Well, this TV sci-fi’er really is the whole enchilada when discussing the career of Lee Majors, isn’t it?
Colon’d and suffixed as “The Moon and the Desert” when it aired as a two-part episode during its syndication run (and served as its overseas title in some quarters), we meet Steve Austin, an astronaut that’s made three moon landings. During a test flight crash in a space plane prototype, he looses his right arm, left eye and both legs. His friend and personal physician, Dr. Rudy Wells (played by Marin Balsam, who did not return for the subsequent films or series), recruits Austin for an O.S.O project (O.S.I in the series) overseen by Oliver Spencer (played by Darren McGavin; the character and actor did not return for the subsequent films or series): creating a cyborg through the installation of bionic parts onto a human body. As the reluctant astronaut deals with his new body and recruitment as a government agent (he returned to space in few series episodes), he accepts his first mission to rescue a valuable hostage asset in Saudi Arabia.
The TV movie’s high ratings and overseas success quickly justified the production of two more prefixed U.S. telefilms (again, theatrical features overseas): Wine, Women and War and The Solid Gold Kidnapping. The concept then went to series and ran for five seasons from 1974 to 1978. All three telefilms would be reedited into two-part series episodes for its syndication (with scenes being re-filmed with Martin E. Brooks, who portrayed Rudy Wells in the series, and Richard Anderson, who portrayed O.S.I head Oscar Goldman).
Upon the 1978 dual-demise of The Six Million Dollar Man and its spinoff, The Bionic Woman, Majors returned for three more U.S. telefilms/foreign theatricals: The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (1987), Bionic Showdown: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (1989; starring wheelchair-and-bionic Sandra Bullock!), and Bionic Ever After (1994).
It all began back in 1972 when Cyborg, Martin Caidin’s best-seller, was optioned for a film adaptation by Harve Bennett for Universal Pictures — and, at first, the film retained the book’s title. Elements of Caiden’s subsequent sequels of the continuing adventures of Steve Austin — Operation Nuke, High Crystal, and Cyborg IV — while not directly adapted, had various elements worked into the subsequent series. (You can read an in-depth review of the book-to-film translation at ManaPop and get the lowdown on all of the wonderful toys inspired by the series at Toys You Had.)
Bennett’s first choice for the title roll was Monte Markham, who worked on Bennett’s previous sci-fi telefilm, 1972’s The Astronaut. To ease the sting of losing the part due to studio executive interference — in preferring Majors’s more experienced pedigree courtesy of his work in the well-received and highly-rated series The Big Valley and Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law — Markham appeared in two episodes as race-car-driver-turned-into-new-and-improved-cyborg Barney Miller/Hiller: “The Seven Million Dollar Man” and “The Bionic Criminal.”
After the 1978 series cancellation, and prior to their production of the three 1987 to 1994 U.S TV movies, Universal cut another another foreign-only theatrical in 1980 from the two-part 1976 episodes, “The Secret of Bigfoot” and “The Return of Bigfoot.” As with Battlestar Galactica before it, which was also cut into three foreign theatrical sequels, Universal licensed several paperback tie-ins based on the series’ episodes. (You can watch the series version of “Secret” at NBC.com with Part 1 and Part 2, as well as “Return” Part 1 and Part 2.)
During our “Lee Majors Week” review of Starlight One, we named dropped the 1969 Gregory Peck sci-fi’er Marooned. So we should mention that film was also based on Caiden’s 1964 novel of the same name. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century fans may have picked up Caiden’s 1995 Rogers sidequel/adaptation, A Life in the Future, in which Buck was refitted with bionic parts.
A big-budgeted theatrical — not only for Steve Austin, but Colt Seavers’s adventures in The Fall Guy — have been ballyhooed for years, with Mark Wahlberg as Austin. This Screen Rant article from May 2020 wraps up the film’s production history. Lee has stated that, if he’s given a significant part with substance, and not just a cameo walk on, he’s willing to be involved in both productions. So, it’s fingers crossed for Lee!
You can watch the 1973 theatrical cut of The Six Million Dollar Man on the FShareTV platform. In 2010, upon the release of the 40-disc, 100-hour DVD box set of the series (hey, it’s only $239.95!), Lee sat down with Vanity Fair for an extensive interview about the series and its lasting pop culture status.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.