Today Lee Majors turns 76! To celebrate, we’re taking a bionic look back (ch-ch-ch-ch…) at his TV classic.
Happy birthday to the Six Million Dollar Man! Lee Majors turns 76 today, and if you only think of him as bionic astronaut Steve Austin or stuntman-slash-bounty-hunter Colt Seavers from The Fall Guy, you’re out of date. He’s still working up a storm, with at least seven projects on his roster for 2015. The man keeps busy.
He credits his excellent work ethic, which he says was given to him by Barbara Stanwyck. She took him under her wing when they worked together on his first TV series, The Big Valley, and he took all of her advice to heart. There’s one piece of advice he didn’t take, though: during test scenes for the show, director Arnold Laven told him, “You’ll never make it in the business unless you learn to leave your left eyebrow down.” Bad advice, as that squint became something of a trademark.
Majors didn’t have an easy start in life. His father died in a steel mill accident before he was born, and a drunk driver killed his mother when he was about a year old. He was adopted by his uncle and aunt, and didn’t know they weren’t his real parents until he was a teenager. He was in college on a football scholarship when an injury derailed his plans for a sports career. On a dare, he auditioned for a role in the play “The Crucible” and landed the lead. When he saw his football buddies sitting in the front row with their girlfriends, and tears in everybody’s eyes including the tough-guy athletes, he knew he was onto something.
His big break was The Big Valley, and his first movie was Will Penny¸ starring Charlton Heston. After that, he co-starred in Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, which is what led to his career-making role as Colonel Steve Austin on The Six Million Dollar Man.
The show started out as a TV movie. Based on the “Cyborg” book series by Martin Caidin, it found its way to TV in three different movies before it finally went to series. That’s when we started seeing that famous opening sequence, with that classic, memorable line uttered by the classic and memorable Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better. Stronger. Faster.”
Let’s take a look at seven fun facts about the show.
1. THE ICONIC OPENING SEQUENCE SHOWS A REAL CRASH
No that was not a recreation. The sequence was actual footage of the real accident that happened to test pilot Bruce Peterson, who was flying a Northrop M2-F2, and hit the ground at 250 miles per hour, flipping over 6 times. He survived the accident, but an extended stay in the hospital resulted in an infection and he lost his vision in one eye. The dialogue Steve Austin says right before the fictional craft is exactly what Peterson said before the real one. Peterson later admitted that he really didn’t like having his accident replayed over and over on national television.
BONUS FACT: Peterson’s crash was actually a major inspiration for Martin Caidin too, which is where the book “Cyborg” got its genesis.
2. THOSE HIGH JUMPS WERE THE MOST CHALLENGING STUNTS OF ALL
When you want to shoot someone jumping up to the top of a building, the only real way to do it is to have him (or her, when it’s the Bionic Woman) jump DOWN and then run the footage backwards. The challenge, Lee Majors pointed out, was that the stuntman had to look like he was jumping up, so he had to be facing upwards with his hands in the air. Maybe he could sneak a peek at the ground right before the end, but not always.
BONUS FACT: Another stunt challenge was running really quickly in bell-bottoms, which would sometimes get stuck in the grass. I hate when that happens!
3. WORKING WITH ANDRE THE GIANT WAS A CAREER HIGHLIGHT
Lee Majors worked with a lot of memorable guest stars, from his then-wife Farrah Fawcett to Suzanne Somers, William Shatner, George Takei, and Sonny Bono, along with 70s stars like Rodney Allen Rippy, Stefanie Powers, Flip Wilson, and Erik Estrada. But the one he remembers the most — aside from Farrah, we’re guessing —is Andre the Giant.
Andre played Bigfoot (when Ted Cassidy wasn’t doing it) and gave the catering company a run for their money. At a staggering 7’4″, he kept them busy, especially at lunch, where they learned that “chicken” meant an entire chicken, not just a piece, and needed to be followed up with three to four steaks. He’d eat a dozen eggs for breakfast, too. (They were always happy when he showed up, though, as it meant they’d make more money.)
Since they were often shooting the Bigfoot scenes in 90 degree heat, Andre would cool off with some beer. Majors said he would drink 4 at a time, crushing the cans as he went, and within an hour he’d have consumed an entire case. He never went to the bathroom, though, which mystified everyone so much that they decided to play a practical joke and slip a diuretic into his beer. He STILL didn’t need the bathroom, so Majors assumed that his kidneys were pretty huge too.
BONUS FACT: Andre’s training as a wrestler came in handy during the fight scenes. He was able to throw Majors, then look as if he was landing right on him without even touching him, to Majors’ grateful astonishment.
4. MAJORS DID A LOT OF HIS OWN STUNTS
Majors worked extremely closely with stuntman Vince Deadrick, Sr.. The two had a great relationship and Deadrick would choreograph every stunt Majors took on.
At one point, Deadrick had been injured, so they hired someone to do a cable car climbing stunt, with his supervision. At the last minute, the new guy got sick, and there was no one else to do it, so Majors agreed to step in.
Majors had to climb out on the cables, and as he neared the car, do a sort of duck walk as the distance between them narrowed. He was 250 feet up, and still about six yards from the car, when he froze, the only time he ever did that during a stunt in his entire career. He looked down, and caught Deadrick as well as the substitute stuntman looking up at him, taking pictures!
This made him so mad that it spurred him on to travel that final 6 yards to the car, and when he got there, he was so relieved that he asked the tram conductor for a cigarette. . .and he didn’t even smoke. He still looks back at that scene and wonders what the hell he was thinking when he agreed to do it.
BONUS FACT: Back in the day, airbags weren’t even in regular use, and stunt people would land on piles of cardboard boxes instead. Majors says they really weren’t that soft.
5. THERE WAS A LOT OF PRACTICAL JOKING ON SET
In the pre-internet and smartphone days, time between takes had to be filled with other activities. Sometimes it was Liar’s Poker, sometimes backgammon, and sometimes, it was practical jokes.
One day, the Assistant Director told Deadrick that they had to figure out how to shoot a scene in which Steve Austin would be holding a woman in his arms, and lean very far forward without moving his feet. Deadrick’s idea was to nail his boots to the floor, allowing him to lean without falling. They nailed his boots down, and he stepped in to test it first, without the woman. He laced them up, and then as he leaned forward, got bombarded by buckets of ice water coming at him from multiple directions. Majors says it looked like a scene from Titanic, and there was nothing Deadrick could do about it.
BONUS FACT: To Deadrick’s chagrin, the entire incident was filmed as he stood there, drenched and helpless.
6. LEE MAJORS TRAINED LIKE A REAL ASTRONAUT
One of the great bonuses of being a TV star is getting to go places us ordinary folks don’t get to visit. They filmed one episode at Cape Canaveral, and allowed the show to use a real space suit for one of the scenes. Majors was sealed into his it by the actual fitters who do it for the astronauts, and then got to do the astronaut’s walk, and really felt the grandeur of the moment as he was doing it.
Once inside the capsule, there were three ways to get back out: back down in the elevator, via zip line, or through a hatch and down a slide, feet first. The slide had a couple of turns and then led into a “rubber room” for landing. Majors was told to use his knees and elbows to slow himself down, and enjoyed the experience so much that he asked to do it again. They agreed and asked if he’d take a camera with him, so he got to film his own journey as he went.
BONUS FACT: During training, quite a few astronauts went down the slide so quickly that they flew into the wall and broke their legs.
7. LEE MAJORS AND FARRAH FAWCETT INSPIRED THE HIT SONG “MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO GEORGIA”
Cheating a little bit because this is really about Lee Majors and not the show, but who can resist a fun fact like this one? As anyone who was around in the 1970s knows, Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett were a Hollywood super couple. They started dating when she was just a model, but a few years after they got married, she became a worldwide phenomenon in Charlie’s Angels, with her stardom eventually surpassing his.
In addition to catching the world’s attention, they were also the inspiration for a hit song. The original version, called “Midnight Plane to Houston,” was written by Jim Weatherly as a country song, triggered by a conversation he’d had with Farrah Fawcett. She had just started dating Majors, who had played college football with Weatherly, and the songwriter used them as the basis for the characters in the song.
When gospel/soul singer Cissy Houston recorded it, she felt funny having her last name in the title, so she got permission to change it to Georgia. In 1973, the Gladys Knight & The Pips version went to #1, moving the Rolling Stones’ “Angie” out of the top spot.
Once the show wrapped up, along with its successful spin-off, The Bionic Woman, three more made-for -TV movies followed. The second included a new bionic character, played by a young Sandra Bullock, and in the third, Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers were finally married.
The shows and the characters definitely left their mark, inspiring more than songs: one could argue that there wouldn’t have been Robocop or The Terminator without them. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself once told Majors, “You are the first bionic man, you are the original terminator.” Majors thinks there’s one other very visible influence, though: he’s pretty sure that Jane Lynch’s red track suit on Glee was a nod to his.
And there’s a future for The Six Million Dollar Man! Mark Wahlberg is attached to star and produce in a feature film, but he’s getting adjusted for inflation. Expect the new movie to be called The Six Billion Dollar Man. For real.