Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. "Gentlemen, We Can Rebuild Him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better. Stronger. Faster."
The show that put "bionic" into the popular lexicon.
Lee Majors starred as Col. Steve Austin (not that one) in this sci-fi action-adventure series that ran from 1973 to 1978. Seriously injured in a test flight, former astronaut Austin is given artificial ("bionic") replacements for his legs, his right arm, and one eye, leaving him with superhuman speed and strength and telescopic vision. He can run more than 60 MPH, jump several stories, see objects from miles away and in the dark, and lift impossible weights. Upon his recovery, he goes to work for Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson), head of the Office of Scientific Investigations (there are many other definitions for OSI out there - this is the one actually seen on TV). Other regular or recurring characters included:
- Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Brooks), the inventor of the bionic technology
- Barney Hiller, another bionic agent who went rogue (originally named Barney Miller in his first appearance, but his name was changed due to the success of the Hal Linden sitcom)
In a spring 1975 episode, Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), a tennis pro and Austin's love interest, was injured in a skydiving accident. Austin pleaded with Goldman to save her life, and she too was fitted with bionic parts (legs, one arm, and an ear). Eventually her body rejected her implants, and she died, at least as far as Austin was concerned. Fan outcry was so great, ABC demanded the series reorganize the start of the third season and run a two-parter bringing her back to life. So after Jaime was rescued by a radical medical procedure, she went to work for the OSI in her own spinoff series, The Bionic Woman (1976-1978), living undercover as a schoolteacher on an Air Force base when not on missions for the OSI. And Jaime herself became a recurring character on Six Mil during its third and fourth seasons, taking part in a number of crossover stories until Bionic Woman was cancelled by ABC in 1977 and moved to NBC, ending these crossovers for good.
The Six Million Dollar Man was based upon the science fiction novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin, and the original pilot TV movie, aired in 1973, was written by Henri Simoun and an uncredited Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue). It was followed by two more TV movies produced by Glen Larson (creator of the original Battlestar Galactica) that attempted, without success, to recast Austin as a James Bond-like character. When the series returned as a weekly hour-long show in January 1974, it was now produced by Harve Bennett (Star Trek), who restored much of Caidin's original characterization to Austin (though Caidin's version of the character was rather different - he was more of an assassin, carried a poison dart gun in a bionic finger, and his non-seeing bionic eye was a miniature camera). Later, Kenneth Johnson, who later went on to be involved with the TV series The Incredible Hulk, Alien Nation, and V, joined as a writer and went on to create the character of Jaime Sommers and produce the spin-off. Johnson advocated a somewhat "kindler, gentler" show, and it was in a two-parter he wrote that the show's most iconic recurring character, Bigfoot, first appeared.
The series was followed by made-for-TV movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the last of these, Steve and Jaime finally got married. As for bionic kids -- Austin's estranged son by a pre-series marriage, Michael, appears in The Return of the Six-Million-Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman (1987), where he is fitted with bionics far, far exceeding those possessed by his father. In the second film, Bionic Showdown (1989), a new bionic woman named Kate Mason is introduced, played by Sandra Bullock in one of her first roles.
The series is known for its slow-motion special effects, which while often derided by some modern-day viewers, were in fact based upon similar slow-motion effects used by NFL Films in its acclaimed series of sports archive films (and even before that, films like Olympia had also used the technique). The slow-motion action actually wasn't consistently used until midway through the second season, but it was decided that speeding up the action usually didn't work, with Lee Majors on the 2010 DVD release of the series, saying, it looks like something out of the Keystone Cops. With CG effects still years away, slow-motion was the only practical option.
Majors, an acclaimed actor from such films as The Ballad of Andy Crocker and The Francis Gary Powers Story, but best known for his work in westerns like The Big Valley, was chosen because of his stoic demeanor, although episodes such as "The Coward" (in which Austin discovers the fate of his long-lost father), and "The Bionic Woman" showed that he had the range if he required it. His co-star, Richard Anderson (Forbidden Planet), played Oscar Goldman and provided a fatherly figure to both Steve and, later, Jaime. Three actors played Dr. Rudy Wells: Oscar-winner Martin Balsam in the first pilot, noted voice actor Alan Oppenheimer for the first 2 seasons, and Martin E. Brooks thereafter. In 1977, Anderson and Brooks made US TV history by becoming the first lead actors to play the same roles in two ongoing series on two competing networks, when they were allowed to appear on both Six Mil on ABC and Bionic Woman on NBC. They also reprised their roles for the later reunion films.
Some consider the show Jumped the Shark in the episodes where Austin fought Bigfoot, who was revealed to be a bionic alien, but this episode, as well as another "shark jump" candidate featuring an insane robot called the Death Probe, are also fondly remembered by many fans. And now that the complete series is available on DVD in North America, it's revealed that episodes focusing on character far outnumber episodes focusing on space aliens and bigfoot. Two award-winning episodes were written by Star Trek veteran DC Fontana - "The Rescue of Athena One", starring a pre-stardom Farrah Fawcett (then Mrs. Lee Majors) as America's first female astronaut, and "Straight on 'Til Morning" starring Meg Foster (Cagney and Lacey) as a stranded space explorer. Monte Markham, who was Caidin's first choice to play Austin, portrayed Barney Hiller (aka Miller), the Seven Million Dollar Man.
The show was immensely popular and served as a template for later sci-fi action-adventure shows that leaned more toward action-adventure than sci-fi. Glen Larson's Knight Rider, for instance, is cast from the same mold, although some elements were changed: the mortally-injured Michael Knight was given a talking supercar rather than superhuman abilities, and fought crime for a foundation rather than for the government. Jake 2.0 is a more recent homage, with Lee Majors actually appearing in an episode (and the "bionic sound" is heard more than once in the episode just to drive the point home).
In the 1970s, the utterly exorbitant $6 million seemed about the right cost to create a bionic man. Oddly enough, due to the rapidly-falling costs of technology, it still seems about right, despite inflation.
- Achilles' Heel - Extreme cold could make the bionic heroes' parts stop working until they warm up.
- Steve's natural arm is vulnerable and often injured.
- He seems to also have the skull equivalent of a glass jaw.
- Several episodes also establish that if you take out Steve legs, it leaves him at death's door.
- His bionic parts are powered by miniature nuclear fuel cells. In one of the Bigfoot two-parters, the cells burst when his legs were damaged, exposing him to lethal levels of radiation.
- Affectionate Parody: Nick at Nite's marathon The Bob, Bob Newhart, Newhart Marathon presented 60 second parodies of Bob Newhart starring in various shows. One of these was The Six Million Dollar Bob.
- Mad Magazine printed a parody of the show. The opening paragraph leading into the title talked of what a rip-off Steve Austin was to the US taxpayers, concluding with "Just wait 'till you see what we got for The Six Million Dollars, Man!
- Better Than New- Austin is given bionic replacements for his legs, his right arm, and one eye, leaving him with superhuman speed and strength and telescopic vision.
- Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti- A recurring "guest star". Bigfoot's actually a robot. Built by aliens hiding in the woods to keep people away.
- The Board Game: Parker Brothers released no less than two: one named simply The Six Million Dollar Man and a more obscure sequel, Bionic Action.
- Brought Down to Normal
- Bullet Time
- Conveniently-Close Planet - In the two-parter with the Venus Probe, we're told that we sent an unmanned space probe to Venus, it grazed the Venusian atmosphere (thus activating its internal pressurization), then it accidentally missed Venus and, after hurtling blindly through interplanetary space, crash-landed back on Earth. While it's true that a transfer orbit that takes you from Earth to Venus will eventually take you back to the Earth's orbital distance from the sun, the Earth won't be anywhere nearby when you get there.
- Cryptid Episode: The infamous episode where Steve Austin fights with Bigfoot.
- Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Barney Miller (later renamed Hiller) narrowly misses this trope in his first appearance.
- It could be argued that Martin Caidin's version of Steve Austin from the novels falls into this trope.
- Dead Guy on Display: This happened behind the scenes. When a "hanged man" prop at a funhouse was being moved for filming, its arm came off -- revealing that this was an actual corpse -- specifically, that of the late outlaw Elmer McCurdy. The owners of the funhouse had no idea that their prop had been anything but.
- Does Not Know His Own Strength: Austin makes a few clumsy mistakes in the early episodes, such as hitting a golf ball too far in "Wine, Women and War" and throwing a heavy door open too fast in "The Rescue of Athena One".
- Flowers for Algernon Syndrome: Steve Austin never lost his bionic capabilities, but the "bionic boy" who appeared in one of the early episodes lost his bionic legs again by the end of the episode.
- Glasses Pull: Oscar Goldman seemed to love these.
- Government Agency of Fiction: The O.S.I. (Office of Scientific Intelligence).
- The Great Repair - "Little Orphan Airplane"
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Wrestling fans likely did that when they realized it was Andre the Giant under the Bigfoot costume.
- Lensman Arms Race: While Steve and Jamie's bionic legs could propel them at 60 miles per hour, the bionic legs given to Steve's long-lost son in the later TV movie could make him run at 300 miles per hour.
- Manipulative Bastard: Oscar falls into this category in the early episodes. His predecessor, Oliver Spencer (featured in the pilot TV movie) is the epitome of this trope as he orchestrates a dangerous mission for Steve simply to see if he would survive; if he hadn't, Spencer was prepared to simply build another bionic man and try again.
- Mind Reading: In one episode, a psychic man was captured by the Bad Guys and forcibly hooked up to a psychic-amplifying machine. The O.S.I. used another psychic (a plucky teen-age girl) to track him down.
- Mission Control: Oscar, in many episodes.
- Named After Somebody Famous: Steve Austin (1793 – 1836) was the man after whom the city of Austin, Texas was named.
- Name's the Same: Barney Miller, before he became Barney Hiller.
- Steve Austin himself is likely not to be confused with a certain beer-swilling bad ass wrestler.
- Non-Human Sidekick: Bigfoot, after Steve becomes the Sasquatch's BFF.
- No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: Other than the failed experiment with Barney Hiller, and the fact Jaime was rebuilt only after Steve's urging, there is no indication of another bionic person being created until the reunion movies. In "The Secret of Bigfoot", Austin makes the false claim that there is an entire army of bionic men. Well, why wasn't there?
- Candidates for bionic implantation need to be missing limbs. There are plenty of amputees among the general population, but since the technology is top secret, you have to find an amputee with a security clearance who is willing to put himself into danger after he's been modified. This explanation worked when the show was new, but as the United States is once again engaged in military action with plenty of amputated veterans it dates the show.
- The technology also didn't always work right. In the case of Steve Austin, it worked spectacularly, his body adapted superbly, and so did his mind. He was able to control his power and his temper, he continued to think of himself as a 'normal man' for most purposes, etc. He was the exception. Jaime Sommers was able to handle the power all right, but her body kept trying to reject the bionics and this brought her close to death on several occasions. The previous bionic man had not been able to handle the temptations of power, and some of the other instances of bionic implementation also went wrong in various ways. Steve Austin was both lucky and an exceptional man before he was made bionic.
- Required Secondary Powers: As noted above, the non-bionic parts of his body would have trouble handling the forces created by his bionic limbs. He's also subject to the Super Strength issues of this trope.
- Retconned in one of the "reunion" TV movies with a throwaway line about reinforcing a new bionic man's skeleton against the stress "like we did for you".
- Stock Footage: Most notably the footage of a real-life test flight crash that opens every episode (though the pilot in that crash wasn't nearly as badly hurt...he did lose vision in his right eye) and numerous episodes using NASA spaceflight and moon walk footage.
- Stock Sound Effects: The Venus probe sounds suspiciously like your Kenmore washing machine....
- Tap on the Head: Steve may be the most powerful man alive, but his head is made of eggshells as he's knocked unconscious from behind on many, many occasions. (Martin Caidin actually lampshaded this in his original novel by giving Steve a steel-reinforced skull as part of his bionic replacements, but the writers chose not to incorporate this into the TV character.)
- Theme Tune: recognizable even today, as well as its SFX sounds.
- There Is Another: For the first season, Steve Austin thought he was the only Bionic man ever made. Then he came across OSI's little skeleton in the closet, Barney Miller/Hiller, whom it turned out had been given Bionic limbs before Steve.
- Wrote the Book: In "The Return of Bigfoot":
Steve: I don't know. It's... it's like there's something there. I can almost remember, but not quite... it's frustrating.
- You Remind Me of X: Austin keeps running into different women who look like Farrah Fawcett.
- You might say it cost an arm and a leg
- no relation to Steve Austin's long lost son in one of the later TV movies, who also got bionic parts