition Man” (1993) and the hugely popular “Speed” (1994).
The final bionic reunion TV-movie, “Bionic Ever After?” (1994) finally sees Steve and Jaime in a rushed ceremony at the very end of the story, with Steve skipping straight to the “I do” lest anything else interrupt them. Prior to that, we see Jaime’s bionics once again beginning to malfunction, with her supersensitive hearing causing her pain, and her bionic hands beginning to tremor. Rudy concludes that Jaime may be infected (or rather sabotaged) with a computer virus, and he takes time to refurbish and ‘upgrade’ some of her bionic systems, including giving her newly enhanced vision as well. Turns out the saboteur is a young woman named Kimberly (Farrah Forke), the daughter of a jealous rival of Rudy’s. Kimberly blames Rudy for her father’s alcoholism and eventual death after his fruitless career spent in bionics research. Saboteur Kimberly has been working with some other bad guys who want to do some nasty stuff (it’s really not important, to be honest–the ‘plot’ is rather pedestrian, and ultimately inconsequential).
Mundane central story aside, this final bionic reunion TV-movie ends with the (albeit rushed) wedding for which fans of the show had been patiently waiting nearly thirty years.
Meeting “Oscar Goldman.”
Ten years ago, at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, I was relaxing at one of the table in the Sails Pavilion area, where most autographing is done. The tables were getting a bit crowded, when I noticed an elderly gentleman and his celebrity ‘handler’ coming to my table. The gentleman was none other than Richard Anderson–86 years old, with a thinning voice, yet still dapper, and sharp as ever. They sat next to me, and I tried to keep my fanboy self in check. After a few minutes, Anderson’s handler wanted to see a bit more of the convention, and asked me (oui, moi) if I wouldn’t mind staying with Mr. Anderson for a while. “Of course,” I said, with zero hesitation.
Anderson and I began chatting about all manner of things. We talked about his “Bionic” shows, of which he was very proud and personally invested. I learned Anderson had, in fact, played a large hand in bringing Lindsay Wagner’s “Jaime Sommers” back from the dead (he and Wagner became close friends). Anderson and I also had a chat about the amazing advancements made in real-life prosthetic limbs, which he partially credits to some of the show’s viewers growing up and pursuing careers in medicine, just as many Star Trek fans pursued careers in space and other sciences.
I then asked him about his days working on “Forbidden Planet,” and I could see him vicariously reliving that time. He recalled walking onto the set with the “giant spaceship” and seeing the huge, green-sky cyclorama. He was floored. Anderson told me he would show up even when not needed on set, just to absorb it all. He also reminded me that most studios didn’t spend that kind of money on science fiction movies in those days–MGM was making a rare exception. “You could see where the money was spent,” he said. Anderson also told colorful stories about being a young contract player at the studio (including a teensy crush on costar Anne Francis–I do not blame him one bit).
I asked Mr. Anderson what he thought of San Diego Comic Con, and he was simply amazed at the outpouring of fan affection and creativity. He told me that “if they had one of these in every city in the world… there’d be no wars.” Words of wisdom.
After about 45 minutes or so, Anderson’s assistant came back, and they had to leave and set up Anderson’s autograph booth. His assistant thanked me for looking after Mr. Anderson. I told him it was my pleasure, and it truly was. It was surreal, in fact. Both men shook my hand, and Anderson gave me a couple of pro bono “Oscar Goldman” pics with his autograph. Sitting and enjoying a relaxed chat with Richard Anderson was, to this day, my favorite celebrity encounter of all.
The actor passed away, five years later in 2017, at age 91. Richard Anderson, “Oscar Goldman” himself, was a true gentleman and he is deeply missed.
Where To Watch, Stay Safe.
Episodes of the Six Million Dollar Man can currently be streamed for free on NBC.com (with ads) and all five seasons of the series are also available for purchase on DVD from Amazon.com (prices vary). With the recent invasion of Ukraine, here’s hoping the courageous Ukrainian people will someday see daylight from this nightmare. Wishing the people of Ukraine perseverence, and that this hideous invasion ends sooner than later. Meanwhile, the current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 1 million (and over six million worldwide) as of this writing. Please use caution and good judgment when it comes to masking and safe distancing, as many states are now easing prior COVID restrictions due to decreasing numbers of infections. In these challenging times, be safe and stay strong.