Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun
Pacifica, California, USA
June 18
Bob Calhoun is a regular contributor to Film Salon and observer of offbeat media. His 2008 punk-wrestling memoir "Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling" (ECW Press) has spent one entire week on the San Francisco Chronicle's Bay Area bestseller list.

Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 14, 2010 1:50AM

Six Million Dollar Man on DVD; We Have the Technology

Rate: 7 Flag

Six Million Dollar Man
Lee Majors running in slow motion but at bionic speeds.

The first episode from the just released "Six Million Dollar Man" complete series box set that I popped into my DVD player not only has William Shatner in it, but it's a crazy Shatner who spouts beat poetry and can control dolphins with the power of his mind. The episode directly following the tragic saga of the telekinetic Shatner in full-on "Mr. Tambourine Man" mode (disc five, season one) boasts a shaggy-looking George Takei guiding Lee Majors on a treacherous mountain climbing mission in Outer Mongolia. Selecting another disc at random, I'm treated to the classic TV comfort food of seeing a gang of henchmen plunging into quicksand. Even from these more obscure episodes, it's already apparent that this DVD set delivers, and I haven't even watched the famed Bigfoot episode yet.

This big ol' cube of seventies memories from the strange corporate pairing of Time Life and Universal is the first time that the iconic super hero show has been released on home video--ever. Legal disputes kept it from seeing the light of day on VHS or even in syndication making this a rare show that I loved as a kid, but have no adult memories of whatsoever. It was never on local TV at 3am after I staggered home from rock clubs when I was in my 20s, and there weren't any TV Land mini-marathons of it helping me through bouts of unemployment in my 30s. Watching it now is like a form of regression therapy with Sasquatches and leisure suits that rockets me back to sitting cross-legged on my mom's root beer brown carpet in front of a 19" Zenith console television with a slightly green-hued image resulting from a picture tube that is just starting to give out.

"The Six Million Dollar Man" gets its odd title from the amount of taxpayer dollars that it cost to convert astronaut Colonel Steve Austin (Majors) from an experimental plane crash victim into "the world's first bionic man." Back when the show aired on ABC from 1974-78, $6 million bought Col. Austin a pair of nuclear powered bionic legs, one bionic arm and a telescopic replacement eye that allowed him to see really far when he squinted just right. Austin could also run at a speed of 60 mph, jump really high and bend steel, usually while attired in either a red jogging suit or some denim outfit accessorized with a big-assed belt buckle.

Although this 70s gem exudes American exceptionalism, it comes without the Bush-era triumphalism that you find in our contemporary depiction of a cybernetic superhero, Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" franchise. The real world backdrop of "The Six Million Dollar Man" was one of Watergate and the failure in Vietnam. This combined with the red state earnestness of Lee Majors led to a more reserved cyborg. While Tony Stark slaughters an entire village of insurgents in the first "Iron Man" movie as if it were his post 911 birthright, Austin makes it clear that he doesn't want to kill anybody before going on a mission against equally violent Middle Eastern terrorists in the show's 1973 pilot.

In that same pilot, Austin is shown running in fast motion, but the effect evoked the silent era comedy of the Keystone Cops. By the time the first season aired, the fast-motion was replaced with the slow motion action augmented by the staccato sound of metal straining through an echo-plex that became the show's trademark and had a generation of school kids reenacting TV brawls as if they were high on ether. During several of the show's slo-mo fight scenes, Oliver Nelson's theme song is played down tempo as well, giving the action a mournful tone that hints at the sadness of being part machine as Austin delivers bionic blows to stuntmen who go skidding on sometimes visible wires. 

As for that aforementioned Bigfoot episode, it created as big a cultural aftershock in 1976 as "Star Wars" did a year later. If you were around 8 years old at the time, you faced certain social ostracization on the tanbark if you didn't convince your parents to let you stay up late on a school night so you could see the bionic man slugging it out with Andre the Giant covered in yak hair. Sure, Bigfoot turned out to be a robot, which always felt like a bit of a cheat, but at least the Sasquatch wasn't revealed to be a cranky old hood in a Yeti suit like the outcome of every episode of "Scooby Doo." Bigfoot was as much a monster as the Terminator, but without launching any republican political careers.

But Steve Austin's super powered foes didn't begin and end with Bigfoot. Unlike "The Incredible Hulk," another superhero show produced by Universal in the 1970s where the Greenskinned Goliath continuously used his gamma enhanced strength against nothing more outlandish than corrupt ranchers and loan sharks, Austin encounters adversaries worthy of his robotic limbs. Throughout the show's five year run, Austin comes up against a haywire Soviet space probe, an android replica of John Saxon and a seven million dollar man equipped with the added bonus of two bionic arms. In between the episodes with memorable villains, we do have to wade through filler with standard issue TV storylines. There's the inevitable amnesia episode (a chestnut just as common in classic TV as quicksand), something called "A Bionic Christmas Carol" and one where Austin has to track down a Japanese soldier who thinks that World War II has never ended. But wait! That same Japanese soldier returns the following season to help Steve find a boy raised by wolves! "The Six Million Dollar Man" just keeps delivering.

And there's also Austin's old flame, tennis pro Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) who gets her own set of bionics following a skydiving accident. After running slow motion laps with Austin in his and hers jogging suits, she dies by the end of her first appearance, but is resurrected by the beginning of the next season after letters poured into ABC decrying her demise. Her own show, titled "The Bionic Woman" (because attaching a dollar amount to a lady seems rather unseemly), follows soon after, and Austin and Sommers rekindle their love affair while battling fembots and a returning Bigfoot in several crossover stories. This on and off again romance lasts for two seasons until "The Bionic Woman" jumped to NBC for season three. The gulf between networks separates the world's only bionic couple in a way that even death could not, however OSI boss Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) appears in both shows through some kind of joint network custody arrangement.

"The Six Million Dollar Man: the Complete Collection" is lovingly packaged with a hologram of Austin running at you on one side of the box that will cause hours of amusement if you still drop acid. When you open the box, you can hear a sound clip of the show's opening narrative. "Steve Austin, astronaut, a man barely alive," it informs us, "We can rebuild him. We have the technology." If only we had the technology now and not just in 1976. Although this likely the perfect gift for that couch potato on your holiday shopping list, its $239.95 retail price for all five seasons plus the 1980s reunion movies and a plethora of bonus features might be a bit out of your reach unless you yourself are a six million dollar man. Fortunately, Time Life offers an installment plan online at

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Neilpaul, I haven't watched "The Return of Bigfoot" or the Sasquatch's third and final 6MDM appearance yet, so I don't want to dash your memories. In Bigfoot's first appearance, he is bionic and allied with/created by a race of aliens wearing creavats and jumpsuits. They live in the Pacific Northwest in a high tech cave close to something called the San Madrian fault. They watch Lee Majors running around in slow mo and make catty comments about him. Stephanie Powers is one of the aliens and, of course, falls for Col. Steve Austin. Sometime during this Holiday season, I'll watch the other Bigfoot episodes and let you know.
I might actually check this out. I always wondered why they didn't give him TWO bionic eyes? I mean, if you're going to do one...did they run out of money?
@themanhattankid, It was the 70s. Budgets were tight. You had to wait in line for gas or if your plates ended in odd or even numbers, you couldn't get gas at all on certain days. Oscar just couldn't get the financing together for two bionic eyes.
Neilpaul, Having only one bionic ear must have played hell with Jamie Sommers' sense of balance as well.
Doing my slow motion bionic dance of joy!
gotta love that show, and the rockford files.
Cool essay. $240(!), I don't think so. Maybe when it hits the remainder bin at Target for $7.

How come when Steve Austin picked up a car with his one bionic arm, his body didn't squash down??? I mean, he didn't have a bionic spine.

Thanks for the memories.
Jon, One of the perils of watching the show as an adult is that you wonder about how his non bionic hips and crotch can take the friction of running at 60mph and how the rest of his body can take the stress of lifting big block V8 engine blocks.

As for the price point, I do wish you could buy the seasons separately. If this were the case, then I'd tell most of you to buy Season 3 (Bigfoot, the Return of the Bionic Woman) or Season 4 (the controversial mustache years with the space probe and the return of Bigfoot). Unfortunately, Steve Austin is an all or nothing deal right now.