Lee Majors Week: Steel (1979)

As is the case with any actor who achieves a level of fame in the TV and film realms, Lee Majors, courtesy of his clout with The Six Million Dollar Man, was able to parlay his star into his own production company, Fawcett-Majors Productions, co-run with his then wife, Farrah Fawcett (the company dissolved upon their 1982 divorce). To help establish the company, during his 1977 contract negotiations for the series, Majors wanted his production shingle brought on as an independent producer in association with Universal Studios. While the negotiations soured between Majors, Universal, and ABC television, it didn’t matter: after five seasons, the show’s ratings, as well as those of its sister show, The Bionic Woman, declined, and both series were simultaneous cancelled in 1978.

Fawcett-Majors Productions made its feature film debut with the Vietnam war drama, Just a Little Inconvenience (1977) starring Majors, which aired on U.S. television. The company also produced the Farrah Fawcett-starring Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978) and Sunburn (1979) — both which flopped at the box office (and Saturn 3 sealed the deal on Farrah’s theatrical career). Meanwhile, Majors chose three films for himself, each which became popular, much-run HBO favorites: The Norseman (1978), Killer Fish (1979), and this action adventure — which, according to a 2015 interview with screenwriter Leigh Chapman, started out as Look Down and Die — about a rogue crew of The Magnificent Seven-styled steel workers against an evil corporation to complete a skyscraper project.

Now, if Leigh Chapman’s names rings a bell, that’s because she’s named dropped often around B&S About Movies with the blaxploitation classic Truck Turner, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Chuck Norris’s The Octagon (1980), and The Fast and Furious precursor King of the Mountain.

For his director, Majors picked the Roger Corman-bred Steve Carver, who brought us the Pam Grier blaxploitationer The Arena, along with the mob epics Big Bad Mama and Capone. Remember when Hollywood tried to turn Heavyweight Boxing champ Ken Norton into a movie star? Steve Carver directed it: Drum. Then there’s Carver’s Chuck Norris two-fer with An Eye for An Eye and Lone Wolf McQuade. And we recently reviewed his own Fast and Furious precursor: Fast Charlie . . . the Moonbeam Rider.

Returning to his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, and filmed in the surrounding Fayette County, Majors, acting as Executive Producer, pulled together all of the usual actors we care about here at B&S About Movies as his burly crew of steel workers: Jennifer O’Neill (The Psychic) as his construction damsel-in-distress, Art Carney (who co-starred with Farrah in Sunburn) as Pignose, George Kennedy (Top Line) as Big Lew, Terry Kiser (forever known as “Bernie” from Weekend at Bernie’s) as the ladies’ man, Valentino, character actor extraordinaire Albert Salmi (Escape from Planet of the Apes) as Tank, Robert Tessier (who got his start in the biker romp The Born Losers and co-starred with Burt Reynolds in The Longest Yard) as Cherokee, and the great Richard Lynch (Ground Rules) cast-against-type as a good guy (well, almost) with his character, Dancer.

It all starts with construction magnate Big Lew Cassidy — a guy who likes to get up the girders and get his hands dirty — who falls to his death (A.J Bacons, the stuntman who doubled for Kennedy, died when the airbag split on impact). So in steps Big Lew’s inexperienced, spunky daughter Cass Cassidy . . . and she’s determined to finish off the last nine floors and meet her father’s deadline before the bank forecloses.

But how?

By recruiting the best “ramrod” in the business. But according to Pignose: one’s dead, one’s on a project in Canada, and one’s in Saudi Arabia. So that only leaves the once great Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) Mike Cattan (Lee Majors), but he washed-out of the steel biz to become a long-haul trucker. And, to be honest: Mike’s the only one crazy enough to fly to an asteroid to drill through a solid-iron rock attempt topping off an impossible nine floors in three weeks.

So, once Cass gets the reluctant ex-ramrod on board with the ol’ “I thought I was meeting a real man” speech, they’re off to recruit the “best of the best” (now this really is starting to sound a lot like Armageddon, sans the asteroid) to finish the job before Cassie’s slimy uncle Eddie (Harris Yulin!) and his partner Kellin (the always welcomed heavy, R.G Armstrong!) absorbs his estranged brother’s company.

While this Majors theatrical hopeful played in duplexes, triplexes and drive-ins, Steel — along with Agency starring Robert Mitchum and The Last Chase with Burgess Meredith — bombed at the box office. And the failure of the earlier The Norseman and Killer Fish didn’t help either. And, with that, Majors returned to a successful five-year run with ABC-TV’s The Fall Guy and a succession of successful TV movies throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, such as Starflight One, A Smoky Mountain Christmas, Fire: Trapped on the 37th Floor, and The Cover Girl Murders (which also starred Jennifer O’Neill).

Opinions vary on Steel. You can chalk it up to my youthful nostalgia for those HBO days of yore, but I love this movie and think it’s one Majors’s best. This is good ol’ fashioned, non-CGI filmmaking with real men on top of real steel girders, real prefabbed steel floors dangling from choppers, and real steel girders crushing real stretch Cadillac limos. And you can watch it all on You Tube.

As part of our May 2023 tribute to Roger Avery and Quentin Tarantino’s weekly podcast tribute to their days at Manhattan Beach’s Video Archives, here’s the link to their take on this Lee Majors favorite.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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