In the dark ages, before 1977 spat into our toy chests droids and bounty hunters and Sith Lords, action figure options for kids were comparatively limited: as we entered the decade, Action Man and GI Joe gave way to the various licensed characters from Mego (a world unto itself, encompassing superheroes, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, knights, monsters, etc.). And two years before Kenner dove headfirst into George Lucas' sandbox, they got a considerable bit of mileage out of the hit ABC series The Six Million Dollar Man.
The action figure market wasn't the same kind of scene back then, simply because there weren't as many successful genre properties to license. For the first half of the decade, give or take a Kolchak, genre offerings were limited to Saturday morning shenanigans like Shazam and Korg 70,000 BC. After Star Wars, fantastic (and not-so fantastic) fare rushed to clog the airwaves. But when The Six Million Dollar Man premiered in 1974 (after a handful of TV movies the year before) it was an event, and kids my age were stoked. The show told the adventures of Steve Austin. Astronaut. A man - ah, screw it, just watch:
I know, right? It was so awesome. After state-of-the-art, top secret surgery to replace his damaged body parts with cybernetic limbs and a bionic eye (at a cost of, you guessed it, six mil), Steve Austin, played by former Big Valley star Lee Majors, went to work for Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) at the fictional government agency OSI. An ersatz, super-powered James Bond, Steve faced off against everything from global threats to alien beings to Bigfoot (played by a young Andre the Giant). Of course, he conquered every obstacle with his formidable, yet easily filmed, bionic powers, rarely encountering a problem he couldn't solve by lifting it, karate chopping it, jumping over it, running faster than it, or sizing it up with his bionic eye. As such, the show was light on expensive effects, instead relying on slow motion and sound effects (both easily recreated by us kids during backyard play) to illustrate Steve's enhanced abilities.
A spinoff called The Bionic Woman was born when Steve's girlfriend, tennis pro Jamie Sommers, was banged up in a skydiving mishap. (Though not on OSI payroll, when your co-worker with a lethally powerful bionic arm demands you patch up his girlfriend, I imagine you do what you're told.) Both shows were cancelled in 1978; three reunion TV-movies followed in the 80s and 90s, and The Bionic Woman got a reboot in 2007. The Six Million Dollar Man has been in feature-film remake limbo for over a dozen years, with everyone from Jim Carrey to Chris Rock to Kevin Smith to Bryan Singer taking a swing at it (Smith's take recently surfaced as a comic book). Although producer Kenneth Johnson went on to create the prime time genre hits The Incredible Hulk and V, and executive producer Harve Bennett helped salvage the Star Trek franchise with 1982's The Wrath Of Khan, The Six Million Dollar Man seems destined to remain a part of 70s pop culture, even as it created certain cinematic shorthand still in use today (e.g., how many of you have never seen an episode, but know exactly what this sound implies?). But in its heyday, the show was huge, as evidenced by the great and bizarre line of action figures it spawned.
In addition to the title hero, the line featured an impressive rogues gallery: Maskatron, a Westworld-ish looking cyborg who came with a number of familiar faces used to infiltrate OSI; Fembot, a girly version of Maskatron; and Sasquatch (spoiler: he turned out to be as full of circuitry as Steve Austin). For nerdy little completists, there was also an Oscar Goldman, so kids could recreate OSI's bullshit administrative meetings or something, and for their sisters there was a Bionic Woman doll, whose super-hearing was represented by a clicking sound in her neck. The Bionic Woman came with a purse and a hairbrush. God damn the Man.
The figure of Steve himself was an interactive bonanza: you could look through his bionic eye, swap out his legs for special missions, and use a lever on his back to make him lift super-heavy shit.
Depending on which version you had, the figure came with either a bendable I-beam girder or a random engine block, easily identifiable to kids ages 3 and up as Goddamn Heavy Objects. But coolest of all was his rubber skin, which you rolled back to reveal his bionic circuitry.
I am unable to convey to you the tactile joy of that feature. It was maybe the coolest thing I'd ever seen.
The version I'm boxing up today is the second release, which comes with the girder and non-removable bionic circuits, and some sort of kung-fu grip type action.
On this particular fellow the rubber skin has long since rotted off, but good news for you! I have found replacement skins online. Because OF COURSE there's replacement skins online.
I imagine that these days videogames have supplanted the fun kids used to have running around in their backyard or staircases or back porches creating adventures with figures like this. I'm not up for a big argument on consumerism or encouraging materialistic behavior (or, God forbid, future collectors), but it's important for kids to have some things to play with, to create stories and adventures, to escape into their imaginations. And while my family wasn't a wealthy one, my parents seemed to take extra care at Christmas- up to and including taking second jobs- to make sure we had more than we needed. I also knew from an early age that getting STUFF to play with wasn't something that happened for every kid. There'd always be a neighbor kid who got very excited at the prospect of coming over to play war with figures or trucks or whatever, but who didn't ever seem to bring his own.
On that note, many of the comments I've received about this column have expressed a sentiment from readers wanting to unload the "useless junk" they've collected. While I doubt a kid would appreciate an action figure with missing parts from 1975, if you're some kind of recent mint-in-box toy hoarder, or maybe just looking to make some kid's holiday a tiny bit better, may I suggest dropping something in a Toys For Tots bin this year? They're everywhere in the States, and even if you hate the idea of providing Evil Corporate Merchandise to young minds, there's always art supplies, board games, books, and lots of other things that will encourage the imagination. It's a cause my dad was really active about, and it's probably even more needed and appreciated these days. So happy Black Friday; after you've avoided being trampled in a Wal-Mart stampede at 5am, why not spend $10 on something that will perhaps be the only thing some kid gets for Christmas.
As ever, if you want this item, Tweet the article link with an #uncollecting hashtag, and happy holidays to you. Congrats (and apologies for tardiness) to the last edition's winner of the Dawn of the Dead WGON t-shirt, @LightWL!