That’s right! Fifty years ago today, television audiences got their first look at Steve Austin: a man barely alive, and got to watch as he was made better, stronger, and faster for the tidy sum of just six million dollars.
Based on Martin Caidin’s 1972 novel Cyborg, The Six Million Dollar Man was the first of what would be three television “movies of the week.” Adapting the original book in rather broad fashion , this initial outing gives us the story of Steve Austin, a test pilot tasked with flying a new experimental “lifting body” craft which at the time was a prototype for what eventually became the Space Shuttle. As in the book, Austin suffers horrific injuries when the aircraft crashes, including the loss of both legs, one arm and one eye.
Along comes the government, in the form of Oliver Spencer (substituting for Oscar Goldman in the novel and played by the always delightful Darren McGavin, showing up between his own first two appearances as Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler TV films), who proposes taking Austin’s mangled body and marrying it to a revolutionary form of prosthetics known as “bionics.” Once fitted with new cybernetic limbs and other necessary components, Austin will be far stronger and faster than any normal human, making him the ideal candidate for special missions in which his new abilities will be well-suited. Spencer’s cold, even callous outlook on the plan and its need for a human test subject (“Accidents happen all the time. We’ll just start with scrap.”) will be echoed years later in a film with a similar origin story for its central character, RoboCop.
After all the surgeries along with the accompanying rehabilitation and physical and emotional therapy, Austin is sent to the Middle East on a top-secret mission (very much watered down from the assignment he’s given in the book), where his special nature helps see him through to the end. What’s next? Well, I guess we’ll see.
It’s worth noting that the Steve Austin we meet in Caidin’s novel really isn’t all that likeable a guy. To be honest? He’s kind of a dick, though you can understand and even sympathize with his attitude given the situation into which he’s been thrust. For TV, Austin is definitely someone you want to root for, owing in large part to an understated performance from Lee Majors. Yes, Majors has always taken heat for appearing to lack a lot of acting range at this point in his career, but it actually works here as he navigates the bizarre circumstances visited upon his character.
The original telefilm was popular enough to warrant a pair of follow-ups — Wine, Women and War and The Solid-Gold Kidnapping — later in 1973, which of course begat the weekly television series which premiered in January 1974. This first movie doesn’t have many of the things people remember about The Six Million Dollar Man: No iconic opening credits sequence, no Oscar Goldman, no bionic sound effects, no bionic eye reticle, none of that awesome music by Oliver Nelson which would become such a vital part of the weekly episodes. Even the slow-motion running effect is used very sparingly here, and even then not in the same way which soon would come to personify the whole “bionic action” sight gag.
What? You said you want to see what still ranks as one of the absolute best opening credits bits ever? Well, BAM!
Following the original Cyborg novel, Caidin would pen three sequels, which would be published while the television series was in production. Several novelizations of TV episodes also would be published, and the authors of these books would–more often than not–model their characterizations of Steve Austin more on Caidin’s version than the show itself.
As for the television series, it would last five seasons, the last three alongside its spin-off, The Bionic Woman starring Lindsay Wagner. These were followed by three reunion movies, 1987’s Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, 1989’s Bionic Showdown and 1994’s Bionic Ever After?
Bionic Woman was a 2007 attempt to remake Lindsay Wagner’s series, though it lasted only one season. There are also on-again/off-again rumors of a big-budget cinematic remake of one or both of the series.
In the meantime, here’s to you Steve Austin: You’re the man! The Six Million Dollar Man!