Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Majoring in Lee

Looking at the television (and, to a lesser degree, film) career of Lee Majors during the 60s through the 80s, it seems hard to believe that he had any trouble getting started, but he was close to 30 before he landed his first part! From then, however, it was a career that would make many others trying to find success on TV salivate.

Born Harvey Lee Yeary, Majors was dealt a cruel blow when his father died prior to his birth and his mother died when he was only one-year-old. He went to Kentucky, where he was adopted by his uncle and aunt and grew up to take part in any and all types of sports, particularly football. Married and with a young son of his own, he kicked around in many different jobs before moving to L.A. where he was given a shot along with his new name (the last name coming from a former pal, and idol, of his: Johnny Majors, a college football star and later a celebrated coach.)

Majors’ first onscreen part was that of Joan Crawford’s adulterous husband in the horror film Strait-Jacket. He had no lines, but there are worse ways to break into the biz. After a couple of guest roles on TV, he landed the plum part of bastard outcast stepson Heath on The Big Valley, Barbara Stanwyck’s new western series. The sought after part was won in favor of 400 other wannabes!

He was sorely lacking in experience, but his brooding intensity helped cover up the rough spots until he could grow as an actor. The series enjoyed immense publicity along with ratings success and he learned (sometimes the hard way!) how to apply himself to his work from the stern Stanwyck, a woman who stood for no horsing around, so to speak, on the set.

Often seen shirtless and in tight tan pants, his physical charms were obvious and he was the subject of many a fantasy to certain little cowpokes all over the nation.

Majors filmed a supporting role in the fine Charlton Heston western Will Penny, but was slapped with a career setback (similar to ones that fellow TV stars Kate Jackson, Tom Selleck and Pierce Brosnan would later face) when he was offered the role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, a film that won the Oscar for Best Picture and shot Jon Voight to stardom, but was forced to turn it down due to contractual obligations to Valley.

Nevertheless, he stayed very busy, finishing off the final season of the western and then joining the cast of The Virginian before co-starring on the legal drama Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, starring Arthur Hill. He tried to break up his image a bit by taking on atypical roles on shows such as Night Gallery, but retained a decidedly narrow range. He even managed to appear in William Wyler’s final film The Liberation of L. B. Jones. Lee was still appearing on the critically acclaimed law series when he filmed a TV movie (one of several notable ones he was doing at that time) that would bring him even greater fame.

The Six Million Dollar Man was a tele-film that concerned a severely injured astronaut, Steve Austin, who is rebuilt with powerful electronic parts and enlisted to help the government on difficult missions. The film was successful enough to inspire a weekly series and that series was a smash hit. Check out Mr. Major's propensity for ignoring the buttons on his shirt and you will see why the success of the show in certain circles was assured!

Soon, Lee was featured on comic books and record sets as well as having his likeness (not a very good one!) applied to a large-scale action figure. Boys of a certain age will surely remember the Six Million Dollar Man doll, which featured an arm with retractable “skin” that revealed square pieces of circuitry. (I won’t go into the implications of suggested foreskin here!) One of the figure’s eyes was “bionic” allowing children to see through the back of his head in what was meant to be increased vision but in my model actually made things seem further away!

A spin-off, The Bionic Woman, came about starring Lindsay Wagner and that show was a big success as well, even earning Wagner a Best Actress Emmy. (Majors had to settle for a mere Golden Globe nomination that same year.) While starring in his own hit series, his second wife Farrah Fawcett (billed at the time as Fawcett-Majors) became a sensation herself on Charlie’s Angels and the couple became poster children for Hollywood glamour and success.

It was following the cancellation of Man that Majors embarked on a stab at big screen stardom and, one after another, his films failed to catch on. The Norseman was preposterous from the start, with Lee’s unavoidable Midwestern accent and 70s era moustache clashing with the alleged period setting.

He followed this up with the more appropriate Steel, about the construction of a high rise in Lexington, KY and which constituted a homecoming for him of sorts, but it had very little box office impact either. A series of unsuccessful films following this one including Killer Fish (in which Lee sported some hideous 70s clothes and even a man bag!), Agency (starring Robert Mitchum) and The Last Chase, a cheesy film about a futuristic world with limited transportation.

Retreating to television, he landed still another success in The Fall Guy, an action series about a Hollywood stuntman who also takes on work as a bounty hunter. Majors also performed the theme song (in a barely adequate way, I’m afraid!) and the show ran for five seasons. He then reunited with Lindsay Wagner for a few bionic reunion TV-movies.

Majors has not really regained the attention he had prior to The Fall Guy going off the air, yet he has always remained busy at work. He took on recurring roles in series such as Tour of Duty, Son of the Beach and The Game as well as trying one more of his own, Raven, which didn’t catch on, a rare experience for him. His grizzled, somewhat overweight (at the time) appearance may have had something to do with it.

Mr. Majors has had some work done here and there over the years, but still looks decent for a man of 70 (can it be true?!) He’d look even better if he’d quit wearing his hair longish and smeared back as if he just stepped off of a rollercoaster.

Even as I type, he has several films either in the can or in production, having somehow caught on again as a cult figure. Perhaps some of this is due in part to the attention he received when his celebrated ex-wife Fawcett died of cancer not long ago. Though he married twice after her (his current wife being about 35 years his junior!), the glare of publicity surrounding her death couldn’t help but shine on him to a degree as they were once such a major item. Their marriage had ended in a splashy tabloid mess when she left him for his own best friend Ryan O’Neal. O’Neal, though he and Fawcett had had their own set of issues, was with her at the end, which seemed to demonstrate that he did care about her, in any case.

In The Underworld, where only the important things matter, Lee Majors holds a place of honor for his handsome face and his remarkable hairy chest which was always front and center during the peak of his career. If trophy wives and some less than prestigious projects have tarnished his overall image at all, his earlier images remain favorites here!


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