“It feels like a Six Million Dollar Man night tonight! Who’s with me?”
Those were the words that escaped my lips last Tuesday evening. I still don’t know where they came from. It wasn’t anything I was planning, but somehow I wound up saying them all the same. Everyone else in the family seemed bewildered. My wife was giving me that suspicious Kevin-McCarthy-from-Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers-look, and our mortified children, faced with the prospect of a 42-year-old TV movie for the evening’s entertainment, stared at me with expressions of both hurt and betrayal. My first impulse was to deny I’d said it, but unfortunately the physical proof was in my hand—a Netflix disc boasting 2 ½ hours of Lee Majors in bell-bottoms and leisure suits.
Faced with what felt like the family entertainment version of the Kobayashi Maru, we all resigned ourselves to simply get it over with as quickly as possible. So before you could say, “Steve Austin, astronaut—man barely alive,” we gathered around the television set to watch the original pilot movie for The Six Million Dollar Man.
In retrospect, I’m proud to say we stayed with it for a full 17 minutes.
The show, in case you don’t know, aired during the middle ‘70s. It focused on an astronaut-turned-test pilot named Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors, who was badly injured in a crash. As the opening credits to every episode dramatically announced, the government decided to “rebuild” him using cybernetic parts that gave him special, bionic powers. In return, he agreed to work for them as a secret agent.
In other words, it was a superhero story.
When I was a kid, I watched The Six Million Dollar Man every day in syndication. It was my favorite show, and I even had the toy—a Steve Austin figure wearing his signature red sweat suit. One of his eyes was equipped with a magnifying lens, so you could squint through the back of his head and use him as binoculars. Also, his arm was covered with a thin, rubber skin that rolled back to reveal his bionic parts.
But what I remember the most about him were his shoes. Since he was wearing his iconic sweat suit (it was seen in the credits, but I never actually remembered him wearing it on the show), the toymakers gave him matching tennis shoes. But something about those large, incredibly flat-soled tennis shoes seemed disproportionately large—almost like he had duck feet—which put a crimp in the whole running at 60-miles-an-hour thing. Besides, to my young mind, a hero wearing sneakers just seemed … weird. All my other heroes—Batman, Han Solo, the Lone Ranger, Captain Kirk—all the cool heroes wore boots. But no matter. Giant, flat tennis shoes or not, Steve Austin was cool.
My memory of the show, itself, is very sketchy. There was Bigfoot (who didn’t wear tennis shoes), the Bionic Woman, and lots of slow motion running and bionic sound effects. But despite my love for the show, I had never revisited it until now. I guess you could call it the Battlestar Galactica effect. See, I used to think the original Battlestar Galactica was the equal of both Star Trek and Star Wars, but when I finally watched one of the episodes as an adult, all I could focus on was the actors’ late-‘70s hairstyles. Had they salvaged a hair dryer factory on Caprica before it was destroyed or did the Cylons just not have any need for mousse?
So the disappointment of Battlestar Galactica immunized me, for the most part, against nostalgia. Yet, here I was last week, forcing my whole family to watch a show so badly dated that even the title is a statistical absurdity. If Steve Austin were uninsured today, I’d be surprised if six million dollars would even cover all the MRIs and pain meds.
And yet, I have to say that the pilot isn’t all bad. Sure, the family bailed on it because the pacing is incredibly slow, but I finished it later that night. Part of the slow pacing is to be expected from a 1973 TV movie, but the pilot is also punctuated with long stretches of deliberate silence, which really helps emphasize its earnest science fiction roots. Honestly, the tone isn’t too far removed from one of those hyper-realistic science fiction films of the era like The Andromeda Strain.
The original story came from a 1972 novel, Cyborg, written by Martin Caidin—a science fiction author of some note who also wrote Marooned, the inspiration for the 1969 Gregory Peck movie. In order to satiate my curiosity, I started to read Cyborg last week and was struck by how closely the TV pilot adhered to the book—at least for the opening four chapters that I read. The pacing of the pilot seems to have come from Caidin, who has a way of lingering over things like desert topography and aeronautical engineering that makes you want to put the book down and go read something more electrifying, like maybe one of those official government reports offering a comparative analysis of the mineral deposits found in tap water from different regions of the country.
But I’m being harsh. Both the book and the pilot were earnest in a way I didn’t expect. Lee Majors plays Steve Austin, of course, but he spends over half the pilot in a hospital bed with no dialogue. Most of the heavy lifting—metaphorically speaking—comes from the other two leads. Darren McGavin, looking and acting far more like Robert Shaw than Kolchak, plays the government official who oversees the six-million dollar project, and Martin Balsam, the always reliable character actor from Twelve Angry Men and Psycho, plays the surgeon.
So overall, the original pilot is one of the more solid television sci-fi movies of the early ‘70s—perfectly respectable and quite serious—even if it’s not indicative of the future tone of the show. But I was intrigued enough at this point, so I watched the second pilot. Unlike most shows, The Six Million Dollar Man began as a series of three pilot movies, and the second one—Wine, Women, and War—was also included on my Netflix disc.
If the first pilot felt like science fiction, the second is like a retro spy drama. The big spy boom of the middle ‘60s was over, but Wine, Women, and War works hard to recapture the spirit, even drafting David McCallum from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in a supporting role. The opening credits make clear that any lingering resemblance to The Andromeda Strain is long gone, particularly when we see a montage of Steve Austin in action, running, diving, and swimming, while Dusty Springfield sings the, um … well, the theme song:
He’s the man!Six Million Dollar Man!He’s the man!Six Million Dollar Man!Catch him if you canBeat him if you canLove him if you can!Now he is the man!Six Million Dollar Man!
Yeah. Now imagine backup singers, making the whole thing sound like a much less-funky version of Isaac Hayes’s theme song from Shaft, and you get a sense of how unapologetically ‘70s this second pilot really is. When we finally meet our star—that swinging playboy of the intelligence game—he’s wearing a tuxedo and looking like he could light a cigarette at any moment and introduce himself as, “Austin … Steve Austin.” One of his romantic interests is a woman named Cynthia, or “Cyn” for short, and the final act takes place in the villain’s cavernous, concrete lair, complete with missile silos and a ten-second countdown clock.
Obviously, the two pilots are wildly different, and since neither really matches the feel or tone of the rest of the series, it seems clear that the producers still hadn’t figured out what the show was really going to be. But partially, that’s because, despite my derisive descriptions here, The Six Million Dollar Man was actually quite groundbreaking. Today, thanks in large part to shows like The Flash, Gotham, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and Arrow, as well as the more real-world approach of Forever, we’re getting used to the idea of the weekly superhero drama as its own television genre. But The Six Million Dollar Man, awkward first steps or not, remains one of the real pioneering works in the genre and deserves more attention.