THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A cult classic completes its slo-mo trip to disc

'The Six Million Dollar Man' runs again with release of complete series

“Bionic’’ scenes were shot in slow motion so the action wouldn’t resemble the Keystone Kops. “Bionic’’ scenes were shot in slow motion so the action wouldn’t resemble the Keystone Kops.
By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / November 21, 2010

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Steve Austin, astronaut — a man barely alive? No kidding. That’s the way it seemed for a long time, anyway, to fans of “The Six Million Dollar Man,’’ as they waited in vain for a domestic DVD release of the iconic ’70s TV show. Why the holdup, you wonder? “You and me both,’’ series star Lee Majors, 71, says with a laugh during a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I’ve been waiting for 35 years.’’

It wasn’t as if there was insufficient interest in Majors’s adventures as the NASA casualty-turned-bionically rebuilt government agent. In fact, producers who believed the concept was enduring enough to merit a remake even scooped up movie rights some years back. “Clerks’’ director Kevin Smith took a pass at a feature script, and Jim Carrey was reportedly attached to another stab at the project. But divvying up the rights pie this way led to legal wrangling that effectively barred the show from DVD. (The players included Universal Studios, which originally oversaw the series, high-powered producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and the estate of author Martin Caidin, whose novel “Cyborg’’ was the basis for the show.)

This Tuesday, though, in a display of the sort of détente that might have spared Colonel Austin a few espionage missions, “The Six Million Dollar Man: The Complete Collection’’ arrives from Time Life. (The set is available exclusively online at www.6MDM.com, and is priced at $239.99.) The entire 100-episode run of the series is complemented by new interviews with Majors, costar Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman), and “The Bionic Woman’’ star Lindsay Wagner. Featurettes include a segment on those famed cranking-electronics sound effects — supposedly created by a vibrating metal ruler — and another on the show’s toy merchandising. (Remember the Steve Austin bionic-eye action figure that Steve Carell reluctantly lists on eBay in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin’’? It wasn’t just a prop.) Several discs of pilot and reunion movies offer curiosities like Darren McGavin’s initial casting as Steve Austin’s handler, and a pre-“Speed’’ Sandra Bullock as a new bionic heroine.

Looking back at the series, there’s certainly plenty that’s amusingly dated or just plain ridiculous — Steve’s standard leisure suit, for one, or Oscar’s protocol-flouting ability to “order up’’ an earthquake-triggering nuclear device with one phone call. At the same time, though, the show’s signature use of slo-mo remains a valid, clever solution to a tricky technical problem, one that couldn’t just be shrugged off with a digital assist back in 1973. “In the first [pilot] movie, we tried having the character move fast, but it kind of looked like we were doing the Keystone Kops,’’ Majors remembers. “We really were left asking ourselves, ‘How in the hell are we gonna get this to look good?’ Eventually we came up with the slow motion, and with the sound effects, it came across OK.’’

Viewed now through the prism of “Lost,’’ “Alias,’’ and “The X-Files,’’ “Six Mil’’ (as insiders call it) also flashes glimpses of the sort of trippy mythology we’ve come to expect from genre television. Nothing quite so labyrinthine, maybe, but it’s there. Secretive government plans to develop a seven million dollar man, Steve’s misgivings be damned. The bionics program’s equally hush-hush resuscitation of Steve’s fiancee, Jaime Sommers (Wagner), following her apparently fatal rejection of the technology. Aliens covertly embedded in the California wilderness for centuries, studying us. Those same aliens creating a robotic Bigfoot (actually pro wrestler André the Giant) as part of their cover.

The writing approach wasn’t all just mission-of-the-week, affirms series producer Kenneth Johnson, who wrote the Bionic Woman and Bigfoot episodes, and was the creator of Wagner’s spinoff, also newly available on DVD. Emotional resonance, however melodramatic, was another goal, he says. “What I was trying to do with the bionic shows was show how ordinary people would react if suddenly you were gifted — or cursed — with technology like this. It’s interesting — since the DVDs have begun to come out, I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from people in the gay and lesbian community who really identify with Jaime and Steve because, inside, the characters aren’t what they appear to be on the outside.’’

The occasional undercurrent of ambivalence wasn’t lost on Majors. “Steve kind of [resented] being put in this position, being made into this half-man, half-machine,’’ he says. “Part of him hated going out on these missions, but he was repaying them for saving his life. I really liked the idea that the character was kind of an antihero in that way.’’

At times, though, the stunt-loving Majors played him a bit too straight-up heroic for Anderson’s liking. “I had my hands full with that guy,’’ says the veteran character actor, who holds the unusual distinction of having played the same role on two different networks simultaneously, after “The Bionic Woman’’ moved from ABC to NBC for its final season. “I remember one shoot where Lee took off hanging from a helicopter for 10 minutes — not that he had 10 minutes of stuff to do. I went up to him afterward and said, ‘Are you trying to shut us down?’ But that was Lee. He really loved all of that. The part was perfect for him.’’ Insert bionic sound effect here.

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.

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