Lee Majors was The Six Million Dollar Man as well as The Fall Guy, and my childhood was crowded with action figures in his likeness. To this day he’s the first thing I see if I hear the words “slow motion,” and there’s a brilliant sound effect that goes with it.
But when I spoke to Lee Majors the other week, I found out that his affections seem to lie mostly with another role, from another time. Here’s our conversation, which happened at the weekend when Majors was visiting Birmingham for the Memorabilia Expo. We talked about… well, not quite Six Million things, but lots.
What brings you over here to the UK?
I have quite a few fans over here but I’ve never been to one of these shows in any other country [besides the US] so I thought I’d check it out… I’ve only done a few in the states and only started in the last couple of years, this is my first time doing one out of the country.
We may do things a little differently to the Americans.
I do have such a big fan base over here. People have been writing to me from the UK forever. There’s a group called The Valley Dwellers who love The Big Valley. They’re all now in their sixties and seventies, but they’ve been big fans for many years. They even come to the states sometimes when I’m appearing somewhere. It surprised me how loyal they are.
There are all different groups, from Big Valley, Six Mill [Majors’ affectionate name for The Six Million Dollar Man], The Fall Guy… they were each ten years apart so I’ve had a few decades of fans and it’s nice to see them.
I can’t quite imagine what it’s like to be a guest at a convention like this. Can you put me inside your point of view, inside your head?
Well, the thing is, you can’t get out much. You’re kinda stuck in your room because it can be a madhouse if you try to get out. But we don’t mind. My wife and I have been together 24/7 for twenty years now so it all works out fine for us.
It’s a rough day in the convention, sitting there for hours signing and signing, then the photo opps, the Q&A and that stuff. Quite a taxing day.
Hard on the wrist.
Yeah! Then at night all you want to do is fall in bed so you can get up to do it over again tomorrow, then finally, it’s over and you’re out of there. It’s really some work but you do meet a lot of people and they seem to like it.
My wife is from Pineville in Kentucky…
She told me a story of you going back to visit Middlesboro in the 80s… she said it was like Charles and Princess Diana had rolled into town.
Haha! Well, I grew up twelve miles from Pineville, in Middlesboro. I played football there and got a scholarship to Indiana University. If she knows Pineville she knows that whole area in the South East of Kentucky is a very poverty stricken area. Your wife could tell you that, back then, there was only coal miners and moonshiners.
I’ve been there and seen what it’s like today, and it does look like a lot of the area hasn’t changed much in decades.
It hasn’t. I used to go back there, when my family was there, when I still had a Mum and Dad there, but now everybody is gone. I hardly know anybody there, but my name is still on the football stadium. I did advance them some money so they could put a wall around it. Where it was just a clapboard fence before, now there’s a nice stone wall around the football field.
And I’m still fond of the area. It’s amazing to me that some people are still there and have never gotten out of Middlesboro or Pineville.
I guess that’s true everywhere. I’m in Oxford in the UK, and members of my family have gone many decades, all the way from the cradle to the grave, in this city.
For my generation, the roles of yours that impacted us the most were The Fall Guy and The Six Million Dollar Man. You called it Six Mill – affectionately, I think? Are you fond of it?
Sometimes I think fondly of it, then a lot of times I think, “Boy, that was a lot of hard work. They ran my butt off!” I did probably 85% of my own stunt work, and so today I think I’m getting close to a knee replacement, it’s giving me a little trouble.
Bionic. Life imitating art.
The Fall Guy added to that, and The Big Valley had horsework and fights. And then there’s college football, so one day, I’ll get to where my cartilage has worn down to nothing.
Was it just luck that you hit these three or four really strong, memorable roles? Or do you think there was something in particular that made them resonate, maybe attracted you to them?
I don’t know. The Big Valley was certainly the first of these. I had done some smaller roles and guest parts in other series before that. Back in that day there were at least eighteen or nineteen western series on the air, and of course, we only had three networks. But it was very competitive.
I did an audition for The Big Valley with about five hundred other guys, and they narrowed it down so I did a screen test, as did Burt Reynolds, Roy Thinnes, Dennis Hopper, and then they narrowed it down more.
Then I had to do one more, and this time with a girl, a young actress to see if she could play my sister. After this I figured I had the part. That girl was Linda Evans who went on to do Dynasty. She was quite good.
This one was a character that hit home with me because my real father was killed in the steel mills of Michigan when my mother was eight months pregnant with me; then my mother was killed when I was sixteen months old, run over by a drunk driver on her way to work as a cleaning lady in a hospital.This is when I was shipped off to Kentucky, to some distant relatives, who raised me as my Mum and Dad. This instilled in me the reservation to make something of myself, the perseverance to tackle stuff and stay at it.
I was playing college football, got a back injury and was put out for a while. This was when, on a dare, I went up for a college play, then realised I was going to get the part and would have to do it. I was playing John Proctor in The Crucible, it was a very emotional role.
When I was down stage, down on one knee, and they were coming to take my wife away, I looked out into the audience there – I crossed the line, you’re not supposed to – but I did see a lot of my football mates sitting in the front row with their girlfriends. I look at the girlfriends, who had tears running down their cheeks, and the guys had watery eyes, and I said to myself “I think I can do this.”
After this I went to California, to try and coach and teach, ended up doing some stunt work while working at the recreation and parks department, doing small roles while I was studying, but then I got The Big Valley and never looked back. Once you get your foot in the door, don’t let it slam on you.Universal signed me after Big Valley and I was with them for seven years or more, and I did shows for them, one of which became Six Mill.
Then a decade later, I wanted to do something else to get away from Six Mill, and a producer friend of mine asked me to do The Fall Guy. Even though I did it for five years, The Fall Guy still didn’t take away the impact of Steve Austin. To this day, Six Mill was the hottest series I did, even though, for me, it’s Big Valley I liked very much.
Steve Austin struck a chord, and his story, of him being transformed like that, has really sunk in with people. There have been several attempts over the years to bring him back, including some that never really came off. We never got to see the comedy version, Lee & Me. Was it any good?
It was on the network schedule to come out, then at the last minute it was taken off by ABC. They had a better show, I guess, but it was quite good. You can probably find it on YouTube. It was out there at one time.
The other project of yours I’ve hunted for is the Francis Gary Powers movie you did with Delbert Mann, not least because the story has come around again with Spielberg doing Bridge Of Spies.
That character, the lawyer [James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in Bridge Of Spies], I don’t think was ever mentioned in the one I did. Ours was more or less focused on Francis Gary Powers and his family, with something about what the government was doing to get him back. This thing about a lawyer coming in and negotiating never existed then… I don’t know how true it all is.
Powers’ story seems, today, to be very timely. Did it seem politically charged in the 70s too?
I got to meet Powers, and he was on the set, which was great. I don’t know if you know how he died?
Well, after the whole thing was over, here’s this guy was shot down at over 60,000 feet, was captured as a spy, went through all of this trauma, then got released. He then went flying helicopters for local television stations, shooting traffic reports, and one day was rushing to get back to the station to see his son play in a Little League game. He ran out of gas and crashed.
Oh dear me.
It’s amazing that he went through everything he had then went in such a simple way. Such a shame.
Earlier this year you appeared in Do You Believe? and I wondered if you chose that project because you are a man of faith, and if that is guiding some of your choices? Or did this project appeal to you for another reason?
Most of my shows and the series I did were family oriented. Everybody would come and gather round Six Mill, anybody could watch the show. The same was true of Fall Guy, and of Big Valley. There wasn’t ever a lot of bloodshed, none of the explosions you have in movies today, the blood and guts and stuff.I was raised going to church in Kentucky and I’m sure your wife was also, that’s just the way we were brought up. Had to go to church on Sunday.
Thinking about modern action movies, then, and the Mark Wahlberg remake of The Six Million Dollar Man, do you think they’ll miss the elements that made the original work? Are you worried that they might tarnish or travesty any legacy of the original?
Am I worried? No, because I have nothing to do with it. Worrying wouldn’t help anyway. But it’s the Weinstein brothers, and Wahlberg is a good actor. Peter Berg, I knew, was going to do it but they just hired a new director, some other guy…
I can’t think of what he’s done. But Mark is good, and I think they’ll give him a lot of action. They’ll have him go rescue someone, go through the creation [of the character], explain all that, then get him out on the road and have a lot of blow-up stuff! That’s what they do.
I hope you have a good time meeting your fans at Memorabilia and that they look after you.
So far it’s been pretty good. I’m stuck in the room and getting over jet lag, but I’m looking forward to tomorrow and Sunday. At least the sun has popped out.
Yes, and we haven’t had a lot of that just lately so I’ll thank you for making it happen.
I brought it over for you guys.
Thank you! Thank you, Mr. Majors.
Lee Majors was appearing at Birmingham MCM Comic-Con. For a full list of upcoming MCM Comic-Con events, check out its website here.
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