I'm just a love machine: bionic babe Wagner I'm just a love machine: bionic babe Wagner

Question: I can't believe my buddy and I are having this argument, but our excuse is it started after a few beers during a football game. We don't agree on exactly what was bionic in The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. Can you lay it out for us? They could both run fast and one had supereyesight, as I remember. And didn't he have superhearing, too? Thanks.

Answer: Why the shame, Charlie? Wear your fascination with the trivial proudly it beats watching the game.

For the record, astronaut Steve Austin (Lee Majors), "a man barely alive" after his test plane went kerflooie in the March 1973 TV-movie that spawned the show, was made "better than he was before better, stronger, faster" when he was given bionic legs, a new right arm and a left eye that allowed him to see great distances. During the series' 1974-78 run, he was reunited with old flame/tennis pro Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), took her skydiving and made sure she, too, received the gift of cyborghood when her parachute got tangled up and she was critically injured. For her troubles, she received legs, a right arm and an enhanced ear.

Steve's love interest was only meant to appear in one two-part story arc in which her character died from a blood clot when her body began to reject its bionic parts. The high-powered flame was born when executive producer Harve Bennett received a call from Universal TV president Frank Price, whose company produced the show. "Too many people think you've got a kids' show with nothing but a lot of running and jumping," Bennett recalled Price saying in a 1976 TV Guide interview. "To attract some adult viewers and to humanize Lee, let's have him get involved with a girl who means a good deal to him. In the course of the story, she has an accident and she can be saved only by getting fitted with bionic arms and legs like his, but after a while it doesn't work and she dies, and he loses her. There won't be a dry eye in the house."

That was true, but when their eyes dried, thousands of viewers wrote in to take ABC and Universal to task. (A New York University child psychologist complained, for instance, that she'd never seen children so emotionally involved in the demise of a TV character.) So the producers brought Jaime back it seems she was frozen for later use only this time she didn't remember Steve or their special love. Entertainment being a business, after all, the suits spun her off onto her own series, which launched in 1976 before jumping to NBC the following year and leaving the air in the fall of 1978.

The shows were based on an interesting premise: rebuilding shattered humans with fantastic abilities. But as the stories progressed, they quickly moved from moderately serious science fiction to bad comic-book tales replete with Majors singing love songs to his lady, romantic bionic jogging outings and even a bionic pooch named Max for TBW. Like just about every other kid my age, I loved the show, but even then I wondered why Steve's mechanical arm didn't simply tear out of his human torso in a Monty Python-esque moment whenever he lifted a van. In later years I wondered why Steve could only fall for a fellow cyborg. I mean, a normal chick who couldn't run at highway speeds or fling an engine block with her beau wouldn't do? (Like you, I give way too much thought to these matters.)

Then again, what the heck do I know? The people who are paid to come up with such things obviously knew what they were doing, since in its first two weeks the new series pulled in more than 40 percent of the audience in its time slot. (Rival shows Little House on the Prairie and Tony Orlando and Dawn each managed 25 percent in the fight; keep in mind that producers would kill for those numbers today.) The Bionic Woman quickly moved into a tie for fourth place in the Nielsens with its progenitor series.

Not everything was rosy behind the scenes, though. (Is it ever?) Universal let Wagner's deal expire after the initial two-part SMDM story aired and the audience took to her. When they asked her to come back, her savvy manager held their feet to the fire. They offered $2500 per episode for another two-parter. He asked for 10 times that and got it (respectable coin in those days). When Wagner landed her own series, she was paid $17,500 a show, plus a percentage of merchandising. That, of course, led Majors to demand a raise, since the new kid's paycheck wasn't that much smaller than his. During a fight over what he'd be paid for crossover stories with TBW, he refused to appear at all, which put him squarely on Wagner's bad side. Even after the dust settled, the two weren't exactly pals. "We just laugh and pretend everything's OK," was her characterization of things at the time.

Yowtch. That's the type of thing that led to the following exchange: After an auto accident that led to stitches in Wagner's lip and a two-week shooting delay, one studio exec. was heard to say he wished she had a bionic lip. To which another, who was in on contract negotiations with her, replied, "She already has a bionic mouth."

Shaking up the Hollywood suits who fired her? Hey, that makes her my hero.