Surprisingly, the first onscreen appearance of beloved ’70s superhero Steve Austin has more than a hint of darkness. Adapted from Martin Caidin’s novel Cyborg, this TV movie begins with former astronaut Austin (Lee Majors) working as a test pilot. After the experimental plane he’s flying crashes, government operative Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin) approves the $6 million procedure of replacing Austin’s damaged body parts with lifelike, super-powered bionics. The procedure is executed by Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam), the bleeding-heart yin to Spencer’s coldly calculating yang. When Austin wakes from surgery and discovers what transpired, he’s enraged at being turned into a freak. Nonetheless, Austin agrees to conduct a covert mission in the Middle East, the purported goal of which is rescuing an American hostage—but in fact, Spencer engineered the mission as a test. He allows Austin to get captured, then waits to see if the “Six Million Dollar Man” can escape without assistance. Suffice to say he does, but that success merely triggers an oh-so-’70s bummer ending: Spencer orders Austin into an artificially induced coma, keeping him on ice until some future mission.
The Six Million Dollar Man is highly watchable but quite gloomy, and thus a world away from the escapist vibe of the resulting series. After the first Steve Austin movie scored in the ratings on March 7, 1973, a pair of follow-up telefilms were broadcast in the fall of the same year, taking the character in a totally different direction: Wine, Women, and War and The Solid Gold Kidnapping awkwardly shove Austin into James Bond-style adventures. Featuring comic-book plots and a goofy theme song performed by Dusty Springfield, both movies are enjoyable but far too derivative. Once the weekly Six Million Dollar Man series launched in January 1974, Majors’ aw-shucks stoicism and the spectacle of bionic-assisted heroism took center stage, with Austin reworked as a devoted government servant thankful for a second chance at life. Although the first episode introduced the series’ iconic opening sequence (“We can rebuild him,” and so on), the show didn’t reach cruising altitude until later seasons, thanks to recurring tropes like Austin’s mechanized love interest, the Bionic Woman, and a robotic version of Bigfoot (first played by wrestler Andre the Giant). In the context of what followed, the original 1973 pilot movie offers not just the foundation for a fun franchise, but also a window into a more serious version of The Six Million Dollar Man that might have been.
The Six Million Dollar Man: FUNKY