The Six Million Dollar action figure first muscled his way into my life when I was about three years old.
Even then, I knew I was onto something special, a toy unlike any other. But I didn’t really have any idea that plastic Steve Austin would become a constant companion over the next decade … despite my best efforts to relegate him to the dust heap.
It’s a story with twists and turns that followed the contours of a young life.
And, as so often happens with impressionable little kids, my Bionic Man story began in front of the tube.
We Can Rebuild (and re-watch) Him
You’d be hard-pressed to find a television show that hit the tropes of the 1970s with more consistent badassery than The Six Million Dollar Man.
I mean, this thing had it all …
- A decorated astronaut who survived a spaceship crash …
- … thanks to the wonders of modern technology (“we have the technology”) …
- … and the scientists who rebuilt him (“we can rebuild him”).
- A post-operative superhero — The Bionic Man — who had the vision of an eagle, the hearing of a bat, and the strength of an ant (well … a man-sized ant).
- Running suits. Lots and lots of running suits.
- Perfect, flowing hair for both men and women as they ran.
- The Bionic Woman, because Adam needs an Eve, and TV needs spinoffs.
- Oscar Goldman and his plaid suits, paneled office, magic brief cases, and esoteric knowledge.
- Fights. Unlikely, unwinnable fights that Steve Austin (our Bionic Man) always won … somehow.
- Bigfoot – hokey but at least scarier than the original Bigfoot video.
Now, you might argue that The Incredible Hulk was just as awesome and just as kitschy as The Six Million Dollar Man, and I can’t really quibble with that. Heck, there were probably days in the late 1970s that I would have preferred the Hulk to Steve Austin.
But, man, when it came to toys spun out from TV series in the 1970s, you just couldn’t beat The Six Million Dollar Man.
And the hub of the Bionic Man toy universe was the Steve Austin “action figure.”
A Doll by Any Other Name
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term, “action figure,” the first thing I think about are all those Star Wars dudes who fit in the palm of your hand.
I’ve had dozens of them over the years, and my son has, too.
But this Steve Austin deal was something else — big, like a Ken doll.
And I suppose that’s the crux of the matter …
Not many dads in the mid 1970s — the Bionic Man action figure debuted in 1975 — would have been too keen on their sons playing with dolls. I know mine wasn’t (I know because my constant requests for Barbies and associated accessories were greeted with disapproving silence.).
But the TV show was a success, and Kenner wanted to do stuff with their Steve Austin figure that you couldn’t do very well in miniature. And besides, Star Wars was still a couple years out, so no one really knew what action figures were supposed to be.
So … the Six Million Dollar Man Action Figure was born, in the plastic person of Steve Austin, the Bionic Man.
And it was a hit.
Kids loved it.
Dads loved it … after all, it was an “action figure” from the greatest “action figure” show on the air at the time.
And, while translating Steve’s special abilities from TV special effects to tiny cellulose features was a tough row to hoe, Kenner did an admirable job.
Consider the attributes delivered in the space of one Barbie-doll-sized action figure:
- A bionic eye that you could look through to see things way off in the distance. From my perch in Indiana, I could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean … or at least to the other side of my bedroom.
- A messed-up arm with retractable skin that you could roll up to reveal the circuitry of Austin’s bionic limb. Gnarly!
- A ratchet button on Steve’s back that you could pump to make his bionic arm lift into the air, all while emitting a sound that — to a kid’s ears, at least — closely approximated the “ch-ch-ch-ch-ch” gear-meshing that accompanied Mr. Bionic’s feats of strength on the show.
- An engine block you could hang off of Austin’s hand while he ch-ch-ch-ch-ch’ed it into the air.
- A stylish red running suit that you could remove to reveal muscles and circuitry.
- Stylish red running shoes that you could remove to reveal … um … feet.
Even as a tiny tot, I loved this doll when it appeared under our Christmas tree that year … and I can only surmise that my dad loved it, too.
Otherwise, it never would have appeared under our tree that year.
Anyway, I clearly remember playing with Steve in my 70s-paneled bedroom, undressing him to see his circuited muscles (and feet), ratcheting up his arm, looking through his eye. Before too long, he had the sort of dirty smudges on his plastic skin that all three-and-four-year-old’s toys get on them after a couple of days.
And before long after that … well, we moved back to the city.
See, my dad had decided that the city was no place for a kid to grow up, so we moved to the country in 1975 to help me avoid that fate. By sometime in 1976, though, the commute was too much for my dad — too long, too expensive, too much hassle. Too something.
So back we went.
And when we got to our new/old house (that Mom and Dad had rented to a family member in the interim), I unpacked my toys and found everything.
Conspicuously missing was my Bionic Man action figure.
And it was devastating … so much so that I soon had a new one in my hot little hands.
The Prodigal CH-CH-CH-CH-CH-CH
I can’t say for certain how I came into possession of my Second Steve, but I do know it was through one of the following avenues:
- New, as a birthday gift
- New, as a Christmas gift
- New, as a bug-the-piss-out-of-your-parents-until-you-get-what-you-want gift
- Used, as a garage sale find
I know it was one of these because I used them all to great advantage over the years to come.
See, before I started Kindergarten in 1977, Dad changed his mind (heart) again, and we came back to the country.
Along the way, Steve got lost.
Then we moved from our country house to a country trailer (mobile home) to save some money.
Steve got lost.
I had friends over or my parents had a garage sale or a dog ran through the neighborhood.
Steve got lost.
Finally, a tornado dropped a huge tree through the middle of our trailer — as tornadoes are wont to do — and we moved to a new (old-farmhouse) house.
Steve got lost.
Expanding the Stable
I might have thought that Mom or Dad was deliberately ditching the Bionic Man, maybe even moving us around so they could ditch the Bionic Man, but the pieces didn’t fit.
Because each time Steve got lost, a new Steve came along to take his place. Eventually, those new Steves started coming with grippy-hands and I-beams instead of engine blocks.
And there were detachable limbs.
And the extras like …
- The Bionic Transport and Repair Station
- The Back Pack Radio
- Critical Assignment Legs
- Critical Assignment Arms
- The CB Headset Radio Receiver
- Complementary characters …
- Oscar Goldman — and his office and briefcase
- The Bionic Woman
There were others, too — not that I had them all, but I saw them all, and I had quite a few of them, over time.
For the better part of a decade, Steve Austin and his stable of kick-ass friends and adventures were my constant companions, no matter how many times I put him aside for some shiny new bauble.
Like the “real” Bionic Man running through bears and walls and the desert to get to Jaime, Kenner Bionic Man always found his way back to me.