Steve Austin first appeared on TV in the made-for-television movie The Six Million Dollar Man which was broadcast in March 1973. It appeared as the ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week. Here’s an item from the TV section of a 1973 newspaper announcing the airing of the movie. You can see Lee Majors’ picture in the upper left and the mention of the movie is in the upper right. Majors is sporting a pretty hardcore 70s mustache in that picture which he does NOT have in the movie.
Unlike the other bionic TV movies (and TV show), there really is no “title sequence” per se in this special. This particular movie starts with a computer screen telling the viewer the definition of the word cyborg and then cuts directly to a desert airfield and the movie title over Lee Majors walking towards camera. The very first scene is the airplane crash that will create the future bionic man. We then get all the setup with the OSO, or Office of Special Operations (changed to OSI, Office of Scientific Investigation, in the subsequent movies and TV show). A man named Oliver Spencer, Oscar Goldman won’t appear until the second movie, is petitioning for money to create a “cyborg” for use in special ops. Oliver Spencer is played very cold and calculating by Darren McGavin who would famously play the Old Man in A Christmas Story. Spencer approaches Dr Rudy Wells, played by Martin Balsam, to convince Steve to volunteer to become their cyborg.
Most of the TV movie follows the original book, Cyborg, fairly closely. The movie focuses on Steve coming to grips with his bionic limbs and being trained to go out on missions. Majors plays Austin as very reluctant to accept the limbs and even when he does accept them, he still has a lot of problems understanding why they would want to do that to him and what is eventually going to be the cost to him. After all of the psychological drama, Spencer sends Austin on his first mission and we find out that it’s essentially a suicide mission. One that Spencer wants to see if Austin can complete. He remarks to Rudy that they can always build another bionic man. Totally cold and hardcore, that Spencer.
This was a pretty good beginning. It wasn’t great, but it was good. A little slow in parts, but overall, I enjoyed it. It should be noted that the bionic sound effect most identified with the show is not present here. It had yet to become a staple in these early adventures. It’s honestly weird to see Austin perform bionic feats and not have the bionic sound. It just doesn’t sound “right”. Other than that, I like Lee in this role and I look forward to the two other TV movies.
It’s interesting to note, though, that years later this TV movie was subsequently re-edited for syndication as a two-part episode called The Moon and the Desert. This newer edit puts a later season intro on the episodes which is confusing considering the episodes’ content. Also, Martin Balsam returned to do some voice over work to help bridge some of the disjointed scenes. That in and of itself is off putting since Balsam never played Rudy Wells on the TV show, it was Allen Oppenheimer. Also, since this syndicated cut was created after the show had gone off the air, there were several other scenes that were added from later season Six Million Dollar Man and even Bionic Woman episodes. It’s a pretty crazy and baffling amalgamation of footage. Surprisingly, the syndicated “Moon and Desert” episodes are included as a bonus feature on the complete series box set. However, they are really only good to watch as a curiosity and not very entertaining.