In 1972 writer Martin Caidin wrote a speculative science fiction story called Cyborg, where astronaut and test pilot Steve Austin loses an eye, one arm and both legs after a disastrous crash during a test flight, but with advanced cybernetics they are then able to replace them with bionic ones. He would then go on to work for the government as a secret agent using his mechanically enhanced abilities to carry out various dangerous missions. A year later Universal Studios adapted the novel into one of their movies of the week, which was then followed up by two more movies of the week and then eventually a five season series. Fans of the series will notice some major differences that were made from both the book to the original made-for-TV movie and then from it to the ongoing series that followed, and today we’ll look back at “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive” to see how it all started.
If you are a fan of The Six Million Dollar Man series, and you sit down to watch this first pilot movie, right off the bat you may find yourself wondering where is that cool opening narration we all love? “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster” which was narrated by Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) in the series but is missing in this movie. In fact the character of Oscar Goldman, who is also in the Martin Caidin’s book, is completely absent in this movie-of-the-week as well. Instead the man behind the Office of Strategic Operations (OSO) is Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin) a ruthless and callous man whose six million dollar project is just waiting for the right guinea pig. In an OSO boardroom meeting he is asked if he will be looking for volunteers and he responds, “No, accidents happen all the time. We’ll just start with scrap.”
Another strange change the movie made was in turning Steve Austin (Lee Majors) from an Air Force colonel to a civilian test pilot, a change that was later reversed when it went to series and he once again became Colonel Steve Austin as he was in the book. I’m betting that had much to do with the counter culture movement of the time, some exec probably thought kids wouldn’t respond as well to a man in uniform, and when we first see Steve Austin he’s thumbing his nose at authority by showing up late for his test flight and basically ignoring the Air Force officer in charge. To me this didn’t come across as a “man beholden to no one” but more like a guy who should be fired.
Maybe if he hadn’t worried so much about looking cool he wouldn’t have smeared his aircraft all across the runway. Later in the opening sequence of the series it’s made clear that something went wrong with the craft, “I can’t hold it, she’s breaking up!” but in the pilot it looks as if he just botches the landing.
While Austin is in operating room Spencer shows up to oversee things in the hope that this mangled piece of meat could be just the kind of “scrap” he’s been looking for. Spencer later approaches Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam), Austin’s doctor and long-time friend, and he offers the doctor all the money he could possibly need to put Steve Austin back together again, “Whatever it takes.”
Spencer then admits that once Austin is outfitted with his bionic parts he will be used as an agent in instances where one man, a man with special abilities, would work where a large military force would be inappropriate and a so called “normal agent” would be ineffective. In the book Oscar Goldman was the man behind the purse strings, but he promised to stay completely out of day-to-day work at rebuilding Austin, and his need of secret agent isn’t broached until Steve is up and around as well as being fully functionally. Also missing in the movie is the character of Dr. Michael Killian, a distinguished surgeon and the head of the Bionics Research Laboratory in Colorado. In the book Rudy Wells is a flight doctor, and a very good surgeon as well, but he’s not an expert in cybernetics as the television move makes him to be. The loss of Dr. Killian easily falls under the category of “We don’t have time for all the characters that appear in a novel” and so he got axed.
Another key character from the book that is not to be found in this movie is Steve Austin’s fiancé who witnessed the horrific crash, but she doesn’t hang around long as Rudy later tells her that it would be best for Steve if she just disappeared, “Steve will come to hate you. He is no longer the man as we knew him. You will not be able to avoid pity, he will never believe, never, that pity is not your chief motivation. If you truly love him do the one thing he would ask you himself. Leave him and never come back.” That is the last we hear from that character in the book, which is pretty damn harsh, and Austin never even asks about her. She’s just forgotten.
Of course the book does add in other lovely ladies to provide some love interest; there is Jean Manners a registered nurse who does her best to keep things professional, then there is Nurse Kathy Norris who is most notable for her large breasts and who falls madly in love with Steve, and finally Israeli agent Tamara Zigon who is partnered with Steve on his final mission in the book. The movie drops the Israeli agent, and jettisons Kathy Norris as well, and gives the love interest part to nurse Jean Manners (Barbara Anderson).
Martin Caidin’s novel is two thirds medical drama with one third action adventure (well the last third includes two awesome secret agent missions so you do get your money’s worth), and could be compared to the works of Michael Crichton as they both wrote in the field of speculative fiction. The book of course has more time to get into the physiological aspect of a man, a man who had walked on the bloody moon but now has to deal with the loss of three limbs and an eye, but the TV movie by director Richard Irving does manage to hit the highpoints and even includes Steve Austin’s suicide attempt as well as his dealing with the rejection of his new artificial limbs at first.
The book had time to get into Austin’s head as he adjusted to being part man part machine, getting back into the cockpit and having sex with Kathy Norris both being key parts in that, but both book and movie also included a moment that shakes the Bionic Man to his core. In the book after his lovely tryst with the buxom Nurse Norris they encounter crashed school bus where Steve must save a bunch of kids from being burned alive. When his bionic arm is cut open during the rescue, revealing to a little girl that she is being saved by someone who is part machine, the girl freaks out and screams. This sends Steve back into his shell. In the movie it’s after a picnic with Nurse Manners that the two come across a crashed car and Steve must use his bionic abilities to pull a boy from the wreckage, and it’s the boy’s mom who kind of freaks out when she sees wires sticking out of her son’s rescuer’s arm. In shock she asks…
The answer you’re looking for lady is he’s the dude who just saved your son’s life. This scene works a bit better in the book as one can more understand a small child freaking out opposed to a grown woman, one who had just seen her son being saved by this man. Most people seeing wires sticking out of a guy’s arm aren’t going to immediately think “Robot!” A rational adult would assume he had some kind of prosthetic arm. In both cases this sends Steve back into despondency; in the book Rudy Wells breaks him out of it by basically say, “We can easily take away those bionics and give you the best room in the VA hospital of your choice, and you can join the ranks of countless damaged service men.” In the movie Spencer tells Steve that the government needed a weapon that can think on its feet, something more dangerous than a canon, and thou Steve comes with a ton of messy emotions, something they’d rather not deal with, they come to the conclusion that they had to comprise and go the cyborg route because full A.I. robots aren’t around yet.
For some reason Steve Austin doesn’t punch Spencer’s head right off, and this scene is the biggest misstep the movie makes in its adaptation. The shift from damaged psyche to super-agent is handled a lot better in the book whereas in the movie it comes to down to. “We built you to be a weapon, so suck it up Buttercup and get out there.” This makes the movie’s change of making Austin a civilian test pilot even stranger; in the book he’s a military man so him transferring from Air Force to Special Operations isn’t that big of a mental shift, but in the movie it was made clear at the beginning that he didn’t give a shit about authority, so him suddenly signing up with an asshole like Spencer isn’t remotely believable. And just how big of an asshole is Spencer? Well the first mission he is sent on involves dropping him into a Saudi Arabian desert to rescue a man who can bring peace to the Middle East, but the whole mission is later revealed to have been an intentional suicide mission and the guy Austin was sent after was long dead. Spencer reveals to Wells that he was sent on this suicide mission because they needed to know if he had the will to survive, “I can always have another cyborg built if this one fails.”
In the book Oscar Goldman is a pragmatic man but he’s not the complete government monster that Spencer is. Steve is sent on two missions in the novel; the first is to sneak into a Russian submarine pen to prove that the Soviets are working illegally in South America, and on the next mission that he teams up with Israeli agent Tamara Zigon to steal the Russian’s latest advance fighter jet the Mig-27. Both of these missions are exciting and nail biting, and would make for amazing television, sadly they were also something a 1973 TV movie’s budget could not afford.
One thing the book and all three pilot movies dealt with quite well was Steve Austin’s reluctance to kill, but when the needs justify it he doesn’t hesitate to dispatch an enemy with lethal force. In the book this usually meant a bionic punch to the head but in the show a little less graphic measures were taken. Once the series became incredibly popular with younger viewers, and Steve Austin became a role model and a toy line, the killing pretty much stopped.
The movie ends with Rudy Wells about to put Austin under so that he can repair the damage, both mechanical and organic, that he’d sustained on his mission, but because we don’t hate Spencer enough already we get a moment with him pulling Wells aside to ask him, “Is it possible to keep him asleep indefinitely?” Yes, our wonderful Spencer wants to keep his pet cyborg in a medically induced coma until there is a need for his special abilities. I think the asshole metre just broke on that one. Wells responds, “Over my dead body.”
I love Darren McGavin but thank god he was quickly replaced by Richard Anderson as the gruff but lovable Oscar Goldman, and though this television movie veered greatly from the source material at times, cutting much of the medical stuff and a lot of the action due to the time constraints and budget of movie of the week, it still managed to capture the heart of the book. Much of the success of this movie, as well as the series that followed, is of course due to Lee Major’s Gary Cooper like charm as well as a fantastic supporting cast. So if you are a fan of The Six Million Dollar Man series I do highly recommend checking out Martin Caidin’s book and the first pilot movie, for regardless of their differences both the book and the movie are quite fun.
• In the book Austin’s eye is replaced by a micro-camera, not something he could actually see through, and certainly no telescopic feature that it had in the show.
• Steve Austin lost his left arm in the book but actor Lee Major being right handed changed that.
• The bionic limbs had a few more gadgets in the book; he had a dart gun hidden in one of his fingers, and he had an oxygen tank in one of his legs for scuba diving.
• His speed in the series reached and then exceeded 60mph but the book it’s just noted that he breaks every Olympic and world record.
Note: The popularity of The Six Million Dollar Man series also led to some of the best toys every produced.
Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.